Isolated with our triggers: We are not well

Header image by Esther Appiah ’21. Original photograph by Latrell Broughton.

If I have to read one more email from a professor or an administrator that begins with,

I know these are difficult times and we are all trying to cope as best we can,”

I am going to lose it.

It has been over a month since study abroad students were brought back to the United States due to Covid-19. Like some of my classmates, my untimely exit began with one phone call. I was deep in dream land when my host mom startled me one afternoon, violently shaking me to get my attention. I rolled over to see the reason for the intrusion. From what I was able to make out of what she said in French, I knew the call was important. I took the phone she handed me, rubbed the sleep dust from my eyes and groggily said, “Hello?”

There were less than five confirmed cases in Senegal in March and a week prior to that phone call, many of us had been going about life in the same manner every Senegalese was. We listened to the news and washed our hands frequently. Rather than panic, the air was filled with the feelings of love, care, and communal solidarity. I spent my days in class learning about Senegalese society, Wolof, and development. After class each day, my friends and I would make the short walk down to the beach. We would spend hours watching the waves roll in and quickly head back out to sea, as if each water drop was afraid of being stranded on the sandy shore. The world around me was alive with men running drills, swimming in the ocean, and coaches yelling out plays to their team while the young boys played soccer. My favorite time to visit was always before the last light faded with the sunset and night reared its head when, sometimes, I would perch myself on top of a rock, kick off my shoes and enjoy my favorite dish; attieke with fried fish topped with a bed of nicely seasoned vegetables. Like clockwork, the moon always followed with a bright light that illuminated the path back home.

How I wish I could go back in time and not pick up the phone call that ripped me away from my haven. On the other end of the line was one of our program directors.

She greeted me with the customary, “Salaamaalekum!”

It was a common greeting we had all come to learn meant, may peace be upon you, and I responded with, “Maalekum salaam!” a response that meant, may peace be upon you as well.

She proceeded to inform me of the countermeasure they were instructed to take after the head of our program in Portland received news about the headline of the day. Senegal would be closing its borders to protect its citizens in the next two days. The days leading up to the phone call had been hectic to say the least. With pressures from misinformed parents who were petrified their kids were going to die in Africa, to news reports tallying up the rising number of deaths in Italy, and the thirty-day travel ban on Europe; everyone was on high alert. To take precautionary measures, our program decided to get us all on the next available flights back to our respective homes. With every word she uttered, my stomach sank further and my heart raced faster. My devastation was two-fold; not only was I being ripped away from a place where I felt safe enough to truly be me in all my brightness, my mismatched clothes, colorful hair, and vibrant makeup looks, I had no agency in the matter. If given the choice between facing the pandemic in a beautiful nation with less than five confirmed cases or returning to the United States with confirmed cases reaching the thousands every day, I would have stayed exactly where I was. Unfortunately, as with many things in academia, the choice is never left to those who rely on schools for financial assistance. I had a confirmed plane ticket and instructions to be out of the country before daybreak within six hours of the conversation.

How does one even begin to pack up their entire life and say all the necessary goodbyes by the end of the day? After getting off the phone, I quickly dressed and gave my host mom a kiss on the cheek and explained I would be right back. I headed to the program office to give my passport information to our program director and to find out exactly what was going on. There were so many students there on their laptops frantically looking from one travel site to the next, trying to find a plane that could allow them to evacuate in a timely manner. I wanted to process my misery in private. I knew there was nothing I could do to aid the situation, so I grabbed my purse and went to say my goodbyes. I walked from Mermoz where I had been staying to Sacre Coeur. There, I walked up the stairs leading up to the two-story building I frequented. Unannounced, I opened the first door to my right. I relayed the information I had recently received and spent the next hour saying my goodbyes. My goodbyes were two months too early, but they had to happen then. After all was said and done, I headed home. Two of my friends came back to Mermoz with me to help me pack. When I arrived, my host mom was already fast at work folding my clothes so I could put them away in my suitcase. My host mom had the tendency of calling me, “Ma petite fille,” meaning my little girl, whenever she saw me. No matter how many times she had seen me on a given day. I knew I would forever be indebted to the family who opened up their home and welcomed me like I was one of their own. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was part of a family. My host mom sent me off to school with a full baguette, an apple, and a mango coconut juice every morning. I don’t like apples. But apples became an essential part of my morning routine. I always ate every bite, and washed it down with my juice, knowing she woke up at 5am just to get it for me. I helped her fold and pack each piece of fabric until my presence was erased from the room.

