Camille U. Adams

The Obeah Man

Once upon a time, in a Brooklyn branch of Duane Reade down Borough Hall, I called upon an obeah man. Summoned from the search engines of Google, Eric Miah appeared before me as a link to Ifalasa Enterprises. Intoning himself a Yoruba priest, his brown face was lit by LED cowrie shells dancing along the perimeter of his homepage.  Chipmunk cheeks announced an appetite for offerings. Smizing eyes were crowned by stringy, grey-streaked, fuckboi hair. He advertised his services as an acolyte of Ifa, plus a psychic on the side. Prices listed as fair. 

And though he seemed to me oily and sly, in that moment I prioritised the community college teaching job that wouldn’t let me quit it, the noisy city tying my ankle in a bungee rope trap making every escape attempt a mere visit, the nonreciprocal friendships with people by whom my authentic self was discomfited, the men next to whom I’d lain and still felt lonely, the lack of love in my world, and that family and their lies from which I’d freed myself taking a no-contact knife to each and every tie. Why did I have to be alone? 

I needed to know.

And so, once upon a time, before I learnt to cope, before l knew how to accept my singularity with equanimity, on a white winter’s day, I donned over-the-knee, camel Uggs, a camel, shearling coat, and boarded the express, green-line train up to El Barrio in Spanish Harlem to learn my fate. I was off to see el brujo, who in his East 116th apartment, sat in wait of me. And there occurred the inception of a violation from which it would take three years to become free. 

‘This is some good odu’. Said to me with a let-me-convince-her smile and affirming nod. The horse-shoe-shaped opele chain had again and again been flung down. Some kola nuts facing the ceiling. Some with eyes on the ground. 

This pronouncement declared, Eric’s fat Puerto Rican friend nodded. His jowls shaking. His light skin turning red. Sweat dripped into the cotton neckline of his green jersey. He bounced like a puppy. Eager to please. Quick to agree with whatever this priest man said. 

It was then, again, something chook me in my belly and say leave. Me alone, this woman in a basement with two men I don’t know. One of whom I hadn’t even been told would be there. The fat one who just appear in the apartment when I was in Eric’s bathroom changing my clothes. Stripping offensive brown leggings before making my approach to his so-called temple’s door.  Now I sat on the hard, concrete floor hosting open flames around the enclosed room. And still I say lemme stay and hear this, what he call it, odu. 


Because my life wasn’t working. 

I placed above my disquiet the restlessness inside questing for more. To fix every avenue falling apart, I’d repaired to the religiousness I abhorred. To the very Awos my sister, Sherrie, and I used to make fun of, wining down to the floor, imitating all the sexiness these robed priests had to put on just to pour some libations before they gods and mostly-female congregation, opening the way they say for them to be told life-altering information. 

Peddlers, oh sorry, they prefer to be called priests of Ifa are initiates to the orisha Orunmila, deity of destiny, and practitioners of his system of divination that uses a chain with nuts, coins, or shells to read what’s needed to restore mystical harmony. And apparently, for me, that somehow required Eric to say, ‘You’re going to have to be the one to take care of your mother’.


I wasn’t paying $75 to hear about that woman. ‘Me?’ I obliged with a humour-him question. ‘Yes, you’. Eric observed me closely. ‘She’s going to have a long life’. Fuck. The woman was only in her fifties. Arite, doh roll yuh eyes. Look down. My jaw was tight. Wah de ass dis have to do with me and about what I come to inquire? I buy some time.  

In the waiting silence, I fiddled with the sleeve of my red, gold, and cream cardigan.  Rearranged my side-swept legs. Pulled the fishtail of the white skirt I was told to wear over my slippers. Rolled my hip to let another portion of my soft thigh cushion the impact of the unpaved floor. Tried to look demure.

