Room 21 and My Session with Anthony Azekwoh

“Writing out our private talks with oneself enables a person to “see” what they think, a process that invites reflection, ongoing thoughtful discourse with the self, and refinement of our thinking patterns and beliefs.”
Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls

“What are you doing in mummy’s room?” Janet asked, her hands on her hips at the door of the room. “And on her bed?”

Emeka was cross-legged with a box filled to the brim with documents, diaries and loose papers in front of him barely glancing at his sister as he answered. “Reading.” He picked a journal, eyed the front, sighed and tossed it back in the pile. “Or looking for something to read anyway.”

Janet walked into the room with light footsteps. Her mum kept her things in a specific order. Everything in the room was arranged according to either size, colour, or shape. Her shoes on the rack near the door were kept in a falling cadence with the high heels at the uppermost top and flats at the bottom with everything else falling in between. She kept her jewellery in a box in front of the large oval mirror on the dresser, jewellery she arranged by size and what she called ‘flashiness’. Her books were arranged by colour, from red all the way down the rainbow. Wristbands, hairbands, everything had its space, its category.

Her room was always tidy, cleaned to perfection. Their mother never left a bed unmade or clothes unkept. From when they were young, they saw it, noticed it, lived it and when their father finally left, they were scared of it.

Janet crept to the bed and sat carefully with Emeka.

He was still searching for something. “Why do you always act like you’re sneaking around whenever you’re in the room?” He asked, this time looking at a stack of papers, then he shook his head and threw that back in.

“You know how she is,” Janet said, almost whispering, “she notices everything. If even one thing is out of place…”

Emeka laughed. “It’s really not that deep.” He said. “She has a…” He stared at the cover of a journal, hissed and dumped it back in the box. “System. She has a system for everything. If you know the system, you can always put things back as they were. Like her journals, they’re supposed to be arranged alphabetically but I think they’re arranged chronologically now. It wasn’t like this last month. Weird. She hardly changes the system.”

“We need to leave.” Janet said, tugging at her brother’s arm. “Now.”

“No.” Emeka said, dragging his arm back. “I need to find something I was reading from the las time I was here. Just because you’re two years older doesn’t mean you can boss me around, you know.”

“No,” Janet said, “I boss you around because I’m smarter than you and I know a lot more. Things like this are going to put us in trouble. She’ll soon be back from Ikoyi, you know she only spends 20 minutes in the bakery every Saturday.”

Us?” Emeka echoed, looking at her for the first time. “You can go anytime you want, I’m not holding you here. I don’t even want you here.”

“You don’t like to read.” Janet said with her arms crossed. “What’s the big deal about one of her journals?”

“I don’t like to read boring novels like the ones you read.” Emeka corrected. “Mum’s journals are really interesting.”

Janet cocked her head to the side.

“No, no really they are.” Emeka said, handing Janet a leather-bound green book. “Like this one, this was a session with a woman who thought she had superpowers.”

Janet eyed it carefully. “Well…”

“And this is about this one guy that almost threw himself off a building because he kept seeing his dead mother.”

“Uh…”

“Okay, it gets dark but you get the gist.” Emeka said, continuing his digging.

“Is this even allowed?” Janet asked. “For mum to write about her patients like this?”

Emeka shrugged. “Well, I know she used fake names and altered a lot of details except one…”

“And let me guess,” Janet said, climbing the bed again, “that’s the one you’re interested in.”

“Yeah, it’s the best one.” Emeka said, grinning as he dug deeper in the pile. “Basically, it’s about this guy, Anthony, who was going through a lot as a teenager, I guess and — ”

Emeka paused, squinting at the title of the journal and then he yelped in excitement. “Found it! Journal of the twenty first of March, 2018. ‘Session with Anthony Azekwoh’.”

“Woah,” Janet said. “2018? That’s… a long time ago.”

“Yup.” Emeka answered looking straight at her, eyes wide, grinning.

