‘YOUR SILENCE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU’
BY DIRIYE OSMAN
It required strength to make the call. I prayed on it. Not the usual prayer that my parents had taught me, that I had been caned and cajoled into practising when I was younger: this was more primal and urgent. As the voices grew louder I began to tremble. I hadn’t slept or eaten properly for weeks.
It was a simple prayer. ‘Allah, you have brought me here. Please help me.’ I closed my eyes and in the pitch-black babble of voices and hysteria I found myself getting up from the settee and picking up my mobile phone. I entered the number without thinking about it.
‘999. What’s your emergency?’ asked the female operator.
‘I’m having a psychotic episode,’ I replied in a shaky voice.
‘How long have you been feeling this way?’
‘Two months. No, two weeks. Two days. I think.’
‘Okay.’ She sounded sceptical. ‘What are your symptoms?’
‘I’m hearing voices, I’m anxious and I’m sweating. I need help.’ I choked on the last word.
‘Do you have any knives or sharp objects lying around?’
‘I’m not going to kill myself. I just need help.’
‘What’s your address?’
I gave it to her.
‘The ambulance is on its way. Remain calm and they will be with you shortly. If you think you’ll have trouble answering the door, please leave it unlocked.’
She hung up. I sat there in the dark, fetid room and looked around. It was an open-plan flat so the kitchen and living-room were combined. The dustbin was overflowing with rubbish, the sink smelt like sewage and I hadn’t washed or brushed my teeth in weeks. I blamed the flat. There was nothing wrong with it, but I associated it with isolation, silence and inertia. I associated Birmingham and my university with poverty and stress. I sank into self-pity: nothing could relieve the agonizing chorus of voices in my head. If this was a mental problem why did it feel so physically painful? Why did it feel like my skull was being scraped out?
When the psychiatrist at the A&E asked me how I felt, I told her that I felt like my skull had been scraped out.
‘You’re very articulate,’ she said, as if this was a failing. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Give me a sleeping pill.’
‘I’ll give you Lorazepam. Your father and brother are on their way from London. Stay put.’ She brought me the pill and a glass of water, and left.
The tranquilizer started working instantly and before I knew it I was in a strange, reassuring space where part of my brain had gone to sleep and the other part was diluting the voices until they were faint crackles: a transistor radio still picking up signals but at a low volume. I walked around the hospital with my eyes open but with every other sense dulled. I blinked and an hour later I found myself being woken up by an orderly. I had fallen asleep on a bench outside the hospital. The orderly took my hand and led me inside. ‘Your father and brother are here for you,’ he said. I was too sluggish to even speak.
Through my haze I could sense my father’s irritation. I was the fourth child in a family of twelve, and even though I was creative and ambitious, even though I was studying on a prestigious course and trying to create a life for myself, my father had always harboured bigger dreams for me, dreams that I had always fallen short of fulfilling. Out of all my siblings he had invested the most time, money and energy in me.
When we were living in Nairobi I was the one who was sent to the expensive private school, whilst my more academically-gifted siblings were denied that privilege. During my teenage years, while my siblings were working hard at their studies, I was out getting drunk and smoking inordinate amounts of weed, stumbling home and vomiting on my bed. My father didn’t care what I did - whether I chose to become a fashion-designer or a painter or a writer - he just wanted me to succeed, and the fact that I didn’t frustrated him greatly. In a sense he viewed my mental illness as yet another failure on my part. He didn’t see my psychosis as illness, but as an inability to square up to reality and become a responsible adult. To him even psychosis could be remedied with plenty of exercise, a healthy diet and unceasing activity. His pragmatism was an attempt to gain power over something that was simply beyond his control.
After we left the hospital we rode silently in a cab to the coach station and took separate seats on the coach. By the time we reached London the medication was wearing off and the aural and visual hallucinations had returned. I kept quiet about them. My father and my older brother took me to the family house but I didn’t want anyone to see my shame. I didn’t want my mum or younger siblings to see me looking so haggard and visibly ill. My aunt placed a plate of spaghetti on the kitchen table in front of me.
‘Eat,’ encouraged my dad. ‘You need to keep up your strength.’ But my family home turned a muddy shade of brown and my entire family morphed into soul-sucking leeches before my eyes. Even my niece, who was an adorable toddler, became a source of obscure resentment. The line between my conscious thoughts and the part of my subconscious that harboured unlimited secret fears was being kicked over by false perception. Silence became my self-protection. Even though I was hungry I left the plate of pasta untouched and walked out of the house.
