GREAT HEIGHTS AND PLUNGING FALLS
Precious Oluwatobi Emmanuel
Today, I find forgiveness. I am at the cemetery, staring at the marble headstone with 'Tolulope Titiloye Akanni, 1982-2015' engraved on it. It is the first time I've visited – the first time I've been able to visit – since Tolu died. I stare at the grave, shivering slightly. The bouquet in my hand jiggles lightly. There's a brisk wind. I should have worn a jacket or something. I dampen my lips and take a deep breath.
“I brought you flowers,” I continue, holding the flowers forward, letting her see. “It's real. It has roses, hibiscus...other things. I don't know flowers, but that's what the florist I bought it from told me. It's ridiculous I know.” I'm rambling. My palms are sweaty.
“I'm so nervous. I don't know what to say.” I look up, look this way, that, breathing slowly to steady myself like the therapist taught me.
My roiling stomach finally settles.
“I'm sorry. For what I did. It was my fault.”
Images flash before my eyes. The kitchen. A knife. I blink them away. It has not always been that easy to blink them away. Before, whenever they came, they became all-encompassing, filling up every part of my existence and stealing parts of my sanity every time. But now, it is.
“I shouldn't have... I should...” The tears gather at my throat, preventing words from coming out. I try to blink them away like the images. A few fall through, landing on the mound of earth which is choked with weeds. I wipe my eyes.
“I'm sorry for not visiting all this time. Please forgive me.”
I kneel now because it seems right. The earth is dry and small pebbles prick my knees. “Please know that no matter what happened, what I did, I loved you. Still do.” It was true. It's true. I lay the flowers on the grave, near the headstone because the weeds there are not as thick.
And, for the first time since that day in 2015, I feel relief. I shattered into a million tiny pieces when it happened. I've been gathering the pieces since then. But now, I have glued the first piece and the second together. And even though I will never be smooth like before, I won't be broken either.
“So babe, how's it over there?” I begin, feeling a new-found calm. “I'm finally beginning to manage things over here. The disorder. I take my meds regularly and it's helping. I'm mending.” I unclasp my hands and clasp them again. They're no longer sweaty.
“Good news. I got promoted.” Tolu deserves to know. She knew every good thing in my life while she still lived. She often was the reason for them. “I feel bad you're not here. I miss you so much”. It was almost painful.
“You understood. You didn't tiptoe. Didn't explain away the things I did because of... You just understood.”
There are so many things I want to say. That because of her, I opened many parts of myself which were locked so tight I didn't know they were there. That because of her, I survived. But I cannot find the words to say them.
Finally, I settle for “I hope you're safe where you are. I love you. Always.”
I stare at the colourful flowers, a sharp contrast to the dull browns and greens of the grave. The flowers are the first Tolu has gotten since she died because her grave doesn't get visits from family. She has no family. Hers disowned her when they found out we were a thing. My family has disowned me too, but that was after I threw hot water at Maami one time I was angry. I can't even remember why. I knew what I was doing when I did it, but I couldn't stop. By the time I was able to get to grips with myself, Baba had already decided, and no amount of pleas could change his mind.
After some time, I turn and walk out of the cemetery. The feeling as I leave is bittersweet. I've missed Tolu, and seeing the grave just gives everything a sense of finality. The relief, the peace I feel walking out gives me a feeling of lightness, despite my grief. I feel like I'm floating. The first time I remember ever feeling this way was the day I met Tolu.
I was going home from school that day. The sun was boiling, determined to scorch everything before the clouds on the horizon closed in. The white-and-black regulation dress stifled. My head was pounding and I longed for her bed. Despite the scorching heat, I walked briskly to the park. My heart was racing. Sweat poured out of my body. My thoughts were jumbled, flowing into and out of each other like a river. Water's blue, they lied when they said it was tasteless because it wasn’t and wouldn't it be nice if I could just teleport to my bed and why do feet smell and noses run when feet are used for running and noses are used for smelling. When I reached the park, all thoughts ceased. There were too many students and no buses.
“Please what happened”, I asked one of the many students milling about, yanking him towards me. He told me, the bus drivers were on strike. There was no way home.