Eric didn’t defer. ‘The people you think will be there for her in the end won’t be there. Your mother will need you. She won’t have anyone’. I failed to see how that was my problem. She have four daughters and two uh them does still talk to her. Cyah see Ericka, her current favourite, the one with the make-amends therapist, ditching the bitch. Neither Sherrie, her finally-see-me, co-dependent, last child baby leaving Smiley in an old folks’ home. But since he not going and done, ‘what about my sisters?’ Lewwe move this along. 

Right into a prolonged speech like he at the podium and trying to breach the stubborn minds of his congregation instead of one paying client who could very well see that Eric’s NYU Bachelors of Psychology degree, displayed prominently on the wall just before the glass-paned doors leading out into the square-walled yard, did not qualify this man to justify the shards of ice my egg-donor’s abandonment, verbal disparagement, emotional instability and manipulation had driven into the bronchia of this daughter who had once felt like she couldn’t breathe without her as just being a generational divide. I would not agree it was up to me to see her side. Except he wouldn’t done talk. So, I cried. 

I figured that’s what someone who cared would do when confronted with the image of their wizened mother deserted and dying. Not enough to make my eyeliner run eh or even smudge, naturally. Just a delicate sniff, rapid blinking back the tears gathering and threatening to overflow. I still had to take the train back to East Flatbush after this. But having given these expectant men an appropriate show, maybe we could finally get to what I wanted to know. 

Why didn’t I just go?  

What is it that taught me my final stand against a life out of my control should be appeal to some spiritual force? How many of my actions were being conducted through grandfathering genes until compelled to intervene, I’d manually lift the tracks and re-chart my own course?

That day, I sat on that floor fiddling with my gold necklaces through Eric’s didactic talk of my ancestors being over-protective; and newly remembered harms wrought by my male cousin; and the benefits of being sexually uninhibited cause who doesn’t look back and wish they’d screwed around more; and, though they want me to go and I desperately want to leave, they can’t move me and I won’t be exiting that job for a minute, not until something’s fulfilled and the time is appropriate; and ways to start my own business; and me being married in the spirit to Orunmila and needing to receive icofa or his hand, and and and

Till I felt reduced. Talked down to. While he made me feel small. Till my head swirled, tangled. I hadn’t wanted to come at all. Any time I ventured into the world of candles, prayers, or coins, cards, runes, offerings of sweet bread or goat loins my life derailed. But then, at the advice of Michelle, a Columbia counsellor being trained, I tried once more to embrace this proclivity.  

Downstairs in Duane Reade on the corner of Court Street searching the make-up aisles for the perfect shade of gold eye shadow and red lip-gloss, I could have conceded that my other search on my iPhone was yielding no hope. Every other return on varied orisha keyword entries hurtled me to the steps of Spiritual Baptist churches that still imposed Christian saints over African deities. I had already been baptised in those intermediaries. My whole Trinidadian father-side family was steeped in syncretised sanctity. That never had and was not working for me. Nothing was. In the last few years, my life had become a reverse-Midas touch where every aspect turned to shit. I needed the real gods to put a stop to it. But Yoruban practitioners operated in secret. They did not flash their wares on the internet. There were no sightings until Google conjured Eric.

Reaching out, the network dropped, and Eric was rude the first two times. I should have taken that as a sign. Likewise, all the damn simmi dimmi at the front door emblazoned with a setta emblematic symbols, and the pompous, officious way he incline his head when letting me in like he forget I coming and wish instead he was left alone on his Saturday morning. And the no wife home and busy, stuffy apartment with big, clunky furniture and too much shells and colourful insignia hanging from the walls, and too many products pack up in the bathroom clawing they way out every cupboard and shelf. And the show-offy way he make a big to do before he knelt down to light the cigar and the smoky bush fire and the red candle asking The Gatekeeper if I good enough to enter before he grab the handle on the iron door at the bottom of rough-hewn concrete steps, telling me to duck my head before treading into his sacred temple basement.

Lawd, do I have no self-preservation whatsoever? A strange man from the internet in another borough taking me down underground a first-floor compound with high concrete walls and burglar-proof wire on top all around and I follow?  