Janet rolled her eyes. “Ugh, we might as well…Let’s just be quick.”

***

I woke up at exactly 5:21 today, the same time I wake up on every other day. And I did the exact same things I did in the exact same order. I got up from the right side of the bed, right foot first on the floor and then I went to brush my teeth, counting the twelve steps it took me to get me to the bathroom, the same twelve it took me yesterday, and the day before that, and so on.

I brushed my teeth for four minutes and twenty-three seconds and had a shower. When it hit eleven minutes, I came out and dried myself, getting dressed as soon as it hit six am.

I liked the drive to the office, it was nice, calm, quiet and alone. Alone, yes it was alone. I’d been alone for such a while now, I could hardly feel it anymore. It felt normal, somehow. Comfortable.

I rubbed the bump on my stomach, well, maybe not completely alone.

I hated the traffic this morning, it crawled and moved and crawled and moved. It almost drove me mad. At the toll gate, I started taking deep breaths. Inhaled and exhaled. Stress was not the way.

I drove into the office gates by 7:15, 3 minutes later than usual and I felt my skin crawl, the headache slowly gnawing in my brain. A common statement told to people with the disorder is, if things aren’t done in a particular way, the world wouldn’t end. But that’s the thing, it felt like it would. It felt like the sky would crash down on my head as I left my car.

It felt like the whole earth was shaking along with my fingers, that my headache was corresponding with some volcanic eruption. My world felt like the world.

No, no, that wasn’t it.

I just couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

This was of course a residual coping mechanism that I’d developed from my childhood. My way of bringing order to an orderless home. Of course, it didn’t work.

I tried, though.

I entered the building and nodded to the secretary, it was a friendly nod. She returned it as I walked into the hallway and entered my office, Room 21.

It’s a nice comfortable small space. Bright colours on the walls with a ceiling fan I hooked a paper butterfly under so it swung along in the air. I turned on the lights and went to my workspace, my oak table and chair. Everything was where it was meant to be and I sat down and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long, he was always on time.

Almost always.

**

“Wait, wait,” Janet said, holding up her hands. “They’ve had other sessions?”

“Yeah.” Emeka nodded. “There are loads.”

“Then why do you like this one?”

Emeka sighed. “Maybe we could, I don’t know, continue reading and find out?”

“Oh, right, sorry.” Janet said, motioning with her hands. “Carry on.”

**

He staggered in like he always did, in faded clothes and tired eyes. He never slept well. His hair was rough, there had been absolutely no effort to corral it in. He didn’t care enough.

He slumped on the small sofa in front of me. I had patients who would lie down and make themselves comfortable. Or maybe slouch a little. But he never did, he always sat up like this was a kind of business meeting.

He looked around the room and then at me. This was how we did things, words weren’t spoken at first, it was like we were quietly sizing each other up.

And then he spoke. Anthony always spoke first.

“You’re pregnant?” He asked.

I smiled. “What gave it away?”

“You do things in this really weird way,” he said, yawning. “But lately, you’ve been…distracted, slipping. There are pills for morning sickness sticking out of your bag along with snack wrappers. Munchies.”

“Maybe I’m going through a phase.” I shrugged.

You don’t go through phases.” He replied. “I’ve seen you go through your schedule with malaria hooking its fingers into you. Only a child, your child, could make you disrupt your schedule like this. Oh and…” He said, bending down and showing me what was in his hand.

I smiled again. “I was wondering where that was.” I said, taking the pregnancy test from him.

“It was on the ground, just under the table when I came in.” He said.

And then, the silence rested between us like a purring cat.

He looked at me. I looked at him.

And I waited. I didn’t have to wait long, he always had something to say.

“Doctor,” he said, suddenly looking a lot older than eighteen. He was too young to have those heavy bags under his eyes. “Why aren’t I getting better.”

