I drew the duvet up to my neck and sighed; not because I was tired or to welcome my much needed rest but it was in of anticipation of the mental onslaught soon to begin. Sure, the day had been hectic. My boss especially had been in a fit of temper throughout the day and he made sure he let me feel the full effect of his tantrum by making me work overtime. I was more than glad to spend extra two hours in a pointless meeting with tiresome dimwits called Ambassadors sent from the headquarters of the company where I worked. But the stress my body was going through now cannot be compared to the one my mind was about to go through and has been going through every night for months. Believe me when I say nothing is more annoying than having dark thoughts attack you at the very moment when you think you can finally escape your annoying boss, obnoxious clients, a frustrating car and the insane-driving battlefield called Lagos traffic.
I closed my eyes and sucked in a deep breath in an effort to relax into the soft bed. Soon, the silence overwhelmed me. A squeak from the air conditioner punctured the long stretch of silence. I slapped myself mentally for forgetting to call the electrician to check out the squeaking air conditioner. After the brief slapping and scolding session, I relaxed my body again. The silence waltzed in again, interrupted occasionally by the now-annoying squeaks.
How lucky was I, a lady of twenty-nine, to be able to afford a luxurious apartment in one of the quiet and coziest parts of the insane city of Lagos, Nigeria. All thanks to my topnotch Marketing Manager position at a multinational and multibillionaire company. I slapped myself mentally again, this time not to scold myself but in hopes that the slap would shut my loquacious mind up. If I could just remember what that Meditation website I had checked earlier in the day said about calming one’s mind. Oh, I got it! The website had suggested a breathing exercise. Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus on the breathing. In. Out. In again. Out. I felt my eyes get tired and sleepy in no time.
Finally, I thought.
I could swear that I heard someone laugh at that thought.
Then, the sleep-time visitors came in one by one. First was the memory of a burning house, my family’s burning house. The whole house was engulfed in flames, flames of fire that had killed my mother. As usual, each memory brought along with it what I named the Consequence Thought, C.T for short.
If that fire hadn’t happen… The burning house C.T started to scream in my head but was unfortunately interrupted by another memory. It was the memory of me running away from my father’s rented flat after his most severe beating. If only I hadn’t ran away that day…
The memories plus thoughts came in like a group of school kids marching into class after the morning assembly.
Me following the man who had offered me shelter even though common sense told me I shouldn’t. If only I had obeyed common sense…
Me screaming and clawing at the man as he forced himself on me. If only I had screamed louder…
Me tearfully agreeing to work for the man as a prostitute in exchange for a roof over my head. If only I hadn’t agreed…
Me falling in love with a certain customer that eventually rescued me from the brothel and sent me to school. If only I hadn’t fallen in love with him…
Me catching the lover boy red-handed with another woman and then breaking up with him. If only I had forgiven him and not break up with him, I wouldn’t be so broken, forsaken, lonely and unhappy. My past wouldn’t haunt me so much now. I’d probably be tucked away under my man’s arm having nothing to worry about apart from what to have for breakfast tomorrow– bread and eggs or yam and egg sauce, any ideas?
My legs started to feel heavy and achy where they laid. “Damn Restless Leg Syndrome,” I cursed under my breath.
The line of if-onlys lost their coordination like tyrant kids who got impatient of the slow assembly line. As they got just a minute short of driving me nuts, I shot out of my bed and scrambled to the dressing table. There on the table was my saviour, the almighty bottle of diazepam tablets capable of knocking the daylight out of me for a few hours. I quickly popped two tablets into my mouth—probably overdose but who cares– and drank some water I had specially kept on the table for situations like this. I should be able to get some sleep for some five to six hours.
I trudged back tiredly to my bed and collapsed face down on my pillows. If only humans did not need sleep, I wouldn’t have to be tormented like this every night.
I burst into the office lobby rather ungracefully. “Has he asked of me? Please tell me he hasn’t asked of me,” I begged the befuddled secretary. “No, the boss hasn’t asked of you.” Her initial confused look turned into a knowing smile. I wanted to sink into my knees but settled for raising up my hands to thank God for not letting my boss know that I came in late. I didn’t think I could handle any more of his tantrums today. Without wasting another minute, I rushed into my office.
