She’s Fighting To Hold On To Sanity: Itohan’s Aluta And Chill

December 26, 2019

Students in Nigerian universities have stories to tell, but hardly anyone to tell them to. For our new weekly series, Aluta and Chill, we are putting the spotlight on these students and their various campus experiences.

This subject of this week’s story is Itohan Esekheigbe-Joe, who is in her second year of university, studying English Language and Literature at University of Benin. She talks about fighting to be in control of her mental health.

Can you tell me about the moment you knew it was UNIBEN for you?

It wasn’t a “this-is-the-school-I’m-destined-to-be-in moment. It was more of an “I-want-to-get-far-away-from-my-parents” thing. My heart was actually set on University of Ibadan at first because nobody knew me there, but I woke up one day and decided that it wouldn’t be a good fit for me. Funny enough, the parents I was trying to run from suggested UNIBEN. It was a safe option for them because my dad is from Benin and we have family there. I thought why the hell not? I get away from you and bond with the rest of the family. Everybody wins.

How did you feel when it was confirmed that you would be leaving home as you wanted?

It was scary — a mix of overlapping emotions. I don’t think I had a second of sleep the night before I travelled. Luckily, my mum came with me and stayed in Benin for a few days to make sure I settled in. But she left, and it was all me from there.

Did you have an idea of what to expect?

You know how Nigerian parents can be; I was warned about cultists, against doing runs, about destiny snatchers…

Wait. Is destiny snatchers code for something?

No. Like literal ‘destiny snatchers’. The warning goes like “Don’t borrow people your clothes because the husband that was meant for you might see it on the girl who borrowed it, and she would snatch your destiny and marry your husband, and you’d be there doing your rounds at Shiloh every year while they live happily ever after.”

LMAO. That’s interesting.

I got a lot of information and warnings I didn’t ask for. But nobody told me what really mattered.

What’s that?

The damage this school thing can do. I was left to find all that out on my own. I got in to study English and Literature, which I actually love. But everything related to bagging this degree seems like a grand ploy to end my life.

When did you start to feel that way?

At the end of my first year, I think. I’m an only child, so my parents have extremely high expectations of me. I also have a really smart cousin. These two things put me under pressure, which is probably why I felt crushed when the results of the first-semester exam came out and I didn’t get the straight As my cousin got. It was at that moment I started to clock that my time here might be a long one.

Also, there is my department. The lecturers in my department boast that you cannot get a first-class. There is this urban legend – we call it that because it’s the one recurring story lecturers tell fresh students. It goes something like: “The first person who got a first-class degree in the English and Literature department died a few weeks later.” I don’t know what to make of that, but it seems like they’re saying if you graduate with a first-class, you’ve signed your death sentence.

That’s terrifying.

Yes, and mysterious. Nobody really knows the story. What I do know is that my department is all shades of fucked-up. There is this thing that happens at the end of the semester — usually a week or two before exams start — where the lecturers remember that they’ve not held the tests that are supposed to make up 30 % of the general assessment. That means back to back tests and assignments. I have a name for this week – Hell Week. It gets really overwhelming because you go to classes not knowing what to expect. Then, this week ends and the semester exams begin. It’s a whole lot. This is some of the information I could have used: the power the university system has over my sanity.

When did everything start to get really overwhelming for you?

First semester, 200 level. I’d been having a lot of bad days primarily because of how pretty much everyone wanted me to get my grades up. There was this day when my lecturers announced that we were going to write three tests before the day ended — my body system didn’t take kindly to this and I had my first panic attack since I got to school right there in class. I’ve had them a few times before UNIBEN, but they were never that bad.

That’s rough.

It can be at times, and anything related to stress and anxiety can trigger an episode. Everyone wants you to do better, but they don’t understand that you’re doing the best you can. So it feels like you have to sacrifice yourself to get the grades they think you should have and just cope with everything else —  panic attacks or not.

What happened after the first panic attack?

I clocked that this university was trying to kill me. In the midst of the attack, I realised that nothing really stopped for me; everyone continued with their life. For a moment, I thought I could actually stop caring and take the best care of myself, but man, that’s a hard thing to do. We’ve been brought up to care about stuff like this.  The attack, however, made me realise that my mental health was going to shit.

Were there other episodes?

Yes, there were. That was the first of many. Sometimes, they were so bad that I’d call my mum and cry over the phone.

Is there any way you’re handling all this?

I’m seeing a therapist; it was the next best thing to do.

Not everyone takes the step to see a therapist: when did you decide that you needed one?

After the panic attacks became frequent, I knew I had to talk to someone because I was slowly losing my mind. I hadn’t decided on a therapist at that point, though. However, I realised that the people I could talk to can’t really help me. I knew that because I had another full-blown panic attack. This one felt like it was going to rip my heart out of my chest. After I calmed down, I spoke to a friend and she told me to see a therapist. I listened and got myself one.

What does this cost?

A chunk out of my sanity at first, because it was difficult to suppress the part of me was convinced that I was crazy. Also, I had to hide where I was going from some people because I didn’t want to see them look at me in a certain way. For the money part: let’s just say it costs me money I would rather not be spending, but it’s fine.

How’s it working out?

Okay, I guess. We’ve figured out a bit about me. I’ve been diagnosed with moderate depression. Actually, she said I probably had that for some time, but coming to Benin brought it to the fore. She’s helping me work through everything, especially the anxiety bit. It should get better from here.

Also, this makes me think about the number of students that are depressed but don’t actually know partly because of the label and stigma associated with mental health. I used to think that having to see a therapist meant that I was crazy, but I’m not. If there is anything I have learned from seeing one, it’s that I’m everything but crazy.

Do you feel like other students are going through the same thing too?

Definitely. I see some of my friend’s notes, and I see tear stains on them. People actually cry when they read. This year alone, about 6 students have attempted to commit suicide in UNIBEN. That’s the number I have; chances are that there are more.

What do you think management across Nigerian universities can do to put this in check?

We should have more counsellors in school. Actual professionals students can actually talk to.  It would save a lot of lives. Students rely on their friends more than they should. For starters, these friends are likely not trained professionals. Also, they have their own demons to fight. Now, if the people in charge of the affairs of the university system can direct the students under their care to where they can actually get help, that could make things better. I don’t see that happening at the moment, but fingers crossed.

Fair.  You’re moving on to your third year, do you have an idea of how that is going to be?

It signifies that I’m close to graduation, and that’s something I’m looking forward to. I could use a break, but I’m trying to graduate by 20. I really want that for myself, so while I’m not sure what the next two years are going to be, I will have to survive it. The next two years shouldn’t be as bad as the last two, anyway. I know how to take care of myself better now. I’m learning how to take a pause and breathe when everything begins to get overwhelming.

How do you think your struggles with mental health has changed you?

Well, I didn’t need to see a therapist two years ago,  Now, I’m texting my therapist like ‘help me’. Make of that what you will. Before I came here, I had so much hope, so much steel, and determination, but this school has broken me, and now, I’m picking up the pieces and hoping to patch myself up. To be honest, I’m just trudging on, fighting to hold on to the bulk of my sanity. It’s a freaking war zone out here. But we locomote.

Can’t get enough Aluta and Chill? Check back every Thursday at noon for a new episode. Find other stories in the series here.

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