Stayed below? For over an hour, for a final rattle of bones thrown like pitching dice. A new, burgeoning smile. A glance up to catch fat friend’s eyes and instruct and share whatever it was he was reading there. Dark, caterpillar eyebrows raising to mimic Eric’s. Both men impressed. And excited. Like a doctor and his apprentice about to hack into a pig. Exhilarated at the prospect of a good-character life they got to further man-splain and authoritatively dissect. I saw the glee. I knew whatever added deliverance was coming did not bode well for me. 

And yet I stayed.

‘Your daughter has something others will need. Some important work to do. She’s going to help a lot of people’. Eric’s side profile smiled. He traced his square fingers along the short chalk lines he’d drawn while delivering this edict. Now his mesmerised eyes did not leave the bare concrete floor bearing his markings. Reading. To me, though, these strokes were just etchings, resembling those from The Count of Monte Cristo, Ericka’s favourite movie, carved into the walls of his cell numbering all his trapped years. 

‘I don’t have children’. 

Was that fear on his face? Definitely doubt. Reassessment. Backtracking and confusion. Questions and refusal. ‘You don’t have children? A little girl? Your daughter?’  Both men’s eyes lasered into mine. The weight of their stares pressed me down, searching for the lie. Buh whey yuh go hide a chile? And why?

‘Nope, Ah’en ha no chirren’. This man qualify? He know how to read them bones he throwing? This man I’d interviewed on the phone. Half Puerto Rican, half Pakistani or Palestinian, or one uh them P’s practicing a distinctly Yoruban religion.  Eric looked down at his book. Wait. Was that a glossary? The man need to consult an encyclopaedia to interpret the chalk drawn lines he self inscribe? Questions kept pushing the curtain of belief aside. I paid close attention to the man behind the title on which I was being asked to rely.

I paid attention, thus this memoiristic recollection, while Eric’s brow knitted and fat friend’s head swivelled like this was a tennis match. The dogged tugging inside me to make sure and peer closely kept at it as I turned to glance into the shadowed corner behind me. A dried calabash bowl holding water proffered before the candlewax-encrusted, blue and white clad, 2-foot figurine of a Black mermaid standing there. Yemoja, their divine sea mother. Eric had lit a tealight candle on top her head and talked to her when we three had entered before he led us to the altar of sorts in the fireplace mantle.  I turned to watch the other lit candles and little bush fires blazing, left to flourish and flare. Observed the dancing smoke. Inhaled the nag champa scenting the air. Played with my gold bracelets stacked up my right forearm. Shook the gold bangles on my other wrist, enjoying the lilting chime as I discreetly checked the face of my gold watch wondering how much time before…

‘And I don’t want none. Ah doh ha no chirren cuz I don’t want any’. Jeez, what about my job? You know, what I came here to find out about. Again, having to push these arbitrary subjects along. At my resolute assertion, Eric’s salt-and-pepper head lifted, and the Cheshire cat smile came into view. Yuh know these god-like types like nothing more than a declaration of independence to try to lord their chauvinism all over you. So right on cue, ‘Oh, I know you don’t want any. I could see it on you. But Oshun wants a daughter. You were supposed to have her already. A child to pass on your gifts to. To teach. She’s anxiously waiting to be born. You can’t have her with just any man, though. It has to be a man of your same stature spiritually’.

What the fuck? My head jolted and three pairs of gold earrings struck my cheek, enacting consternation.  My eyes speared his questioningly. Was he…? ‘No, no, not me’. His cheeks tightened with the denial. ‘The man, the child’s father, won’t stay, though. But you must not grieve when he does go because then the placenta won’t attach properly’. This man was again lecturing me on female biology. ‘And then that’ll form a rift that will take years of work, and bindings, and forgiveness to bridge, if ever. So, you have to love her and want your daughter because she chose to come. Read to her and make her know she’s welcome.  Because this is what Oshun wants of you. It’s her will being done.’