Just as I sank into my leather swivel chair, the door opened again. It was my boss. “G—good morning, sir.” I almost fell out of my chair in an attempt to stand up to greet him. Honestly, that man scares me. He did not move from the door. God, he must be mad at me.
“You’re ten minutes late,” he had the look of a predator ready to pounce on his prey.
“I’m so very sorry sir. I—“
“Save it. You’re lucky I’m in a good mood today. The ABG Group meeting is in an hour. Be in the conference room thirty minutes before then.” He slammed the door shut after him. Did he just pull a quick one on me? How was I supposed to attend a meeting I had no prior information about?
My mouth was still hanging open when Juliette, my best friend and the branch’s head of Accounts strolled in. “Good morning home girl— OMG! What happened to you?” she stopped abruptly in her tracks. “You look like you got ran over by a truck.” She took her seat on the mahogany chair at the other side of the table.
“What is wrong with my face?” I felt around my face to see if anything was wrong but I could only feel my bare skin. “Good Lord, I forgot to make up this morning. I woke up very late so I had to rush cos I didn’t want to be late for work… oh my god! I have to fix this…”
Juliette sighed. “Relax girl. A pretty girl like you needs little or no make up to look okay every day. Well, that is if her eyes aren’t like a ghost’s. You look like you haven’t slept for months yet you tell me you overslept?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll just cover up the swell with a little make up,”
“Anyways, the team is having a little celebration for the closure of the Husgard deal later today at Amazing’s. I’m not with my car so you’ll be driving—“
“You know I don’t go to stuffs like that.” This was like the hundredth time she’d ask me to go to an office function and I’ve always declined. Juliette rolled her eyes. “Juliette please, don’t even attempt to push this. You know why.” I said in a pleading tone.
Juliette and I go way back to my university days and she is the only one that knows about my past. She knew that I would never accept to go out to any function whether official or not because I was afraid someone from my ugly days would see me and recognize me.
Ever since Effine rescued me from the prostitute business, I had sealed myself from any social outing. I went out of my house when it was absolutely necessary. My life was basically spent in solitude. Even after I graduated, got a job and started a new life afresh, I couldn’t convince myself to start a social life for fear that the past I pretended to have forgotten will catch up with me.
“Oh please, Toju. Spare me your whining this morning. And for your information, I don’t know why you don’t go to stuffs like that.” She said the last bit in a mocking tone.“Look, I don’t understand this, this shenanigans you’re doing anymore, Toju. I mean, when will you let go of the past and start living? Oh, you think you are living like this? You think holing up in your apartment, denying yourself of fun, not having a social life is living? Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, sis. You ain’t living. You are a walking corpse and today you look more the part.”
I winced at Juliette’s sharp words but she didn’t seem to notice. I looked at her agitated face. She was my best friend and all but she didn’t understand. She could never understand what I was going through. I barely survive the memories every night. There was no way I could survive bumping into physical reminder of those memories. I brought this upon myself with my stupid mistakes and I will suffer the consequences.
“I deserve this,” I whispered. “I—“
“No no. How many times do I have to tell you that all that happened wasn’t your fault? You know what, I’ve run out of words to convince you to let go of the past. So, as your best friend and the most awesome person in the world that I am, I have set you up an appointment with a psychologist—“
“What? I told you I don’t need to a psychologist.”
“I will have none of your complaints,” she said with a dismissal gesture, “The appointment is by ten o’clock tomorrow morning at Shalom Medical Centre and you’re not to miss it. You miss it and you lose a friend.” She said with a tone of finality. My mouth hung open. Juliette had never pulled this card on me before. She must be really serious with this.
“Have a good day.” Juliette stood up and strutted out of the office.
I needed more time to think but then I had an impromptu meeting to attend and a boss’ ass to kiss.
I ignored the Chandelier ring tune blaring from my phone. The phone had been ringing for almost two minutes. The guy was relentless, I’ll give him that. I had been ignoring his messages and calls ever since the first day he asked me out. I told him I wasn’t interested in going out with anyone but he didn’t seem to get the seriousness of my response. The phone stopped ringing. I hissed out of contempt. Heavens, he was starting to frustrate me. But I almost pitied the guy. He is interested in me because he doesn’t really know me. I am sure that if he got to know the real me, he wouldn’t think twice before losing interest. I mean, who would want to date an ex-prostitute?
