The Girl Who Is Afraid of Everything

Chisom Nwaezuoke

The time is 3am. The electricity is still out, and the rain is threatening to fall again. I have decided to call it a night after watching three episodes of the Netflix series New Amsterdam. The show is about a medical director living with cancer and his unusual way of running a public hospital. I am tempted to binge-watch the entire season; the chemistry between Dr Goodwin and Dr Sharpe is more than enough to string me along. However, I have a train to catch at  8am, so I shut my laptop and close my eyes in the familiar darkness. But sleep does not come no matter how hard I try.

It is now 3:30am, and I can hear the silence loud and clear. I open my eyes to the darkness, and I recognise the feeling in the pit of my stomach – fear. It feels like there is a plunger inside my body sucking me into myself; slow enough to feel like torture, yet fast enough to leave me breathless. It is that strange feeling that has stayed with me for so long it now feels like an annoying guest; it never leaves, intensifying itself in moments like this.

No matter how familiar it gets, darkness terrifies me, and sleeping in darkness has always been a struggle for me. Actually, sleeping has always been a struggle for me. 

When I was a little girl, unlike children my age, I would wet the bed whenever I fell asleep, and despite all the efforts of my family, it seemed that I just could not control my bladder. I was the only child out of my parents’ four children who experienced this struggle, and it frustrated them and everyone else around me. Because we could not afford to put me in diapers every night, my mother would lay down at least two Mackintosh waterproof sheets on my bed every night, and my morning routine included mopping up urine-stained covers and washing off the mess. Sleepovers at my cousins’ were a hassle for me because everyone knew me as the cousin who wet the bed, and it was really hard to have a good time when you could feel everyone judging you in their Nickelodeon-inspired pyjamas . 

My parents took me to religious leaders of different denominations to “cast out the spirit of bedwetting”, but the spirit said “no, thank you” every time. Whenever the night approached, I would become anxious because I knew what was coming, and I could not stop it from happening. I tried so hard to stop bedwetting: I prayed, cried, and even squeezed my legs together before sleeping – nothing worked.  I started to dread falling asleep because it meant I would wake up once again to the disappointed faces of my family, but I also dreaded staying awake because it meant I would have to face the darkness while the rest of the world slept on. Fear became my jealous companion, and here I am, eight years after my last bedwetting episode, still keeping her company.

The time is 4am, and I am jolted from my thoughts by a sudden sound in the distance. This sound could have been anything: a door banging shut many compounds away, an object falling from a height, a gunshot, anything. My heart starts to pound, beads of sweat take their place on my forehead, and sweet saliva rushes to my mouth. I sit up in bed, eyes wide as saucers, listening hard for any other sounds that may follow. I tell myself that this is a dramatic reaction to a simple sound, but I cannot help myself; this is what it means to feel fear and, unfortunately, this feeling is painfully familiar. 

For many nights in October 2020, I sat up in bed in the middle of the night, listening to gunshots outside my window. What started as peaceful nationwide protests to call for an end to police brutality in Nigeria had resulted in more police brutality and nationwide insecurity. The police force was shooting anybody they believed to be a nuisance, and citizens were revolting by burning buses and the properties of government officials. During that period, I became a nervous wreck, always hypervigilant to any sign or sound of danger. I remember living in my parents’ house in Oyingbo and shaking uncontrollably at the sound of gunshots outside our compound. I would lie on the ground with my palms over my ears to avoid getting hit by stray bullets flying over our roof. On some days, I would ask my friends to stay on the phone with me until I fell asleep because I was too scared to close my eyes amidst the constant gunshots and explosions. Now, I try to convince myself that the sound I just heard outside my window is nothing like October 2020, and there is nothing to be afraid of, but of course, that does not make the fear go away. So, I lie here in a pool of my sweat, knowing what is coming next.

I can feel an anxiety attack coming, and I brace myself for it. My body curls into a tight ball, my fingers grip the sheet, and my toes start to wiggle frantically. The first sob tears through my body like a riptide; I let out a short scream into my pillow as my breathing gets hard. I continue screaming into the pillow until my voice cracks, and I have no scream left in me. The tears are flowing freely now as my knuckles grow weak and my toes start to feel like plastic. I lie in that position, willing myself to get up, and after a few minutes, I reach for my phone and unlock it. The brightness lights up my tear-streaked face as I hurriedly open Spotify and select one of my favourite albums. It is folklore by Taylor Swift, and as I eagerly put the earphones into my ears, I lie down with a soft sigh and sing along in my head.

