Vulnerability is unsettling and uneasy. There is a dam in your throat that stops the real feelings and issues to be said and the result is insatisfaction. In our society, it is normal and desirable to feel the best we can but the risk is never being able to clear the avoidance that piles up. In a female driven future, this act sheds away. The only way for topics of unease to be discussed, approached and answered is for more and more people to clear the way. Dams must be broken for a healthy river to flow.
One Rutgers student has put this into action. Nyuma Waggeh, currently a junior majoring in Africana Studies and minoring in English, saw and is reaping the values of being open and honest with herself and others about her story. Voice Magazine had the privilege of sitting down with her and listening. Topics that have been depicted as a taboo in our society happen daily and yet no one speaks up about it. Shows and movies have been made and profited off of serious situations like depression, alcoholism and sexual assault, however, if the conversation ends there, the steps to decreasing occurrences are unachievable. As a platform for voices on campus, Voice Magazine has presented an excerpt of the interview with Nyuma with hopes to bring the conservation to real life.
How did that affect how you are today and how you maneuver through obstacles?
My childhood taught me to be resilient because I’ve been through many obstacles ever since I was a young kid. I was in special education, I had behavioral issues as well as having a speech impediment. I was going through issues of incest when I was a young child but I never talked about it because with my family, we never really talked about issues. We were a bit dysfunctional in terms that we never discussed our feeling and we wanted to seem self-sufficient. For me, that manifested in growing up to be the typical angry teenager and not knowing how to express myself. Luckily, I did find writing but that was not enough because I did not know what I was feeling. By 16, I started coping with unhealthy methods like drugs and alcohol to be able to escape before I really knew what escapism was. For me it’s been a long journey of not trying to people-please but to accept myself for who I am and to find my self-worth. For me, my self worth was involved with the people that I loved that were toxic and academia because I could see those things. The better I did in school, the better I felt about myself but there are also downsides to that. When you do bad, you feel bad about yourself. I had to find a balance. This semester was crucial for me in realizing that my self-worth should be intertwined with my spirituality and being connected to the god of my understanding. My self-worth should not be tied up with materialistic objects to make myself feel better because those only fill a void temporarily.
How did the substance abuse start and where do you think it stemmed from?
I always felt like an outcast and always felt like I wanted to belong. I had a set of friends and we would all hang out together and we had older friends, a lot older than us, that were a bad influence. They weren’t in school, barely working, gang members, strippers and things like that. Those were kind of our role models. Even though we did well in school academically, we were, in a sense, living a double life. I would present myself one way to my family as being the oldest.
The first time I had a drink was when I was 16 at my best friend’s birthday party. I was the last one standing and it felt amazing. I would outdrink and outsmoke everybody and I was finally okay with myself. I knew at a really young age that I didn’t like myself very much and I didn’t understand why. One of the things that I tried to figure out about myself was my sexuality so I would experiment with boys and girls. If I could figure out this piece of myself then maybe I could understand why I don’t like myself. When I picked up my first drink, I finally found a time where I was comfortable with myself that I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else and thought ‘I want to feel like this forever’. I think that’s what led my substance abuse to a downward spiral. At first it was fun but it was always excessive from the very beginning to the very end. It got to a point when I didn’t realize I didn’t have control over it anymore. From my understanding of a typical alcoholic, it wasn’t me. I was in school, I’m a first generation college student, I was doing well academically, I had internships, I was working. I was all around in my definition of being successful. I couldn’t fathom being an alcoholic because I had all these things going for me. But I had to think about how I felt internally. My active addiction lasted about four years and on the inside, I was miserable. I used to get really suicidal and thought about killing myself 3-5 times a day. I thought that was normal when you’re an adult and you just had to fake it through.
Do you think that how therapy is deemed negative played a part in that as well?
Definitely. I started going to therapy my freshman year of college but before I didn’t have access to therapy. Especially in the black community, we didn’t go to therapy. We go to church or go to the mosque, we pray about it, or we just try to tough it out. It got to the point of me having anxiety attacks in class and it kept coming so constantly, I didn’t know what to do. That was the first time I sought mental health treatment. It just so happened that the person I was seeking out was also a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. He was the first one to ever point out to me that I was an alcoholic. In the long run, it has made a huge difference now that there are people in my life that care about me more than I care about myself.
Do you think that there are a lot of people on campus that might be considered an alcoholic based on any criteria?
There’s not necessarily any criteria. What I had to ask myself was ‘When I take that first drink, can I stop after that? Am I able to control it after that?’ If the answers to those questions are both no then consider seeking mental health treatments, hitting an AA meeting or doing some real self reflections. Social drinkers have one or two and then stop. That was an exception if I ever did that. As we say in the program, One drink is too many and a thousand is never enough.
For people in similar circumstances, what advice would you give them? What are the first steps?
The first step is surrendering and admitting you have a problem. You cannot seek the solution if you don’t realize you have a problem in the first place. When I was in active addiction, the first two years, I didn’t know I didn’t know. I thought I was fine. Everyone around me all drank excessively so I thought that was the social norm. I got to a point that everything that I was doing to cope wasn’t working anymore. At that point, it was simply maintaining.
How was your experience with sexual assault and how did that affect you emotionally?
I was sexually assaulted while I was down at Rutgers Camden with an ex-partner of mine. It was hard because it was already emotional and verbal abusive behavior before it got physically violent. I didn’t realize that I was being gaslit. He would never acknowledge my feelings, always blaming me for the issues. I didn’t realize that I was dealing with an abuser. In the end, I ended up being diagnosed with PTSD. The first week after it happened, I was scared to leave my room, I was scared to run into him on campus because Rutgers Camden is so small. The first person I reached out to was my counselor. He was the first to point out to me what was going on because I didn’t want to believe it. I am also an incest survivor so I didn’t want to believe that it happened to me again. It took a very hard toll on me. MY drinking slowly spiraled even further after that and so did my depression. I thought that a geographical change would be my solution to the problem. ‘Maybe if I get away, everything would be okay.’ I went to Spain for a little bit but I didn’t realize that I was running from myself. There’s only so far you can run without yourself catching up to you. I remember sitting in the bathroom at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning struggling to open bottles of wine. I would wake up with a hangover, throwing up.
“The biggest and most important lesson I’ve learned from this is that healing is not linear. What has really helped me is sharing and being open about it and a lot of therapy.”
“These topics are taboo. This culture needs to talk more about drug addiction and sexual assault. We live in a rape culture. We need to stop victimizing victims and start holding rapists accountable.”
Resources @ Rutgers:
Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance – (848) 932-1181
24-hour emergency hotline (APS) – (855)-515-5700
Suicide / Crisis Hotline – (800)-273-8255