Every time I take a warm shower, I have a flashback from a past that increasingly feels like a self-conceived myth. It is the moon-lit memory of me standing in front of a wall, bathing. I don’t know if I was bathing myself or someone else was doing it for me, but I remember shuddering from the impact of the warm water on my flesh. Sometimes, this flashback triggers a reaction that produces a muddled state of being. It feels like a mixture of regret, trepidation, and an infatuation with immortality. Some call it existential anxiety.
Me coming across the term gerascophobia wasn’t a coincidence. I Googled “fear of getting old” months ago. It was one of the nights I have where my thoughts are all over the place, and my priorities lay around my mind like clothes scattered around a disorderly room, begging to be sorted out. But before I discovered the name, I was familiar with the feeling. To be honest, I feel the name is effectively just another synonym for anxiety that was packaged as a mental condition, but the discovery made me bolder about the nature of my disillusionment. Months before, I had taken a tour into some relics of my past, including old neighbourhoods and schools. I had felt an obligation to confront the lure of the past, in the hope that maybe I’d come to some kind of resolution about what it may want from me or at least get some closure.
The first place I went was my old primary school. It was now deserted and looked smaller than I remembered it. I had to bend my 6’5″ frame just to get past the gate. As I took a walk down one of the main corridors that was flanked by classrooms, the smell and feel of impending rainfall opened a box of vague memories. I imagined the 11-year-old me walking past the older me, while imaginary students and staff members went about their businesses. He was wearing the school uniform—green shirt and shorts—and he had a fresh low fade with a left-of-center parting; his mother called the haircut the Eze-Goes-to-School. She always emphasized how she wanted the fade to be as low as possible every time she took him to the barbershop with the low-hanging ceiling at mammy market. She would sit in the background, mostly watching the barber in action, but occasionally casting absentminded stares on whatever was outside the window. After a few moments, she would regain herself and look in the mirror for a sight of her only son’s face. She would then tease his reflection or stick out her tongue, and he would smile. He would watch her drift in and away from expressions and emotions. There was something about her reflection in that mirror that seemed to capture her sum in parts. It was like a montage that played out time every time he sat on the revolving chair.
As ever, the young me’s gait wasn’t straight, and his arms swung about like he had partial control of them. His mind was mostly immersed in one banality or another. I imagine he was imagining himself as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for the umpteenth time that day while he continued to walk beside me down the corridor. The Rock was probably knocking Jabronis’ teeth out and just kickin’ ass while being criminally charismatic the whole time. Suddenly, the school bell rang to signal the end of break time, and a frantic rush ensued. All the students dispersed from the corridor for the classrooms. They jostled for room in the doors to squeeze themselves into before the vice principal showed up with a wooden cane in one hand and aimlessly flogged the bodies clustered by the doors without mercy. The younger me sprinted for his classroom before the vice principal could get to our end of the corridor. When he got to the door, he stood still and looked back at me. I was shocked to my very core that he could see me. He had a sad look on his face; a look foreshadowing something invisible to the older me. Finally, he waved at me and collapsed into dust so fine that I couldn’t see it. It was then I realized, for some unknown reason, that he had not been walking beside me; he had been walking with me.
I spend a sizable share of my time imagining things. Sometimes, I use made up worlds to involuntarily combat boredom. Sometimes, I consciously resort to immersing myself in the very conditions that plague me. It could be through art that help me process my experiences or imagined scenarios that help me assess society and the ways we share common humanity. One could exaggerate a tiny bit and say I’m something of a masochist in this sense, especially as I live in Nigeria. Every morning, economic realities set forth at dawn with fresh determination to dampen souls and kill dreams. I am most familiar with disappointment and the feeling of wondering what could have been if I was born in a saner clime. But even sanity is relative in context. For example, over in the West, there are endless ideological wars that are doomed to never be won. Over here, it is incompetent leadership that renders people hopelessly vulnerable to the harsh realities of life. A couple of years ago, when I told my friend Uruemu about how I feel “stranger” and more jaded with every year that passes while we ate grilled fish in the secluded corner of a club in Warri, he told me I was just broke. He was convinced that the economic strife in Nigeria had made a then 24-year-old me disillusioned, and that acquiring the means to provide would dispel my dark clouds. “Guy, na money you no get. If you find better work wey go pay you better salary, everything go smooth,” he’d said. I shrugged and sipped my beer, but I knew deep inside of me that my problems were beyond the undoubted powers of money.
