Before leaving my off-campus residence, I jump. It is nothing vigorous, just a series of jumps punctuated by short pauses. While I jump, I think about the movement my body is making, how lacking in rhythm it is, how, if someone discovered me, I wouldn’t be able to explain why I am jumping in my bathroom fully dressed. When I feel I have jumped enough, I pull down my clothes, sit on the toilet bowl and squeeze my core as tight as I can. Before long, urine trickles. I sigh in relief because my body doesn’t obey sometimes. I wear my clothes again and walk out of the door, out of safety. I have bought myself time.
The doctor palms my pink medical file and studies me for the first time. He is an overweight man permanently slumped in his chair, wearing a disinterested look he has made no attempt to hide. In the past twenty minutes, he has stolen several glances at his wristwatch, taken a break to get a drink and another to find an old almanac to fan himself with. His office, a demarcation made with painted ply woods, is very hot. He opens my file and scribbles something in it.
“So, when did it start?” he says suddenly.
I start to answer but a nurse comes around to ask if he wants moimoi. He tells her he wants two and the conversation dances to other things: retirement, electricity, a meeting and two burials. While sweat runs down my temple, I rehearse what I will tell him after the nurse leaves. That I can’t remember when my incontinence started. That one day, my bladder was full and I couldn’t hold in my urine. That one day, I urinated, pressed the flusher and walked out of the toilet still feeling full. That one day, I hurried home to pee only to sit on the bowl and release a few drops. That one day, I counted how many times I peed and it was eighteen.
It is a warm day in my first year at university and I am walking home with my friends, Daniella and Ken. Ken is teaching Daniella basic Igbo and, at the same, telling me the Igbo boys to avoid. I am giggling, laughing a little too loudly, a little too happily. Daniella asks why everyone she has met is either named Emeka or Victor, and I start another fit of laughter. Ken’s disagreement comes with vehemence. There are a variety of Igbo names, he says, and Daniella is too deaf to hear them.
“Eh? Is it not so?” He turns to ask me.
I want to answer but there is a pressure in my bladder that wasn’t there some moments ago. Panic widens my eyes. I yank Daniella’s arm and the panic I feel enters her eyes. She knows what it means; I have yanked her arms too many times in the past months. We start to walk faster. Ken tries to keep up. Daniella scans the area for a bush or some kind of covering. There is none. We are surrounded by an expanse of open land and too many students in white lab coats.
“Let me call okada,” she mutters, holding my hand.
We stall for a few minutes. There is no motorcycle in sight. She looks at her watch. “Ten minutes and we will be at the hostel.”
I shake my head. “I can’t hold it for ten minutes.”
“Queen, calm down. Stay calm. Think happy thoughts.”
“Daniella.” My thighs are pressed together and I am not sure I can move anymore.
“Let me distract you.”
She opens her mouth and starts telling me stories. I see her lips form words but I hear nothing. I am starting to leak.
“Da-niel-la.” I feel wetness in my underwear. “Da-niel-la.”
Defeated, she throws her hands up. She shrugs and there in front of the ICT building, I take it as permission to pee on myself. Ken still behind me, I release my muscles and urine runs down my legs in a torrent. This is the first time I pee on myself in public.
Dr Dora is the doctor I am seeing now. This is my third visit. I walk into her office—another plywood demarcation—and settle into her chair. She gives me a small smile and I relax some more. She stretches her hand and I pass my lab results to her. Before she opens it, we burst into laughter. I don’t know why we are laughing but it feels good to laugh with her. Between visits, she has told me about herself, living with albinism and her job in this underfunded school clinic. She has told me she likes my name—“such a powerful name,” she said. She has told me I have a urinary tract infection and it was nothing to worry about; most women will have it in their lifetime. “We are legion,” she whispered.
Now, she looks at another test result. “The bacteria’s gone. You say you’re still urinating as before?”
I nod. Her face squeezes into a frown. I feel a sudden urge to lie, to do anything, anything to straighten that face.
