My life has been defined by turbulent change. The most familiar feeling to me is a strong panic. Sometimes I could just be sitting still but then be hit by an indescribable emptiness in my chest and no matter how deeply I breathe I can’t seem to fill that space. I feel like I can even hear a bit of a whistle, like my chest had been a solid thing but now is full of holes.
I was born on a cold Tuesday in November in Odessa, Ukraine. My mother was the only black woman on her maternity ward, and most likely in the whole hospital. She was very young and alone, a shaky 23 years old trying to balance this terrifying thing called motherhood with fast paced college classes taught in Russian.
My birth itself-my arrival in this world- was a disruption.
By the age of 4 I spoke a blend of Russian, French and a tiny bit of Kinyarwanda. My mother and I had spent nearly a year in Switzerland while escaping the 1994 genocide, and it was around this time that I began to develop a stutter. It became a struggle to translate my thoughts and feelings, even though that was all I wanted to do. All the time! I wanted to constantly be singing, dancing, moving. I had jokes and stories and dreams I wanted to tell everyone about.
We moved back to Rwanda. We attained some stability and wealth as a family. I learned to keep my thoughts, feelings and dreams inside my head, where they blossomed brightly even as they moved further and further away from me and my current reality. My stutter receded and only came out when I was really nervous or excited.
At the age of 11 years old I was brought to this country and it was the furthest thing from a smooth journey. My anxiety grew during this time as my parents and other adults around me misunderstood me and my coping mechanisms.
Nothing in my life felt real or steady.
I liked to spend long periods of time sitting still and dreaming. I would get comfortable and allow my mind to rise up above my strange life where I could fly free. There was a long period during which my parents and my siblings had been able to receive the paperwork needed to fly into the US, but mine took longer. In that time I was shuffled between relatives and helpful friends in Europe, moving to a new house about every 2 weeks. Learning new rules, making new uncertain friendships with new cousins. Understanding all the ways I was lacking in comparison to this household, this mother, these daughters.
I reached the US in April of 2002, and before that summer ended I spoke near perfect English. I attacked this new language with a desperate ferocity. I was tired of constantly being unable to understand everything around me and I was pretty sure we would be here for a while. I pushed myself into watching movies and television shows with subtitles, determined to speak the way Americans do. I read book after book, devouring entire series weekly. I wanted to believe that the harder I worked, the more that panic inside would fade and perhaps one day leave my chest completely.
The summer before I turned 18 I was moved out of my house and taken across the country to try living with family in Iowa. That fall I opted to take my senior year of high school even further away, and began attending Maplewood Academy, in Hutchinson Minnesota.
I attended Ball State University in the fall of the next year, but about 3 months in I succumbed to a lifetime of fighting depression, and discovered the magical numbing powers of alcohol. It was the quickest way I could use to not feel like me, and I didn’t understand why people around me didn’t see that. Why problems continued to grow, at times exponentially fast.
Dropping out of school turned me into a homeless individual. For the next 3 years I was a vagabond, staying on friend’s couches, with relatives, homeless shelters. I worked a mixture of jobs heavy on the customer service side, including a terrible little sting selling vacuums door to door in Muncie. In the spring of 2013 I was able to afford a room in a subsidized rooming house. I felt like I was finally on my way towards stability. I again waited for that constant panic to leave my body and allow me to experience life easier.
In 2015 I started attending CNA classes at a job corps center in Grafton, MA. Later I applied for and got into the LPN program at a different center, in Cassadaga, NY. When I graduated I moved back to South Bend, IN to live with my siblings. Within a year and a half we lived in two different apartments, housed a stray pit bull and a large husky, and once spent about 2 weeks without electricity. We also had amazing times, like the time my sister and I watched “Proud Mary” in theaters. It’s an action-packed movie starring Taraji P Henderson but you would have thought it was a slapstick comedy by the way we couldn’t stop laughing! The truth is that it brought us immense amounts of joy to watch a powerful black woman rule the screen. My sister was so into it she couldn’t eat the ice cream I bought her before the movie, and just held it the entire time, shaking and dripping in her hand.
In March of 2018 I moved to Indianapolis. I first lived with a good friend from nursing school, then got a 2 bedroom apartment a little over 2 months later. I worked full time hours, making enough to quickly afford an apartment, a car, insurance, and payments on furniture. There was a honeymoon period of less than a month before problems rose again. I started to feel like the money I made wasn’t real. It dwindled down quickly, almost as soon as I got a check. I was living alone and doing my best to combat loneliness by binging, staying out late, and overworking.
Then there was one magical weekend during the last part of June that same year. My youngest brother graduated from 8th grade, and my mother splurged for us to celebrate at a Hibachi grill. I had NEVER been at one of these before! Each instance of fire on that table was a joyful moment for me. I enjoyed every second of our elaborate dinner as well as the weekend that followed. I and two of my siblings headed back towards the city after and proceeded to laugh more in a day and a half than I could remember.
I was so happy.
We shopped for furniture at Goodwill. We laughed a lot at me and my terrible upkeep of my car. There was a moment where my brother leaned down into the engine and then jumped back quickly before shouting “AY, you mind TURNING THE FUCKING CAR OFF so I don’t die?” I quickly turned the ignition off before replying “Sorry, you’re right, you still gotta carry my table inside!” I took them to a fancy French restaurant/bakery in Broad Ripple and I still think of the snapchat memories of this day and laugh at their reactions. Later we came back to my apartment and there was a crazy storm during which I dared my brother to run around outside on the street for jokes and he DID and it was so unnecessary but also amazing.
Everything changed the next day.
Both of them had terrible hangovers, for one. They woke up cranky and stressed about our travel plans to get them back to their apartments, one in Fort Wayne and the other in South Bend. We met up with a cousin for breakfast at a waffle house, thinking we would get on the road right after.
We almost didn’t make it. I was bewildered as to how things escalated so quickly but all of a sudden my two siblings got close to brawling right then and there, at the waffle house. I was crying, which made them fight harder as one blamed the other. I sent our young cousin home, who to be fair seemed calm and okay with eating her food while all of this was happening. Later after dropping my sister off I drove around south bend in a daze. I couldn’t stop sobbing. I didn’t understand how we could go from such sunny, lovely moments the day before to the heartbreak that was currently happening.
Nothing felt real.
That has always been my fear, that things aren’t real. Things that certainly FEEL real, like happiness, joy, contentment, or love, those things cannot be real the same way that my skin or this laptop is real. What feels firmly rooted in existence is this panic at my center. It is constantly threatening to overwhelm me. It makes me feel like I am full of tears and screams and I am just so SCARED. I truly don’t know how I manage to smile and walk around and do things.
I’ll tell you what hasn’t made this general anxiety any better, and that is all this fucking moving around. I don’t think I have gotten to stay in one place, school, or job for more than five years. I’ve been waiting for the time this stability would come into my life, and show me and everyone else that I am normal and okay. That was the epitome of the human experience for me, to be normal and okay.
I have been blessed with spiritual and deeply intellectual friends who empower me to find strength in every aspect of myself. In addition to this all of my favorite stories feature a hero that rises to overcome their obstacles, often through the thing about them that crippled them the most. I don’t yet fully know how to turn my lifelong anxiety into a superpower, but I am doing my best and moving forward! I do know that talking about it gets the healing going.
So that’s what I’ll keep doing. I’ll keep telling my stories and healing myself. Because it is only during the telling that I get to NOT feel the panic. Whatever form that it takes…could be poetry, jokes, a song, a movie. I will keep telling my stories.
I will keep telling my stories.