I had met him when I handled a major sales deal with the company where he worked. The deal had been good and after it was sealed, he asked me to lunch. As expected, I declined. He hadn’t and didn’t stop asking me out on various occasions since then and my answer hadn’t changed.
I turned my car into the Shoprite supermarket parking lot. There was hardly any parking space left since it was the supermarket’s rush hour. I finally found a small space just big enough for my RAV4. I changed the gear to reverse and then reared into the parking space so that I could face the supermarket. I looked into the side mirror so that I could have a clear view of the side. It was then that I saw a dark figure lurking behind the car next to mine. I stopped the car at the sight of the figure. It was a man. He must have noticed that I was watching him because he quickly dashed away from the spot. My heart raced. Who was that man? Do I know him? Does he know me? Does he want to hurt me? Has he been following me?
After waiting for some minutes to see if the man would be back I cautiously stepped out of the car, my phone in my hand ready to dial the police emergency number. I wasn’t taking any risks. I walked briskly into the supermarket while looking around me for any sign of the man. But I did not see him. Maybe he was gone. Maybe he was just a beggar and I was worried for nothing.
Without much difficulty, I scanned through the supermarket and got the provisions I needed within fifteen minutes of shopping. I lugged the two heavy shopping bags back to my car, the man from earlier almost forgotten. I unlocked the car doors from the remote key in my hand and made to open the back door. Then I noticed the shadow of a man in front of me. I looked up to see the body of the shadow. It was the same man from earlier. I hadn’t seen his face earlier but now I could see his entire figure clearly. His scarred face was horribly familiar. I recognized his eyes immediately. Those eyes had roved the most secret parts of my body and soul. His calloused hands had held my throat threatening to snuff life out me hundreds of times. I stumbled back as the memories slammed into me. My shopping bags clattered to the floor, spilling their contents.
This was him, the man that I had thought was my saviour that unfortunate night that I’d decided I’d had enough of my father’s unwarranted beatings. He was the man I had followed against the alarm bell that rang in my head. I had been too starved and tired to heed any warning bell. He didn’t force me to follow him but I had done so, thinking that he would protect me in the scary neighborhood I had found myself. He had taken me to his small room, fed me and then stuffed a handkerchief into my mouth, overpowered me and used me more than once. He had kept me in that room for three months. He had forced me to agree to become a prostitute in his brothel. Well, his subtle threats hadn’t really give room for other options. I had been his prostitute for six solid years before Effine rescued me.
I looked at the man who had been the definition of hell for me. Heck, he was still my definition of hell. Something was different about him today. Yes, he had a slight stoop and he looked ragged. But a stoop and rag for clothes doesn’t mean he was less a threat. He had been angry as hell when Effine paid him to buy me off his brothel. He had even threatened that he would find me and take me back. Maybe he was here to fulfill his threat! My head reeled at the thought and I held the car for support.
How foolish was I to think I could really let go of my past and start a new life. I had tried everything I knew to make sure my past didn’t catch up with me. I didn’t do things that might remind me of the past, I didn’t socialize for fear that someone may recognize me, I denied myself a love life because Effine still hurt me and who would want an ex-prostitute? But now, the past that I had run away from had finally found me. And I was as powerless and terrified as I had been that time. Heck, I couldn’t fight this. After all, I was being paid back for my terrible choices.
The man took a step forward and I took two back. He stopped and opened his mouth. “Toju,” he called. At the sound of my name from his mouth, I pushed myself from the car and took off away from the man. I just needed to get away from him. I could still save myself if I could get away from him, I thought. But I didn’t take five steps before my stilettoes gave way. I hit the floor in nanoseconds and blackness engulfed me. Sweet, sweet, blackness.
My head ached terribly. I tried to alleviate the pain by massage my temples but instead I ended up irritating the bandaged wound on my head. Stinging pain shot through my head from the wound making me groan. It felt like a rock band was playing inside my head. My whole body was so weak that I couldn’t turn on the bed. My legs especially felt twice their size, the ache aggravated by the Restless Leg syndrome I had been diagnosed with two years earlier.
