Love is a Conversation

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Nigerian audio producer, Mo Isu, suffers from severe anxiety. It’s gotten so bad that he thinks it might be time to get some professional help. But is that something his stern, old-school father would approve of? Mo decides to face his fears by having a tough conversation...

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Disclaimer: Radio Workshop is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. The official record for Radio Workshop’s podcast stories is the audio.

Lesedi: Hi, I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe. This is Radio Workshop. Today, I’d like to get straight into the story. It’s that good. So, I’m not walking you through. I’m leaving you right here at the door in Lagos, Nigeria, with Love is a Conversation by 26-year-old writer and producer Mo Isu.

Mo: It’s Sunday, the 3rd of September. It’s 11:46 am. I am about to leave my house now and go have my interview with my dad, which is a conversation I think I’ve been prepping for, for quite a bit now.

Mo Narration: You probably can’t hear it in my voice, but I was super nervous about this chat with my dad. My dad is the typical sort of old-school Nigerian dad.

He’s stoic, doesn’t show a lot of emotion, not always the biggest talker. He cares a lot and I love him deeply, but I always get tense when I need to talk to him about something important. We’ve been planning this conversation for a few weeks.

Mo: We originally made plans to Talk at 10 am or 11 am. but the rain held me back and I’ve sent him a text and I said Daddy good morning. I hope you’re doing well today.

Mo Narration: I told him I’ll be on my way soon. His response was classic, matter of fact.

Mo: My dad replied and said, okay That’s the letter o and the letter K and he full stop. Fun.

Mo Narration: Yeah. Fun.

If I ever had to describe my experience as an adult, it would be this: waiting for my next anxiety attack. A lot of mornings I wake up in a panic. I feel heaviness in my chest and a distinct sense that I’m running out of time. On a good day, that feeling doesn’t hold me down. I can still get out of bed and sweep through the routines of my morning life, brush my teeth, shower, have breakfast.

Then I try to get some work done because if I don’t, the anxiety starts to creep in. On bad days, dreadful days, the anxiety is crippling. The days when I wake up smack dab in the middle of a panic attack. The days when I can’t get past the bleeding sounds of Lagos, the grinding of generators and the ceaseless cries of the nearby church.

But, louder than all of this, is the noise from within, the rapid beating of my own heart, and the fear of impending doom. So I just lie there, on my bed, and hope the feeling will pass, that somehow I will outrun my anxiety. Waking up today, the conversation with my dad in mind, I am lucky the anxiety stays at bay.

My parents live about 15 minutes away. I have to take an Uber to get there. I live in the part of Lagos called Yaba. I only moved out last year. I was 25 at the time. I share a two-bedroom apartment with a friend. It’s small, quaint. We’ve got one couch in our sitting room and that’s it.

I’ve just switched careers. I used to work in tech. But now I am trying this thing where I freelance as an audio producer making stories like this one.

Mo: Um, it’s that black gate on the left. Alright, thank you. Have a nice day.

Mo Narration: Since moving out, I have tried to visit my parents as often as I can. Usually, we have a meal together, we pray together, watch TV together. But this visit is different.

Recently, I have been thinking about my anxiety. And I want to… I need to do something about it. I have been considering therapy. Because a lot of people seek therapy for anxiety, right?

Why not me? So far, I have only thought about it. But it’s expensive, and I’m not sure I can add that to my list of adult expenses. Not yet. I also don’t know how my dad would feel about therapy, and his opinion matters to me. I know that’s random, but there is an explanation. All the ideas that have shaped me, I learned from my dad, especially ideas about how to be a man.

He never seems to second guess himself, he is calm and collected, he is strong-willed, and like I said, he is a man who shows little emotion. I can’t picture him going for therapy, and I don’t know how he’s going to react to the idea. So, I’ve been going back and forth about telling him about my anxiety. I just don’t know if he will get it, and I really want him to.

Mo: Chelsea’s not even in the top 10.

Mo’s Dad: They are not.

