It is a thing of hearts in throats, of throats in knots, of knots in stomachs. A thing of restless brains, sleepless nights, ends that feel nigh. A thing of breathlessness, recurring appointments, endless symptoms. That is how I can best describe my second in command. We are pretty tight, now – me and Anxiety; Anxiety and me.
Living together has been a learning curve, although I couldn’t say things get better. Instead, through time, talking and mental discipline I found ways to make myself feel better. This comes with the baggage of my blackness, my womanhood, orientation, education, class and employment. Those elements feature heavily here but I speak of our universal anxious leanings. I want to tell you about what happened, what I did and what I learned, in the hope it makes you feel less powerless, or understood, or that it makes you understand. This volume has a resource of organisations that can assist, places to go and things to do to heal at the end.
A Standing Appointment
We meet in late winter, when I think I have just about got my shit together. I pretend we are not acquainted. By spring I must Talk To Someone – my second in command insists that, for the first time ever, I cannot cope with all my responsibilities. I email the relevant people as soon as I realise life is moving too fast and I am referred to someone who they say can help. No overtime on Tuesdays; I clock out at 5.30pm on the dot for a 6.30pm session, a constant in an otherwise uncertain future. ‘I have a standing appointment…’ I hint at those who matter on paper. Those who do in my heart are made aware. Perhaps my therapist – I have never called her that before – could really get me this time. It is luck, me getting her. Luck and misfortune colliding: there have been several crises that led to me sharing my innermost concerns with strangers for 50 minutes. One recurring slot had been on Saturday morning. Another from 8 to 9pm on Friday night. I’d join post-work drinks for ‘just one’ and those who knew me to be a banterous colleague observed me deep in thought, unsettled by my lack of liver destruction. Or I’d meet friends, still wrapped up in my own cumulus.
In those days, kinship, even if just in impression, truly mattered. My grandmother had just died. Then, after returning from the burial in Cameroon, which I couldn’t afford to attend, my mother fell ill and was admitted to hospital. With this accumulation of hectic office days, academic duties and unexpressed grief, I once more found myself in an armchair, staring at the tentative tissue box, my mind a continent away. But for the first time – after a lifetime of no authority figures in my life other than my family being thus – that stranger was a black woman.
In Plato’s eponymous allegory, prisoners who live shackled in the darkness of the cave are unable to see others and themselves properly; they only see shadows. Their vision of humanity is not only partial, it is erroneous. When a prisoner escapes the cave, they are stunned by the depth of the objects and shapes they perceive in this new reality. While the takeaway is typically that philosophers, as technocrats, are berated for their ability to know more than the general populace, this also indicates the lesser existence of those unable to see themselves and others in a complex manner. Here, a parallel can be drawn with representation. In Western societies, many of which have been rendered multiracial through centuries of expeditions (i.e. rape, pillage and assimilation), the topic is at once underrated and treasured. Representation is a birthright and a threat for those in a position to take it for granted. See the backlash following the depiction of a black father as the head of a Roman family in a historical BBC cartoon, even as this has been corroborated by classicist Mary Beard and other historians as consistent with the Roman Empire’s capacious aspirations stretching into the African continent. This is the typical response of those who seemingly view history, the media and humanity as no more than a broadsheet, in which both people and historical accounts come in one size only, limited run.
Due to its ability to counter such views, Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure is important to many young black women. Issa, the lead, is charismatic, funny and, crucially, three-dimensional in her fallibility. Likewise, her straight-talking best friend, high-flying lawyer and romantic perfectionist Molly, is afforded complexity, in particular with regards to mental health. In season two (spoiler) these traits take her into the pristine, book-laden office of a demure grey-haired middle-aged therapist with a buzz cut. A black woman. It is not explicit how Molly stumbles upon her – this ellipsis demonstrates how much more visible black communities are in the US. But it also indicates that Molly’s socio-economic status allowed such access. Their racial and gender match does not prevent a brief fallout a few sessions into their relationship, but on the whole Molly finds relief in the short-hand of shared systemic oppression.
In Citizen, Jamaican writer Claudia Rankine writes, unforgettably: ‘The new therapist specialises in trauma counselling. You have only ever spoken on the phone … When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”’ In 2016, the Guardian published a feature entitled ‘Your therapist is white. You’re not. Is this a problem?’ In the investigation, a black man mentions a desire for a ‘black male therapist from an upper-class background from New York’ – an identity that mirrors his. This need is later met and he mentions a past experience with a white female therapist where he felt he was handled like a threat: ‘She shut me down when I expressed anger.’ Conversely, his experience with his black male therapist is so positive it convinces him to pursue the profession.
Likewise, I had come across deadpan white women counsellors and men, like those described by a woman from the feature who identifies as Latina, looking ‘like that suburban dad that you see on TV’. A Jon Ronson, a Louis Theroux. My three previous counsellors had their own respective professional and personal merit, still none appeared to relate to the issues I faced. I started considering gender and race as joint prejudices. With one woman, the differences at hand felt too pronounced for me to be handled efficiently – they were lost in translation. I expressed this awkwardly to a friend and was pegged as, loosely, self-important. I nearly believed them. Then along came Sophie.