I had fallen pretty badly yesterday. Apparently, the man had disappeared immediately I fainted. It was some good passers-by who saw me passed out in the parking lot that took me to the hospital. The hospital people said I fainted as a result of shock but some rest would help me to recover. I refused to stay in the hospital overnight as was recommended by the doctor after my head injury was cleaned and bandaged.
The clock struck nine but I didn’t move a muscle from the bed. Or rather, I couldn’t move a muscle. I hadn’t slept a wink throughout the night and my body didn’t feel any rested. So, I called the office to let them know I was too sick to report to the office. This is my first time of missing work because of sickness. It’s so weird to have nothing to do on a good Wednesday morning. Or maybe I do. I massaged my aching head again, this time successfully avoiding the wound. Last night’s memory onslaught had been different and more severe than I ever had. And passing out yesterday in the middle of a middle lot wasn’t just because of shock. Perhaps it was time for me to get help.
After five minutes of reciting ‘I can do this’ in my head, I finally succeeded in getting my muscles to move. The task of getting up was more daunting than I imagined. I dragged myself to the bathroom for a quick shower. The cold shower woke me up some more. I found a simple chiffon dress in my wardrobe and put it on. I had no energy for make up so I fetched my sunglasses from the drawer to cover my still swollen eyes.
“Now, where did I put that complimentary card Juliette had forced into my hand yesterday? Ah, there it is on the table, just some centimeters away from the dustbin,” I murmured to myself.
Cooking breakfast was out of it so I took my car keys, locked the apartment and drove half-mindedly to Shalom Medical centre.
I looked at the two-storey entrance block of the hospital and instinctively whirled back towards my car. There was no way I was going into that hospital to tell someone that my past mistakes were haunting me and I needed help. What would the person think of me? Would the person judge me? Scold me? Or even worse pity me? I hated pity more than anything in the world. Someone like me did not deserve pity for my predicament. I totally deserve this for being so foolish. Pitying me was like encouraging my foolishness. But then, I really needed help. As I was, I knew I was on the verge of going mad and I didn’t want to go mad just yet. Juliette had said the psychologist would find a solution to the memory assault and maybe also help with my guilt. I definitely needed help with the guilt part. I turned back to the entrance of the hospital again. What’s the worst that could happen?
The receptionist at the Out-Patients area directed me to another building behind the entrance block. There, another receptionist confirmed my appointment. Thankfully, I was right on time. I walked solemnly to the doctor’s office while chanting ‘I can do this’ in my head. After a thousand and one footsteps, I reach the doctor’s door and knocked. A pleasant voice asked me to come in from the inside. I opened the door and enter into the office.
I am so going to regret this, I said in my head.
I stared back at the psychologist who had earlier introduced herself as Doctor Remi. I could hear my ragged breathing above the utter silence. My chest was heaving. Drops of sweat ran down my face in spite of the running air conditioner. What was wrong with the woman? Does she even know what she is doing? I have just told her the story of my life and all she can do is stare at me? Or was my story too pathetic? Was she trying to judge me? Or she was trying to find the right words to say that my situation cannot be helped?
I wanted to scream for her to say something, anything. The silence was becoming unbearable and my temper lapsing. I shifted uncomfortable on the chair. Then she smiled. Anger boiled in my stomach. Was she making jest of me? I opened my mouth to ask her but she cut me short. “How do you feel?” she asked. I looked at her like she just asked me if being a prostitute was a fun profession. This was definitely a bad idea. I won’t let Juliette hear enough of this. “How do you feel?” she asked again. I pursed my lips. I could just leave the office—or I could stay and see where this goes. “I feel angry. Very very angry.” I replied.
“Are you kidding? I just told you how I made so many mistakes in my life that now I can’t lead a peaceful life. Of course, I’m angry at myself.”
She nodded twice. “Good. Very good.” I looked at her incredulously. Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s crazy.
“It’s very good that you are angry. That means that you are allowing yourself to feel. And letting yourself feel your emotions is a sign that you’re ready to heal.” Now, she was just spouting nonsense. But in spite of the balderdash she was saying, I couldn’t get myself to leave the room. Truly, it’s been long since I let myself feel angry at myself. I’d always pushed down the anger thinking that eventually it would go away. But I don’t think the anger ever really left.
