I remember taking General Psychology freshman year, and learning about the body’s conditioned responses to stimuli. The professor talked about how in most cases where celebrities die of drug overdoses in hotel rooms, they haven’t actually taken more drugs than they normally do. They’re taking their normal dosages, but because they’re in a new environment, their bodies haven’t started to produce anything to counter the drugs’ effects. What happens is that if you take strong drugs often enough in the same places, like your home, then your body will naturally begin to counter the effects of the drug you take as soon as it recognizes stimuli in the environment. Your dosage increases as your tolerance increases, and suddenly you take the new, strong dosage in an area without any familiar stimuli, and your body isn’t prepared to defend you.
The other side of this is that once your body has ingrained its stimuli, it’ll start its counteraction even if there are no drugs around. If you go to rehab and “cure” your addiction, as soon as you come home, you’ll be surrounded with the same stimuli, and your body will automatically expect drugs. This is why people relapse.
“The best thing to do, if you really want to quit something,” my teacher told us, “Is to move. Just leave everything behind, and move.” But who can afford to do that?
I’m thinking about this on the last day before coming back to school. I’m in my bed, in my room, and I suddenly realize that this is where I’ve been for the majority of my four weeks between Africa and Wesleyan. If not at work, I’ve probably been in my room. I wonder how my parents felt about this. My dad probably didn’t mind very much. He spends the majority of his time at home sitting quietly in some obscure part of the house, not interacting much with us. In retrospect, I probably made him seem a lot more social by contrast. For my mom, it must have been hard. She’s the most social of us three, and I know she misses me when I’m away. She tried so hard to contact me in Cameroon, and I managed to have the least correspondence with family of anyone in the program. I wonder if they think that I don’t like them, or the family. It probably doesn’t help that I’m the same way with any company that comes over. When my aunt and uncle came for New Year’s, I went to my room as soon as dinner was over. I read while they all went on a walk, and slept while they had dessert. I came down to say goodbye, and then went back upstairs and closed my door.
If I told them that they were my favorite people in the world, and that I loved them all so much I could cry to think about it, would they believe me? Would they understand that?
It’s the truth. I love my family. But I can’t be around them anymore. They’re my stimuli.
On the first day of French class in Cameroon, our teacher had us make timelines of big moments in our lives, to see how we ended up choosing a study abroad program in her country. It wasn’t until I looked over my finished timeline that I realized I only started going to Africa after Edward left me. He killed himself in March, and I was in South Africa in December. I was back the next year, and then I went to Kenya. Then Cameroon, and South Africa again, and every time I come home, I’m saving money and making plans to leave. Meanwhile, I’m seeing my American family less and less.
At first I thought that this was because of my now increased fear of getting attached to the people I love. If I spend too much time with you, increasingly investing my emotions into you, that’s dangerous for me. Who knows how long it will be before you’re gone? It’s better to have you near me and around me, but not often directly interacting with me, so that I can be used to you as a ghost before you actually become one. Yet while I still think along this train of logic, and use it sometimes, recent friendships have taught me that it’s okay to become close to people. And continuously ghosting the people around me prevents me from fully living, myself. I understand that, and I try to prevent myself from falling into that, but it’s something that I can’t help doing when I’m with my family in the States.
It’s just that every time they look at me, I think about Edward. When we have gatherings, I notice his absence. When it comes time to talk about our recent achievements, I realize that he will never have any. It makes me feel like an impostor, someone occupying the wrong space. I wonder if I’m doing enough with my life, compared with what he might have done. I wonder if the people around me are monitoring me, measuring us up in their minds, trying to see how like him and different from him I am. I have to be happy, when I’m with my family, and not the sort of happy I prefer to be. A displayed happiness, at the correct level of sociability, from which he and I used to hide. Now when I go to hide, I have nothing but his memories to keep me company.
And there are so many of them. I remember being in his living room when we were both three, with my mother struggling to do my hair. As I braced my hands against the edge of the coffee table, she was brushing the hair back and pulling it tight into a ponytail puff before braiding it. Edward was watching both of us, cross-legged on the floor.
“Edward, do you think you could have braids like this?” My mom asked him. He just smiled shyly and shook his head.
“No,” I said, laughing. His hair was much too short.
It’s the little moments, those innocent moments that come sneaking back at me now. It isn’t the brutal blow that came the first year, or the agony of the second. Now, it’s just the memories. The blissful, meaningless memories. Sad, indifferent, and increasingly happy. Bothering me. I can remember him as a person, the person I knew. I realize that this is all I have, because no new memories will come in. I have to live with this understanding. It’s a new kind of pain, like a constant rub at the back of my mind that becomes ever-more irritating. Usually, I don’t have to think about it. I’m living away from most triggers at school, and have next to none in Africa. When I’m home, it’s different. Even at the voice of another family member, the memories and thoughts come rushing in until I think I could suffocate.
I never realized the extent to which one moment could impact my life, but it seems that I’m continuously discovering the ways in which I’ve been affected. I wonder what kind of person I’d be if this hadn’t happened, what sort of existence I’d have, if I still existed at all.
It doesn’t really matter, though. I’m here. My memories are here. My family is here. I need to get out of bed, leave my room, and spend time with my mother before I leave. I already know that I would hate to have myself as a daughter, someone who keeps to herself and shies away from open displays of love and affection. It must be awful for my mother. She should know how I feel about her. I’ll go downstairs, and hug her, and kiss her cheek. I’ll tell her how much I love and appreciate her, and then I’ll show her the video of me dancing, from the second part of my research presentation. I won’t think about the last time I openly displayed emotion with an American family member, and it’ll be great.
I’ll do all of that. In a minute. Thinking about it all has made me tired, and I need to sleep first.