This Oshun, another Black mermaid who swam across the Atlantic alongside ships transporting the ancestors like cargo in what racist academic texts still refer to as “trade”. Another of the orishas uprooted from West Africa, and now worshipped across the diaspora. This deity of the river. Coquette, seductress. Mother and inspirer of artists. Bestower of riches. Adorned in all gold. Her colours – yellow, gold, coral, amber. Dancer, warrior, wife, and mistress. Sweet honey her food, kept in a pot about and under her waist. Birther of twins. Goddess of love, lust, and all beautiful things. With a veil drawn over her face. Flipping through my mental wikipedia, drawing forth knowledge of all I’d ever read of her, I pondered what this unknown spirit had to do with me. Time to wrap this up. ‘I don’t have cash. You take debit?’

And then that Saturday, I did leave. 

Still, I returned to Eric’s just once more. After about a week. To wash my head because, apparently, I had enemies, nuh. Or maybe he liked the ease with which my PayPal payment for the previous reading cleared immediately. Either way, threat of badmind people and predatory men on my street or not, invoking maljeux guaranteed he got another $160 out of me. Trinidadians don’t take too kindly to evil eye and we grow up using bush baths to cast it aside. Eric read the ingrained culture in me right. 

So, I showed up again to his place, but this time on a weekday, using one of those many, lovely holidays CUNY’s calendar allots in the Fall. I stepped out of his bathroom this time dressed all in white. White spaghetti strap tank above a yellow bra; tight, white long-sleeved, v-neck top; a different, long, flared, white skirt; and different gold at my head, ears, neck, wrists, waist, ankles, and toes. His eyes formed o’s. His daughter’s did, too. ‘ooOOOOH, I love all your pretty jewellery,’ the cute six year old said to me before she half perched in my lap with her half-naked doll and regaled me with all her school tales including that of the little boy who sat next to her in class.  

Eric kept going downstairs to his basement and coming back up to tilt his head to the side as he stood in the frame of the sliding glass doors, studying me. I felt like I might get the hose ’fuss it take him and his quiet, aiding wife so long to compose whatever ceremony he had downstairs cooking while I played semi-patiently. Iz a simple wash. Me’en understan all de hassle and de back and forth. He done make me hadda go all over Spanish Harlem from one botanica to another, pulling out the little espanol que recuerdo to buy the herbs and flowers and oils and butters fuh de maljeaux, which any charlatan priest worth his salt supposed to do his damn self. And now I still had to spend an hour combing a dolly hair and wondering what this Ifa-derivative, Santeria man hadda prepare so much, and what next.

Huh, what next indeed. I didn’t realise Eric was giving such credence to my dress. And that the next Nigerian obeah man I visited seeking authenticity would, too. My appearance was my own expression of self, not some premeditated homage being paid to spirits I’d only read about and not served given my extended paternal and maternal family’s devout half-Ifa-half-Christianity that feared “dem devil ting” that inherently intrigued me even as a child. Their own genes that would not subside in spite of their hiding, their chiding, their deriding. The work of what they self planted inside and all it bring. 

Not uprooted that day. Their religiousity passed through the blood — the work of generations to take shape. The work of conscientious years of my life to break. 

And not pass on.


Camille U. Adams is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Camille’s debut memoir has been selected as a finalist in the Restless Books Prize for Immigrant Writing 2023 and her essays have received multiple Best of the Net nominations. Camille earned her MFA in Poetry from CUNY and is a current Ph.D. Candidate in Creative Nonfiction. She is a 2022 Tin House alum and an inaugural 2023-24 Tin House Reading Fellow. Camille was also awarded an inaugural fellowship from Granta Magazine’s 2023 Nature Workshop and a memoir fellowship from Roots Wounds Words. She teaches English and is a CNF Editor.




Jael Montellano

The Sea, the Shell, & the Pearl: Through Embodiment to Poetry

Content warning: This contains discourse about trauma, childhood abuse, dissociation, and suicidal ideation.

This essay is a treatment. 

