His phone rings on the coffee table where he abandoned it, and he stiffens. It’s an accident that he is here now, in the same room as his phone when it goes off. All he wanted to do was fetch his headphones where he forgot them, and usually, for the last few months at least, he only found his phone at night, LED blinking with notifications for missed calls and un-replied chat bubbles. Usually, he replied the IMs with wit and patent excuses, but the calls he mostly put off for later, never-ending tomorrows. A vicious cycle.
The phone keeps ringing. He reaches for it, and heaves a sigh when he sees the three-digits flashing onscreen: it’s only a mobile-network service provider calling to sell its customer on endless promotions and discounted packages that invariably made phone usage more expensive. The intensity of his relief at this surprises him, giving him pause, long enough to acknowledge that he had been avoiding his phone, and in effect, his friends, contacts, and relatives.
It occurs to him that, generally, for months now, he had been avoiding people, and that the only engagements he didn’t find terribly tasking was with his family. Theirs was the only company he’s truly enjoyed in a while. Sure, he’s had to meet with people over this period, some of them friends, but those meetings and hangouts had a deliberateness to them, followed fierce deliberation: getting in and out of clothes, convincing himself that he was late, it’d be too late when he arrived, that he wouldn’t make it. He was mostly his usual sarcastic, cynical, caustically-humorous self at such rendezvous, but this is because he puts himself in the frame of mind where he can be the version of himself that’s known and loved, sometimes, by people, friends; he, basically, plays himself, and it’s hard to imagine that his otherwise natural inclinations, these executions by which he is identified, would be physically and emotionally draining to the point of torture, but it is. He sidles quickly into his alter-ego at these meetings to protect himself, but his armour is thinned, worn, and the blow of every forced laughter, every riposte contrived long before it’s required, reverberates long after the charades are down. He’s regressed to the point where his alter-ego is no more the strong, fun, flirty flipside to his calculated, shy, brooding self; where switches (that had been mastered so long they had become involuntary) in behavioural patterns, habits, and idiosyncrasies had a more fundamental advantage than making him more multi-layered and interesting. Now his alter-ego surfaced to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to be a shield, which, come to think of it, was the reason it was developed in the first place.
He has a problem, one which he can’t put a name to. He has always been depressive, has known that for a long time, even when he didn’t have a name for it, but this is different, more overwhelming, imperceptible, even to the people who know him best. He thinks: misanthropy, but this doesn’t feel like it, the image the dictionary definition evokes; this feels more insidious, complex, compound, a growth in his stomach he hadn’t been aware of until too late, and a lot of it is fear: irrational fear; a hint of claustrophobia when the lights are out and the darkness closes in, dread of the outdoors, which he puts down to the tropical sun; fear of the inventive deaths he creates for himself in his mind. Something faceless has taken over him that goes beyond his tendency to push people away when they start to get too close, when he starts to care too much.
Strangely, however, his social-media activity has increased exponentially within this period. He’s made a lot of new “friends”, people whom he’s never met offline, who don’t know what he’s about, the ones with whom he has, for history, clicks and likes, glowing commentaries on pictures and status updates; these are the ones who interest him more these days, and, even so, only in small doses.
Sometimes, he wants to talk about it: these feelings, these thoughts running through his head, but most times he doesn’t, because embedded in the desire to talk is the anticipation of reactionary irritation, exasperated impatience, lack of understanding and dismissal, which would hurt. He’d be told how good he has it, how thankful to God he should be; he’d be told of people who, supposedly, have it worse, as though the fact that there are starving children in Somalia, terrible things happening to good people in far-flung places, makes his pain less, irrelevant, insignificant in the light of comparison. He’s thought to see a shrink, but then he would be paying for compassion, and he can’t conceive of anything worse. And there’s the question of what he’d say, how he would explain these changes taking place within him. Can he break it down to digestible terms others can understand, especially as the emotions are all so complex and confusing? And even if he could, did he really want to? Why did he feel possessive of this dark thing gnawing his insides, like, at the end of the day, it is something he cannot and doesn’t want to share?
It’s also a problem that at home with his family, most of the time, he is genuinely happy, and when he laughs, he really laughs; that with his friends, when he smiles, they really can’t see the chinks.
He has a problem, but in thinking about it, he feels dissociated from it, removed from himself; an emotionless analysis, empirical collation of data.
He’s always liked danger —at least his alter-ego does —did —but of late he’s been taking less calculated risks (for the adrenaline, timing his dash across a busy expressway to the point when he would certainly be crushed by an oncoming vehicle if he lingers a second too long), if at all. Now, what he does is make grave mistakes, like tripping on his own foot and almost falling in the path of an oncoming Mack trailer.
For some reason, he reaches for his phone, and streams, for the umpteenth time, Monica Lewinsky’s TEDTALK video, “The Price Of Shame”. This video – the emotions described during its twenty-something minutes runtime – is something he can relate to, feelings he can understand; variance in perspective and context, no doubt, but no less relatable, and in his mind, personal.
I can’t be the only one who feels like this, he thinks; I’m not the only one. But there’s no comfort to the thought, and so he turns to the music: it soothes, at first, but like all expressive media, there are a wide range of emotions in the scores, and a few songs into his playlist, he hears the chords of despair. It becomes too much.
He feels isolated in a crowd, lonely, even when he’s not alone, and it’s a feeling he loathes but treasures, because anything is better than your judgment.
Do you know him? And if he opens up to you about the things he can’t define, describes to you the feelings you can’t transcribe, would you listen with compassion, would you hold his hand…?
There. I didn’t think so.
Written by Chiedozie Dike