My Spirit Burns Through This Body


First Person

Human heart, dual view, vintage anatomy print

It is storming in Dar es Salaam, thunder belting through the sky and rain slamming against the roof for over twelve hours, until the roads are drowned in swells of water and everyone is stuck in traffic. I am lying under a mosquito net, aged white tulle draped over a four-poster, as the rain seeps under the door to pool on the tile. Kathleen and I catch it with towels and listen to the wind while the right side of my torso goes into convulsions.

It starts with my arm jumping, rippling from the shoulder down to my wrist, then it escalates until I’m watching my fingers flex and claw on their own, watching my elbow slam against my side, flaring my forearm out in spasmodic jerks. My shoulder blade lifts off the mattress, the muscles seizing their own control as my sternum scrambles toward the ceiling. My head snaps so violently to the side that it feels like my neck is being torn by the force. I wouldn’t let just anyone see me like this, but Kathleen is family. She sits next to me and holds my hand and I try not to tense my body to stop the convulsions, to control this treacherous flesh. “Let it go,” she says, and my speech slurs and stutters when I try to respond, nerves glitching in my mouth. We get me sitting up against the headboard and the convulsions seep down into my arm, leaving my head and neck mercifully alone for a bit. Kathleen brings me muscle relaxants and painkillers. I throw the pills down with bottled water, wincing at the taste. We talk about how scary this is, and then I make a joke about popping and locking as my arm carves severe and involuntary shapes into the air. We both laugh because it is better than being afraid.

When I was packing for this trip, I didn’t bring enough clothes; I was so focused instead on not forgetting any of my medications. I’d sat next to my suitcase with orange bottles scattered around me: three different muscle relaxants, two different painkillers, one for neuropathic pain, my antidepressants, my antianxiety meds, my acid-reflux meds that work together with my asthma meds so I can breathe at night, my migraine meds, my inhalers. Seeing them gathered together hurt. Three years ago, my flesh didn’t need all this, but my stress levels have climbed so high that my muscles have run out of space to hold all the tension, so they release it in flamboyant spasms. My somatic therapist says this is my body processing complex trauma, and we talk about the ways in which my flesh is desperately trying to keep me alive.

I know that my spirit burns through this body with no regard, no respect, no care. I’m trying to figure out how to become gentler with myself; I don’t want to be as cruel as the rest of this world. Slowly, as I learn to listen to it, I acknowledge that this body is disabled. This is language that makes my spirit pause rather than driving the flesh into ruin, language that gives me gentleness. Without it, I keep making my body do things it does not have the capacity for, fueled by rushes of invincibility, possibility, waves of analgesic euphoria. I thought this would make me safe—if I could write enough books, make enough money to breathe—and then, for the first time in my life, I had a home that I didn’t have to leave. But even after stepping away from work, the energy was still there, rabid and hungry. I decorated and redecorated, put in garden boxes and trellises and arbors in the land I am caretaking, mulched and landscaped and planted until the land was shouting with life. One weekend, I loaded terra-cotta pavers from the home improvement store onto a cart, then into my car, out of my car, and along the pathways of my front yard. It took fifty pavers and two trips to the store. Later, when it was too late, I realized that each paver weighed seventeen pounds, that I had moved eight hundred and fifty pounds on my own. It was summer, ninety degrees in Louisiana humidity. I worked in the sun until I got dizzy, then tried to explain to my therapist that I simply couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to.

My spirit bends worlds and does things that shouldn’t be possible, not with the way my flesh or this world is set up, but I’m learning that my body is something to be reckoned with as well. It keeps receipts and inevitably claims its debts. I haven’t been able to drive for weeks, not since a friend had to come rescue me from a parking lot because the numbness in my neck had spread into my jaw and throat, compromising my speech while pain shot up the side of my head in blinding spikes. My journey to Dar was expensive, marked with wheelchairs in every airport, flat seats on the plane, face masks and face shields, UV sanitizing lights, disinfecting wipes, exhaustion. It was the first international trip I’d been able to take in two years, ever since the spasming muscles of my neck and shoulder sent me to the emergency room, profoundly changing my relationship with my body and turning me into someone who couldn’t accept the new limits of this flesh. I swear I don’t want to be cruel. I want to see my flesh as both delicate and resilient, worthy of tenderness and restraint.

This disability is invisible in me, pain clenched in my molars like a tight secret. I’ve spent years dissociating from it, wiping it into something unreal, but there is too much pain now to keep playing that game. I feel like I’ve been floating out of my body for ages and now I have to practice actually being inside it. My somatic therapist walks me through exercises to try and recognize the warning signs that precede a convulsion, signs that I’ve taught myself to ignore until it was too late. I want to learn how to give myself grace all the time, not just when I’ve crashed and can no longer move from the pain.

It feels like a terrible loss to have to slow down, but so much of life is sacrifice, and I already know the things I have to destroy, things about how I move, how I work. My third book came out this year, I’ve completed four other books in the last twelve months, I’m editing the manuscript for my ninth book, and I’m impatient to start the next one. The simple truth is that I don’t know how to stop, not even when my body breaks down under this pressure. I love my work, these worlds and stories, and all I can think is how frustrating it is to be delayed by flesh that can’t keep up, how much I’m being asked to sacrifice. My agents and I discuss how to manage my future book tours, since I’ve burned out of every single one so far; how to decrease my workload from the start, not just after it’s too late and I am a husk drained of shine and performance. I know I can’t write in beast mode anymore, churning out book after book after book at that inhuman speed, the whip of world-bending wielded by my spirit upon my flesh with casual disregard.

The somatic therapist asks me to slow time down to a crawl, to trace the sensations in my body, but I still feel myself chafing, boiling with the urge to move again, fast and reckless, inhuman and beyond thought. “When your body gives you a little,” she warns me, “give it more.” We meet twice a week so I don’t forget what we’re working on. The physiotherapist in Dar notes the slight twist in my body, the old injury locked into my left side, the grip of fascia tensed beyond belief. There are deep and ugly knots locked deep in my flesh, scar tissue from traumas I don’t remember. Maybe I have been running for so long that stopping feels like death. I am reaching for a languid breath, for a release of all the terrible things I’ve had to hold, for a recognition that I am already, finally safe. I want to be generous, to spoil myself beyond measure, to understand that my flesh is worthy of extravagance, even as I watch it convulse, dancing without me.

The next time my neck seizes and my muscles contract with a shocking violence, I allow it. For once, I can see the beauty in having flesh that is as loud as my spirit. It insists on care, it is just as stubborn as I am, just as brilliant, and I forgive it for being like this, disabled and furiously alive.


Akwaeke Emezi (they/them) is the author of three novels: The Death of Vivek Oji, New York Times bestseller; Pet, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, among many other honors. Emezi’s writing has appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, BuzzFeed, and The Cut, among other publications. Their debut poetry collection, Content Warning: Everything, will be published by Copper Canyon in 2022, and their forthcoming memoir, Dear Senthuran, will be published by Riverhead in 2021. Selected as a 5 Under 35 Honoree by the National Book Foundation, they are based in liminal spaces.