Mantalk: Yes, we are the anxious generation with good reason

Yes, we are the anxious generation with good reason. Photo | Photosearch

What you need to know:

I no longer want to know how my friends are really doing because I can take a pretty good guess; everyone is battling something

A friend recently jetted back into the country and after two years of planning, we finally met.  After the usual Kenyanese sweet-nothings of “Form?” “Ni God”; and “Otherwise?” he asked me—“How are you? Like really, how are you?”

I had never thought about that. How am I? How am I really doing? The truth is, lately I have been very anxious. Not sad, hardly angry, just anxious.

Anxiety feels like something is stuck in your throat, a lump, a feeling that gnaws. A shadow of a shadow. The air is clammy, the mood gloomy. I feel like a passenger on a flight where the pilot is suicidal and heading straight for the side of a mountain. I keep waiting for the moment of impact and wonder how bad and for how long it will hurt before I dissolve into nothingness.

You’d be sat somewhere thinking about how you got here, how thankful you are to be here, but how it all does not make sense. A girl I was chatting up confessed (confided?) to me how she is ever in panic mode. One of my closest friends, is, like me, a people-pleaser. He does not know how to say no, and rarely, if ever, thinks he is right. He second-guesses himself and always seems to be asking for permission.

I’ve struggled with shyness. I am still a shy boy—despite what someone’s daughter will tell you—but I learned to be bold after I realised no one is coming to save me. Miracles only happen in the Bible and Afro-cinema. Life is neither a Sermon on the Mount nor Nollywood. Just before the covid pandemic hit, I made an emotional decision and left a job that I had worked quite hard for because…Because? There is no because. It was an emotional decision. 

Then I lost someone very close to me and there was anxiety shaking my hand. I offered her the living room because I was slowly dying inside (bad joke), and because I had to downgrade my lifestyle on account of quitting my job, and I wanted to make her comfortable, but not too comfortable because I didn’t want her to stay long. Instead of the living room, she trooped straight into my bedroom and dropped her heavy bags, changing the duvet and bedcovers and asking for a darker shade of curtains, and not from Biashara Street. Eastleigh? Okay, but Eastleigh ndani. Years later, anxiety shows up unceremoniously, now an old friend, someone to sip gin with and reminisce. 

I have not stepped foot in an office for three years now, as is the case with many young people (only 80,000 people in Kenya earn over 100k with only three per cent of that number earning more than what we would rationally consider being good wages which is above 300K per month.)

With many organisations trimming down workforces, you wake up as a young man in Kenya on the ropes against life’s punches. I think my generation is ill-prepared to be adults much less my father’s generation or those guys who claim(ed) they were in the Mau Mau. As soon as we are done growing up, it seems, we must face what to do with our lives. How do we do that? We are suffering from information overload yet we don’t know much, we are generalists in a world of dying experts, settled in our unsettledness—or as Ijeoma Umebinyuo put it in Questions for Ada: too foreign for home; too foreign for here, never enough for both. It feels like we have gambled and lost, yet we haven’t even started playing.

Looking for work in this era feels like driving, er, pardon, it feels like walking along Tom Mboya Street at night, the darkness an almost perfect photograph for the human condition. Anxiety can be a puddle or a pool—when darkness falls and you are alone, you sink into the same waters that everyone does when they can’t stop drowning in thoughts. And you wonder whether you’ll make it out on the other side.

Throw in social media and you have yourself a concoction that is as potent as any grenade. And the safety pin? FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. FOMO detonates and the pressure explodes: pressure to perform in school, pressure to perform at work, pressure to perform in dating (you know what I mean). It’s akin to living in a crucible, occasionally getting your head out to breathe. With social media, you can compare everything. So don’t mind if I do: relationships, wallets, cars, hair, clothes, holidays, jobs—not just with my friends, but with the likes of Sonko too.

It’s an addictive limerence that steals your sense of pride while stanching pain and grief. Here’s the thing about anxiety—it’s not like it’s a cousin to depression; if depression is death, then anxiety is sleep; if depression’s sister is rumination; then anxiety has a fraternal twin in overthinking, if depression is urine yellow, anxiety is blood clotted brown. If depression is the devil’s roar, then anxiety is a demon’s whisper. Depression wants to jump out of the window, to be fatal; anxiety wants to fall off a bike, to be an emergency. Depression wants to die; anxiety wants to be saved.

Since 2009, when anxiety overtook depression as the No. 1 concern among college students, the numbers have been steadily rising. Misery truly loves company and is an effective salesman. 

We spend so much time analysing life rather than living it…which is easy to say and tough to navigate. Maybe the palliative is to think more about others and less about ourselves.

I no longer want to know how my friends are really doing because I can take a pretty good guess; everyone is battling something. Why is it that this plagues so many of my generation? Or is it a case of having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail? Anxiety disorders are as much medical problems as they are social illnesses, the situation being exacerbated by economic insecurities and dwindling social connections. Our garden vegetation is already starting to wilt under the

guidance of our version of the Gardner. Anxiety’s a huge anchor dragging our society into the abyss.

I know of a young guy using codeine and abusing other pharmaceutical drugs. The average teenager has felt the call of the void—even considered it. Statistically, more men are likely to die by suicide than their female counterparts (9 men out of every 100,000 people compared to six for women). You don’t need to be a therapist to assess our national emotional state as anything better than “not great.”  Please pass the Xanax.

The last time I asked someone ‘how are you?” and I really mean ‘how are you?’ they ended up crying. (We already established I am not good with tears, so I won’t tell you what happened after).  We, mostly men, live our lives on autopilot. We don’t stop to take stock, gather ourselves, to pour back into our spirits. Motion of the ocean they say, but like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous and powerful beyond measure. But we are not all of that calibre, this anomaly of logic has brought the world to the precipice of destruction.

Suffice it to say, anxiety will be that one friend who keeps checking in from time to time. Am I doing enough? Am I enough? Will this writing thing work? Should I start a family now? And every time someone’s daughter has my phone in her hand…a new level of panic attack. But I’ll be fine. Enough about me, otherwise? How are you?