The doctor consulted the small jot pad she had been taking notes in. She looked up again. “From what I have here Toju, I would say that you are struggling with what we call Self-Conviction.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Self whatnow?” I asked.
“Self Conviction,” she repeated,
“You see, self conviction is when one shows by one’s own words or behaviour that one is guilty of an error or crime. Like when you believe that you are guilty of something judging from you own knowledge or experience.”
My confusion must have shown in my face. “Let me break it down for you. You believe that running away from your abusive father was a mistake, right? You should have stayed with him and endured. Then, you wouldn’t have fallen into the hands of the sex trader, right? I nodded. She was absolutely right. Maybe this was going somewhere good. “Now, what you’ve done by pronouncing yourself guilty from your own actions is what we call Self-conviction. No one told you that what you did was a mistake. You deduced that yourself, right?” I nodded again. “So do you understand what I mean by Self Conviction now?”
“And are you ready to deal with it? Are you ready to face it and be able to move on?”
“I want to move on. Yes”
“Good. We are off to a good start. Like I said earlier, it’s good that you can feel your anger. From what I have here, you have been keeping your emotions, storing them up, ignoring them all this while.” Hmm, so she had been attentive. Well now it was time for me to listen to what she had to say. “Avoidance tends to be the easy and most preferred way but it is not the best way of dealing with emotions. We tend to think that avoiding our emotions or choosing not to deal with them will make them go away eventually. But it’s the opposite that actually happens. Think of your mind as a balloon. Now, you are pumping air into this balloon and it’s expanding. It gets to a point where the balloon reaches its limits. If you keep pumping air into it, the balloon will eventually burst, right? So it is with the mind when you fail to deal with your emotions. When your psychological system reaches its limits where it can no longer store up any more emotions, it finds ways to dispel the emotions without your conscious effort, or approval so to say. Some people go straight into depression because they’ve been keeping too much negative emotions. Some other people experience sudden outburst of sadness, anger or any other emotion.
However, this sudden outbursts or whatever reactions does not mean that the emotions are dealt. It just shows that the pent up emotions are getting active. In some rare cases, these emotions announce their activeness by subconscious reliving. You continue to relive events that trigger these emotions as a way of dealing with them.
“Is this why I have the memory onslaught? Because I have been avoiding feeling my emotions?”
“Yes. And those thoughts that follow the memories are part of a mechanism your mind has developed to justify your reason for holding on to the past events. You’re always like if X hadn’t happen, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this. I caused X to happen, so I deserve this suffering, right?”
“Exactly.” She totally gets me, ha!”
“Hmm. Does blaming yourself to justify your situation help you to come to terms with the situation?”
“It never does. Let us analyze the logic. You blame yourself to justify your actions. You try to justify your actions to make you feel better. At the end of blaming yourself you do not feel better. So is laying blame on yourself actually necessary?”
“There you have it. Blaming yourself is of no use at all. Instead, it only cause more damages to your mental health and prevents you from moving on in life. Eureka!” I watched the doctor smile as she analyzed my mind. Accepting her logic means to accept that I’ve been lying to myself all these years. This was a hard pill to swallow.
“Toju, what if I told you that even the blame you have been laying on yourself is misdirected?”
“How do you mean? I was the one that made those choices. I chose to run away…”
The doctor smiled at this. “No, Toju. You were not given an explicit choice in all those situations. What should you have done instead of running away? Stay until your father beats you to death? That is not exactly a logical choice. And the strange man you followed? You were twelve, hungry, scared and hopeless. He offered you everything you wanted and you trusted him. Should you have stayed in the uncompleted building and risk being assaulted or killed by dangerous men of the night instead of following the promise of safety? Again, you didn’t exactly have a plausible choice. Choosing not to follow the man would have meant choosing to die. You wouldn’t have chosen that. I wouldn’t have if it had been me! All the choices you think you had were not realistic. They would have led to something worse. Deep inside you, Toju, in your heart of hearts, in your mind of minds, you know this. But you choose to justify your situation with an explanation that seem most acceptable to you.”
That did it. That last statement was the last straw that broke my camel’s back. I broke down in tears. I could feel the doctor’s eyes piercing my soul and telling me that I know she is right. She was telling the truth that I had adeptly ignored all these years.
