By Wana Udobang
“I am going schizo,” he says, as he rubs his palm onto his forehead and shuts his eyes tight till they forge wrinkles on each side. “I know,” I respond in a light whisper. I don’t know if that was what I was supposed to say. I did not know what the appropriate response should have been.
I felt a sense that he needed to reach out to somebody but was coming to terms with it all at the same time or perhaps, we both were coming to terms with what we may have already known for quite sometime.
Our relationship had its challenges. Moments of warmth and affection interspersed with stretches of going AWOL. He would barely answer his mobile phone for days, sometimes weeks but would re-appear to pick up from where he left off. The most I would get for an explanation would be the usual ambiguity.
“There is just stuff I can’t explain because you wouldn’t understand,” he would say or “I don’t want to hurt you so just let it be”.
From past relationships, I had learned not to push too hard, so I would always let things be.
These phases and phrases seemed to have grown into a consistent refrain through the course of our relationship. The last disappearing act was accompanied a year later by another remorseful apology. But this time round I had moved on, I was done with the emotional topsy-turvy, and was exhausted from playing hero and messiah, like most girlfriends hoping to turn him around. The idea that I would be responsible for some kind of saving had finally eluded me. He kept saying, “I’m good now. I have sorted it all out”. “Sorted what out exactly?” I pondered. His vagueness, which I had once interpreted as awkward and eccentric, had since lost its appeal. The year away from him had given me a chance to recalibrate, work through my own insecurities and my god complex.
Since his last vanish I craved for normalcy, some kind of form away from the nebulous he existed in.
He had recently called a few times and asked to see me. He wanted to talk about ‘stuff’, he said. He asked if he could come visit and I accepted.
He sat on my sofa, and after a few minutes began to complain of a headache, the same kind that I remember him always complaining about. He asked for painkillers, I had none so offered a glass of cold water instead. He stared at me, a sharp stare that seemed as though I had become unrecognisable, even strange to him.
I asked if he was all right, he said he was but the way he looked at me became frightening as though preparing for some kind of attack. He clasped onto the glass even tighter. I asked for the tumbler and then started to enquire about how he had been doing.
He talked about seeing a priest because he felt he was under some kind of ‘spiritual attack’. This time I pushed further. His words and sentences became disjointed and scattered censoring them as they ricochet through his mind; his eyes flickering like one attempting to make sense of a pixelated conundrum. It took me time to make any sense of his utterances.
Then he said, “I feel like everyone on my estate is trying to kill me.” So I ask if seeing the priest has done any good so far, “No,” he responded.
“Why don’t you see a doctor instead?” I ask. He tells me he has seen a psychiatrist and was told he was schizophrenic and bi-polar. From the moment he repeated his diagnosis, his body became jittery, tapping on one foot, and frenzied. It seemed as though he was talking to someone else in the room as well as me. He launched into a tirade saying he had been living in a nightmare for the past five years and can’t seem to wake up from it. Then started pointing fingers, “You all knew something was going on and none of you told me,” he yelled. I stayed still, trying to come to terms with the idea that my friend was mentally ill. A selfish side of me felt exonerated that the failure of the relationship was never my fault and another side didn’t really know how to deal with it; the side that feared for my safety after he had told me he skipped his meds for two days because he thought he was doing better, the side that needed to get the tumbler away from his grasp before something else would happen, the side that only thought that a bipolar schizophrenic was a character from a Hollywood movie, not a person you know, or loved and once considered spending the rest of your life with. He later calms down then he says it: “Wana, I’m going schizo”, and that’s when I respond: “I know”.
According to a 2007 World Health Organisation study, 20 percent of Nigerians suffer from mental health illness and in that same year, it was revealed that 20 new patients are admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Yaba daily. The stark reality is that we have no proper figures, we don’t talk about mental illness, and in many cases we don’t believe it exists. It is 2012 now and I wonder what the real numbers would say if they existed.
In a previous interview with Spoken word poet and mental health activist Bassey Ikpi who is based in America, I asked her thoughts on the effects of the spiritualising of mental health illness, as exorcisms seem the first port of call. She responded saying, “The danger is that people die. Thousands of people commit suicide or turn to drugs and alcohol or sex addictions because they’re self medicating a mental illness. Prayer and God will help you if you help yourself. If you believe in God, believe that God sent people in your life to give you medicine and to give you treatment and to encourage you to get mentally well. Mental health is not something that we can afford to let suffer in silence. So much of who we are as people and our growth comes from supporting the minds, spirits and bodies of our people. We can’t neglect any one of them. If we do, we’re lost.”
Just about a year later, Ikpi is visiting Nigeria and I listen to her being interviewed on the radio again about mental health. This time she says she realised in Nigeria, we need to start at the barest minimum, which is having the conversation. She says we aren’t even talking about mental health illness at all, so we are nowhere close to even discussing treatment.
Few weeks after his episode in my living room, I call to ask if perhaps he is seeing the doctor more often to monitor changes and progress. He tells me the medication he was prescribed was to help him sleep at night so his mind doesn’t wonder or work overtime. But he tells me he still feels like the residents on his estate want to kill him. However he doesn’t think he needs to see the doctor. “I’m fine,” he says.
The article was originally published in Premium Times