Mo Narration: My dad’s passion for football has always cracked me up. We sit together on the couch to watch Sunday Premier League football, something we’ve done hundreds of times before. Funny thing about my dad and me, we have a lot in common. Physically, I am dark, he is darker. He’s tall. I am taller. And we are both into physical exercise and made the habit of walking out at the National Stadium on Saturday mornings. But we’ve never supported the same football club and our similarities dwindle from here. I have sat with him and chatted like this on many Sundays before. But today, I feel cold.

When I get nervous, I get very cold. And right now… I feel like I’m shivering.

Mo: Um, so the first question I wanted to ask is about your childhood. If you can tell me a little bit about your own growing up as a child in Obiane.

Mo’s Dad: You go to school in the morning, you wake up, we never had the opportunity of brushing our teeth with a modern toothbrush. You come out of the house, you see an orange tree, you pluck the stick.

Mo Narration: This is the first time I have heard about this part of my dad’s life.

I’ve always known he grew up in a rural village, but I never knew about these details of his childhood. Picturing him cleaning his teeth in the morning with a branch from an orange tree. He paints a new color onto my dad. I see him not only as a father now, but also as a person.

Mo’s Dad: My parents were farmers. So cultivating, uh, different, uh, crops. You have, uh, rice farm, you have yam farm, you have, uh, cassava farm. Then you have casava…

Mo Narration: My dad is 62 years old. And he grew up in Obiane, a little-known village in the south of Nigeria. As we talked, he told me about his parents and about how they were uneducated farmers but, they always recognized the importance of education. They did everything they could to ensure my dad and his six siblings received at least the most basic form of schooling. When my dad was 13, he left his parent’s house and moved to a neighboring village for secondary education. After that, he worked briefly as a teacher before studying estate management at a technical college.

Then, my dad told me about all of the cities he lived in before moving to Lagos. I had no idea my dad had lived in so many places, and I wished I knew this when I was younger, when I had tried to write an essay about him.

In English class, when I was 12, I was asked to write about the person I admire most in the world. Of course, I wrote about my dad, but writing that essay was the first time I realized how little I knew about him.

I made up a lot of details just to make the case that my dad was outstanding. Someone to look up to. He has always been someone I admired greatly. But at the same time, there’s always been this feeling that I don’t really know who he is. I had a conversation with my mom recently where she described the close bond my dad and I used to have when I was younger. She described how he was my favorite person in the world, how I used to cry every time he left the house, how he always used to buy me my favorite shortbread biscuits, and we used to go to the stadium together to watch football games. She said we were inseparable, but I don’t remember any of it. What I remember is his absence.

Mo’s Dad:I didn’t really have that constant contact with you, my children, because of office work.

Mo Narration: When I was five years old, my dad moved to a different part of Nigeria. He worked as a civil servant then, and his job with the Port Authority took him from one port city to another. For most of my childhood, it was at least an eight-hour drive away from us, but he tried to visit as often as he could.

For the first couple of years, he would take a night bus every two weeks and spend the weekend with us, then take a bus back to his city and back to work again. I always thought that was the noble dad thing to do. Taking care of your family no matter what. But that absence took a toll on our relationship.

Soon enough, I started to see my dad as only an authority figure. To be honest, when I was young, I became sort of scared of my dad. My sisters too. My dad remembers a time when one of my sisters was unusually clingy. She wanted to be very close to him every minute of this particular visit.

Mo’s Dad: Then, suddenly, she told the mother, Mommy say, I’m no more scared of daddy. That statement hit me seriously. It means this girl was scared of me. So that gave me very bad, uh, feelings.

Mo Narration: I have to say, listening to my dad now, I’m surprised. He knew about the fear my sisters and I felt. In fact, so much of our talk is revealing. Like, how difficult it was for him to make the choice to move around for work, instead of staying with his family. He had actually considered moving us with him. But instead, he chose to give us a stable and secure childhood, even if it meant he wasn’t around.

On the flip side, when he was around, he was strict. He still is. Like a time not too long ago when he found out that I was experimenting with a nose ring. I hadn’t gotten a piercing but I had a ring I would wear sometimes and he did not like it. Not at all. It was “un-Islamic”, he said. So, we got into this heated exchange and that was really hard for me because of how much I hated to disappoint him.

