It's All In Your Head: Emem
Meet Emem, activist, student and organizer. I spoke with them about their struggles with mental illness and how their culture played a role in being open with their struggle.
Eyek: What's your name and what's your ethnicity?
Emem: My name is Emem Obot and I am Nigerian.
Eyek: Do you believe that there is an issue with addressing mental health issues within your culture?
Emem: Of course. The first issue is addressing the fact that we are dealing with trauma. A lot of our experiences have led us to be in a place where we are always struggling with trauma. Another problem is that we feel that we have to hide our trauma and mental illness out of fear of being vulnerable. The truth is that trauma can be dealt with and counteracted, however, we can't even get to that place of counteracting it because we are silenced by the fear of being vulnerable. It also doesn't help that we are all just so focused on being on "the go". Us as Nigerians, we are always hustling and trying to keep up with appearances and the thought of trying to obtain that image keeps us from addressing our real issues. This obsession with disregarding our mental health issues in many ways is rooted in the capitalistic system. Capitalism is not natural to us. Pre-colonization, we were not capitalist, so trying to fit into a mold that is unnatural to us is traumatizing in itself.
Emem: In the U.S where we have a very individualistic culture, we are forced to just stay quiet and "deal with it" and that is just as traumatizing as constantly being on the go.
Eyek: For how long have you had a mental illness? When did you find a term for what you were dealing with?
Emem: I didn't find a term for my mental illness until I was formally diagnosed. That was my sophomore year of high school.I had just recently come to terms with the fact that I had been sexually abused by my step-father and it was a very dark time for me. I completely dissociated myself but my body was physically present. I remember, that was the year I made straight A's. I pushed myself to over-perform, so that people didn't suspect anything was going on.
Eyek: Have you told your family? If you have, how did you tell them and how did they react?
Emem: In regards to my sexual abuse, my mother was the first person I told. I had told close friends first. She kind of knew in regards to my sexual abuse and so she wasn't really surprised when I told her. She had asked me once before and I told her no. What triggered me and made me tell my mother was actually an altercation that I had with a teacher at my school. This man was a know pedophile and often made advances at students and when he approached me, I went off and that's actually what gave me the strength to tell my mom what had happened to me. Immediately, she empathized with me and always had my back and I will always respect and love her for that.
Eyek: It's interesting that you bring up the fact that your mother just knew. Speaking culturally, specifically from my perspective as a Nigerian, I think many times, a parent or guardian knows or may know something is going on, but once again they have to keep up appearances. And a lot of times, from the woman's perspective, they feel this pressure to "keep the family together" and not be "put to shame", so they won't confront the abuser. Especially if the abuser is the husband/step-father. I think men struggle with that too, especially when they have a deep reliance on their wife/step-mother and they don't want to mess up what they have. You know?
Emem: Yeah, definitely.
Eyek: Have you ever been told to disregard or "get over" your mental illness? Has anyone told you that it's all in your head?
Emem: Oh definitely, That's still an issue in my family. As understanding as my mother is, she still has her moments. The most frustrating though, has been dealing with one of my aunts. At this point, we don't talk and I have no reason to. It's very painful to have your struggles silenced and invalidated and what makes it worse is when the people silencing you are also mentally and emotionally abusive. She never felt apologetic about her actions and it was even more impactful because I have never had a femme trigger an experience that I have had with a masculine person. It was her energy and it reminded me of my stepfather. But anyways, yeah as far the whole "get over it" thing, my mom was definitely one of the people who told me to "get over it". So although she had and still has my back, she still struggles with understanding that mental illness is not just something to get over.
Eyek: Yeah I definitely see what you're saying.
Emem: Luckily, one of my Uncles was able to make her see that. He also made me think about a lot of things. He basically told me that what I was going through was valid and that I had a lot of healing to go through, in order to move forward. So yeah I have had that feeling of invalidation, especially from Nigerian folks, but I have also a lot of times had those people who understood and even if they didn't understand completely, they tried to. I can't help but to think about my aunt all the way in London who supported me and of course my Uncle who I just spoke about. So of course there had been dissent, but also there have been people in my corner as well.
Emem: But when it comes to my activism, everyone seems to be on the same side..(*laughs) They all just want me to stay out of danger and worry only about school.
Eyek: Sidenote: It's so interesting (for lack of a better word) how in our culture, we see mental illness as a "white people thing". I have definitely been guilty of that. It's a very difficult unlearning process, to be honest.
Emem: Yeah exactly.
Eyek: What's your take on the "Superwoman Complex" and how do you think it affects black women?
Emem: First of all, I think that it is imposed on black women. Black cis-gendered men often times expect black women to just take it. Within our community, the superwoman complex is viewed as strength and to other communities, specifically white people, this is seen as being an "angry black woman". Black men are guilty of it too though. When a black woman has reached her limit or is facing a struggle with her mental health, she's told to calm down or to suck it up. Now when a "Becky" (white woman) is going through the same thing, everyone wants to support her and encourage her to get help. There's a double standard. Black women are supposed to stand up for black men, be passionate, but not too passionate. Black women have to be angry, but not too angry so that people will take them seriously. It's not fair and that is also what makes the superwomen complex so difficult to address and unpack.
Eyek: Okay this is a very broad question, but speaking specifically in the Nigerian community, do you think it's possible to change the way mental illness is viewed? If so, how?
Emem: First of all, there needs to be more acceptance and validation. Acceptance and validation of emotion and learning healthy ways to deal with your emotions is important. It's starts with that. I also think that it starts with our generation and the younger generation. We really need to encourage ourselves and the younger ones to be okay with having different types of emotions and to be open (if you're comfortable) about our mental health. It's also important to channel those emotions to positive things. As for adults, there is really a need for healing. You know, in their generation, there was very little conversation surrounding mental illness, and so they also really need to be encouraged to seek help for their struggles as well. It's a very deep journey because we don't even know how we are being affected structurally, so it's a long process.
Eyek: All very good points.
Emem: Yeah and I think it's a very different experience addressing mental illness as a Nigerian-American, versus being a Nigerian immigrant. There is a lot of trauma there that either side can't unpack for the other. The issue is very complex, but the first step is realization. Realization, acceptance, and validation will ultimately lead to healing.
Eyek: Wow, I never thought how different out experiences are even with the Nigerian community.
Emem: Yeah, I know.
Eyek: Well, Emem, it's always a pleasure talking to you and as usual you are always making me proud. In regards to your activism work, how can people in the DC area get in contact with you or seek healing individually?
Emem: Definitely come to the Peace House! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org so definitely contact me if you would want to come by.
Eyek: Awesome, thank you so much for your time!
*What are the biggest struggles within your community when it comes to addressing mental illness?*
If would like to share your story, please email me at email@example.com