Many reasons are given why we should not pray. Others give reasons why we should pray. Very little is said of the reason we do pray. The reason is simple: We pray because we cannot help praying.
— William James

I was told later on that for most families, the battles on Sundays took place at church in the form of supernatural battles between the said person and a malevolent force. In my house, however, the battles took place even before we left and they were mostly between my mother and me.

Every Sunday morning, it would roll out like a play we had previously reversed, both of us playing our parts to perfection.

She’d enter I and my brother’s room after she had woken up my sister, and tap him, waking him up and then stare above my sleeping body shaking her head.

“Tony, I know you’re not sleeping.” She would say, most likely with her hands on her hips, her eyes settling on my eyelids, trying to spot any imperceptible movement.

I’d mumble, feigning sleep and she’d throw the blankets off me, knowing that even if I was awake, the cold of the AC was too much to bare without adequate protection. No one even knew where the remote was anymore.

Then she’d leave slamming the door with an unsaid threat. Dress up by the time I’m back.

At this point, the director was meant to call, ‘Cut!” and we, the cast, were then supposed to go and have breakfast, discussing how we could take the act further, role changes etc.

I was about fourteen, fifteen at most when I just didn’t want to go anymore. We were Catholic and the masses weren’t that annoying, it just suddenly felt like such a waste of time. I used to think that the two-hour masses were long until while discussing the whole church thing with one of my friends who was a hard-core protestant, I found that maybe I should have been spending the mass time thanking Him that two hours were all we got.

“Four and a half hours? For a service?” I asked. “Like, one service?”

And then, there was the headache after the mass. It’s like everybody above the age of 30 after seeing each other every other Sunday, suddenly chooses that time to catch up. By the time my mother would get back to the car after telling us she would ‘be back soon,’ I would already have a full beard with two Master degrees.

She wanted to throw me out of the bed, fighting tooth and claw to get me in the car, both of us knew she could. But the truth as, for how long? Could she really be bothered every single Sunday? She would have called my father to support her and launch a full out civil war but he doesn’t go either so it was a lost cause.

Sunday mornings were then spent in awkward silences between both of us, eating breakfast without saying a word. I got a feeling that I was intruding somehow, that these Sunday mornings were his and by staying back, I was trespassing in this unsaid way.

I remember when, out of curiosity, I asked him why he didn’t go to church. This was a question that had sat on the minds of me and my siblings ever since we were old enough to speak and by asking the question as the eldest of the three, I was going into uncharted lands.

This was meant to be one of those moments punctuated only by the stares we would give each other as he answered, and I would forever lord the knowledge above the others, reminding them at every turn that no matter how hard they tried, I would always be the chosen one. Sure, Peter was cute, and Rita was helpful around the house, but these were all empty aesthetic things, I was about to uncover The Secret, proving once and for all that I was in charge. I leaned forward in anticipation as he answered, waiting to finally know what we had been waiting for.

“Hm,” he said, in between bites of his bread and egg staring at me playfully, “Well, why don’t you go?”

I never asked him again.

That was the funny thing, I guess, the fact that then and mostly, even now, I don’t have a straight answer and he knew that. And in a way, I feel maybe, neither does he.

My mum finally threw in the towel, declaring that, ‘Salvation is a personal journey,’ and I always respected my parents for their being able to allow their children explore other religions and belief systems. Though, every now and then, my mother still gives a good fight for the home team.

It was fitting, I guess, that around this same time, I was having what pastors in MFM would have described as demonic thoughts. I was sure it wasn’t a spiritual thing, though.

Ninety-nine percent sure.

Maybe, a strong eighty.

My home wasn’t perfect, like most Nigerian homes, and my parents, I feel, had a lot of baggage they themselves were still unpacking. Sure, it was screwed that they threw some of the anger at their children, but in a weird way, as I got older, the hate simmered down into this kind of sad understanding of where they were coming from.

It was like every day, I would break down into this pit of sorrow and self-pity, honestly and truly hating my life and everything I was. Then, they became worse, progressing into thoughts of self-harm and suicide. Things like this, in a community where mental health isn’t really prioritised, are very hard to talk about. I mean, very very hard to talk about. I even tried talking a doctor a few months ago and couldn’t even get my sentences straight enough to pass a coherent thought.“Well…you see… I have these uh… yes, yes… headaches… yeah, I think I’ll just get paracetamol.”

Even now, three years since they started, I don’t even refer to it as depression. To me, it’s just that thing that happens. Calling it depression seems strange on my tongue, like I’m appropriating someone else’s struggle. But then, I won’t see a medical professional to get diagnosed, so it’s this vicious catch 22 of self-loathing.

After years of conditioning, I actually thought that maybe this was how everyone felt. That the swings, the sleepless nights, the thoughts, were all part of the human life package. But apparently, they’re not. “So, wait, you’re saying you can go a whole week and not break down because you hate yourself? Not even one?”

Recently, though, it got worse and I wasn’t even able to write and paint for weeks or even months at a time. Painting is a relatively new thing I’m learning so that wasn’t so heart-breaking, but writing? I had been writing for so long that it was more of an emotional exercise than a technical one. I used to look at people when they’d describe Writer’s block in a strange way because that was how absurd it was for me. Not being able to write, how? Like, you just, you know, do it.

This was until, suddenly, I didn’t even want to look at my laptop anymore, for weeks or even months at a time, the words that were once my friends, left me for better writers. It was disconcerting, not being able to write. Without this, what even was I? I would have to search for a new identity and conform to any one of the other labels available for seventeen-year olds.

I could maybe be one of those smoker guys? But then again, my acute asthma was in the way. Or maybe I could try drugs but there was a deep fear buried in me for anything not prescribed to me by a doctor. If I was like this without weed, only God knows what I would be like when I was high. Being a skater dude was tempting but then again, my face had met concrete so many times that skateboards and the devil were spoken of in the same tone with me.

I thought of music, or even academia. But that was the thing, I didn’t even want to do anything, I just wanted to lie there, and just, I don’t know, sleep?
There were darker nights when I was sixteen that I just wanted to end it all, it really wasn’t worth it, I thought. And then I’d stare at Peter as he’d gently move in his bed while he was sleeping. How could I do that to him? Making him stand over his own brother’s grave?

It felt like limbo. I couldn’t kill myself but living wasn’t exactly a trip either.
I always feel like a fraud, somehow, talking about Atio, while I wasn’t even open about my mental health or how I was coping. If we really want to start a conversation about mental health, like any dialogue, I think it has to start with someone saying something, anything really, even if it’s a very long essay that no one may actually read.

There was a day, though, when I was younger, and as a surprise, I saw my father, in church! I remember being so surprised seeing him there. It was also weird, like seeing your teacher at a strip club. I follow my mother to church, sometimes, not because of anything in particular but just because I know that no matter how anti-faith anyone may appear to be, we all fall back on something when the pressure of the lives we’re living gets too much, when all else fails and we’re left with just our beliefs that look so tiny in contrast to our problems.

And then, the director yells, ‘Cut!’ and the curtains close.

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.