My Life Story

Refraction @Large by Ai Weiwei Catches the Sun

Interchange 2015-16

Private & Confidential

My mother didn’t want me to tell people that I had turned down an offer to study a Bachelor’s in Chemistry and Computing at Kings College, University of London. I think she was worried that I would seem boastful. But I internalized her request to mean that I wasn’t supposed to embrace my gifts. I had another wonderful opportunity: University of Edinburgh said that they couldn’t offer me a joint degree program but they said that during my first year in chemistry, I could also do the first year in computer science. I had fallen in love with Edinburgh and going to Scotland meant having a completely new experience away from all the people I knew in London. I also felt the need to get away from being easily accessible to relatives who either lived in London or travelled there. I decided that if I were still serious about computer science a few years later, I could always do a Master’s. Maybe I’d even go to the States. Surely that was the best place in the world to study computer science anyway?

I was accustomed to being all over the world. I was born in Nigeria – my father was carrying out his medical residency in a Lagos hospital. He had received his medical degree in the UK and when I was nine months old, my parents returned there so he could do his specialization in ophthalmology (eye surgery). They moved back to Nigeria a few years later. My dad loved to travel which he officially did alone but I know he was always with other women. I loved the postcards he would send me and I still remember my favorite two. They were unusually large and they’d been sent from a place called San Francisco. He said that he had ridden on a cable car like the one pictured on the front, and that it had rolled  backwards at first. He had been “afraid a little bit!” After my parents separated, he began to take me with him on his trips. When I ended up in a boarding school in England at 15, it seemed like another fun, extended, travel adventure at first.

I don’t remember a time when life in Nigeria was not a confusing experience in every way. I loved going out on my dad’s boat on Sundays but my parents seemed weird to me. My first memory of seeing my two parents together is of wondering where I had come from. Also I got a lot of attention for playing the piano and schoolwork but I was only doing what came naturally to me. I rarely did homework, but I had an unusual ability to walk into an exam and do well – most of the time. However, when my parents began their spectacular divorce, my grades began to plummet. One day I arrived at school and everybody in my class was crowded around one desk. Somehow I knew not to join them. I sat down alone. When the teacher walked in everybody returned to their desks without ever saying a word to me. I’ve never doubted that they were reading one of the newspaper articles that was published about my parents’ relationship. Then it was time for the Common Entrance exams. I got the highest score in the state exam and then the fourth highest score in the national exam. This was most confusing of all. People seemed to assume I was okay but I wasn’t. My parents fought to the death for my custody but ignored my basic needs. And my cousins’ parents complained that their children should be more like me which probably caused the resentment I experienced but I adored them and wanted to have in-tact families like theirs.

Benenden School, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 4AA. I still remember my boarding school address in the UK. I got to be myself in a way I had never experienced. Nobody said I was supposed to be anything else. I explored everything! I discovered I loved horses and playing music with others in the orchestra. When everybody was supposed to display or perform a hobby at the end of my first year, I said “Why does everyone perform classical music?” I rewrote a pop song for double bass and piano and it was a great success! I even loved the structure of Benenden life. I was supposed to choose three ‘A’ level subjects but I couldn’t make up my mind so I did four: physics, chemistry, pure mathematics, applied mathematics. Dr. Hill used to start inorganic chemistry by asking whether everybody got their homework done. “Yeeessss!” the whole class would chorus in response. Then he would say, “Did Bola get her homework done?” Silence. I was still hopeless with homework but luckily I was once again in a school system that relied on final exams. The best part was being far from the land mines that I was constantly navigating between my parents. I was known as a happy, bright schoolgirl. Except for the time that I was inconsolable for days. When somebody was nominated to ask me what was wrong, I said that my parents were going to be in London at the same time. I got blank looks. Why was that a problem???