Love & Death
Sophie came into my life after Mr ThirstTrap, and right after Grandma’s passing. Mr ThirstTrap hadn’t been loved and he hadn’t loved right back. Even so, he had sent my heart looping inside my chest. The first panic attack I remember is one of limerence, these feelings so interwoven in my mind. We were stood in my kitchen sharing Spanish wine and mischiefs after not having met in six weeks. Emails ranging a panoply of emotions had been exchanged – lust had come out on top, as had he. The conversation came back to our togetherness, or rather, lack thereof. I being coyly pro, he playfully contra, the mutual pull centrifugal whichever way. We sat by my windowsill and when it became evident that we were going nowhere, not then and perhaps never, I found myself trembling, unable to breathe, my stomach in knots, bile rising up my throat. This was the first time that I realised my body could expose me unawares. He wrapped himself around me and reassured me it was ok and it was his fault everything was this complicated, while I wondered what we were to do about ‘us’, knowing this word to be too populous for these unrequited feelings.
I saw the worst douchebags of my generation destroy girls like me by using white fragility as a way to establish romantic desirability. Sensitivity, although a key trait of mine, was foreign to me after two decades spent with boys referring to me as threatening, saying things like ‘I would never mess with her because she could beat me up.’ They would offer to walk my white girl friends home, while I was sent off alone because ‘I am strong’; misogynoir stereotypes used to mask physical neglect.
One day, on the maple counter of Mr ThirstTrap’s sitting room I found a book that read ‘Overcoming Anxiety’. It felt like a confession from him but something irrelevant to me. I forgot then the time when I shook and fell into him as though he were a lake and I a willow. It took another two years until I Talked To Someone.
It has always felt to me like my purpose is to make others well. When the call that broke my life in two – before death had touched me and after – came I had the flu and had just been sent home. My sister called but wouldn’t talk. She insisted, ‘Just call me when you get home.’ At home I called her. ‘So… grandma has died. I am sorry,’ she said. My reply was stilted. ‘Oh. Right. Ok…So Mum isn’t well… Ok.’ My eyes welled up. ‘Ok. I – I’ll call her.’ I’m not sure how long I slept for or what happened next.
In the month following my grandmother’s passing I could do little more than be with my phone on loudspeaker and join my mother’s crying. But calling Europe was pricey. After a couple weeks of silence when my parents didn’t answer their home phone or mobiles, I was finally told that they had travelled to Cameroon – something I had not known them to be able to afford, what with the €1500 airfare from Brussels. After accepting the silence of grief, I focused on academia and work. I did not hear from them for two more weeks. Then one day, stepping out of the shower, I received a Whatsapp message: ‘Mum is in hospital. She fell sick during the funeral.’ I collapsed onto my bed naked, breathless at what felt like an inevitability: she was next. I couldn’t face that. The next week was unbearable. A weight sat on my chest and my breath was faint but I said nothing, for fear of being seen to bring my problems into work. But at our weekly team meeting my eyes glistened when my boss asked ‘Anyone got any news to share?’. I was given compassionate leave and took a seven-hour bus home. My mother had been released the night before, after a week as an in-patient. She was frail and, for once, awfully quiet. I lay next to her like day one, our hearts and breathing in sync.
I have spent most of my life learning not to obsess over my parents’ deaths and my own as an imminent threat. There is precedent. One of my parents was diagnosed with a chronic illness at my birth and the other became ill with cancer when I was a teen. This meant regular hospital visits and clinical trials that sucked the energy out of them. I learned to feel comfortable in a hospital or sickbed, although I treat hospitals like corridors not rooms. I prayed to the relevant parties and when they refused to hear me I relegated them to faraway crevices in my mind – regaled them with a silent treatment yet to be lifted.
Marianne Tatepo is child 9/9 of a Littoral and West Cameroonian family. Born and bred in Brussels, she is based in London and works in book publishing. Read Marianne’s writing for the Guardian, the Bookseller, Spread the Word, Brooklyn magazine, and others here. Read her thoughts on books here.
SHANICKA ANDERSON, ERIN ANIKER, GRACE AU, KA BRADLEY, SIOBHAN BRITTON, LORI ENGLAND, DEBORAH FREMPONG, NICOLE FROIO, CLAIRE GAMBLE, p.e. garcia, ELI GOLDSTONE, SARVAT HASIN, AMBERIN HUQ, DR. RACHEL KOWERT, SOPHIE MACKINTOSH, NARAYANI MENON, ALICE SLATER, MARIANNE TATEPO, SHARLENE TEO, HARRIET THOMPSON, ROSEMARY WAUGH, ELEY WILLIAMS, HANNAH WILLIAMS
Author bio and cover image courtesy of 3 of Cups Press.