In my post about living with autism, I mentioned an incident from boarding school:
I once took a phone message for a fellow pupil to call his family urgently. His father had died. I didn’t deliver the message.
When the hostel was queried that evening, I looked around at everyone else, thinking “who could forget such an important message?”.
Later that evening, lying on my bed, I remembered taking the call. I remembered being distracted. When I came forward to admit it, they didn’t believe me.
Memory is fragile but powerful. Recently I’ve written a lot about my past so that there’s a record of it, mostly for my sake. At the end of 2017 I suffered a severe concussion, and from what I know about the number of times I’ve hit my head, that one was probably the last one if I want to avoid turning my brain into jelly. So I’ve been writing things down.
In a recent blog post I mentioned just how much I remember about boarding school even though I was there for just 18 months. A few years later though, I was at Rhodes University for only six months in 1996 and it had an equally profound impact on my life, and memories of my time there are lucid if a little bleak.
I currently weigh a moderately healthy 82kg. I have been hovering around this weight for a long time and specifically recall that I weighed 82kg when we moved to Canada in 2010. This is relevant because when we got here, we were warned by fellow South Africans that it was incredibly easy to pick up ten kilograms because of the size of North American food portions. So we’ve maintained the status quo.
I chose Rhodes University after spending the first year after high school wondering what to do with my life. When my father died I was given a distinctly average year mark in grade 12, and I didn’t put very much effort into my final exams. So with the luck of having seven subjects instead of the usual six (Computer Science was an elective), I scraped through matric and managed to get university entrance, but not much more. I could not get into engineering school, and was at the mercy of commerce and the humanities.
In 1995 I attended a college to pursue the poorly-named Bachelor of Arts in Communication, through the distance-learning University of South Africa. While I attended every class, worked on the college newspaper, and even made friends with someone whose engagement I managed to break off briefly, my heart wasn’t in it. I was biding my time to get into a real degree, which I decided would be a Bachelor of Journalism. Rhodes offered the best programme in the country for this, so it was to Grahamstown I would go in early 1996.
There’s a thing that happens to you when you leave home for the first time as an adult, and college is all about learning what that means. You drink, you smoke (though I didn’t enjoy smoking that much and quit almost immediately), you have sex (I didn’t), and you make friends with people who will be your friends until one of you dies.
In 1996 I tried to end my life by starving myself, so that I could fit through the extremely narrow windows on the third floor of the residence where I lived and jump to the concrete below. On the night I tried and got stuck, I weighed a very slender 63kg. The next morning I went to find a student psychologist, and the unfortunate woman who I spoke to did not know how to process my severe PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation. On the other hand, she shared some fascinating insight which had somehow escaped me: my father had died two years prior at the age of 41, and I hadn’t dealt with it yet.
Things happened fast after that. I got hold of my mother, we arranged my return, and after a kind woman helped me at the airport by telling the airline some of my luggage was hers, I was back in Johannesburg. On the day we drove home from the airport, it was a Friday. A block away from the house, a VW Golf came too fast around a corner and almost flipped over. The car hit a wall and the wheel rim itself dug into the asphalt. I’d never seen that before and it stuck with me.
An underweight 19 year-old binge-drinking suicidal kid with PTSD saw four grown men tumble out of the Golf when it had come to a stop and nervously laugh about almost dying.
A few days later, my paternal grandmother died. She was 86 and had put in her time so we weren’t terribly surprised, even though it was a profound loss to the family. I asked my brother to be pallbearer in my stead because I still had fresh memories of carrying my father’s coffin. This was the woman who had taught me how to read, who would spend an afternoon every week with me until I went to high school, interminable at the time but in retrospect a selfless act to help me be a better person. She had been especially supportive after my father’s death.
Her funeral was fine in the end. My maternal grandmother, who was deep into Alzheimer’s at that stage, managed to keep her shit together and sat next to us.
Eight days later, she also died.
When my parents got married, they couldn’t afford to raise me without both of them working full time, so I lived with my mother’s parents for a while, to the point where I referred to my grandmother as my mother. I have not loved anyone in the world as much as I loved her. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for about five years by then, so it was a merciful death, but that was really hard to process.
I can’t pretend to own the definition of grief, but I came close in 1996. I started having dissociative events. My mental state was borderline and I was put on medication to keep the lights on. The ideation had stopped after two funerals in two weeks, because I realized I couldn’t put my family through even more death.
Things got better.
Eventually I started eating again, bringing my weight up into the 70s over the next two years. I met someone on IRC in 1997 and we started dating in October the same year. He was my first boyfriend, and boy do I have stories from the next five years. I did a diploma in software support and networking instead of journalism, and graduated top of my class and came second in the entire college.
A bad day for me now is if Starbucks gets my order wrong.
A couple of years ago, a South African told me that Canada has made me soft, and I completely agree. Especially around my midsection.