It started as a curious thought.
Wondering, what made a person insane, at what point was a person declared to be mad?
Was it a gradual descent or perhaps an ascent, like it is, when one gained weight, one day, you are slim, and it seems like the next, you are no longer able to zip up your jeans?
I wondered if it was like that.
The whole thing began when Father declared that his sister had gone mad and had to be sectioned and kept in an institution. I remember Aunty Bola, she had always been the eccentric aunty. Well, when I was young, I thought she was fun, she didn’t treat us like all the other adults did. She always encouraged us to play and talk to her and ask her random questions. Yes, her answers to some of the questions were also different. I remember when I asked her what it was about bread that made us eat it every morning for breakfast, and she said that it had to do with the colonial masters and the food they made us used to, and she went on to talk about how her grandmother used to only eat vegetables and drink herbs, ‘agbo’, she had called it. And then she went on to an explanation on the benefits of agbo, why it was no longer commonly used, and proceeded to serve me slices of bread with egg and baked beans.
I was slightly confused. Ofcourse, but it was better to be given long-winded explanations than the usual “I don’t know” “You ask too many questions” that my parents and other aunties had replied to, when I asked them questions.
Aunt Bola was so cool. But then, our visits to her house in Ikeja became rarer until we only went once a year at Christmas, daddy made us visit her on Boxing day, after we had celebrated the ‘normal’ Christmas with the rest of the family.
I only noticed that she was less bothered about things that had to do with tidiness. You know, she still ate well, but she didn’t really clean her house. Not like mum always ensured that ours was spick and span, to be ready for daddy and any of his many friends who came to have a drink most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and Mondays.
But then one day, daddy said she was going to the United Kingdom, to be taken care of, and then not long after that, he said, she was to be sectioned and put in a home. I tried to ask questions as usual, but I didn’t get any satisfactory answers.
I guess, you could say, that was the beginning of my curiousity into insanity. Or what humans term insanity. Isn’t it funny that there are no insane cats, or dogs, or horses or cows or sheep. And they were only termed insane when they had diseases, but then aunty Bola didn’t have a disease. So why was she mad? She wasn’t foaming in her mouth or stomping her feet everywhere. She was just unconstrained by the environment. She didn’t see the need to clean, didn’t see the need to dress all the time, she was always hot, and she sometimes started to laugh by herself. The joke was in her head. Sometimes, she danced by herself, to music she alone could hear. I found it fascinating.
So when it was time to go to university, I wanted to study psychiatry. I thought it would be interesting to know more about the minds of people we termed to be insane.
Daddy didn’t want me to study psychiatry. He always thought I should be an Engineer. Mum wanted me to be a Doctor, so I got mum on my side, by explaianing to her how I could upgrade to medicine, following my first degree in psychiatry. She seemed pleased with that explanation.
After my studies, I started to work in a research institute on mental health in Africa, wanting to find out more and to see how and why these people, especially in Nigeria were treated as substandard, simply because they didn’t feel like combing their hair, they walked about naked, they were just free. Then I started to wonder if we were the restricted ones, with our boxes for houses, always locked in, as though in jail, boxes for cars, again with doors, locked in, boxes for offices, boxes for worship, boxes for everything. Yet the animals roamed wild and free in the jungle, they didn’t have to move from box to box to box like humans, who are boxed everywhere, until we die and we are put in our final box.
I tried to have conversations along these lines with some of my friends, but the funny stares and the uncomfortable silences made me stop. Well, I didn’t stop, it just became that I wasn’t heard, I think. So I started to write furiously. All my thoughts, I wrote. I became the best researcher in the institute based on my productivity. My brain delighted in knowing more about this phenomenon. And then I started visiting aunty Bola in the institution. She was still alive and although she didn’t fully recognise me, she always welcomed me, and in the beginning, I could just about string some meaning from the things she was saying. But after a few months, she started making perfect sense to me.
I guess she wasn’t violent to me. She wasn’t threatened by me, because I accepted her and always brought her fresh flowers. She really liked the flowers. Then one day, she sang. And it was beautiful, so I asked for her to have a radio with a cd player, and I bought her some cds. And she played them, but then she scratched the cds and broke the radio, because it was a box. She wanted to be free. No boxes. Just sound.
From her inner being.
Then one day, I remember it clearly, only because I felt it so strongly, I started to dislike ‘society’, what with our rules, and rules and rules and more rules. I felt choked. And I wanted to dance in the rain, in the day time, on the streets, I wanted to speak, so I spoke to myself sometimes, and I still wrote furiously. And then gradually I felt less ‘boxed in’. I felt free. I felt like I just wanted to see the world easily. But I didn’t know how to communicate this clearly. So I started going for long walks, having conversations with strangers, sometimes with the trees, sometimes with myself.
Then after that, it became more and more normal to be less and less normal.
Until one day, while walking on the grounds of the institution, it occurred to me that these were my friends. I had no other friends. No one else invited me to their soirees. No more invites to weddings, or picnics or to the parks.
And so, I walked in, and asked for a room with my family.