The main school gate was a 15-minute drive from the park. I was going to walk that distance under the angry sun. The sun wasn't that hot anyway, I thought, wiping the many rivulets on my forehead. I was about to start walking when a taxi driver called out “Tanke!” Students sprinted desperately to it, every one of them wanting to get home. I was there too, struggling for the taxi, elbowing and shoving. I felt explosive strength, boundless energy. I could do anything. Then, a boy shoved me with his shoulders, slamming my body against the side of the taxi. Without thinking, or maybe thinking too fast, I grabbed the boy's arm and clamped down hard with my teeth, tasting the stale saltiness of sweat. It was like I was watching myself doing this. The boy howled like a wounded wolf. It was frightening. Hands were around me, struggling to tear me off. Let go, Lola, come on. This is insane. The voice in my head was drowned out by all the remaining screams inside my head, and my teeth just clamped down harder. I knew what I was doing was crazy but I couldn't stop. The thing about bipolar disorder is that it makes you lose insight, narrowing your focus to a needlepoint so that everything and everyone else gets lost in the periphery. It is total self-absorption.
When my heart stopped racing and the screams in my head stopped, I was sitting on a hard-backed chair in an air-conditioned room, waiting to 'face panel'.
The disciplinary panel was merciless, brutal with their questions.
“Are you sane?”
“Can't you talk?”
“What is wrong with you?”
The sort of questions my family asked me for years, the sort they asked when Maami took me to that prayer house for deliverance when I was nine and the woli stripped me naked and tied me down and sprinkled holy water on me. My body itched all over. Then, he produced a rawhide whip and flogged me with it to ‘remove the demons’. I screamed so much my throat ached –pleas, then promise after promise. The demon had left. I would never act like before again. I would be a good girl. My behaviour would change. Everything stopped when I passed out. When I finally got home three days later, back raw and voice hoarse, I lay in bed for days, pretending to be sick, unwilling to do anything. Feeling an unrelenting and insidious apathy. Then, like a switch, I suddenly got over-energised and so restless, and so very angry, that I eventually got into a fistfight with the bully that lived on my street. He'd beaten me silly.
“We see here that you have a... record from secondary school”, the voice of a panelist dragged me back to the room. “What happened?”, the leader of the panel asked, peering at me over the spectacles balanced on his wide nose.
What happened was that I had chased two boys to within an inch of their lives, a jagged bottle in my hand, when they wolf-whistled at me. I ran and ran that day. Wouldn't stop. Didn't want to stop.
But I didn't tell the panel.
“You're not talking abi?”, the plump woman on the panel said, her mouth downturned in a condemning scowl. “Who do you think you are that we will ask you question and you'll not answer? Who are you? Ehn?”
“Dr. Mrs., please calm down,” one of the panelists soothed, his hands outstretched in a placating gesture.
“No wonder she's here! Bad child!” the plump woman began again, throat veins bulging, voice shriller than before. “No wonder she...”
“Dr. Mrs., please calm down,” the lead panelist said, “Let me finish asking her these questions.” The woman stopped, although her red lipstick-covered mouth still quivered.
“Hmm. Your medical records show you have bipolar disorder,” the panel leader said, adjusting the spectacles on his nose and flipping through my records.
I went back to the hospital the day I discovered. I remembered the sense of vindication I felt when the doctor told me that I had bipolar disorder, unspecified.
“Bipolar disorder is characterised by manic episodes, intense highs where the person is over-energised and restless, then depressive episodes, lows where the sufferer will be unusually tired and melancholic. Some sufferers may experience mixed episodes, and some may experience hallucinations and/or psychosis....” The doctor rambled on, but I didn't hear anything. I was giddy. I had finally discovered what caused those extreme highs when I felt invincible and all-powerful and overconfident and did all sorts of things, and the plunging lows, when I felt too tired, or extremely apathetic or suicidal and where I regretted things I did while manic. All of those things were not my fault. It was bipolar.
It's not my fault, I wanted to scream to the world. Maami, Baami. It wasn't me all along. There is no demon. Nothing is wrong with me. At least, not in the way you think. The doctor gave me medication for the disorder that day. And that day, I started having dreams of a normal life.
