“How are you doing?”
I can’t tell if my aunt means this sincerely. Her question refers to my recent hospitalisation at a private psychiatric facility, and subsequent discharge. I’m nervous, and when I’m nervous I’m prone to rambling. I hear a disembodied voice. I hear the words “group therapy” and “support system” and the slight lilting of “the right meds”. I sing when I’m nervous too. My aunt’s brow creases in the way only Congolese aunts’ can – firm disapproval veiled by a thin veneer of pious restraint. The voice peters out.
“I’m here to discuss something very very serious.”
Two verys. I try to gauge the level of histrionics to follow. I shift uncomfortably in my armchair and arrange my face into a semblance of solemnity. She had called earlier that morning to tell me she needed to speak to me, urgently. Something to do with “spiritual matters”, “very serious”, “will affect your whole family.” I sat across from my fiancé, a spoonful of cereal suspended above the bowl. She called twice more after that, oscillating between various eventualities: she was coming that evening, next Monday, immediately. In the end, she settled for 5pm. It was 10am. Ample time for a steady progression into the abyss.
I discussed the possibilities with my fiancé. Was it about my depression? My suicidality? My queerness? I had long suspected my family suspected. When I first announced my engagement to a decidedly heterosexual male, there were audible whispers of “Dieu merci”. One aunt went so far as to thank Dieu for precluding my future with a female ‘roommate’ as she had long feared. Moreover, my fiancé is white – “the sort of man who can handle your ‘feminism’”.
The chain of phone calls had produced a minor existential emergency. What was at stake? Depression, queer identity, the nature of being? I thought of Sylvia Plath’s verse play for radio, “Three Women”. I first discovered the script during my stay at the clinic. We were allocated two hour slots for ‘personal development’, which I often spent reading or inhaling chocolate contraband – depending on the day’s demands. I’d read Plath before, a literary staple for the young and depressed, but only ever her short poems.
“Three Women” is set in a hospital, a maternity ward. The play consists of three interwoven monologues. The first voice is a woman who gives birth and returns home with her baby, the second corresponds to a secretary who has a miscarriage, and the third voice belongs to an unmarried young woman who decides to give her baby up for adoption. The themes were simple enough to grasp: women, motherhood, how our bodies, and stories, are both seen and unseen – in medical rooms and elsewhere.
Waiting lies heavy on my lids. It lies like sleep,
Like a big sea. Far off, far off, I feel the first
Its cargo of agony toward me, inescapable,
The words moved in my blood. Something to do with waiting, that space of endless suspension. The in-between. Relentless and wide. Waiting has always been my ontological occupation. I exist liminally, in the space between borders. I experienced a literal border crossing when I was three, as my family rushed to South Africa to escape a crumbling autocracy, and I’ve been troubling borders ever since.
As a model ‘third culture kid’, I’m wrapped up in questions of belonging and non-unitary identity. But what does it mean to exist everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, and how might mental illness be queered and seen to exist across borders?
“We were praying on the mountain,” she begins, “and we saw you fainting on your wedding day,” concludes her male ‘church friend’.
She doesn’t mention the location of this holy mountain. I conjure her up in the Johannesburg Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, trudging up its high hills. I feel certain I know where this is going.
“We need to pray for you and the demons in your head.”
It was to be depression and suicidality then. What followed was a two-hour ‘prayer session’ comprised of stern rebukes of the devil, casting out of demons, and calling upon the “Blood of Jeezusss”. One particularly memorable moment was when the church-man-friend bellowed, “Raise your faith or perish!” He roared louder and louder, “Raise your faith!” With closed eyes and bowed head, I raised my own voice in response: “Raise your faith!” That seemed to quiet him. There appeared to be some direct correlation between raising one’s voice and raising one’s faith which my reverent Catholic upbringing was loath to accept.
In any other circumstance, this scene might be laughable, but my family are staunch and zealous Christians who emerge from a staunch and zealous nation (more than 90 percent of Congo identifies with some variation of Christianity).
This spectacle wasn’t entirely surprising. My aunt was responding in the way many Africans do to the ‘problem’ of mental illness. As my mom would often repeat, “there is no depression in The Village ™”. The proverb makes clear that there is no frame of reference for mental illness in large swathes of Africa. In a study published by the World Bank, authors O. Gureje and A. Alem note that mental health issues are usually given very low priority in health service provision across Africa. In most parts of the continent, people’s attitudes towards mental illness are strongly influenced by cultural beliefs in supernatural causes –witchcraft, etc. To be black (female) and depressed is something of a curse.
No woman belongs to herself. You are a borrowed thing, gold for the dowry, snatch of river-song, the bowl traced thin, fasting within their sights.
Depression is also often labeled ‘the White Man’s disease’; a condition devised by colonialists (the irony of using Christian beliefs, another colonial import, to conduct the exorcism was not lost on me). The label forms part of a larger project: the search to uncover or recover an ‘authentic’ African identity from our precolonial past. It’s a delusion. The idea of an authentic ‘Africaness’ that was commonly shared by an entire continent is a myth, one that distorts the true diversity of expressive identities that have existed on this continent before ‘the White Man arrived’.
This myth is also always looking back. It’s rooted in the idea of a static, unchanging culture − a simpler, more ‘basic’ time before the influence of the West. It plays into the thinking that continuously paints people and societies outside the West as its ‘other’, forever trapped in unchanging tradition. It makes Euro-Americanism the viewpoint and benchmark for representation and identity.
This thinking ignores liminality and border-thinking, productive spaces that many people on this continent occupy. Like me, they are immigrants, African and not, queer and queering. Our identities – both personal and national – are always in process, constantly shifting.
See, the darkness is leaking from
I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life.
I shall be a heroine of the peripheral.