“If you truly want to let go and move on, you must realize that what happened to you was out of your control. You must shed the burden of self-condemnation you’ve put on yourself. You must realize that you do not always have control of your life. Some things are out of your reach as a human. They happen and there is no darn thing you can do about it. That is NOT your fault. Hear me, NOT your fault.” She reached over the table to grab my shaking hands. Then she gave them a comforting squeeze. She waited until I finished crying my heart out before she started again; with a tone I imagine a mother would use to pacify her child. Not that I have any experience in that area though.
“When I met with your friend Juliette, I knew that I wasn’t going to deal with your case in the orthodox way. I knew you needed some hard truth, not some psychological advice or straightforward therapy. Look at me, Toju,” I raised my tear-stained eyes up to hers. “You are not giving yourself what you deserve. Even those who make actual mistakes in their life deserve second chances. You deserve to live a normal life. You deserve to be able to go out for office functions without worrying. You deserve to answer a cute guy’s call. You deserve to be able to say yes to that prospective guy asking you out. You do not deserve to live your life in solitude, pain and regret. You do not deserve to remain powerless and scared of those who hurt you. You deserve to be a strong woman of your own definition. You cannot let your past define and dictate for you.
You have to realize three things, Toju, if you want to get past your weak self. Firstly, nothing can be done to change the past. So accept it. Secondly, mistakes are unavoidable part of life. What matters is learning from them and coming out stronger. Lastly, you have done everything to make things right.
“Now wipe your tears,” I did as she said. “You are going to do something for me now. Close your eyes. Have you done that? Good. Now, visualize how it would be if you let go of your pain and anger. Imagine how your life would be if you didn’t hold on to the past.”
I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the previous day without the influence of my past. I would have had a good night rest and not get to work late. My boss would still freak me out but not as much. I wouldn’t have looked like a zombie from a terrible horror movie because of lack of sleep. Juliette wouldn’t be so mad at me for always refusing to go to office functions. We probably would have gist about the latest fashion designer in town. I would have answered that guy’s call and maybe get myself a fun evening out. That man wouldn’t have scared me to the death and I wouldn’t have passed out disgracefully in the parking lot. The imagery felt like a stress free day. The feeling was good, nice even.
I didn’t know I had started smiling until I opened my eyes and saw the doctor smiling back at me. “Nice. Isn’t it?” she asked.
“Very nice,” I agreed.
“I know this might be a little overwhelming and sudden for you. The process of letting go of the past does not happen at once. You have to work at it step by step. However, I’m afraid our allotted time for today’s session is far spent. But I would love for you to come back for another session tomorrow. You’ll need a couple more sessions but we can sort that out if you come back tomorrow.”
Disappointed as I was, I agreed to return the following day. I picked up my bad and walked out of the psychologist’s office, feeling better than I had been in years. I owe Juliette one for this. As I got to the door, the doctor called out to me. “A little assignment for you. When you get home, I want you to sit down and let yourself feel all those bottled up feeling. Imagine those feelings as a very big ball. Then toss it out your window. Okay?” I nodded in response. “It’s gonna be hard but I know you can do it.”
That day, I got back to my apartment, laid on my bed and let out the hurt, pain, anger, guilt, disappointment and betrayal of the past seventeen years just as the doctor had said. It was hard not directing the anger at myself. It was hard to accept that I had been punishing myself for nothing all these years. It was hard to forgive myself, my father, Effine and the sex trade man. It was hard to forgive life. But I knew it must be done if I must be acquitted in this self conviction. I knew it was necessary for me to forgive and let go so that I can finally move on and live the life that I deserve. After I was done rolling up the ball of emotions, I tossed it out of my bedroom windows. Maybe I didn’t succeed in dealing with all my guilt but at least I have taken the first step to healing.
That day, I didn’t need diazepam to knock me out. The tiredness from crying so hard knocked me out fairly well. My Restless Leg Syndrome thankfully did well to be absent for the day. That day, I slept dreamlessly for the first time in years.
That day marked the day I started the journey to a new, peaceful, well-deserved and gloating Juliette lfe.
For more information about the subject of Learning to Let Go of the Past, visit psychcentral.com
For more information about Self-Forgiveness, visit www.inc.com/rhett-power/master-self-forgiveness-with-these-5-questions