You first started hearing voices your sophomore year at NYU the week before mid-terms. Your anatomy class had given you heart palpitations. You needed to bring your C minus up to at least a B to avoid losing your scholarship, so you’d taken NoDoz to stay awake and study because Starbucks wouldn’t cut it for the all-nighter you had to pull.
“Da anch we kill maskita.” The voice spoke in Krio. You’d blinked and shrugged it off, blaming the NoDoz for playing tricks with your mind.
The voices came again at finals during your English exam. “Dotty Columbo, pas go was!” You’d massaged your temples and squeezed your eyes shut, willing yourself to focus. You’d sensed rather than seen your professor staring at you. Felt her presence hovering over you, and when she touched your arm and asked if you were okay, your right hand had flown to her left cheek on reflex. “Bitch, get the hell away from me!”
You’d dropped out of college the following week, too embarrassed to defend yourself at the expulsion hearing.
The voices came more frequently after that – weekly, sometimes even daily, always in Krio. Random phrases about random things: Tu pɔsin nɔ fɔ tinap na domɔt. Pᴐsin we nᴐ de tot lod no nᴐ se lod ɛbi. Mummy found a doctor who gave you a prescription that muted the voices. Then she suggested a “change of scenery.”
So now, you’ve been in Freetown for almost three months, but the voices are back, and you can’t even enjoy watching the pink hibiscuses from the verandah without the neighborhood children snickering and pointing at you.
You’ve been flushing your meds down the toilet because they make you feel like a zombie. When you hear voices, at least you feel alive.
In America, mummy worked two and a half jobs and was never home. In Freetown, your grandmother, aunt, and uncle constantly monitor you. You overhear them talking about you now in the kitchen. Concerned that the neighbors are whispering, saying that they think you might be a witch. Or that maybe you read the Seven Books of Moses. They say the same thing happened to your grandmother’s sister, Aunty Mary. She, too, used to hear voices. She cursed everyone who came to the house, including Pastor Tucker, so they eventually had no choice but to take her to Kissy. Kisi Kres Yad.
Goosebumps emerge on your arms when you hear that word – Kissy. You’d only gone there once, after begging your grandmother for weeks because you wanted to see where she took the fried fish and plantains she prepared for her sister every Saturday.
You remember the pungent odor of the dark, dingy building, the urine stench that filled your nostrils. You were only seven, but you’ll never forget the vacant glaze in Aunty Mary’s eyes, or the endless mumblings, low moans, soft whimpers, and sudden shrieks that came from the patients chained to their beds like dogs.
You ease closer to the kitchen doorway now and cup your hand to your ear as you struggle to decipher what your family is saying about you. Are they planning to take you there? Your heart thumps like a drumbeat. Would mummy actually do that to you? The drumbeat gets louder. Send you to Freetown under the guise of a visit only to have them commit you to a mental institution?
“No!” You yell. They cannot take you there.
“No! No! No!” You run out of the house shouting, screaming, shrieking. Tears stream down your cheeks.
“No!” The neighbors gather around you, and your family all rush outside with their mouths wide open.
“No! No! No!” You’re tugging at your hair.
“No!” Your uncle motions to another man, and they grab each of your arms, restraining you.
“No! No! No!” You’re kicking, shouting.
“No!” You would rather die than go to Kisi Kres Yad!
It’s been almost thirty years since that Thursday afternoon when you bolted out of your grandmother’s house in hysterics. Mummy didn’t allow them to take you to Kissy, but she sent your plane ticket to return to New York that Monday morning. It took almost a year for you to find a therapist who didn’t look at you with pity in his eyes. Then you changed three different medications until you found one that didn’t make you numb.
You enrolled at Fordham and finished your bachelor’s degree in biology. You took a year off to decide your next steps, then obtained your Doctor of Physical Therapy degree four years later. You found that helping people heal physically helped you mentally.
You never married, but God blessed you with a child. She is nineteen now, the same age you were when you had your breakdown in Freetown. You watch her for symptoms with a keen eye. So far, so good.
Aunty Mary died at Kissy twenty-three years ago. They buried your grandmother beside her eight years later. World Mental Health Day, October 10th, happens to be the fifteenth anniversary of your grandmother’s death, and you’re in Freetown for the memorial service. Your mouth gapes at the number of radio advertisements, posters, and billboards promoting mental health awareness throughout the city. It’s no longer a topic discussed in hushed tones.
You watch an interview highlighting the changes in the newly refurbished Sierra Leone Psychiatric Teaching Hospital. “I’m pleased that the hospital is now better staffed with more mental health professionals, adequate medications, 24/7 electricity, running water, comfortable beds, and no more chains,” the doctor says.
You stare at the TV screen, gazing at the sun’s rays streaming into the ward, bouncing off gray and vibrant yellow walls. You see patients watching TV, playing board games, visiting with relatives. The camera pans to a patient in a pink blouse cuddling and chuckling with a little girl, likely her daughter. The interviewer approaches the patient and asks her name.
The woman tilts her head to the side. “Mary,” she says with a sheepish grin.
You clutch your heart and smile as tears settle in your eyes.
Tracy Olabisi Coker is a passionate Sierra Leonean-American writer who believes that the written word is an art that can open minds and transform hearts. She works as an HR professional and lives in Vienna, Virginia, with her husband and three children.