My unhealthy attachment to my past worsens the older I get. The more memories I accumulate, pleasant or terrifying, the more memories I feel the need to connect with in a way I can’t seem to figure out. The feeling is something like a miserable meta-nostalgia that has the capability to cloud over my mood. The second place I visited in my quest for what I don’t know was the first place my father settled when he moved to Warri from Kaduna in the late ’80s. It was where staff members of Nigeria’s state-owned oil corporation used to live. My father had gotten a job at the Corporation, and that was where he would be based with his family for almost a decade. The place had a suburban feel to it, and quite a number of the inhabitants were upper middle-class families. Most of my memories of the housing complex are vague. So vague that I doubt the authenticity of some of them. I was so young then that some of it may just have been from my imagination or stories I heard about the place from my family that I reshaped around myself.
As I approached the cul-de-sac where our old apartment was located, in the rear end quarters of the complex, I felt a rush of feelings overwhelm me. But these feelings didn’t come with the memories they were tied to. Were these feelings orphans of memories that died with adolescence or whiffs from a vault where most of my earliest memories were rendered inaccessible? I imagined it was the latter, and I wondered if there was a key to this vault lying or hanging around somewhere in the housing complex. I also wondered if I would ever find that key as I approached the apartment in which I spent the first three years of my life. The sight of a man emerging from of the front door stopped me in my tracks. I was about twenty yards away from him. He looked left and right, stretched, and started to wipe his doormat with a broom on the front pavement. When he finished, he motioned to go back in, but then caught a glimpse of me. He stopped for a moment, stared at me thoroughly, and looked around again. It was a quiet afternoon, and no one was around us except for the birds whose chirping was amplified by the serenity. He nodded in salutation. I nodded back. Finally, he wiped his feet on his freshly tended doormat, and retreated into House 1 on Kano River Close.
The worst thing about existential anxiety is the feeling of hopelessness lodged at the very base of the spirit. The ultimate knowingness that whatever diet you adopt or amount of exercise you do, whoever your “life coach” is, or whatever outlook you have on life, you will never find the answers you seek. I used to try to find out from one of the many gods people follow if he had the antidote for my troubles, or at least why he made me the way I am, but in characteristic god fashion, he didn’t respond. That’s something all the gods seem to have in common; they don’t respond. Then something all their followers seem to have in common is convincing themselves that they do. Sometimes, all it takes to dampen my spirit is the sight of a toddler with his mother. I start to see my younger self in the boy; his carefree manner, playfulness, shamelessness, freedom. It seems unfathomable to me that a life so peculiar is destined to disappear forever, yet nothing in the world is as certain as this omnipotent destiny. Even the euphoria from accomplishment is short-lived and quickly followed by a crushing anticlimax. The feeling of “now what?”. Existential anxiety is the feeling of perpetual disillusionment that is occasionally interrupted by distractions of life’s beautiful things. The fear of things unknown, the desire to re-experience past events—sweet or bitter—irrespective of its inevitable pointlessness, the fear of death. Death. Death of people, ideas, conceptions, dreams. Loss. The solitary picture of a valiant soldier who died at war lost in a house fire, never to be seen again by his widow. Oblivion. A tweet forgotten forever.
So what is the way to live with this affliction? I don’t know. I can only speak for myself. But I’m certain there is no way around the feeling. In the past, I’ve tried combatting it by abusing pleasure and impulse buying, but overindulgence only leaves me emptier. Giving in to every speck of craving one feels is a dangerous life. There have been times in the past when I would spend money on something I couldn’t afford in a silly act of rebellion against whatever metapower put the bittersweet taste of human existence on my tongue. I can’t count the amount of times that, halfway into a pathetic binge, I remembered how I am my worst enemy. I once bought a plain piece of cake with the last cash I had on me in a restaurant I had no business being in. I was not hungry, neither was I particularly craving it. I just felt the urgency to make myself happy, even though I knew the cake could not and would not make me fulfilled in that moment. Not really. Nothing really can. But I’ve realised that every person has a balance they must find. Not everyone will feel their anxiety melt away if they get a house by a lake. I believe the balance can be found if we honestly assess ourselves; everything from our predilections to our tolerance levels. What do I like? What are the consequences of doing the things I like? Do I really like the things I like? Is the consequence of doing what I like worth it? As I have found out, the balance is not a certainty. The balance can be ambiguous. It should be ever evolving and its susceptibility to circumstances should be constantly managed. But the drab reality is that balance watching is just a coping mechanism. I wish I could end this piece with a flourish of hope, but there isn’t any in the context of the bigger picture. All we spend our lives doing is pulling ourselves out of one quicksand and bracing ourselves for the next time we’ll walk into another one. That is all there is.
Ayotunde James Olumilua
Ayotunde James Olumilua, who sometimes publishes under the alias Jay-Jay Raymond, runs a blog where he posts articles, short stories, and the occasional poem. He also freelances and is a music and film enthusiast.
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue