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Return from ZombieLand: Academia, Substance Abuse, and Accountability – The Feminist Wire

Return from ZombieLand: Academia, Substance Abuse, and Accountability

By Olubukola Yetunde Ogundipe      

On April 18th 2015, I was hospitalized due to an acute mental breakdown. While this episode was the first of its nature for me, the events that led up to that experience had been slowly and steadily building over time. All that was needed was a trigger.

As a child, I was naturally curious, but preferred spending time in smaller groups. I lived in the fantasy worlds I constructed in my head to deal with racist encounters I had with teachers and students alike, while being too young to understand. This fear manifested in never correcting people when they mispronounced my name, being scared to use my full name to avoid the first day of class roll-call anxiety that had riddled me my entire academic career. These experiences speak to the larger violence that occurs in the education system, particularly to young Black children.

In my family, I always knew that we were Yoruba. My school life was very multicultural and I had classmates from varied backgrounds all over the world. There was a sense of community that I now realize was missing after we moved to the United States. Despite that, I was a target of intense bullying due to being an emotional child who cried easily. One particular instance of bullying involved another student continuously poking me in the earlobe with a sharp pencil until my ear bled. Lacking the language and confidence in myself, I did not tell my parents about the things that were happening at school. I internalized everything and relegated myself to the role of victim. I was taught that I needed to be submissive, docile and “to turn the other cheek.” It was only until one of my friends told me I had the right to defend myself that I did; the next time my classmate attempted to bully me, I stood up for myself and she stopped immediately.

After a vacation to the U.S. to visit my uncle and his now deceased wife, my father decided that he wanted to move our family there. I was devastated, as my school life was improving and I was finally beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin. My father left first, while my mother (who was pregnant with my youngest brother), my middle brother, and I stayed behind to finishing packing up our belongings.We moved to the United States in July 2001. The airport was massive, my mother was five months pregnant and showing, and I was the one pushing our suitcases. I will never forget the way we were treated at the airport. My mother was obviously struggling, but no one helped her. She was also wearing a traditional outfit to accommodate her stomach, which I think increased the scrutiny and emotional callousness we received. I began to worry then about what moving to the U.S. would be like, especially because my Aunt, who was a proud African American woman — compassionate, righteous and secure in her identity — had passed away due to cancer. I began to feel more anxious. I had not been fully aware of my skin color fully until I moved to the U.S., as I had grown up watching shows like Smart Guy, Cleopatra (Comin’ Atcha!), and Moesha, and attended schools where White Europeans were a minority in the student body (excluding the teaching staff).

My experience of school in the Midwest was difficult. My anxiety was extremely high, I had trouble expressing ideas to my classmates because I did not really understand idioms and the differences between figurative and literal expressions. I continued to withdraw into myself even more: using the Internet as a maladaptive coping mechanism and exposing myself to inappropriate material without proper context as an early teen. Immersing myself into White male angst and overidentifying with a music scene that had no interest in representation for young Black girls, I internalized every blow as a personal indictment about myself and my abilities.

This pattern continued all the way through high school. However, I began to find solace in online spaces such as Negroclash, a community that was active on livejournal as well as Fotki, a website where Black women from all over the diaspora were talking about their hair, and going natural. I had begun getting hair relaxers at age seven. I always disliked going because the treatment would make my head hurt and I had difficulty sitting still for extended periods of times. Constantly being bombarded with media that exalted Eurocentric beauty standards, I was trained to harbor discontent with my appearance. While my high school was diverse, there was a virulent undercurrent of racism and sexism, which was doubly compounded on my body. At seventeen, I shaved my head and started my own hair journey from scratch. I had also just begun my first year of undergraduate degree. Shaving my head forced me to truly look at myself, and during that period of my life I was more confident because I could not hide.

However, that confidence was precarious due to the fact that I had surrounded myself with mostly White people. I also began to use drugs and alcohol in order to fit in. As a twenty-five year old, I now realize that reliance on substances to manage my mood, the racism I experienced while in university and outside, and not actively seeking a true community of support left me feeling isolated. Even many of the Black and PoC identified individuals I had been friends with at the time still identified primarily with Whiteness and White ideals of respectability and Eurocentric standards of beauty. Joining Tumblr provided access to another level of representation, celebrating the complexity and multifaceted nature of the African diaspora. Tumblr fosters positivity for all body types, varying gender and sexual identities and provided a kaleidoscopic look into the various intersections of Black identity.

Due to the content I surrounded myself with online, I graduated with a healthy self concept. I had realized the extent of my alcohol abuse and had significantly lessened my drinking. I had received my bachelor’s degree and things were going well with my family. I was excited to finally have a break and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But my life began a downward spiral when I started graduate school in 2011 and began working for a warehouse company. My first quarter at graduate school, I was date raped. Moreover, the emotional and sexual manipulation, disregard for my boundaries, constant gaslighting and belittling of my intelligence set the tone for my experiences of graduate school. This only added to the unresolved anger I had building within me. It has been one year since I left academia and the healing has only just started.

In addition, the poor treatment I was receiving at my workplace added to my growing resentment and feelings of worthlessness. That year, I channeled my rage into my schoolwork and received the best grades of my life. My own emotional state though? I did not possess the awareness to truly explain how broken I felt. The following year, I applied to a different graduate program within the University, assuming that it would be a better fit. While on the surface, Women’s and Gender studies programs are heralded as beacons of progressive thinking and subversive politics, the microaggressions, overt racism, and White entitlement I had to navigate as the sole Black graduate student were through the roof. After a racist incident with a professor due to my speaking up and questioning the lack of non-White texts in our syllabus, the target was placed on my back. This professor constantly graded me lower, wrote heinous comments on my response papers, and made racist and sexist remarks during class periods. What was worse was that the majority of my White classmates had an inability to comprehend the situation. The department then stepped in and organized circle talks, which only fueled the discord. Essentially, they put a band-aid on a compound fracture. My memories of this period include my friend (who left the program that year) and me in meetings with professors in our department crying.

Without much support from the department, I nonetheless decided to stay on in the program. Perhaps I was committed to a false sense of security, or maybe I wanted to prove something to myself? I applied for a graduate assistantship, and was selected. Interestingly, the year I was a graduate assistant was the first time this specific program had two assistants. The other graduate assistant was White. Truthfully, I had reservations about accepting but decided to do so because after struggling to find employment through the school’s campus job board after sending upwards of a hundred applications and leaving my warehouse position, It seemed to be the right choice. Yet again, the microaggressions were apparent. I found it interesting that the other assistants in the office chose to decorate their desks with pictures and photos (I did not have an individual desk), as if to say that I was a visitor in that space and to remember my place. It is an unsettling experience at times to come into what is meant to be a shared space, but sitting at someone else’s desks that they have marked. I did not belong. Despite platitudes and overly saccharine “niceness,” my gut knew better.

I did not have the mental fortitude to write a dissertation length thesis, as I was currently using the majority of my own personal energy working for the department: making flyers, running a blog, finding articles and YouTube clips. I really did not have any energy for myself. I decided to do a creative project and draw a comic.The summer before, an acquaintance had introduced me to Afrofuturism and I was astounded. It was another level of representation that I had been yearning for. The comic was therapeutic for me and I was finally able to express my perspective about feeling alienated.

Reflecting back on it now, the comic was in a sense a little joke. It was very reactionary. It was a narrative about the way I felt in the classroom, for example talking about music awards as the only Black student in the room. The comic focused on a nameless girl happening upon a music award show where a White singer claims to have invented “hip hop, braids, and twerking.” In doing so, the singer fails to properly attribute these cultural art forms and recognize the communities they came out of. Furthermore, the singer fails to recognize the diversity and innovation of art forms throughout the entirety of the African Diaspora and the interplay and fusion that happens between them. While these art forms and music genres were born in a specific context, they resonated for me as a Black immigrant: I was able to see parts of myself reflected in these cultural traditions. The comic also coincided with a framing paper where I focused on media, cultural production, alienation, fantasy, and science-fiction.

The comic was the best part of academia for me, as I had a wonderful committee of Black women professors. I also was given the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for one of the professors on my committee. She believed in me, she pushed me, she challenged me; because she could see that there was potential in me to do better and to strive for my own autonomy and to take pride in myself. It was through this work that I realized I did belong to a larger community of brilliant, subversive, compassionate, forthright, and amazing Black people from all over the diaspora. I graduated in 2014. However, the overall experience in academia left me feeling emotionally weakened. The struggle to find work post-graduation, being contacted by various places I had applied to only to have them not follow-up and vanish, was hard to handle. This depression was furthered when I entered an unhealthy living situation where people were openly using drugs and struggling with body image issues. Again, I found myself slipping further and further into maladaptive coping mechanisms, undoing all the emotional healing and healthy coping mechanisms I had worked so hard to achieve.

As I continued to self-medicate, my mood became erratic. I was self-destructive, angry, difficult to be around, aggressive, histrionic, and volatile. I was channelling the same behavior that had made my graduate experience a nightmare at times. What is worse is that I was becoming toxic to people who could have been allies. In my graduate experience, the word “ally” was thrown around so haphazardly that I began to harbor resentment towards the word. Painting the word with such a broad stroke made me a bad ally to communities and identities that did not intersect in my own personal life. I refused to take my prescribed medication and descended further and further into the recesses of my mind.

All the anger, mistreatment, and gaslighting that had accumulated in my life came pouring out. I had become toxic, and I was lashing out at people who who had nothing to do with my situation, who only were trying to help. In my own fragile emotional state, I could not see how fortunate I was for actually being hospitalized. My manic state was triggered through being depressed about job interviews that were rife with microaggressions, reckless sexual activity and a second assault, being screamed at by the father of the family I was nannying for, and escaping another potential sexual assault. Stopping my substance abuse, taking accountability for myself and my actions, and starting my journey to recovery are crucial to bettering myself and my community.

In my own self absorbed ignorance, I was momentarily unable to see that there is a community of support all around me, that I already had a community. That there are people who want to see us thrive and become the people we were always meant to be. This does not invalidate the racism I experienced in the facility I was placed, but realizing the intersecting privileges I have been afforded, and the fact that I am able to sit and share this account, I am extremely thankful.

At the end of it though, what I realized is that I need to believe in myself. To trust my intuition, to not second guess myself. Going from submissive to aggressive is not beneficial, but rather what I was searching for was the middle ground of being assertive. My advice to others would be to truly think about what you want to do with yourself and your time, to make sure you are valuing yourself. Loading up your schedule with volunteer work, support groups, managing outside work, honor societies and other activities was for me a way to escape actually confronting myself and working through the mess of tangled emotions within me.

Lastly, finding community, true community is what makes the difference. My friends who stuck with me during a difficult period in which I felt as if my mind was collapsing in on itself held me while also encouraging and grounding me; they have been a great source of strength and comfort. A community can only be strong if the individual members are honoring themselves, and other people. For me, honoring myself, accepting my parents’ apology, and giving myself the right to feel the whole gamut of emotions and not masking them behind a facade of being a superficial workaholic who was over-accessible to anyone and everyone have been the first steps to recovering and rediscovering myself, my passions, and my heart.

To quote Donna Kate Rushin in her 1981 work, The Bridge Poem:

The bridge I must be

Is the bridge to my own power

I must translate

My own fears

Mediate

My own weaknesses

 

I must be the bridge to nowhere

But my true self

And then

I will be useful

 

Addendum

I wanted to offer some further clarifications. The majority of this piece was written around May 25, 2015. When talking about substance abuse, I was making reference to my past binge-drinking issues. When I talked about being overly accessible, what I wanted to convey was that it is okay to have time to yourself, that you do not have to say “yes” to everything. I have been working on being comfortable saying “no.” In being comfortable wearing my hair straightened, braided, curled, or in a weave. I’m embracing the freedom of choice, of versatility. That #BlackLivesMatter, men, women, LGBTQ+, all of us as black people matter. We have to continue to talk about those who are being erased due to White heteropatriarchy and capitalist ideas about certain bodies being worth more, of being inherently “good” or “bad.” I am done with niceness. What I want is to be human, to be allowed to feel, to experiment. I’ve wasted too much time caring for people who hate blackness.

Projects such as #SayHerNameReport, Black Girls Matter, ForHarriet, and countless individuals on social media have been highlighting issues such as police brutality, murder, and sexual violence, amplifying these injustices that often are kept silent and relegated to the margins that Black women and Black LGBTQ+ individuals navigate daily in our globally anti-black society, despite the U.S. and many other nations being founded on indigenous genocide and enslavement. In the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre, and current terrorist attacks against Black churches in the South, I have realized the premium on “niceness” is unnecessary. I am allowed to feel rage, we are allowed to feel rage. I do not need permission to have feelings, to cry, to scream, to feel sad, and to do whatever I want with my body. We process and begin to heal in a myriad of ways.

 

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academia substance abuseOlubukola (Buki) Yetunde Ogundipe is a 25-year-old queer yoruba person. They were born in Lagos, Nigeria and use she/her/they/them. Olubukola received their undergraduate degree in English Literature and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and received their postgraduate degree at DePaul University. Currently, they are focused on unlearning, rehabilitation, self-expression, practicing mindfulness, and learning healthier ways to cope with stress. They are interested in reconnecting with their yoruba roots, and delving deeper into the wide range of African diasporic cultural forms encompassed through art, music, dance, and literature. They also love cartoons.

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