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Surprises: Ways to Torment a Recovering Over-thinker

The day I turned 25 was the day I came face-to-face with my sheer disdain for surprise parties. A few days before, Rah - my partner at the time - and I had discussed celebrating the turn of my quarter-century with a relaxed day where the most eventful thing we would do was have lunch at my favourite Indian restaurant in Accra. Little did I know that plots and schemes were being made in my absence.

The day of my birthday arrives. I wake up refreshed and thrilled to indulge in flavourful food and overpriced wine. All things proceed as planned, we arrive at the restaurant just in time for lunch, to enjoy our two person meal in peace. Well, perhaps not in peace because at some point I begin to notice that Rah was spending much of our time together responding to text messages and answering shady phone calls. A stench of jealousy comes over me and I begin to wonder why he was receiving more attention than I was on MY birthday. We finish our meal and make our way back to our shared home.

Upon arrival, I notice a pair of boots left outside our front door. Based on the size, style and condition of these shoes, the Jill Scott Number 1 Detective Agent in me deduces that they must belong to a man. Not the man I share close quarters with as they don’t match anything about the person I have gotten to know over the past 12 months. I signal my angst about the strange pair of shoes to Rah, he looks at me, his pupils dilating and eyebrows moving towards his thick hairline. "I think someone has broken into the house!” He suggests immediately. “Perhaps you should open the door and see…” Now, let’s ignore for a moment that the man in this relationship has suggested that I risk my life - on my birthday - and be the first to face danger head on. I unwillingly comply.

As I turn the knob I notice that the door has been left unlocked. “If I die today, at least I would have had the perfect last supper,” I think to myself. I slowly open the door, ready to fight off an intruder, and as the door opens I am faced with something even more disastrous.

I am ambushed by a large group of familiar faces exclaiming at the top of their lungs “SURPRISE!!!” My body goes into immediate shock, “This must be the most bitter of nightmares!” I drop everything in my hands, blink a few times and proceed to run away from the scene. "How do I escape? Surely this isn’t real. Can someone slap me so that I can wake up from this, post haste." It turns out this moment was very real and there was no way of fleeing from this horrendous scene as those of my friends tasked with taking videos of my reaction followed me in my attempt to escape.

For many normal, and might I add “healthy-minded” people, the prospect of a surprise party seems like the most exceptional display of love. Your friends coming together to orchestrate a moment, unbeknownst to you, that celebrates your life. You may have gathered by the way I have narrated this story that I am not one of those people.

Conflicting Realities

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I’ll share with you why this was one of the most uncomfortable gatherings I have been a part of. I am recovering overthinker who is mending her relationship with control, shame and validation. Because of this, I tend to deal with people, even loved ones, in a context-specific way. What this means is that how my family knows me may not be how one group of friends know me, which may also be different to how another group of friends know me. The boundaries I create with different people inform how much or how little I let them in. So the reality that almost everyone I know - who all know me in different ways - are in the same room at the same time is perhaps the most daunting thing for me to fathom. The image in my mind is of different worlds colliding and trying to make sense of each other and while all of that is happening all I want is for the earth to open up and swallow me whole.

Modern psychology refers to this phenomenon as compartmentalisation. “A psychological defence mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that appear to be conflicting are kept separate from each other in the mind.” So the distinct social identities we have are isolated from one another to avoid the anxiety that may arise from being a living, breathing paradox. ‘How is it that you’re a yogi and meditator but you are also a die hard groovist who parties until the sun comes up?’ - That sort of thing. We isolate these identities as a way of not having to explain to others and perhaps even different parts of ourselves, how these realities that appear to be in conflict, can exist in the same body. Some Pan-African scholars may blame colonial philosophies and capitalism for making us believe that opposites cannot be complementary. Creating dichotomies between the mind, soul, body, and spirit - seeing them as separate and disconnected entities.

A Response to Trauma

Another way that compartmentalization plays out is in the way that we separate our thoughts, memories and experiences especially when they seem to conflict with one another. Some psychologists attribute this to PTSD, where we create mental cabinets to help us keep what we see as the 'negative' self-aspects from overtaking the 'positive.' Where good days are disconnected from bad days, creating what some people call a cognitive dissonance in our minds.

So when I opened the door and saw the faces of all of these different truths, realities and perceptions in the form of my friends, it triggered the need to return to a place of comfort where all of these worlds were separate from each other.

If there was such a thing as a favourite physician, Dr. Gabor Mate would be mine. He shares that a common response to trauma is to choose safety over truth, and in uncomfortable situations that response is not informed by what is happening in the present, but by an experience from the past. So when I saw all of those eager faces waiting for my reaction, my instinct was to find safety by fleeing the scene instead of facing my truth head on.

The Problem with Having Hope

I’ve noticed another form of compartmentalisation that plays out in diverse spiritual practices across the world. The idea that the external is separate from and oftentimes more influential than the internal. While the belief that we were created by a force greater than what we can perceive helps us hold reverence and respect to the gift of life. Oftentimes this translates to the belief that life is something that happens to us, making us spectators of our own destiny. When we see the internal and external as identical, we then begin to take the driver’s seat.

I am reminded of the teachings of James Baldwin and Cornel West who speak about the abstractness of hope. Instead of seeing hope as something we need to have in order for our lives to change, we should consider that maybe hope is something that we must be - a state that we must embody, in order to change our own lives. Having hope is still a disassociated and disembodied state of waiting for something or someone to save you. As you may have gathered by now - no one is coming to save us, we must save ourselves.

The Gift of Integration

How do we begin to move away from compartmentalising our truths? Well, neuroscientist Tara Swart seems to think that integration is a good start. She says “integration and alignment in your purpose with the brain (which informs logic), the heart (which informs emotion) and the gut (which informs our intuition)” is a path towards living in our authenticity. Understanding that good days are not separate from bad days and that your so-called negative thoughts and actions are drawn from the same well that your positive self drinks from. Kahlil Gibran teaches us in his book The Prophet that there is no greater awareness between joy and sorrow - the two are inseparable. Our task is to find the harmony between these diverse parts of ourselves because that is the true essence of being a complicated and courageous human being.

mkutaji, captured on her 25th birthday, Accra - Ghana

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