She sighs and starts penning things in my pink file. I sit there and watch her in silence. Twice she has prescribed drugs and twice they did not work.
She sighs again and starts asking questions all over again:
Do you feel any burning sensation or pain while urinating? No.
Do you pee blood? No.
Do you pee more at night? Yes.
How many times? Six, seven.
Do you bed wet? Occasionally.
The questions last a few more minutes before she reaches for my hand across the table. I let her hold me. She gives another small smile, hands me a new prescription and tells me to have a nice day.
When I arrive at a new place, I worry myself with where the restroom is. Is it clean enough? Can I hang close to it? How many steps would it take to get there? Is it hidden or will everyone see me going to and coming out of it?
In my course adviser’s office, sitting across from her, she tells me my GPA is 2.1. She asks me if I want her to call my grades out again. I shake my head and rise to my feet.
“You’re a smart girl,” she says. “Buckle up.”
I nod and walk out of her office to Daniella waiting outside for me. She hands me a bottle of Coke and we laugh about my result. We laugh about everything these days. We walk home, Coke and music between us. When I fall on my bed that night, I tell myself there was nothing I could have done about it. My lecture halls did not have toilets. How could I not have missed all those classes? How do I, every day, pee behind buildings, behind cars, behind fences and in the middle of tall elephant grasses? It was not my fault.
The next day, I dress up for class. I do not eat breakfast or drink water. It works, somehow. I last three lectures before my head starts to pound and people begin to blur into each other. As Daniella holds my hand all the way home, I decide which lectures are worth hunger and dehydration.
My family is not aware I am incontinent. I haven’t told my siblings because we just do not have the kind of relationship where private things are shared. I have not told my parents because when a lot of things counted on their understanding, they did not understand.
Now, in my room, a calculator between both hands, I add and subtract money. I wonder where a thousand naira went to. I make a note to compare lab prices. Not telling my family means I can’t ask them for money. Not telling them means I am finding ways to pay for everything. Freelancing. Photocopying textbooks. Eating once a day. Cooking stews with only onions. I look at the doctor’s note where he prescribed a thyroid test. Thyroid? How much is it? Why am I checking my thyroid? What is in my thyroid? The note crumples in my fist.
I love it when I’m out and it rains. It is the one time it is convenient to pee on myself. I get to enjoy the warm, ticklish feeling without the element of shame.
I turn to God because it is what humans do when everything else fails. I start to attend more church programs, always careful to sit by the door and close to the restroom.
I am in a prayer meeting now. Everyone is testifying about their healing. Testifier after testifier, I sit still, claiming it in Jesus name. The pastor mounts the pulpit and tells us to remember everyone Jesus ever healed. The woman with the issue of blood. Blind Bartimaeus. The centurion’s servant. He sounds passionate and powerful and I am convinced that this time will be different. This time, I will be among the testifiers. This time, someone whom I do not know will use my testimony as a point of contact to their needs. I raise my hand when he makes the altar call and with shaky legs, I approach the podium.
I have mastered my body. I have learned to adapt, to wear more skirts because urinating is easier with skirts. Like a sojourner in the desert, I have learned to stay parched, taming my thirst for water, drinking only in measured sips. I have learned to stay indoors, to enjoy life inside my room with only myself for company, to overhydrate during weekends to compensate for every dehydrating week day.
Daniella has mastered me too. She has learned to stop persuading me to tell my parents. She has learned to laugh about it if I want to laugh about it, to ask no questions when it is clear I do not want to discuss my visit to the doctor. She has learned to walk ahead of me so she can get home first and undo all our many padlocks, leaving the door ajar so I can run through it and at least pee on myself in the bathroom. She has learned to shield me while I pee and to calm me before I pee, to shrug off my shame after I have peed on our mattress.
For a long time, I stay single. By choice and for convenience. How do I pee every five or ten minutes on a date? How do I not worry that his feelings will change after I spend more time in his toilet than with him?
I am at a diagnostic lab to run my tests all over again. While we wait my turn, my friend Aisha tells me to wear a pad even when I am not on my period. “You can wee-wee in it small small,” she whispers with eyes widened for effect.