I holed up in my flat in Peckham, threw my mobile phone away and stopped speaking to anyone. I gave strict orders to my family to stop calling or visiting me as I wanted to recover without feeling any guilt and shame over my condition as I did so. In Somali culture, mental illness is a taboo subject and I wanted to hide, which I did.
My only visitors were the nurses that arrived with my medication, and I rarely exchanged more than five sentences with them. I went from being a gregarious, apparently happy young man to a recluse who didn’t speak to anyone and was suspicious of everything. I vegetated on the couch and gorged on ice cream, curry, pizza, cake. I overate in the delusional belief that if I didn’t gorge I would starve.
My saving grace came in the form of my older sister. She lived in a suburb in North London, over an hour’s drive away, but still she came. I refused to let her in at first – I didn’t want her to see my flat looking so filthy - but she gently convinced me to let her enter. Her husband had driven her and was waiting outside the block with my little niece and nephew. My sister discreetly told him to take the children to the park. Without missing a beat, she then started cleaning up my house. I tried to stop her but she didn’t want to hear it. Embarrassed, I went out onto the balcony and sat there, praying she would leave soon. But she didn’t. Without judgement and with military efficiency she cleaned the bathroom, toilet, kitchen, living-room and bedroom and she was done in under an hour. During that time she talked to me. Not as an invalid but as her brother. I realized through her eyes that I hadn’t changed at all: I was still the same person but I was just going through a tough time. One of my sister’s most endearing qualities was that she always cracked jokes to make light of a bad situation. She told me hilarious stories about the ins and outs of the family, filling me in on all the soap-operatic dramas I had missed. She wasn’t constrained around me. That day I felt human again. By the time her husband returned with the kids the house was sparkling and my sister had made lunch. She fed us all and when she was done she and the family left. The minute they walked out of the door I burst into tears of gratitude.
A few weeks later her husband went on a work trip and my sister invited me to stay over at her house and keep her company. I knew she wanted to keep me company but was being gracious about it. It was summer and our younger sister joined us as well. We watched light-hearted films and talked and laughed. When I was around them I forgot about my sadness and fear and anxiety. When I was around them I couldn’t stop talking or telling jokes.
With my older sister’s encouragement I applied for an internship at a small arts magazine called Live Listings and graduated from there to Touch, a hip-hop publication, and eventually to Time Out London. With each progression I became a little bolder. Something within me had shifted. I was unafraid to take on challenges that had seemed overwhelming before. Although I was still slightly awkward with people I relished my work and did it well. Within six months I was ready to go back to university and finish my degree.
I didn’t want to go back to living in Birmingham but I had to attend classes there. What to do? My sister and I devised a simple but extreme solution: I would commute to Birmingham for each class and leave immediately afterwards. She would help pay the coach fare. It meant waking up at 3.30 a.m. every morning and leaving the house at 4.30 in order to catch the 6am coach from Victoria Coach Station. The classes started at 9 a.m.
It was a punishing routine, but I reckoned that I could spend the morning commute catching up on sleep and the return journey working on my assignments. I wrote my entire dissertation on the National Express coach and obtained a first. My father had never looked as proud of me as he did on my graduation day.
But that celebratory spirit would soon come to an end.
In the summer of 2006, after an argument with my father that was superficially about why I was not being more proactive in my life but was really, as far as I was concerned, about something else, I took the Number 149 bus from London Bridge and went to my sister’s house in North London. She could see I was distressed and asked me what had happened. I became emotional and found myself choking on my words.
‘Abaayo, I have something to tell you,’ I said anxiously. I think she knew what was coming next and her expression grew slightly panicked. But she bit her lip and told me to carry on. I told her that I was gay.
She looked frightened by this revelation, but it seemed only because I had just uttered the unspeakable, because she gathered herself and reassured me that it would be fine.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening in a state of heightened awkwardness. But as we went out to get milk for her kids from the local Turkish supermarket she said, ‘I will support you. You’re my brother and I’ll support you.’ Then she laughed. ‘It’s funny because this explains so much! And I feel weirdly closer to you as a result.’
Relieved that I had shared this secret with her, I went home and slept peacefully for the first time in years.
After I graduated from Birmingham I found myself without a job and my sense of isolation returned. I’m a social creature and I found living on my own a challenging experience, as I associated living on one’s own with the beginning of a descent into another psychotic episode. Though it was a one-bedroom flat, my older sister suggested that I have my younger sister live with me. She could have my room and I was happy to sleep on the sofa in the living-room. I welcomed the idea of having company in the house and my younger sister had a delicious vibrancy about her. We would watch reruns of Sex and The City together and remark upon how daft Carrie Bradshaw was whilst secretly admiring the dramatics of her romantic entanglements. We would go to the cinema together and come home and share playlists with each other. We would dissect her relationships and I would often joke that she was the other half of my brain.