Liminality operates conversely too. Plath names it ‘the peripheral’ and traces its dimensions. It’s impossibility. How does one hold manifold identities? Particularly if those identities exist at the margins, and are regularly threatened. While highly fruitful, the liminal space is also demanding. The margin affects our living. To be endlessly in transition requires constant effort – the continual code-switching of ourselves.
In the ward, I was preoccupied with this work. I had been admitted because of my severe depression, and a suicide attempt. On one hand, the problem was medical. An imbalance of serotonin, the slow sputtering of neurotransmitters. But it was also metaphysical, in the literal sense of the word. The Greek prefix ‘meta-’ (beyond) joins the base ‘physical’ (bodily). I had been admitted in the hopes of treating an experience that was both beyond the body and in it. In this way, depression is a liminal space. It exists between and across boundaries – the dark space between what was and what will be. In the days that followed, I would be in between. Not quite ‘healed’, but a little further from the fear that my hands would become my body’s assassin.
In that space in which I am multiply placed, my depression interacts with and intersects across my identities. There is a part of my distress, beyond chemical imbalances, that joins with the consequences of living on the margins.
What can be done with this handful of leavings? I am only a girl, you see? I came up thin, strained across three countries, the world’s deepest river is in my blood.
Anzaldúa calls it la facultad: the work done by marginalised people whose well-being is often at the mercy of others. She describes it as both an “acute awareness mediated by the part of the psyche that does not speak,” and a “shift in perception” honed by pain and developed most readily by “those who do not feel psychologically or physically safe in the world”. As a tool of survival, la facultad allows marginalised groups to adjust to changing (and often threatening) environments. Rooted in experiences of pain and trauma, it involves a loss of innocence and a growing awareness of discrimination, fear, depression, illness, and death.
There exists a behavioral predisposition to cope hyper-actively to discrimination. The medical term is ‘John Henryism’, and generally relates to people exposed to stresses stemming from racism but it may be applied more broadly to the psyche of all those who live on the margins. To quote Claudia Rankine, “[we] achieve [our]selves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.”
My aunt moves to stand and motions for me to do the same. The Church Man rises too and asks that we join hands.
“There is a world next to this one. There is this physical world and the spiritual one next to it. Now we are going to try to reach that other world. To do this you need to look into your heart and admit your sins. Only you know what you’ve done. We are Christians, but also only human. We can pray all day, but you won’t access God’s healing if you don’t ask Him to forgive you.”
My aunt nods vigorously in agreement. Her lace front wig shifts almost imperceptibly to the right.
I am Eve in the garden. Crooked by nature. A crooked thing. I see the first apple. The first tree. I hear the startle of birdsong around me. I am alone. Outside the beating heart of being. I am filled with grief of want. This is the in-between.
What my aunt was attempting to achieve, with the help of this stranger, was surgery.
The excision of the meta from the physical. Precise, clean, neat. I didn’t know how to tell her about the in-between. About the tangle of identities and the spillage at my ends. Exorcism is a messy business. The body and the mind are not easily parted.
History has long linked women’s mental faculties to their physicality, and both to pathology. In the Aristotelian model, the modern female body is a ‘deformed male’. Plato‘s dialogue Timaeus compares a woman’s uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout her body, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease”. The concept of a pathological ‘wandering womb’ is the source of the term hysteria, as in ‘the hysterical woman’. I tried not to think of my organs jaunting about as I repented of my ways.
In the religious and cultural context, my aunt’s thinking forms part of the colonial-Christian heritage of ‘saving the savages’ from their mad nature, and the exorcisms of demonic spirits presented as mental illness. Recently, there has been a strange resurgence of this tradition in parts of Africa. Across Charismatic Black churches on the continent, particularly ‘mega churches’, people have returned to exorcisms and supernatural healings. There has been a proliferation of ‘modern prophets’ who profess the gospel of health and wealth. Right now, somewhere in Limpopo, a 24-year-old self-styled prophet is spraying, in the name of Jesus Christ, insect-killing Doom in the eyes of his congregants. Mercifully, I was spared any pesticides.
I trace the roots of this revival, at least in part, to the bitter memories of foreign domination, which play a vital role in how Africans perceive themselves (and the outside world). It’s the trauma of colonialism and the desperate socio-economic realities it has created. In Algeria, Frantz Fanon observed a link between the local people’s belief in spirit possession and their situation of colonialism. People who face insurmountable challenges surrender their lives to the gods.
Tell me, where do I put her? This girl pressed against the border, this girl swallowing her papers whole, this girl bird-wailing through a fence.
Since being discharged, I continue to think of how I might ‘treat’ the margins. Narrative remains curative. I practice a poetics of disobedience. I write into being alternative spaces that allow for the existence of my multiple identities. I join a chorus of multivocal resistance by others who live on the periphery. I withstand erasure by writing with my body on the border. I pray. God with me – I die and I return. I swallow the white throat of fear.
My aunt and the man have completed their business. She stands and I lead them to the door.
“You will never need medication or a therapist again,” she declares, “in Jesus’ name!”
What do I say to that? Thank you? Stellar rebuking? 5 stars – would recommend?
I settle for the innocuous, “God bless you” and mean it. I still believe in the infinite life that exists in boundless spaces, and the Spirit that animates them.
Sarah Lubala is a Congolese-born South African writer. She has been shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award and The Brittle Paper Poetry Award and longlisted for the 2019 Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Brittle Paper, The Missing Slate, Apogee Journal, The Shallow Ends and Entropy, as well as The Gerald Kraak Anthologies, As You Like It and The Heart of the Matter, Botsoso’s 2018 Poetry from Public and Private Places and the African Collective’s Best New African Poets 2018 Anthology.
This entry appeared in The Limits Issue