It tracks the predominant physiological responses of your traumatized past, the way your body remembers, the way your therapist guides you to presence, and the way presence unlocks a treasure house of language. Poetry, which has been your stillborn child as long as you’ve written, dead in its formaldehyde waters, has cracked the glass open, and you gaze at its enlivened hands with wonder.

What marvel, given you experienced childhood as though you were sleepwalking.

Deep-Brain Reorienting (DBR) is a trauma psychotherapy that processes attachment disorder through the analysis of physiological responses associated with threatening events—events like, say, a mother, your mother, threatening you with a syringe if you do not eat as you are told. Your relatives say this occurred at some comida de domingo. Which melcocha of your mother’s cooking did you refuse to eat? In your mind’s eye, a litany parades. Boiled beets? Beef liver? You have no memory of the instance, but you remember the sting of her belt buckle, the pitch of her voice, her disfiguring rage.

The developer Frank Corrigan MD, FRC Psych explains those suffering from attachment shock have a “protective tendency to turn attention away from the memory as soon as possible1.” That they experience dissociation, depersonalization, numbing, blanking out, and that the original memories are often so layered in further similar experiences that traditional talk therapy methodologies fail in accessing them.

When your therapist, M—, approaches you with this new treatment, tells you she’d like to try it with you, she explains your wounding predates language. Language lives in the cerebrum, the top brain, while your lower brain, responsible for fight, flight, freeze, the stress control of your body—it developed first, and it remembers.

Which is to say, escape from your body is more natural to you than language.

Before cutting off contact, before moving away, before even the forming of the word mamá on your mouth, you knew how to leave your mother.

“Embodiment begins with… getting comfortable with the discomfort felt in the body2,” the trauma scholar Deb Courtney says.

You spend the next three seasons of therapy with the discomfort in your body, trying to reel in your escape-artist brain, which slips with an ease like a silvered dolphin, so as to stay in your body, so as to feel the totality of your despair, taking breaks in between this violent undertaking. In each session, M— asks, “Where do you feel tension now?” and you listen, or try to listen, to the murmurs your body has long lidded and trapped.


The layers of memory accordioned over one another.

You’re thirteen and practice learning how to fall onto your couch because you read in some YA fantasy that the faerie princess could walk soundlessly, that she practiced falling down a well, and you need to know, your survival depends on it, to avoid the squeak of the third, fourth, and eighth stairs that will wake him, your mother’s love interest, and bring his searching hands.

You’re twenty-four and depart your first massage weeping and petrified, careening towards the Loop rush-hour train, because for a quarter hour your body felt weightless, and you are not ready for such goodness and your body rejects it like poison.

This essay is a temperament. 

You embarked on a prose poetry class this spring with Ruben Quesada, who you’ve had the humbling fortune to interview, and now you are his student. You learn terms such as anadiplosis, anaphora, epizeuxis. You drop into prompt replies during class. You write an alexandrine. You count your syllables on your fingers and recall the Tuesdays you sat with Dr. Kaizer tapping metronome beats to synchronize your study of the Moonlight Sonata.

Ruben introduces you to Gregory Orr and his concept of the four temperaments of poetry: story, structure, music, and imagination, and how the most scintillating poems are ones which achieve the greatest symmetry of balance amongst the four. It isn’t lost on you, in subsequent lessons, how this is a kind of embodiment, a gathering of the parts.

During class introductions, Ruben asks your small group to share why you’ve come, and when it’s your turn, you say the truest, most concrete thing you know, which is that language is opening itself up in new illiquid ways. You don’t go into details about what this means or why, don’t delay the others or the class. But the missing context is this:

You have been the shell that holds the pearl. You have been the current of the sea tossing. You have even been the pearl. But you have never been the ecosystem, never been the three things all at once, equally singular and at home within. But something inside of you has shifted. You are the multitudes now, gathering. You are the infinite depths.