My younger sister’s move into my home brought me a great deal of peace and calm. It was at this point that I met JT. He was a novelist, playwright, artist and screenwriter. We had begun corresponding on Gaydar, the popular dating site, and we instantly hit it off. We would write long emails to each other every day and when we finally met in Balans Café in Soho, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. I had never been in a serious long-term relationship before, mainly out of fear of being outed, but here was a man who made me feel wanted and needed and the feeling was mutual.
Love has a strange way of clarifying things, bringing order to chaos and making one feel bolder and more self-assured. JT did that for me.
At night, we would talk about our lives, about where we had been in the past and who we had loved. A few weeks into our relationship I told him I suffered from schizophrenia and without missing a beat, he kissed me and reassured me that I had his full support. The next morning, I left his place feeling so optimistic that I did a little skip on my way to the station.
When I came out to my younger sister she took it in her stride. ‘I always knew!’ she joked. ‘I always knew!’
So things were on a genuine upswing. Then, as my relationship with JT grew more serious, my older sister started to worry. She was fine with me being gay when I was celibate but I would spend hours on the phone with JT whenever I was at her house, and her initial solidarity started to wane. One day, she sat me down and said, ‘What you’re doing is against our culture. It’s against our faith. You have to stop.’
I was taken aback and I told her so. ‘I thought you didn’t mind me being gay?’
‘I mind because it’s against our beliefs.’
What I correctly read into that was that my older sister was embarrassed and didn’t want to, despite her earlier promises of support, associate herself with the shame of having a proudly gay brother. The Somali community is all about tradition and that sense of tradition comes with an air of secretiveness, suppression and Puritanism. I had no desire to live in secrecy anymore. I had experienced what it was like to lead an open, healthy, guilt-free life and I liked it. It felt natural and necessary. I wasn’t ready to come out to my entire family yet but as it turned out I had no say in the matter: my sister sped up the process for me.
I got a text from my older brother one evening, saying that he was coming to my house over the weekend. I texted him back, asking why. He simply replied that I should prepare myself. I immediately called my sister and asked her whether she told him about my sexuality. She replied yes.
‘You’re not going to listen to me because I’m a woman. You’re not afraid of me but they’ll talk some sense into you.’
I called her a vindictive bitch and hung up. I then texted my brother back and said, ‘I know why you’re coming to my house on Saturday but I don’t want you there.’
He responded, ‘I’ll teach you a lesson and you’ll stop these games.’
As humans we differentiate ourselves from all other species by claiming that empathy and ‘human feeling’ make us superior beings. But empathy is not a universal human trait. It cannot be learnt in books or taught in schools. A scholar in Classics may not possess the same level of empathy that an uneducated derelict may have.
It was whilst glancing at my brother’s text and contemplating what to do that I received a call from my eldest brother.
I had never liked my eldest brother. He was cocky in a charmless way. I picked up the phone.
The first words he said to me were, ‘You’re gay. Yuck!’
My response was ‘I’m gay and I’m happy being gay.’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘You’re no brother of mine. My brother can’t be a fag.’
‘Nobody is asking you to stick around. If you don’t want me as your brother, I won’t cry about it.’
He couldn’t believe my nerve, so he tried another tactic. ‘I know a lot of guys in London who would happily kill you.’
That’s when I hung up the phone.
I realized that, regardless of how it’s dressed up, whether it’s presented as love from family or friends, abuse is abuse and I was unwilling to fall for it.
I washed my face, brushed my teeth, gelled my hair and put on carefully-ironed clothes. I called up JT at his workplace and told him what had happened. He urged me to go to the police-station, not realizing that I was already on my way there.
After being kept waiting for hours at Peckham Police Station I was tempted to give up, go back home, curl up in bed and just sleep. But that was a luxury I couldn’t afford. I continued to wait, and when my turn came to speak to the officer at the desk I told him that I wanted to press charges against my brothers.
‘Do you really want to go there?’ he said. ‘These are your brothers.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but homophobic abuse is a hate crime, and regardless of whether it’s a stranger on the street or a member of my family, I’m going to report it and press charges.’
The officer sighed and said, ‘Go home, think about it, and come back in the morning.’
I went home, thought about it and came back the next morning. ‘I want to press charges.’
A few years earlier I had been in the middle of a different kind of mental distress. I could barely talk and my life was spent in silence and imagined danger. But now I was faced with the possibility of real danger, and my voice had to come through. No word could be wasted. I had to express myself clearly and eloquently and I did.
