Words can banish our ghosts

There’s just something about poetry.

During my Sunday evening hunt for a spark of inspiration for this column, my hand, as if magnetised, instinctively gravitates towards the section of my bookshelf that holds my treasured poetry anthologies.

Anis Mojgani’s The Feather Room is the first book to notice me. “Write about grief,” it seems to say. Too painful, too open, too raw, I respond.

Don Mattera’s Azanian Love Song is the next to invite me into its pages. “Write about the land. Write about how South Africans are still hurting because we’re all still so haunted by the past,” it suggests. Won’t that be too impersonal? A column on mental health can’t begin on such well-trodden, rocky political ground.

Books like Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé playfully ask me to explore the constant pressure to “slay” as a young black femme, and others such as Sizakele Phohleli’s letters to cinnamon and Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language tempt me to write about my sexuality. Chrystos’ In Her I Am seems to agree, winking in the corner of my bookshelf.

Eventually, I stumble upon a poem by José Olivarez, a Mexican poet based in Chicago. The last few stanzas of a poem entitled “my therapist says make friends with your monsters” are the sparks that rouse me.

My therapist says I can’t

make the monsters disappear

no matter how much I pay her.

All she can do is bring them

into the room. So I can get

to know them. So I can learn

their names. So I can see

clearly their toothless mouths.

their empty hands, their pleading eyes.

Olivarez asks me to remember the first time I went to see a therapist.

I was 16, secretly wrestling with a force that pulled me into a murky and bottomless sadness. I was in grade 10, excelling in all of my chosen subjects, adored by my favourite teachers and surrounded by a group of vibrant, supportive friends. I had an endlessly loving family. I told myself that I should be happy, that I should be grateful.

But I had a spectre at my back — an ominously shapeless pressure that whispered to me that I wasn’t enough. This persistent presence lay with me in bed at night, wordlessly communicating that I was unworthy of all the light and the love in my life. I called her my ghost, claiming her with a kind of ambivalent intimacy, because part of me wanted to believe her.

Another part of me knew that something wasn’t quite right, so I booked an appointment with the first therapist available at the clinic nearest to our house. I think I expected something like a scene out of The Sopranos, but somehow magically accelerated. I’d walk in, sit down, cry, confess and be fixed.

But when I sat on the patchy orange sofa at the centre of my first therapist’s office, I struggled to find the words to describe my ghost. I was embarrassed to reveal something confusing and shameful to this quiet white woman staring at me expectantly, gently blinking at me in her flowing purple dress.

I wanted to speak in my language; I wanted to tell her about my emerging, confusing, violently blossoming queerness; I wanted to tell her what it felt like to be young and black at a prestigious private school, walking the treacherous tightrope of achievement, belonging, assimilation and resistance.

I wanted to show it all to her, so she could fix me. I needed her to fix me.

Instead, I promptly gathered the fluffy, crumpled balls of tissue from the sofa, and walked out without saying a word. My sister, who had accompanied me for moral support, patiently sitting outside the office in the empty waiting room, blinked her surprise at seeing me emerge so soon. We drove home that day in silence.

I didn’t return to therapy until my final year of university. By that time, the ghosts that I carried had quietly multiplied, their voices pressing into my ears at a nearly unbearable 

In the winter before my final year, I had been sexually assaulted in my family’s home by a close friend who was staying with us for the holidays. When I returned to university, I cloaked myself with a deep denial about what had happened to me. So much so, that I found myself in the same class as my abuser. It would be okay, I reminded myself. All I had to do was endure.

One day, close to the end of the semester, I blacked out after class on my way back to res. I booked an appointment with the only campus sexual assault counsellor, whose waiting list was more than a month long. When I finally sat on her sofa (a dappled forest green this time), I spilled every detail of my story, every sensation hiding in my skin, every flashback, every nightmare. When I had exhausted myself, I looked at her accusingly, angrily posing questions that I’d harboured since I’d entered her well-lit office.

“What good will talking about it do? How does that change what happened to me? How does that change anything?”

Words seemed futile against the might of an abuser who used their gender, their race, their immense social capital and their personal access to hurt me.

I thought that I was broken, weak and pathetic because I wasn’t strong enough to endure their mere presence in my political science class.

My therapist put down her notepad, and gifted me with words that I carry with me every day — words that guide the curation of this edition on mental health.

“Our strength isn’t measured by what we can withstand or endure. Sometimes, it’s braver to fold, to give in and collapse. It takes strength to be vulnerable, to find words for the unsayable. There is power in words. Sometimes words are everything.”

After this first session, I found the words and the strength to tell my professor about my abuser’s presence in the class, and its effect on my wellbeing. She believed me. By speaking up and finding words, I saved my own life.

The articles in this edition are made of powerful words. Some are meant to provoke, explore and unveil, and others hint at the unsayable and struggle to articulate the ghosts that plague our minds — and our society.

This is what arts journalism does so well, I think. It bustles at restrictions, courts the subversive, interviews the bold, and pursues the transgressive to get at the power of words. Like a form of public therapy, art asks us to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, in the hope that the ghosts that rule over our lives eventually lose their insidious control over us. 

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