If a Bird Wishes to Fly
Adaeze M. Nwadike
I was at the climax of my adolescence when I had my menarche. I did not tell my mother. I was too shy to mention to anyone that womanhood had come upon me; that I was beginning to ripen and soon, a man would pluck me like avocado, and eat me for the rest of my life.
I did not want to have anything to do with any man. Some of them had touched me in unmentionable places, or tried to lure me into dark corners, and because I was a loud child who would always do the first thing that came to mind in such scenarios, shout and kick, they called me Ekwensu – the very incarnate of the devil. They cursed at me and let me go in so much anger and contempt, that if enmity metamorphosed into colours, theirs would make an ombré of black and purple.
The morning I woke to a bed soiled by red stains, and a heavy abdomen, I rushed into the bathroom before anyone could notice. In the bathroom, I dipped my index finger into my vagina to be sure where the blood was coming from. I had the wit to respond in this manner because we had been taught about menstruation in school and because every other girl there had started seeing their monthly flows – except me. I began to pay close attention in biology class. It is easy to get paranoid when you are left behind. This made me so attentive and sensitive to my body, it would have been impossible to be caught unawares by this friendly problem. (The day our teacher wrote the topic on the board, she told all the boys in the class to leave, and gave the girls five minutes to brace up for what they were about to learn.) When I was sure of the pool from which the blood surged, I began to cry. Womanhood, which I often imagined as a mythical evil goddess, had picked me from a crowd of girls, and no matter how hard I kicked and screamed, this vile spirit would not let me go, and worse, there was no going back. A knock at the bathroom door had me jerking like a rabbit. I decided to keep this new knowledge to myself, but it turned out that the flow preferred my panties to the sanitary pad I had on, and before long, I was moving around in bloodstained pyjamas.
My mother summoned me and said a lot of things. Now that I think of it, I think the summary of her TEDx talk was:“You’re a woman now. Your virginity is the most precious gift you can give your husband. Without it you are worthless.” It did not make sense to me, and I asked her how. My mother explained with so much passion, and I thought: “This virginity must be vital for globalisation, and whatever led to the conversation must have been significant.”
Growing up, my father had two favourite sayings that later became family lore: If a bird wishes to fly, it should rid itself of every weight. While this may sound abstract, my father sang it enough times for it to turn into rhetoric. It was his way of telling us to rid ourselves of every distraction because we had big dreams. It is this truth that rules the sky. It explains why feathers are so light and birds so small. It explains why the mockingbirds and blue jays can fly so high, but the cocks and ducks cannot. I would sit out in the evenings and observe the birds, and watch them sing out their hearts as they flew past my window. I loved that they were light, that they could fly, which was what I planned to do in the future. This, in fact, was the beginning of my interest in Biology.
Everything to the black man is a metaphor, was next. According to my father, nothing is independent of a secondary meaning or mystery. This should explain why a padlock is a metaphor for the hymen, and a master key is another for the penis. And for most of us who grew up in religious homes, the padlock has to be guarded with all diligence. I began to avoid men even more and to celebrate the arrival of my monthly flow. Being a devout Christian, I went on to promise God that my virginity belonged to Him, and He should take my life if I ever lost it to fuckboys.
If my period delayed, I did not sleep at night and worried all day until it came. I worried that I had been raped without my knowledge, or that I had gone too close to men and something had gone wrong, and when it finally came, accompanied by unbearable pains, I carried my shoulders so high they almost poked the sky. The pain was the pride of womanhood. I kept celebrating it and it kept getting worse. The blood came down in grape-sized clots that barely fitted my cervix, causing them to contract and my legs to shake under the weight of the pain. It became unbearable, and one afternoon, on my way back from the department of English and Literary Studies, in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where I studied, under a sun that shone so harshly it seemed to bear a grudge, I passed out.
On a particular public holiday, when I had just finished reading beautiful lines from Noa Ben Artzi-Pelossof’s In the Name of Sorrow and Hope, I stood naked before the mirror at my corner of the hostel apartment I shared with three other girls and began studying my body. I realised I had a bulge in the right part of my groin. I noticed that morning how I had become a shadow. I hurried to the closet, bent slightly to my right in pain, and tried on most of my clothes. They didn’t fit. I had grown emaciated overnight, or so I thought. But that day was unique. The pain was intense, so I began to scream.
My roommates rushed me to the hospital and after a lower abdominal scan, the doctor said I had a minor inflammation and gave me painkillers. I was not comfortable with how this self-absorbed man dismissed my suffering by prescribing paracetamol. I went to another doctor in town, and after he studied the scan results, he said I had a cyst. Endometriosis. That was my first encounter with the word. It sounded like an affliction of the Egyptians. Even the way the doctor announced it made it sound like a death sentence. The doctor, taking notice of the effect of his unprofessionalism, thought it wise to add that it was nothing serious, gave me painkillers and told me to get enough rest. I knew I was not going to take that prescription. I knew I was in so much pain, a kind of pain that made me fear for my life, and painkillers were no match for it.
I called my parents, and for five minutes I could not say a word – I just cried. My mother kept urging me to say something, and when I finally did, she could make nothing of the sounds I managed to produce. My dad took the phone, and with a voice that was too soft to be his, told me to come back home.