How very wrong I was. Because people who lived normal lives did not have their aunts knock on their doors every weekend holding herbal mixtures and telling them to drink it, because “...na ogbonge herbal remedy. E go cure anything, even HIV.” I would smile shyly and collect this week's mixture and add it to the others I had already collected. It would sit there, unopened until Aunty Ronke brought another one. They all sat there till Mom got rid of them one day.
Normal people did not have friends bringing them 'calming soups' and walking on eggshells around them, as if they were insane, raging bulls; they did not have classmates inviting them to church so they could “...encounter God so you will no longer be mad.” They did not have their grouses flippantly ignored because “I know it's the bipolar you have that's talking because you are overreacting”; or genuine moments where they were depressed and sad explained away because “Thank God, you aren’t depressed every time. At least, you have energised moments that make up for the depression.” Normal people did not have to face every one of their emotions head-on and second-guess themselves constantly.
The meds did not change anything. I still became frequently manic, even more than before, and when I eventually fell from those manic heights, it was long and hard.
The panel interrupted my thoughts again. “Well, we've seen what we have to see. Wait outside, we'll call you in when we make our decision.”
The panel gave me a month's suspension and told me that the sentence was reduced due to my disorder, with the added warning that if I couldn't control herself, it would be expulsion next time.
I walked out feeling I had finally reached the breaking point. I felt incredibly tired and started thinking that maybe it would be better for everyone if I wasn't around anymore because there was no way she could hurt anyone if I was dead.
I sat in front of the Faculty of Arts building, head between my knees, brooding, and that was when Tolu breezed into my life.
“Sister. Hello. Is everything alright?” The voice was full of concern. It was annoying.
I nodded absently and wiped my eyes, wishing that whoever it was could just leave me alone. I'm not alright, I thought, but what can you do about it? What can anyone do about it?
“But you're crying.”
I raised her head then and my first look at Tolu was a lanky, dark-skinned girl with bony arms and concerned eyes.
“Can I sit?,” Tolu asked, and then dropped down on the seat next to me. It grated on my nerves. Please just leave me alone.
“My name is Tolu. I'm in Faculty of Arts. What's your name?”
I didn't answer then, just stared forward.
“I can see from your ID card and dress that you're in Law,” Tolu continued. “I really like Law, but I wasn't able to get in.”
This girl should leave me alone, I recall stopping just short of saying it out loud.
“But I also like Performing Arts, and I think I want to act full-time when I graduate,” Tolu rambled on. “Because of that, I'm basically fatherless. But in the future, when I’m finally famous, he'll now say 'Tolu, I'm proud of you’”.
I smiled then. It was tentative, more a please-go-away smile than a keep-talking smile but Tolu apparently took it as encouragement.
“So, what’s wrong? Maybe I can help,” she asked, her face serious.
Everything is wrong. I’m wrong. “Everything,” I said. “But you can’t help. Nobody can.”
This simple, matter-of-fact acceptance surprised me. Normally, people tried to wheedle or nag me to talk, or simply told me to snap out of it because the country was hard and I wasn’t the only one that had problems.
“Talking about it might help though,” she said. “I know that it will help me do amebo at least.”
For some reason, I found it funny. I smiled more genuinely then. Maybe I like Tolu.
“My name is Lola. Doctor said I’m bipolar.” That was me in a nutshell, wasn’t it? Lola. Bipolar. Female.
I told Tolu everything then, from the early manic-depressive episodes of my childhood to the day I was diagnosed. to the struggle in the park, to the one-month suspension. Everything gushed out. Tolu just listened.
“...it’s why I don’t want you here. Leave me alone. I can injure you and I’ll not know, and then you’ll hate me. Something is wrong with me,” I said, almost pleading. I liked Tolu. She seemed nice. I didn’t want to hurt her.
The silence afterwards was thick and heavy.
“No. Nothing is wrong with you,” Tolu had finally said, in her matter-of-fact way that made you believe whatever she was saying was true and unarguable.
I just stared. I didn’t know what to say.
“Oya, come,” Tolu said, like we were old friends. “Today’s my birthday, and I want to buy ice-cream. But there’s no one to eat it with.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“OK then, I’ll sit down here with you.”