I’m doing good. I’m on some new shit.

The time is 9:30am, and I am now sitting by a window in the third coach of the metro train to Lagos. I made it to the train station on time, but I am starting to think I shouldn’t have because the air is humid, and there is not enough room for my long legs. My mouth is filling up fast with sweet saliva, and my stomach feels like a knot. Once again, the plunger has taken its place inside me, and it is hard to enjoy the view, so I plug in my laptop and let my fingers speak into the blank pages of my Google Docs. The train moves slower than Nigeria’s development, but my fingers are typing as if to make up for this. I did not realise that I had so many words to describe fear, even the one I am feeling at the moment. 

It is my third time taking the train and it does not get better with time. I remember booking a therapy session before my first ride to deal with my fear. I had told my therapist that I am terrified of travelling by any means, even one as calming as the train. I did not have any experience that should make me scared of a train or any means of transport; still, I was scared. I am always scared. I imagined all the things that could go wrong and was convinced that I would be in one of those freak accidents you never really believe. I didn’t want to die in a freak accident, I told my therapist. Heck, I didn’t even want to survive one! After listening to me ramble on, he’d smiled calmly and asked: “Anastasia, have you considered the possibility that you are afraid of death?”

He encouraged me to take the trip and have all the fun I could because life is too short to let my fears stop me from living. He went on to tell me that death is inevitable, and the only way to beat it is to live fully until it takes me away. I took his advice, got on that train, and surprisingly, there was no freak accident! I even took pictures during the trip and listened to Taylor Swift sing about boys. Now, on my third trip, even though I feel the fear in my stomach, I know that just like with my first trip, I’ll be alright.

I think my therapist was close enough to the truth. I am not afraid of death; I am afraid of life. Life is random, unpredictable, meaningless and meaningful at the same time. Accepting this reality is terrifying. To live means that I must deal with whatever life throws at me, and I am nothing like Queen Elsa; I cannot twirl my way into the unknown. To live is to surrender entirely into the arms of the universe, hoping she’ll be kind to me. It is to deal with my traumas and admit that I need help sometimes. To live is to cheat death every day, all the time wondering, “Is this even worth it?”

In response to my fear of living, I have decided to live as fully, loudly, and unapologetically as I can. Sounds crazy, right? It’s like being claustrophobic and deciding to live in a treehouse. But what if the treehouse was the most beautiful place you ever saw and often made you happy? Would it be worth it then? I have realised that the fear may never really go away, but life itself is beautiful and often makes me happy, so I will feel the fear and live anyway. I will take many more train rides and flights and boat trips. I’ll fall in love, out of love, and let my body be possessed by lust one too many times. I’ll tell bad jokes, flash the peace sign in photographs, and do yoga when the sky turns golden.

Most importantly, I’ll write about living every chance I get and let other people see the world through my eyes. When the fear comes, and it will come, I’ll remind myself that the universe is on my side. I’ll hug my heart and go to the people who will hug my soul. When I have to, I will scream till my throat aches, and when I have to, I’ll cry till my eyes burn.

I have learnt that this thing called fear is a terrible thing, and if you let it, it will steal your life on your watch. It is the “devil” they told us about in children’s church, who came to steal, kill, and destroy; the one who requires a long fork when dining at his table. Some people say that fear is good, but I think that fear is fear. It is neither good nor bad; it is just an emotion. However, what we do with this emotion is what matters and is entirely up to us. Rather than let fear tell me how to live, I have decided to let my fear remind me that I am alive! Life is for the living, and so is fear. If I’m afraid, then I’m alive.

Three weeks have passed since my train ride, and on this day, I am ignoring the fear I feel in my stomach that this essay is not worth a read. I am a better person than I was at the beginning of this piece; I’m still afraid of many things, but as you can see, I’m doing them anyway. I am completing this essay, not knowing who or what it’s for, but hoping against my fear that somebody out there needs to read it. When I am finished with it, I will go back to watching New Amsterdam – I think Dr Goodwin and Dr Sharpe are finally going to have their first kiss. And when the sun comes up tomorrow, and I wake up to a new day, no matter how terrified I am, still, I will live.

Chisom Nwaezuoke is a Nigerian physiotherapist and writer. She enjoys practising yoga, listening to music, and drawing.

 

*Image by Javier Esteban on Unsplash