“You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”
Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.
And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”
Thus I became a madman.
And I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.
But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.
My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear — a care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence. The “I” in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.
I would not have you believe in what I say nor trust in what I do — for my words are naught but your own thoughts in sound and my deeds your own hopes in action.
When you say, “The wind blows eastward,” I say, “Yes, it does blow eastward”; for I would not have you know that my mind does not dwell upon the wind but upon the sea.
You cannot understand my seafaring thoughts, nor would I have you understand. I would be at sea alone.
When it is day with you, my friend, it is night with me; yet even then I speak of the noontide that dances upon the hills and of the purple shadow that steals its way across the valley; for you cannot hear the songs of my darkness nor see my wings beating against the stars — and I fain would not have you hear or see. I would be with night alone.
When you ascend to your Heaven I descend to my Hell — even then you call to me across the unbridgeable gulf, “My companion, my comrade,” and I call back to you, “My comrade, my companion” — for I would not have you see my Hell. The flame would burn your eyesight and the smoke would crowd your nostrils. And I love my Hell too well to have you visit it. I would be in Hell alone.
You love Truth and Beauty and Righteousness; and I for your sake say it is well and seemly to love these things. But in my heart I laugh at your love. Yet I would not have you see my laughter. I would laugh alone.
My friend, you are good and cautious and wise; no, you are perfect — and I, too, speak with you wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone.
My friend, you are not my friend, but how shall I make you understand? My path is not your path, yet together we walk, hand in hand.”
I enjoy connecting with extended family and hearing their recounts of my childhood in Chicago. I’ve always taken my Mamaiay’s stories with a grain of salt, as parents tend to romanticize their children. I visited my Grandfather’s siblings and my Mamaiay’s cousins a few weeks ago and they shared nostalgic anecdotes as we sipped on tea and munched on cookies and fruits. They said they found me to be a peculiar baby, I didn’t fuss or cry much and found a way to always keep myself entertained. They said I was extremely introverted, yet also inclusive. I was kind and approachable, but not readily accessible. I was unbothered and always in my own world; whenever I would be asked what I was thinking about, I’d coyly reply nothing. I didn’t seek affection or attention from the elders or other children, I preferred to be left alone – yet, I was extremely happy.
The traits of keeping to myself and selective engagement followed me to Seattle. In elementary school, during recess I’d hide out in the corner of the playground behind the bushes and trees, but other kids insisted on intruding my alone time. I soon learned, that when kids got in trouble, they were enlisted in lunch duty and were banned from engaging with other kids. This “punishment” was my ideal – I’d try to blend in and wipe down the tables alongside these kids just to get a break from having anyone talk to me. The staff eventually caught on and redirected me to recess, so, I purposely started getting into trouble to get back on lunch duty. In class, when my peers would try to engage with me, and I was disinterested I’d play nice and opt into the conversation. Not having alone time led to my agitation and burn out – I just didn’t care anymore and spoke what was on my mind. I got consistently sent to the principal’s office for my quick-witted remarks which made kids cry. I felt like I was suffocating under wearing a mask, yet when I’d take it off everyone else would choke. I didn’t understand why I had to rely on punishment as a scapegoat for cultivating an environment of silence and solitude.
The transition into Middle School was particularly challenging; I was introduced to the Socratic Method and Cold Calling. I was stripped of my autonomy on managing when I chose to engage and found myself at the mercy of the teacher. Middle school was also when the requirement to study a foreign language rolled out – I chose Latin and was scorned by my peer group for selecting a “dead” language. But I didn’t want to study a language to speak – I just wanted to understand the history of language and human thought. With the increasing ubiquity of cellphones, and my friends’ insistence on calling me back to back when I’d ignore their calls, I felt all forces were working against my desire to unplug. It was also during this time that social media and chatting platforms like Xanga, Tumblr, MySpace and AIM were taking off. I learned that in terms of communication, I thrived in the digital space – I was much more interested in reading and writing rather than communicating verbally. The digital realm was fascinating because I could engage or disconnect based entirely on my choosing, without guilt or a moment’s notice.
As I developed a hypersensitivity to overstimulation and noise, I was met with the most resistance in High School. I had to bite my tongue and pinch my skin to keep myself from telling people to shut the fuck up. That just because your vocabulary has expanded, doesn’t necessarily mean you have more to say. I grew impatient with dragged out discourse and would tell my peers to “land the plane” aka get to the point. Inefficient communicators were my pet peeve- what the fuck are you exactly tryna say? During lunch, I’d sit on the floor of the elevator in the Art building. It was the only place I could be alone and escape small talk and meaningless interactions. The day a teacher opened the elevator doors and my hideout got discovered, I was sent to the counseling office. The counselor began probing me with questions regarding my “anti-social” behavior and said she wanted us to talk. I retorted, “Why does everyone always want to talk? I’m not “anti-social,” I’m selectively and intentionally social. Why can’t I just be?”