We sat down there in comfortable silence for what seemed to me like hours, though it must have been only a few minutes.
“The park wasn’t supposed to happen,” I suddenly blurted out, as much to defend my behaviour to this nice girl as to fill the silence. “I took my meds. They’re supposed to make me normal.”
Much later, I would learn the meds were not the correct ones, that they gave me antidepressants instead of the medication I needed.
“See,” she said “Look at me. It has happened. Past. You have one month free, are you going to spend it with that sad look on your face? Hmm? Let’s go to my house, devour ice-cream. Just for this night, at least. Ok?”
I wanted to go then, but I still refused, suggesting that we exchange phone numbers instead.
Tolu said no, pleaded and wheedled until I finally caved.
“OK. I’ll go. Just for this night.”
My life was never the same after that.
I arrive home, and for the first time since everything broke, I walk straight to the bedroom we shared. It’s been locked all this while. The door creaks jarringly when I slowly push it open. Dust covers every surface and floats visibly around the room. The room smells musty. Thick cobwebs form irregular patterns on the ceiling. Everything is still as it was, untouched. The wardrobe door, open, and Tolu’s clothes and mine, organised into business and casual, spiffy suits, blouses and skirts with a few sweatshirts and jeans thrown in; Tolu’s Access Bank ID Card; a now-yellowed flier for an audition she had planned to go for; my shoes, hers; the bed with rumpled sheets. And the dangling belt looped around the ceiling fan, where I tried to end everything that day.
The day everything broke was a clear and bright Saturday. We both lounged on the bed that morning, sprawled over each other.
“So babe, were you able to collect it?,” Tolu asked, her first words since we woke up that morning and shared companionable silence. She was talking about the medication I was supposed to get from the hospital the previous day. I had gone to the hospital on the Monday of that week and they had told me to come back on Wednesday. The meds were unavailable. When I went back, the hospital was closed. Doctors were on strike. I told Tolu all these, peppered with gossip and interesting anecdotes from my time at the hospital.
Tolu sat cross-legged on the bed listening to me, eyes eager, a grin plastered on her face that she didn’t know of. As I talked, we started to laugh. I laughed mostly because Tolu laughed. Her laugh was peculiar, a deep and rumbling guffaw that made one think of a beer-bellied middle-aged man.
I didn’t have a care in the world. I hadn’t taken my meds for a week, and I felt fine. Wonderful. Content as I laughed with her.
Some minutes later, Tolu went out to buy something, and nothing was the same after that.
When Tolu left, something in me snapped. I felt dizzy and closed my eyes to steady myself. The room was no longer empty when I opened them. The woli of that prayer house Maami took me to when I was nine was in the room, his white garb stained a brownish-red the colour of rust. He came straight for me, but instead of a bell and the whip he always held in my memories, an axe swung from his fist.
I gave a surprised, strangled yelp, then started to scramble backwards. Sweat instantly gathered in beads on my forehead, in streamlets down my back, the damp patches under my armpit.
“What are you doing here? Why are you here? How did you get in?” I said scrambling back on the bed, heart pounding from fear. The woli said nothing. He just walked, in slow measured steps, axe in hand, towards the bed, towards me. I cried out and sprinted out of the bedroom. And saw him again. Two hims. The one in the bedroom joined them. The three walked towards me, steps eerily choreographed.
“You’re not real. Tolu’s coming. You’re not real. You’re fake. It’s... it’s a dream,” I rambled, the words flying, fast and furious, out of my mouth. “It’s my mind. You’re not here. It’s a dream... a dream...yes... yes.”
Then I bumped into something and felt hot breath on my neck that made the hairs on my body stand up. I turned slowly and was met with the woli, axe raised high above the head. I screamed and ran into the kitchen. They were six now, and they crowded in the kitchen door, and one-by-one, they walked towards me. I grabbed a frying pan and hurled it. They kept coming. I started grabbing whatever was handy and throwing it at them, frantic, sweat pouring down my back. Spoons made of stainless steel, ceramic plates which shattered when they hit the floor, a grater. It had no effect. They just walked and walked, chasing me around the kitchen.