“Well — ”

“I keep coming!” He shouted, hitting his fist on his knee. “I keep coming and doing all of this talking and therapy but I’m not getting better. I still have the flashes, I’m still having these thoughts. Every time I try to form a meaningful relationship, it blows up in my face. I can’t write, I can’t paint. And even in the rare moments where I actually can, it’s nothing. Just empty. It has every flourish, every phrase, every brushstroke, every element apart from me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him. My notepad and pen were on the side of my table. I didn’t need them with him.

“I’m just…” he said, cupping his face in his hands. “I’m just not myself yet. My work is empty, pedantic, derivative, unoriginal and uninteresting. It’s boring, for God’s sake!”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I’m scared, hesitant. You can see it in my work. I don’t think… I don’t think…”

“You don’t think you’re good enough.”

“I’m not. I’m not good enough or smart enough or experienced enough. There’s this goal in front of me and I haven’t paid my dues so I don’t deserve it. I know I haven’t. I’m mediocre.”

“You told me once that one of the reasons you started writing was because you thought that you started writing because you thought it’d make your parents happy — no, not happy. Proud.”

“Yeah.” He said, staring right at me.

“Is that the case even now, five years later?”

“No, I don’t need their approval.” He said, “I’ve said this.”

“Oh yes you have,” I said, adjusting my glasses. “But do you want to know what I think?”

“I am kind of paying you…”

“You’re still trapped by old demons in new clothes. You don’t need your parents’ approval but now you crave the approval of other people you’ve put on that pedestal. You rush your work, put it out and expose yourself to that same old cycle because in so many ways, you’re still that thirteen-year-old boy in the dark, desperately, reaching, searching for the light.

“You want approval from strangers on social media or newbies in your debate club who you don’t really care about so you can somehow validate your existence. You want people to think you’re smart and confident and a prolific artist and writer because deep down, even you don’t know what you are yet and you’ve never bothered to find out.”

“Ouch.” He said, slouching a little on the sofa.

“I didn’t mean to offend you.” I said, taking off my glasses and wiping them. I hate it when they get fogged.

“I know.” He said silently.

“You say you do but your lack of confidence and love for yourself turns criticism for you into attacks. You don’t want to look like you’re wrong because it shatters the outer reflection you’ve put out of yourself which is in fact a lie. That’s not who you are. Not even close.”

“So, tell me, Doctor,” He said, with eager eyes, “who am I?” I could see in his eyes that he desperately wanted an answer, some kind of sign, some form of way that I, a human being, could give him the recognition another human being truly needed. A kind of reassurance of existence. A confirmation that he was truly a live.

But there are answers that I can’t give, and some, I can.

“Anthony, I’ll be frank with you, is that okay?” I asked.

He nodded his head. “Yes.”

“You don’t want to get better,” I said. “You don’t want to be a better person or artist or writer. You don’t want to be happy.”

He scoffed.

“I’m being serious,” I said, staring at him. “You’ve encountered a lot, that I have to admit. And you’ve been knocked around so many times that you’ve finally been beaten into submission and in truth, you’re scared to come back out. You self-sabotage yourself by putting the bare minimum effort in your work because you’re scared of what would happen if you put in your all. You’re scared that you’ll fail. Again. And it would make it even doubly painful because you’d say that at least that time, you did all you possibly could.

“Anthony, if you’re looking for someone to blame, I promise that you’ll always find someone. There is always someone at fault and you could spend a whole lifetime pointing fingers. You could be angry at your father, your mother, the school, I could go on forever. But you know as well as I do that these are just distractions, baggage holding you down. You don’t want to be happy or form meaningful relationships because as long as you’re in this state, you have an excuse. You get to have more things to blame. It doesn’t matter how many essays you write talking to yourself or paintings you make about what you feel is the human condition, if you don’t address these issues not just with force but with honesty, you’re going to be in this cycle for the rest of your life.”

I leaned forward. “I understand that you’re scared”, I said, “but you’ve been in the dark for so long, Anthony, don’t you think it’s time you at least tried to step, slowly, into the light?”

I —

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.