I left Thursday evening and arrived in New York on Saturday. Three days, I spent flying across the globe, insomnia in full swing, desperately trying but unable to sleep, unable to decide the next fate of my life as I headed into the heart of the pandemic. Our journey took us from Senegal to Ghana. From Ghana to Nigeria, from Nigeria to Dubai, and finally, after two and a half days, we landed in La Guardia airport. I was met by an eerie silence which enveloped the once crowded space. I sped by immigration and spent no time waiting for my luggage.

I was picked up and brought back to the Bronx to begin what would become my own personal hell. In the wake of what had quickly happened to ensure our departure, I had not had much time to process the full scope of our evacuation. I was back home with my African parents, without anxiety medication, and in isolation. It was the perfect mix for a boiling stew of depression, insomnia, anxiety episodes, and as if matters could not get worse, my appetite was nowhere to be found. I spent the next two weeks in a deep depression. My days consisted of a shower, whatever food I could stomach, and twenty straight hours of tv under the covers in a dark room with the curtains pulled tightly shut. I was eating one meal a day, unable to sleep, unable to reach out to any of my friends, and unable to go outside for fear of accidentally spreading the virus to one of my fragile neighbors. I spent my days in my bedroom with a window overlooking concrete. By the third week, I knew I needed help. My inbox was pilling up with messages from various professors, administrators, and my program coordinators which all began the same.

“I know these are difficult times…,”

But honestly, do you really? Do you understand that your emails reach me under the covers in a deep depression? Do you understand that your request for assignments reach me while awake at all hours of the night afraid to sleep because nightmares keep me awake? Do you know what it is like to watch your parents step out the door each day to fulfill their duties as essential workers? Do you comprehend how truly difficult these times are when we are isolated with our triggers with no access to any of the coping mechanisms that make us full functioning human beings? Do you know how sad it truly is to receive emails with resources for internet access so we can fulfill our academic expectations as if we are not in a global pandemic? As if some of us do not have to spend eight plus hours trying to reach mental health specialists just so someone can prescribe medicine to alleviate this pain? Do you understand what a huge burden it is to be solely responsible for getting your sick loved ones medical attention because of language barriers? That some of our grandmothers and our mothers are sick in bed unable to breathe, clutching on for dear life? Do you really wish your emails reach us well? Better yet, why are we studying for a future you cannot guarantee us?

No one knows when this will be over. Our depression and anxiety looms present, growing stronger with every news of one more death, with every extension of our isolation. With every hour we spend in our rooms with the one window, overlooking nothing but cement walls.

Your emails are not finding us well. We are deep in survival mode, heavily relying on coping mechanisms that ensure our survival. We are not okay. We are tired, fed up, deeply exhausted yet we are still expected to keep up the same academic expectations. We are not okay and there is no cure for this kind of illness. There is absolutely nothing in our control to stop this but to have faith and be still, to wait, to lie down looking up at the ceiling day after day. Just waiting for that one phone call or that one news report that means we can finally sleep again without our mind snaring us in its trap. That one day after mother nature has had time to heal, and the last person has been released from the hospital, we may come out of isolation, and exhale a deep breath of air, unafraid of what is to come. Perhaps then, you may find us well.

About the author(s): Esther Appiah is a Ghanaian born advocate and educator who utilizes  empowerment and education to uplift and highlight the struggles of communities of color.

Copyrighted by Esther Appiah. Editorial assistance provided by Beatrice Alicea. This work is part of the “Telling Our Covid Stories” project by the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College.

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