The more resistance I faced, the more sensitive I became to my environment. I couldn’t focus in class during exams because I was distracted by the tick of the clock, the click of the pen, the smacking of gum, the tapping of the foot, the scratching of a throat, the sniffling of the nose etc. I would turn in my assignments with a sheet of paper that had only my name and date scribbled at the top. My sensitivity to sound only worked in my favor during music class, I’d be able to recite notes from memory on the piano. My Mamaiay was called into a meeting with the school administrators about how they were concerned I might have an undiagnosed disability. She caused enough ruckus for them never to bring up the topic again – besides, insurance doesn’t cover cognitive testing anyways. The school ended up granting me accommodations – they’d place me in an empty classroom for important exams and assignments. It isolated me from external distractions and was also an opportunity for me to recharge. I excelled.
My Undergrad experience at the University of Washington was my peak of social engagement. I was so excited to be immersed in a new environment with people who hailed from all over. I was intrigued to see everything, try new things and make new friends. I was social in larger spurts but then I’d retreat into solitude. Living in a triple unit in McCarty dorms didn’t offer me personal space or quiet, so I was tasked with finding a new haven. On campus, I discovered there was a Disability Office/Lounge in the basement of Mary Gates Hall. It had nice couches, free food, and was conveniently empty. It became my second home. After my freshman year concluded, I traded the dorms for an apartment of my own close to campus. When my friends overstayed their welcome, I’d passively go to my room or take multiple showers just to dwell in peace and stillness. When things got overwhelming, I’d turn my phone off, and drive down to Portland for a solo trip for a few days. My friends didn’t quite understand why in large settings I’d become mute or catch an Uber and leave unannounced once gatherings got too big. Alcohol became my Duracell – it kept my social battery running, a coping mechanism of sorts. My friends would joke you could tell how drunk I was based on how many people I spoke to.
By the time I began my career at Amazon, being an “introvert” was a buzzword and on trend. Amazon boasted that a significant number of its employees were introverted, yet they were celebrated only in theory and not in practice. The office was set up as an open floor plan, and in the CS Ops division my colleagues and I were literally talking all the time. Either to each other in person, or online during meetings with our virtual teams. There were a few small private offices that were being unused, so I retreated into one as a means of disconnecting – I produce the best work in solitude, not inches away from my colleagues all day. I got a performance write up for not “Earning Trust” because I preferred to work independently, and I opted out of attending social gatherings after work. I was burnt the fuck out, why would I want to continue talking to people if I’m not getting paid for it? Since my team of 8 managers and 200+ associates were all virtual, it was expected to put in additional effort to make a connection.
I struggled because I felt a lot of the communication in the space was ingenuine. It was fake and catty, mostly transactional, and people were obsessed with clout over actual impact. I realized people love hearing themselves talk and when other people hear them talk – it makes them feel important. But seldom, are they ever actually saying anything, they’re usually just rambling and filling dead air with noise. I was a fly on a wall who wanted no parts of performing in this shit-show. I just wanted to do right by my team, and then scurry home to take off my mask; it sucks that you don’t get any extra compensation for code-switching. Putting in my two weeks notice as an act of self-preservation was one of the most liberating acts of my life.
I decided to enroll in a MS in Entrepreneurship program at the University of Washington’s business school because I wanted to foster the ability to think differently. I wanted to learn how to identify opportunity in the overlooked. I wanted to learn how to further your purpose, communicate vision, and build you tribe – along with practical business skills. My cohort was made up of 24 students, all of whom were black sheep. We were the irrational optimists, perpetual dreamers, and exuded the oddest of quirks. This was the most dynamic setting of people I’ve ever interacted with, and we were tasked with being creatives. The whole concept of entrepreneurship is less talk, more action. I was elated to have finally found my tribe. I was able to show up fully each day as myself and not be asked to assimilate, it was during this program that I began to bloom. It gave me affirmation that just because I operated differently didn’t mean that there was nothing wrong with me. Rather, I needed to proactively seek out places and people that wouldn’t contain me, but rather water me to thrive.
During my Masters, I fell in love with finance and economics. I particularly fell down the rabbit hole of crypto. I wanted a front seat in the industry, and although there weren’t any job postings listed, I slid into the CEO’s DM on LinkedIn inquiring about future opportunities. Fast forward two weeks later and I landed a role as the company’s first PM hire. The first few weeks on the job I remember pinging my colleague “Good morning” and “Hey, how are you?” Which was customary at Amazon. He pinged me back saying the extra fluff was unnecessary and he’d rather I get to the point – “We’re here to build, not bullshit.” It was clear small and unproductive talk had no space here, and I immediately felt relieved and at home. My preference for minimal meetings and concise communication thrived in this environment, I became the lead to facilitate my department meetings and ensure we stayed on top of talking points.
