You have always had an intense fear of losing your mind. Of waking up without the memory of moments lived, shared, wasted and being in a world different from the one you know, from the one that knows you. It doesn’t help to that a few weeks to your exams in your first year in University someone you didn’t know called you to say they had found your favorite aunt who was in the same Law Faculty as you were, her bloated mass bent over, sweeping the streets outside the largest female hostel, whispering to herself. This was not the first exam she would be missing. It had happened before, before you got admitted into this University. And now that you think of it, the signs had been there more than 10 years before - the excessive sweeping, the laughing and talking to herself, the getting lost in her own quiet world- when she still spoke with her eyes, when she still laughed, when you still laughed together, before her eyes showed a place you could not reach.
Your relationship started in the two bedroom low cost house your dad rented from your mother’s uncle in Kaduna. Your dad, mum and sister shared one room and your aunt, together with you and your younger brother shared the other. She was seven years older than you and lived mostly in fear of your mother who like her father knew only angry confrontation as a way to communicate. Quite often mum’s long arms would stretch out into a slap or a series of slaps. Your mother was her de facto mother, their mother having died when she was only a baby; your mum being the eldest daughter raised her under the heavy hand of their father.
Many times when your aunt sat down to tell you stories, you could tell that she was censoring, wondering what she could or could not share with this precocious child who spoke sometimes like he was twice his age. Sometimes, right in the middle of a conversation she would drift, her pupils dilating, a smile appearing on her face and then a giggle. You would have to call out her name two or three times or shake her vigorously to get her to finish what she was saying.
Once she told you about an Ijeoma who was bullying her in school. It worried her and for weeks she could think of nothing else but this other girl who was popular and feared. You don’t know what you were thinking but you found yourself- barely 12 at the time- becoming her advisor. In spite of the age difference you were quite close because you were the only person she could really share anything with.
It is now 11 years since your mother dragged her out of the campus in a rented taxi; since your aunt last attempted to be normal again. You are attending a funeral. Your aunt is seated on one of the rented white plastic chairs right outside under the canopy. She is bloated like she has been since she slipped permanently into this world that no one knows. He dark face has too much talcum powder- dark like she someone who spends hours every day trudging under the unforgiving afternoon sun. You walk over to say hello. You can feel the nervous eyes of your other relatives following you, asking if you know what you are doing, if you know that she is ‘not well’, if you remember. But you are determined.
“Aunty, good afternoon” you say, almost whispering, bending to be at the same level as her face.
“Ehen, how are you?” she says with her characteristic lost gaze.
And you lie and say, fine. Fine, because that is the only way to end the conversation. The only way to hide the quiver in your voice. The only way not to cry.
You walk away thinking, this is the answer we had been giving ourselves- we all kept telling ourselves everything was fine until we found her sweeping, whispering away, giggling in the streets.
You think of how everyone assumes everyone is ‘fine’. How there isn’t any visible social plan for dealing with persons suffering mental health issues. How families bear the total burden of understanding, and managing mental health. How 'managing' mental health means anything from denial to totally isolating the person. How there are hardly any therapists available even in this glitzy capital city. And how really, no one seems to care.