“Lola, you okay?” one suddenly said, and I jumped, startled. None had said anything until that point... and it talked with Tolu’s voice, but with a very gravelly undertone, like stones scraping together under a soft pillow.
“Tolu? That you?” I asked. Hope flickered in me.
“You don’t deserve all you have.” The multiple wolis had merged into one, and it took a big step towards me. “You have to pay.” It came towards me with the axe now.
My scrabbling, searching, desperate hand closed around a kitchen knife. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t stop myself. A red wall slid in front of my eyes, blocking off everything. I sprang forward. And stabbed and stabbed. I didn’t pay heed to anything. I stabbed until it no longer moved, until the knife was slippery in my hand. Until I closed my eyes and slipped into silence.
When I opened her eyes, I was on the kitchen floor, covered in blood.
Tolu lay by my side, sporting dark holes. Dead.
I looped the belt around the fan, forming a noose. I couldn’t live without her. I deserved the punishment of death. Nothing was worth living for anyway. I slipped my head into the noose, and it squeezed tight around my neck. My head started pounding and my neck throbbed. My fingers clawed at the noose. I could think of nothing, except loosening it. Everything flashed red and black until my world was darkness, the only light a pinpoint between my eyes. I could feel my life slipping away. Slowly, surely.
Then the noose loosened, and I dropped to the floor. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t punish myself. I was a coward now too.
I walked to the door opened it, and walked out.
And kept walking.
I don’t remember what happened next. What I remember next is finding myself in a hospital. The therapist told me that I had walked into the hospital, feet bleeding and scraped and caked with mud, gone to the receptionist, and told him “Please go to my house. My friend is dead. I killed her. Call the police,” then collapsed on the floor. They admitted me.
I woke up in the hospital, a tube running into my arm, hot needles of pain dancing all over my feet. The doctor told me to rest. They were going to talk to me later. They were administering painkillers to dull the pain. I fell asleep. That’s when I had the first nightmare.
I was back in the kitchen. The wolis chased me and cornered me. They moved slowly towards me, axes swinging. My hands frantically searched around, and then closed around the knife. I brought it up and pointed it towards the apparitions. Then the knife disappeared, and they merged into one huge figure and slashed at me with the axe. Then I was the one holding the axe and slashing. Slashing at Tolu, who wore a beatific smile, her body bearing holes and the knife in her belly.
I woke up screaming. The doctors rushed in.
The next few years were the worst years of my life. I had nightmares – demonic dreams where I would find myself chased with axes by the shadowy figures wearing long white robes which were stained and torn. Sometimes they would catch me, and as they swung the axes, Tolu would be the one lying on the ground, bruised and scraped. And I’d be the one holding the axe or knife swinging, deadly accurate, towards her. I could never stop myself in time, and she’d fall down bleeding, smiling at me. Sometimes I would walk and walk, shrouded in thick fog, calling out to Tolu until my voice was raw and gravelly and my feet were battered and blistered. I’d wake from the nightmares screaming or crying. I was afraid to sleep, and at a point, I couldn’t.
The meds didn’t seem to work anymore. During the afternoons, I would sit, filled with despair and self-loathing. Hating myself. Wanting to die. I tried occasionally, pulling out the syringe feeding drips into my hand and trying to bleed out; or pretending to take the painkiller tablets and accumulating them, and overdosing.
The therapist took me in. I lived with her during the worst of those times.
And, like a huge ship slowly turning, changing directions, I healed. I could go to work again and do other things without the therapist being there to talk me out of hurting myself.
And I could finally face Tolu.
“So, how did you feel when you went to Tolu’s grave?” the therapist asks, sitting on the sofa I had just scrubbed. This is the first time she is coming to the house. She wanted to check in on me.
“I guess I feel okay,” I answer.
I mean it too.
Precious Oluwatobi Emmanuel
Precious is a 20 year-old final-year Law student at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. His work has been published once in the University's Anthology in 2019. The story 'Floater' won Prose Category of the University Writing Championship that same year. He lives in Kano, Nigeria with his mom.
He tweets @tobi_danni15 and Instagrams at tobidanni