I am about to tell her I will try it when I am called in. As they prepare me for a pelvic scan, Aisha holds my hand. “They won’t find anything,” she assures me.
I nod but deep down, I want them to find something. Anything. A tumor. A blockage. A mispositioning. Anything, but I nod again and again. I nod till I am almost teary. I nod till the scans are done and we are back to sitting in the lounge, waiting for the results. The results are handed in a thick envelope and it takes all the patience I have not to rip it apart. I flip to the last page, ignoring the image of my uterus and other things measured to the last centimetre. Aisha takes the result from my hand.
“You see?” she says, poking me with an elbow. “They did not see anything.”
Oby is my new roommate and I am welcoming her to the room. We are eating jollof rice and talking about school. Her eyes follow me each time I leave the room to pee and I begin to wonder what she thinks of me. Will she, like my aunty, think I’m incontinent because I’ve been following men and spreading my legs too easily? Will she be like my former roommate who was so scared of contracting my disease that she, at every opportunity, doused the toilet seat with antiseptic? Will she tell all those people who worship me outside that indoors I am nothing but a worn, defeated mass?
I am taking my spot on the floor when Oby tells me she used to be like me. Her story is like mine, riddled with shame and enduring insults, but hers was short-lived. It stopped suddenly. She woke up one day and her incontinence was gone.
I scoff. “So, I should wait for a ‘suddenly’?”
Today is Friday. I am home and thirsty but I can’t drink water. I already have peed twenty-two times. I call Mrs. Ugwu, a Christian missionary who loves me a lot. She picks on the third ring and I tell her how bad it is. She listens and tells me she is praying for me; she asks that I keep praying. I thank her and after I drop my phone, overwhelmed with helplessness and convinced something must be wrong with all my previous attempts (cos why would God just leave me like this?), I give my life to Christ again. I do some Bible study and I sing some Sola Allyson songs. I emphasize the lines where she tells God she has no one else to help her. I sing till my voice starts to break. I sing till I fall asleep.
I wake on Saturday, my official day for overhydration. I drink a lot of water. A lot. I drink my ginger and garlic tea. I cook spaghetti and an experimental vegetable sauce. I drink Ribena. I drink Happy Hour. When I count at the end of the day, I have peed only three times. Three. Three lengthy urinations. No small spurts. No trickles. No partially-empty feeling in my belly. I can’t believe it. I wait till Sunday morning before texting Mrs Ugwu: God has done it. She texts me back: It is permanent in Jesus name. I reply: Amen.
After the call, I feel the need to pee. I dance-walk to the bathroom. I sit on the toilet bowl and only a trickle comes out. I stand up feeling partially-empty. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. I start panicking. I text Mrs. Ugwu again: It has returned. Maybe it wasn’t a miracle. Maybe I was unsettled. Maybe it’s the ginger and garlic. Maybe I really am too anxious. Mentally ill. Maybe, maybe I have a neurological disorder.
Her response comes in almost immediately: Don’t say it. Don’t. Stop. Stop it. See, this is the devil. He is trying to steal your joy. He heard your testimony and he is trying to smear it. Don’t allow him steal your joy.
I switch off my phone and sit helplessly at the door. I am angry. I am angry I was once again a fool exaggerating my importance to God. I am angry I allowed myself think I was healed, angry I shared the “good news” at all. I am angry at Mrs. Ugwu. She has somehow made this my fault by giving me power, putting me in a position where I can allow and disallow. I am angry but before long, my anger is no more. It dissipates, leaving me weary and disoriented. It doesn’t take long before I feel the need to pee again. I crawl inside and somehow, hoist myself on the bowl. Urine trickles. I don’t bother getting up. I sit there and cry. My feet start to feel numb. I beg the devil to leave me alone. Let me be. Back off. Give me a break. It is my attempt at interceding differently but there’s no answer. Nothing, so I wait.
© Arekpitan Ikhenaode
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Arekpitan’s interview]