During my first year at University of Edinburgh, I was flown to Lagos for Christmas. I spent the evening of December 24, huddled with a cousin at the Ikoyi Club. We were trying to solve a heartbreaking riddle. Each of my parents had threatened me: spend Christmas with me or else. We tried so hard but we were teenagers. We had no idea what to do. It didn’t matter which parent I chose, I was guaranteed to have a miserable time. There was a moment when I looked up at my cousin. “I’m NEVER going through this again,” I declared. During the years leading up to this, my parents had not involved themselves in my life. They didn’t seem to know when school was out and didn’t make arrangements for me. When the end of term was approaching, I would tense up because I knew I would have to ask somebody for help. I had various aunties, uncles and family friends who owned property in London so I would sometimes call them up one by one and ask if I could stay. On other occasions I asked the school to purchase a ticket to Gothenburg. I don’t think my father ever noticed it on the itemized bill. And then I would spend that school holiday with my Swedish half-brother. His mother once worked as an au-pair near my dad’s medical school. As much as I hated being abandoned by my parents, I began to realize that it afforded me the right to say, “No, I will not get on a plane to Lagos.” And I was determined to make sure that, once I was old enough to take care of myself, I would never again ask anybody for help…

At the end of my first year of university, I had a final programming assignment due in two weeks. Just in case you care, it involved finding the critical path through a graph of nodes. I had always loved finding the elegant solution rather than the brute-force answer when I had to prove theorems in applied mathematics. So I spent the first week of my time walking around thinking. There had to be a pattern … if I could just find it. Eventually it crystallized in my mind and I could see a simple programming solution. However, once I could see the solution so clearly, I lost interest. Suddenly it was the night of the deadline. I had to get it out of my head to have something to hand in! I made it to the computer lab at about 8pm. All the guys were there getting their programs finished. “Have you done yours?” they asked me. I replied that I was just about to start. Smirks everywhere. “I’ve written hundreds of lines and I still haven’t finished,” somebody said. I can’t remember whether I was intimidated or not. But I managed to stay focused. I sat down, wrote the program in about a screen and a half of code, then ran the data sets for which I was supposed to submit my output. There was a small problem and I paced up and down wondering why it was doing that. I made a change and it all worked perfectly! As I prepared to leave, all the guys in the room looked at me with amazement. They asked to see my program and I showed it to them. Everybody gathered round and stared at it for a while. Once they all stood up again, I left. I’d really like to get your attention here. Because, if you’re impressed, I need you to know that this is not the most interesting part of this story. The most interesting part, at least to me, is that I didn’t realize I had done anything special until recently. A similar thing happened when I was wrapping up my Master’s in computer science. This time I had months rather than weeks to get the program done and I was dealing with far more complexity. I was working with a computer that had 32,000 processors. And I found another pattern that led to another elegant, compact program that some of my colleagues had tried to convince me was not possible. After all that, I ended up working as an evangelist in a Silicon Valley marketing department because it turns out I hate the culture of talking to machines all day every day. No offence to programmers! Talk to people about technology? That I love.

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I was surprised to find that it felt like coming home. It was not a feeling I’d experienced before. I now had my home, I had my career, and then I called Olu in Sweden. I explained that it had been too long. That I believed never seeing somebody you claim to care about was our father’s legacy and it didn’t have to be ours. He gasped when I called again and I asked if three weeks in March would work for him and his family. So I gathered every last vacation day, bought a few working days from my employer and left for Sweden. It was a lovely, lovely, heartwarming time. Olu also pulled out all stops on his end. Party with my Swedish extended family; dinner with his mother; amusement park rollercoaster rides with his children. When I returned to the Bay Area, I began to have these … obsessions about death. I began to read every book about near death experiences that I could get my hands on. I didn’t understand why I was doing this but I kept going. Then Olu got diagnosed with lung cancer. Then the phone call: my mother and grandmother had died in a car accident in Nigeria. All the NDE information seemed to now protect me from a complete breakdown. I had a framework within which I could absorb the shock. As I prepared for my mother’s funeral, I realized I had not set foot in Nigeria ever since the declaration. As soon as I returned to California, I found out that Olu had taken a turn for the worse so I began to prepare for a trip to Sweden. But he died before I got there.