After one year, I transitioned into a process-improvement oriented role that I developed for myself. I was tasked with identifying our bottlenecks and which parts of our process are redundant and minimal value add. My job was to remove “fluff” that kept us from scaling. Humans are extremely inefficient with information delivery, so I initially focused on automating the data reporting that was discussed during bi-weekly meetings. In essence, I was building infrastructure to allow us to talk less and do more. I became known as the person who “gets shit done.” What I was most appreciative of was that my individuality and autonomy was respected. I wasn’t reprimanded when I declined to speak, or didn’t show up to the office. When my former boss shared with our team that she was leaving the company, I was dialed in via Skype. My colleagues asked follow up questions and sent their well wishes, and then it was my turn to speak. When my boss asked me for my thoughts, and I retorted “I think it’s better if I stay on mute,” and my response, although brazen, was left alone.
Moving to DC gave me additional fortitude when it came to establishing boundaries. In an entirely new environment, I was free from most social obligations that I was tied to in Seattle. I no longer was attending events or interacting with others for the sake of social cohesion, or “history.” I now prioritize what makes me feel happy and comfortable. I choose to put myself first. I still find myself clashing occasionally with my peers who still grapple with understanding my desire for solitude, some take offense to it. It’s interesting to note how some people measure their worth based on external desirability. I’ve had to quiet their insecurities and tell them they are loved, that this is just a function of me. It’s also stirred interesting conversations about the ego – I’ve inquired why some feel entitled to my time, space and energy. I’ve asked why they can’t love me the way that I am, instead of trying to mold me into who they want me to be? I don’t place them on trial to justify wanting to hang around people, so why can’t they extend that same grace towards me when I want to be alone? Why does me not wanting to be in their presence for an extended period of time bother them? Why do they equate time with value, when often it is filled with waste?
I’ve had to find this balance between staying true to myself while being empathetic and considerate of those I love. I’m learning that I don’t have to compromise myself, but if I proactively communicate my thoughts and needs it makes those around me comfortable. People don’t like being left in the dark, nobody likes to feel ghosted and not valued, so I try to give a heads up now before I dip back into silence and/or solitude. Two phrases that have helped me significantly are: “I’d like to spend time with you, but can you give me some time to recharge?” and “I don’t feel I have much to contribute to this conversation, but I’m listening.” A gentler way of me communicating, “leave me the fuck alone” or “I don’t want to fuckin talk.” I can admit as a friend, family member, and lover I’m not readily accessible, but I am reliable. There isn’t one person who can say I didn’t come through when they needed me most. I truly believe that time and communication are just tools, they can only build a lasting connection if there’s a person with intentionality behind it. I will always choose quality over quantity when it comes to my interactions with others.
I want to iterate – I’m far from perfect and am still a work in progress when it comes to navigating the grey area of solitude and life overall. However, I can appreciate that I am honest with who I am, and I’m not going to fold to fit anyone’s desires. Honesty is the highest form of respect, and by communicating my boundaries and expectations I give those around me the freedom to choose what they’d like to do with that information. They can choose to continue to rock with me heavy, or we can love each other from a distance, or not mess with each other all – that is entirely up to them.
I remember leaning up against the bar the first time I heard “Leave Me Alone” played by Flipp Dinero, when a friend was visiting from out of town. Another friend of mine approached me excitingly and said, “Whoa this is so your song.” I’m the awkward turtle, the wallflower, the attention(averse)-whore. I’m the girl who watches TV only with subtitles on, who reads lyrics before I listen to songs, who keeps the phone on Do Not Disturb, who stares out the window silent during car rides, and who takes hours to get ready only to leave and come home early. My loved ones understand and tease me about my quirks now, and it makes me feel seen and at peace.
I write and publish most of my blogs between the hours of 1am and 4am. I work best when most of the world is asleep, no distractions, no sounds. People often mistake silence and solitude to be absence – but I think it exemplifies presence; it’s channeling hyperawareness of your senses. If you’re intaking information all the time without ceasing, you lose the ability to think and produce for yourself. – You’ve become a sponge that cannot rinse out the gunk. I wrote this piece for myself, first and foremost. It was a testimony of the process it took to grow into my own skin and embrace not fitting into the Western and Habesha norms of communication and socialization. I hope that maybe by sharing my story, whoever reads this – no matter what stage you’re in – feels more empowered to tear down their own facades. Perhaps, by being more honest about ourselves to each other, we can begin creating safe spaces where people of all capabilities are able to thrive.
I passionately believe that if you’re doubting yourself or trying to change the core of who you are, you’re not in the right environment. You’re not in alignment, nor are you making the most out of your gifts. The feeling of being “lost” is really the need to come home to yourself. If you don’t know who you are, and what you stand for, you’ll forever live in the shadows of the perceptions bestowed upon you by others. You will lose agency over your own life. So, hey! *Wave* my name is Rahwa and I’m an awkward black girl who doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but I’ve learned that what’s accepted and dismissed is subjective, and trends evolve over time. Sometimes, I’ll be in season, other times I’ll be out – but I’m prepared to handle both waves. I love who I am today and choose to remain true to myself, no matter how painful the process. Growth means you lose a lot, but you gain much more; being true to yourself pays off, always. The best part? You don’t have to code switch, if you choose to build your own path.
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