I Can't Breathe | An Essay

 Often times I am amazed by people who are able to relentlessly put themselves out there. Be the person they want to be, take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way, whether it is being articulate about themselves and their abilities to other people, or just taking control of their situation by seizing the moment regardless of what anyone thinks, says or does. I am amazed. Envious even. I have tried and I still keep trying to be that person to myself.

I get compliments from friends and strangers, ranging from the colour of my hair to my outfit. I don’t hate compliments, but I find that I do not know how to respond, so I smile sheepishly and say the most awkward thank yous or You too. However, the strangest of compliments are still the ones that imply I have some sort of courage or boldness, practically saying that they would like to have what I have, which worries me because I do not think I have what I am supposed to have. The truth is that on most days I can’t find the boldness I need to survive in this world, the thought of this makes me question if I truly am my mother's daughter.

All my life--or rather from the moment of consciousness--I have struggled with emulating the kind of fierce boldness my mother has. The kind that gets you noticed in a room full of (taller) people, that ensures others are listening when you speak, that despite whatever it feels like, you know you will always push forward and never look back.

I recall a Wednesday before my fifteenth birthday, back when we attended Household of God church. Usually, the pastor called out celebrants of the month, praying for them and handing out gifts. December meant festivity, and that meant hampers. Lots of them. The thing was this only happened in the big church, and children younger than fifteen were hardly found in there, not like there was a strict rule. I was excited, mostly because of the hamper I kept imagining. I even practised the words I would say once I got out;

‘My name is Emmanuella and I am turning fifteen on the twenty third’

There would be applause because I would be the youngest person out there. Maybe cheering, and the pastor would beam at me, calling me to the altar to give a special prayer while handing the hamper to me. All these I imagined and looked forward to all through the journey there. So, I participated eagerly in the service, singing the songs I knew and dancing a little bit more than the self-conscious steps I gave in church, eyeing the baskets full of goodies. Then it was time. The pastor, dressed in his pristine suit with a hand resting on the pulpit, called for the December celebrants. People began to stand, quickly making their way to the front of the church as the instrumentalist started to play, waiting until the people who wanted to go out did so.

Mother, who was seated on my left, leaned into me, “Oya go.” The music kept on, the pastor joined, singing to the church, and the people at the front glowed with happiness. I could not move. I tried to will myself, tried to push myself off the chair and to the altar, but I found that I was stuck. They say everything we feel is in our head; if we feel happiness it is in our head and the same with sadness. This, however, was not.

First, it started out as a simple fast beating heart, one that I could feel in my veins, before slowly inviting in an ache by the left and right side of my head. My palms started to sweat, and my hands started to shake. Topping it off, my chest tightened, squeezing into me and forcing me to hold my breath, neither inhaling nor exhaling.

“Ella,” Mother's tone started to carry disappointment. There was her daughter, sitting down instead of courageously standing up and going to the altar. One of my greatest fears in life is to disappoint the woman who birthed and trained me all by herself, and I repeat this when I have to make decisions, this has been my guide for years. But that Wednesday night, that fear was irrelevant, I could only think about the words that repeated itself in my head, ‘You do not belong here’.

Those same words find their way to my head when I am in the company of people, just that it interchanges with ‘You are not good enough’ or ‘You do not deserve it’. Sometimes I am able to drown out the words and despite the fact that I am calculating each words I say, or each action I take, I pretend that I do feel more than worthy. On the other days, I worry that the person seated next to me can hear the beating of my heart or can see that I am shaking from head to toe because I think I am what the voice says--that I am an imposter.

I watched Vincenzo and my favourite character (after the villain) is Hong Cha-Young because of how effortlessly she carries herself, and how she wears power on her sleeves. I see that in every woman I am a fan of, I see that in my favourite female writers, I see that in speakers, and I see that in friends. This makes me wonder if I alone lose my voice minutes before I with or to people in a gathering, or why I stutter when I am being interviewed. Or why I forget how to breath when I step out of the house.

Every time I manage to overcome, I find that this fear is an illusion, masking my abilities so that I ignore the strength I have. I think back to that Wednesday and the hamper I never got to receive and ask myself why I thought that was a big task. Why I could not bring myself to get off the chair and walk up boldly to that altar, and why, years later I still do the same thing. Maybe I know the answer but  I am too worried to put a name to it. Maybe I am seeking to blame something else for my incompetence, or maybe, just maybe, it is all in my head.  Regardless, I will keep on trying. Slow down when I can’t breathe and tell myself the opposite of what the voices say. That is the only way I can move forward without looking back with regrets.

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