Three months later, I woke up unable to move. I eventually convinced my arm to reach the phone beside my bed and called for help. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it took me over a year to return to working. That was super hard and I was so glad to have come through! But my body didn’t feel quite right and I gradually got more run down over the next few years. In December 2004, I was on a rare visit to Nigeria when I ended up in the hospital. What bothers me most about this incident is the way I made it to the hospital. I was staying with my mother’s brother in Lagos and I said something was wrong. I needed to see a doctor. I was struggling to get up the stairs, struggling just to stand up from the dining table. Nobody took me seriously. When I asked an Aunty for help, she said she would send her driver for me. But the driver never showed up. It turned out that my uncle had canceled it. I was desperate. I didn’t have a way of getting around on my own. So I said something rude to my Aunty to get her attention. It worked. She sent her driver and I found myself at the General Hospital Lagos. The doctor said my Aunty was the head of all hospitals in the state and that she had sent him a note saying there was nothing wrong and to just placate me and send me on my way. But he wanted to test my blood. It turned out my hemoglobin was 3.9 which meant I was in danger of anemic heart failure. Suddenly I was being told that I was a “walking risk”; that they couldn’t let me leave the hospital; that they had no idea how I was walking and talking.

When I returned to my Uncle’s the next day, nobody apologized. Worse still, my Uncle found strange ways to treat me badly every day. I was absolutely stunned by this behavior. One day I picked up the phone, and a man’s voice said, “May I speak to his excellency, the Ambassador.” I felt a ball of energy fly up my body into my throat. I wanted to scream the words, “His excellency is an asshole!!!” Instead, I somehow replied politely. “May I know who is speaking?” I was able to return to California a month later and discovered I needed surgery. This was miraculously successful, but I was unable to move after waking up. It was similar to the time that I had been diagnosed with PTSD. Except worse. I found out two years later that I had Surgery-Induced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I also found out that there was such a thing as Grief-Induced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I was excited about my diagnosis thinking it meant I would soon be well. But none of the doctors I consulted knew how to help me. So I just experimented on my own. I gave up my judgements of what should work, and many of the things that I never would have expected to make a difference were very helpful. I began to write down what I was learning, which turned into a blog, which led to a completely unexpected blogging award. I now plan to use writing as the vehicle to get myself back to working by the end of 2016. And I’d like to start a San Francisco-based residential clinic for CFS within the next decade.

I sold my townhouse a few months after surgery and the cash kept me going for a few years. Eventually I had liquidated all assets here in the States and I asked three cousins for help with properties I had in Nigeria. I couldn’t have sold them without their help. But when I received the proceeds, I was shocked at how little there was. I needed all of the $320,000 that I was supposed to receive in order to carry out the plans I had made for recovery. Instead, $155,000 was transferred to me with no explanations or warnings. When I asked what had happened, I never got an answer that sufficiently accounted for this large discrepancy. This conversation took shocking twists and turns over the next four years, eventually resulting in, “Take that back otherwise you’d better find someone else to help you financially.” I thought carefully about this. I remembered my father threatening to disown me when I asked to move my piano to my mother’s; my mother saying she wouldn’t be my mother anymore; my uncle cutting off his daughter; the story of my grandfather turning his back on my father’s sister. I didn’t think I could heal in the midst of this kind of dynamic. “What do you want?” I asked myself. “Do you want to get better?” I wished my health and my relatives weren’t on opposing sides. But if I was being forced to choose one or the other, then I had to choose me.

Many unexpected realizations have come to me since CFS. I am smart. I must be beautiful (lol). There are patterns in my mother’s and father’s families that literally make my body sick. I have an unusual knack for taking in seemingly random data and finding underlying patterns to them. When I applied this knack to creating elegant programming solutions at Edinburgh, and then during my Master’s at Syracuse University, it seems I was merely preparing for the most complex, most critical challenge of all: recovering my own health. On the one hand I seem to have these extraordinary skills and yet on the other hand, I have little basic experience of friendship and family. I have managed to avoid ending up in a disastrous marriage but I’ve had no idea how to create a healthy one. When I became a U.S. citizen, the American revolution fascinated me. Apparently, some historians see it as a rare example of a successful revolution. They say that most revolutions succeed at the first part of tearing down the old order. The American revolution was unusual because it succeeded at the second part of building a new order. I think that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has given me the opportunity to succeed at my personal revolution by challenging me, with very high stakes, to build a healthy new order for my life. I now believe that it is my duty to fully realize my gifts, my talents. If my blood relatives do not know how to be family to me, will my real family please stand up?