After I pressed charges my brothers pulled a disappearing act. I realized then that the only way to deal with bullies is to hit them where it hurts: the law. The police treated my case as a hate crime and put me into contact with the Victim Support Unit, who sent a locksmith to reinforce my door. My flat was turned into a fortress. Once that was sorted out I was put in touch with a family lawyer, who immediately drafted injunction warnings to my three older siblings. Even though it was mentally and emotionally draining, what was more traumatic was the fact that I was losing my family. I grew up in a very close-knit family where everything was shared, and I was now an outcast in a very real sense.
When I emailed my father to explain the situation I didn’t hear back from him. My older sister stopped speaking to me and my younger sister moved out of my flat. After so much progress I was back where I had started: in a state of depression and isolation. The great boon was that I had love in the form of JT and I was now studying on Andrew Motion’s Creative Writing MA programme at Royal Holloway. But the sense of sadness and trauma didn’t lift for at least two years.
My doctor often tells me that everything in life is cyclical. I could become unwell again next year or the year after. I could lose loved ones and gain new friends in the process. I had always thought of family as a fixed, all-powerful entity. I was raised in a culture where family was the most important thing. But as a gay man I had to learn that nothing in life is fixed, especially families. And as a gay man I had to learn that I live in a country where I don’t have suffer in silence; that there are laws that protect my rights. As a gay man I had to learn in a bittersweet way that I can choose my family, that certain people have come into my life who share a genuine sense of affinity with me. We may not have the power to choose the family we’re born into but we can certainly choose the family we decide to make our own.
Interestingly, ever since I distanced myself from my family, the voices I used to hear in my head have stopped. I am no longer paranoid. I walk down the street with a sense of optimism and a lack of fear. I lead a happy life now and I realize, with sadness but without regret, that my family were a hindrance to my personal health and happiness. This is not meant as a mean-spirited jibe but as a plain fact. Coming from a conservative family I was taught to repress many things I enjoyed in life, such as jewellery or hair-dye. These things may sound trivial but their symbolic value cannot be overstated.
It is also painful and telling that the voices I heard in my head when I was unwell were always shouting homophobic slurs at me. Those voices didn’t belong to strange, nebulous creatures. Those voices belonged to my family.
In November 2011, I got a phone call in the middle of the night. The area code indicated that it was from Somalia and I knew who was calling.
‘Hello? Diriye?’ came my father’s voice.
‘Hi dad,’ I said in a relaxed tone. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine, thank you.’
‘Where are you calling from?’
‘I’m in Mogadishu at the moment.’
‘Nice. What’s up?’
‘I saw your artwork online and I read somewhere that you’ve had a difficult life. What is this difficult life you speak of? You’ve had a good life.’
‘Is that why you’re calling me?’ I sighed.
‘Also, Diriye, and this is very important, so please take note. This gay business that you mention is something I don’t understand.’
‘What don’t you understand about it?’ I said. ‘It should be pretty clear by now.’
‘You know, when you told me that you were gay several years ago, I assumed that it was the mental illness speaking.’
My blood pressure started to rise. ‘If you genuinely believed that you would have kept in touch.’
‘So it’s not the mental illness then?’
‘No, dad. I’m a gay man who’s pretty proud of being a gay man.’
There was silence on the other line.
‘You’re proud of being gay?’
‘Very much so,’ I said. ‘Coming out was one of the best things that happened to me.’
‘This is not our custom. We have a faith. Are you telling me that you’re not a Muslim?’
‘I am a Muslim but I’m also very gay and I like it.’
‘I cannot accept this,’ he said, his voice rising.
‘That’s entirely your business. You gave up your parental rights when you disowned me two years ago. I have my own family now and I don’t need you.’
‘Please stay away from my kids and stay away from me,’ he shouted.
‘I don’t care for your family and I don’t care for you. Two years. Two fucking years. That’s how long it takes for you to call me and this is all you have to say for yourself? You’re a coward.’
And with that, I hung up.
When faced with unpleasant experiences, I take a breath and listen to calming music. And I pray. Not the prayer that my parents had taught me, that I had been caned and cajoled into repeating when I was younger: this prayer only required me to close my eyes and allow the thoughts to float around in my head until they turned into colours. It was an act of pleasure, silence, stillness. I remembered a quote by Audre Lorde that I had once read online and smiled. She had said, ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You.’
In honour of that quote, I created a little comic strip on my phone and posted it on Facebook that night. Tired but undefeated, I went to bed afterwards.
The comic strip was an image of a toddler knelt in prayer and the caption I placed beneath it read: ‘I didn’t know I was here. But I am now. There’s beauty in grace. I will continue to dream wide awake. I will continue to soar.’