Accepting this disease was the most difficult event of my life. I fell into depression. My misery hung around me like smoke in an enclosed kitchen and if anyone stayed around me they choked. I hated my body, hated that it wore suffering to perfection, I hated that pain was my body’s interior design. I would spend half of my day on the internet reading about symptoms of the condition, checking all the boxes in agreement, and mourning over the possibility that I may not be able to have my own children.
I stumbled upon one article that said pregnancy was the ultimate cure to the disease and I suddenly wanted to get pregnant. One minute I’d tell myself to be strong, that I was being tested by God, and in another minute, I’d caress the right side of my groin, imagining that what was growing inside me was a lover’s seed, not a cyst. My parents were good Christians and would not allow that, and the person I wanted to get pregnant for was fresh out of the university and was not even my boyfriend – I was not even ready to have a child.
My mother would walk into my room at night to cry with me. She would take away my phone and the book I was reading so I might get some rest. But I never did. I had forgotten how to rest. Something strange was growing inside me, and the thought of that kept me awake. If I closed my eyes in sleep, dreams would wake me. Once, I dreamt that I was in the theatre for surgery, and the team of doctors in session got busy in a conversation till they all slept, leaving my body like stale meat. When I woke up, I went to the door to be sure it was locked and I cried myself back to sleep.
After several visits to the hospital and my outright rejection of surgery, the doctor placed me on medication. This is the most suitable option for me at the moment and, thankfully, it is effective.
I have missed tests and job interviews and numerous opportunities because of this condition. It is easy to be left behind when you carry a problem. Like the apple you leave behind at the grocery store because it has a moth hole, or the tomatoes you’re never going to buy because they are beginning to rot, or the physically challenged that you fail to consider when you are building a structure or planning an event. It is so easy to be left behind. Or should I say, when you carry a burden so well, you will weigh too much to fly. I was unlike the birds my father talked about, unlike the ones that made melodies outside my window. I had Endometriosis and this was my biggest burden. If a bird wishes to fly it rids itself of every weight.
A guy I was dating once asked, “Is it contagious?” and then left forever. I have lost friends too. My roommates gossiped to my classmates, who in turn gossiped to my friends that it was an abortion gone wrong. I missed fellowship meetings and bible study and only a few friends checked on me. People avoided me, and when they tried not to avoid me, I gave them silence, my own way of telling them to fuck off.
Although I could use a massage when I have my periods, I prefer to stay away from people. This is because I risk losing whatever relationship I have with them after they see me in so much pain. I have also been warned by concerned friends and family members to keep it a secret so that I can get married. My grandma and mother, out of love, said to me, “Do not tell anyone you are sick. You have to be strong.”
But I cannot keep this to myself.
Out of curiosity and fear, I have been having conversations with a friend of mine who just had her first child. There is so much change in her body. Sometimes she cries because she feels like a stranger in her own body. Everything is different now. When the conversations get deep, my body begins to shake. Women go through many traumas. The reproductive system, to be precise, presents many problems to the female body. These problems can be handled if they are addressed like the problems they are. But the women of my tribe have been taught to bottle up so much, to endure, to be strong, so as to be considered complete and up-to-the-task. But if a bird will ever fly, it must rid itself of every weight.
This essay is my coming out. I am coming out. First, because it is wrong to keep such information hidden from the most important people in your life. The first person I told was a guy I loved at that time. Secondly, because endometriosis is dangerous and has to be talked about.
I am angry because I had never heard about this health condition until I was diagnosed with it. And I am certain it is because many women living with it have been bullied and shamed into silence, and they will never talk because we have to pretend everything is alright. But it’s not.
I didn’t want to keep quiet. I wanted to talk about my pain. I wanted to connect with other women who had the same health challenge. I wanted to start up a foundation, go to secondary schools and tell girls about their bodies, but I was told to shut up. I think we are doing the coming generation of girls a great harm if we don’t talk about this. Sometimes I go to secondary schools to talk to girls, many organisations also do, but I think that’s not enough. We have to do more. I still consider myself lucky and privileged. I have a regimen that helps me manage my health. I acknowledge that there are thousands of girls and women out there who suffer from this condition but do not know it, because no one will tell them and it breaks my heart into bits. I move around in school sometimes and observe that some of my female students are down in menstrual pains and I fear that they will carry pain and will know my suffering. I fear that they may not be as lucky and may have to bear this pain for a long time.
I regret that no one mentioned to me that my body would one day rise against me. If only my mother told me that periods can be painful, and the pains should not be ignored because it could mean that something has gone wrong, instead of telling me how worthless I’d be without a piece of flesh. If only our teacher had told us that afternoon, when all the boys were outside the classroom, that our bodies are small riots. If only we did not glorify our suffering and attach shame and mystery to biology.
A friend of mine told me how she was curious about sex but did not try it. She kept waiting for the right time. When she finally did, with her husband, she was introduced to a new level of trauma. She began to mourn the loss of her virginity. She said there was blood, and when she flushed the tissue paper with which she had cleaned herself, she felt that her dignity was sailing away into the toilet too.
It is important that we tell our girls the truth. We should tell them there is a war, and even their bodies may one day pick up arms and turn against them. Tell them they have to be wary of strength.
But before that, I am coming out as a burdened human, because I owe it to myself and other women to speak out; to tell the world we have a problem and they should deal with it whichever way they want. I am coming out to unburden, because like my father said, if a bird ever wishes to fly, it will rid itself of every weight and aim for the sky.
Adaeze M. Nwadike is a Nigerian writer and teacher.
*Image by Ian Taylor on Unsplash