But he explained why he is so strict. Like me, he had a strict father that he admired and looked up to. Every time he chose to be strict with my sisters and me, he was parenting the way he knew best. And now, you can see how that affected our relationship. That was validating for me. I needed to hear that.

Mo’s Dad: I pray that, uh, people will have the, the mind to overlook that, uh, strict, uh, ness of your, that in your upbringing.

Mo Narration: Hearing my dad praying for forgiveness for being so stern, yeah, that got me, I actually almost cried.

We’ve been talking for nearly two hours and I still haven’t opened that door. I still haven’t told him about my anxiety. I have rehearsed this occasion a lot in my head. Even right now I am struggling to talk about my anxiety in a noncringy way. It feels so weird. So, yeah, I don’t know how to talk about my panic attacks, but somehow, I manage to.

Mo: Can you remember any time in your life when you were really anxious, or overwhelmed, or scared? Like, as an adult male, or as a person, I think I have, like, a lot of anxiety. Very often feel, like, anxieties or panic attacks regularly. For, sometimes it’s… I think when, after that time that there was a fire in Jacob Street, anytime I, like, see people, like, I hear shouting or see people running in any direction, like, my heart will immediately, like, skip a beat. Or if, just, like, small, small situations, if I have to do work or if I have, like, something important, I received an important email. Before I even opened the email, I already started feeling very scared, feeling very anxious. But yeah, I asked that question because I wanted to know if you had a personal experience with anxiety or if you have a personal opinion about it.

Mo’s Dad: If it is that type of anxiety, I think it’s common with me. If we’re going for an exam, I normally have, no matter how I prepare, how hard I prepared, I normally have that anxiety. Even going for an interview, I have that anxiety. It’s normal. You have anxiety, especially when you are always expecting a positive result.

Mo Narration: My dad is looking at me and telling me he gets anxious too, and that feels comforting. It makes me feel normal. But it also seems like he’s not really understanding my anxiety. It’s different from the everyday anxiety that everyone experiences during difficult moments. Then, he started telling me that maybe my anxiety is caused by my career change.

I mean, yes, a career change would create anxiety in anyone, but that’s not what I’m talking about when I say I’m anxious.

Anxiety for me is a low intensity brush fire that constantly burns until it flares up and rages. At this moment, even though I’ve opened that door to a part of my life I’ve kept secret from my dad.

I can’t bring myself to fully let him in and explain the depth of my problem.

Mo: So do you think, like, anxiety like that is something that you should, like, I should consider seeing a professional, like a, like a mental health professional or a therapist and see if there if there is a way to manage it?

Mo’s Dad: Just like I’m saying, everybody has anxiety. Well, it depends on the level of the anxiety you are talking about, you know. Is it anxiety that they say that you cannot control yourself or you cannot, uh, you know, take decisions for yourself? Now you are talking to your dad. Your dad is not a professional on that. So it’s good that, uh, you know, you talk to your dad. But, I will still advise that, uh, nothing wrong with mentioning it to a physician.

Mo Narration: I did not expect that. He actually said he thought I should talk to a professional. Of course, I said therapist. My dad said physician. I don’t think we are talking about the same thing.

But I decided not to correct him. What I appreciate is that my dad actually acknowledged how I feel. And he advised me to check my blood pressure regularly because I have a history of high blood pressure. And he advised me not to think too much, which is like telling a fish not to breathe underwater.

But I hear him. And I appreciated the conversation more than my dad could ever know.

For my dad, love is an action. He actually told me this. He doesn’t say I love you. He would rather show his love than speak it. Sometimes that action is leaving your family for months at a time to provide for them. Sometimes that action is choosing to be strict with your children because you want them to grow up with good morals.

Sometimes, like today, it’s giving advice. Usually, and this is the action my dad knows best, Love is praying together.

Lesedi: This story was written and produced for Radio Workshop by Mo Isu. Jo Jackson is our managing producer. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Music by Qhamani Sambo at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Sound Engineering by Jo Jackson, Naomi Grewan, Mo Isu, Fey Fey, and Mike Rahfaldt. Find out more about what we do and support our work on RadioWorkshop.org.