In your twenties, you reunite with your cousin in California. You had been binaries of the other growing up, youths sunk into the orchestra pit with stars in their eyes, until your emigration. He criticizes you at Kroger for purchasing foundation when you are unemployed, says he didn’t take you for being vain, and you argue about splitting room and dinner prices and leave the following day on the six o’clock Amtrak without saying goodbye. You do not have the Spanish proficiency to explain the acne scarring on your face, the protective layers needed against your mother, your classmates, gender-conformity, the patriarchy. You do know you need the mask more than another night at the Motel 6.

This essay is a rhetorical device. 

It loops and repeats and folds itself ostinato, non-linear, like the actual experience of living.

A week after your first DBR session, your friend U— takes you canoeing to the Skokie Lagoons. She has a German collapsible canoe, made from cardboard laminate, that when you unfold together on the grassy slope, appears like a giant’s paper origami project, and you’re delighted by the childlike glee it reproduces in you, who used to fold paper cranes. On the water, every other canoeist or kayaker pulls alongside you and asks excitedly against the sun, “Is that a foldable canoe?” and your friend laughs in the affirmative.

Suspended in timelessness, watching how algae clings to the oars, you catch up on each other’s lives, talk about your shared fascination with danmei and dangai. She asks if you’ve been writing and you admit you have not, you cannot. You have spent the past week in a dissociated state triggered by your DBR session, wherein embodiment was too much and your brain, agile and hypervigilant, simply checked out.

For you, dissociation is absence. This does not mean you do not feel or experience emotions, but rather that everything is coated with a dampening flannel, like a piano pedal or a sound recording room, which softens and deadens the ache. It sounds soothing on the whole, has saved you since the start, but it disconnects you from yourself so entirely that you cannot manage day-to-day. Your dishes go unwashed, your meals unmade; you eat takeout or from out of the refrigerator, or, more commonly, skip meals altogether. Creativity holds no meaning for you. You waste hours on television, some of it good, some of it questionable in taste.

On the lakeside drive back to the city, U— is concerned, but you reassure her that your therapist specializes in dissociative traumas, though you hadn’t known that at the time you sought her. At home, your out-of-state friends text you, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT??? and you wonder if the cosmos is gossiping. Yeah??? you text back. The news alerts reveal the impetus of their worry—five miles from where you were, along the picturesque road you traveled, a gunman opened fire at the Highland Park Independence Day parade and slaughtered seven, wounded forty-eight. There, at the intersection where you once carved jack-o’-lanterns at the pumpkin festival years earlier.

Time collapses in a black hole. At least in your dissociation, you don’t hurt other people.


You are thirty and solitary at your Roger’s Park apartment, dressed in your satin Ren Faire dress from high school, a decision you don’t recall making. Your spouse is with her lover and you are despondent at what will bring her back (nothing), so you try to choke yourself with the exercise band draped on her closet doorknob, except you remember Chris Cornell hung himself this way and she had been upset at the news of his death, so you stop. You curl on the ottoman she restored pressing your hands against your trachea, your wails ululating like monsoon gales until your dissociation sets you free and you are blank as an 8 x 11 page. Hello, dear friend.

This essay is an opportunity.

Dream life, lucidity, and creativity go together3. There is research that describes it as a continuum with waking life on one end of the axis and sleep on the other, daydreams, lucid sleep, and dreams in the middle. Correlations exist between REM sleep disturbances, the dream state, and creative associations, and when you dream, your dreams are so vivid, it’s as if they’re made from saturated celluloid. You record them in a document and you will never run out of ideas, only time.

However, the detachment of dissociation disrupts the occipitotemporal cortex, impairs your language and judgment and motor skills4. In a state like this, how do you write from a place that requires you to feel? Poetry, of all the linguistic arts, is the one that most closely mirrors the subconscious of the brain. It can linger on a moment with such vibrancy your senses sing with it; the crush of a broken rib, the iciness of snow in your mouth, the whisper of a lover’s breath upon your skin. Poetry cauters associations, it condenses narrative and time so that events from your past life, isolated from one another, occur in a single instant instead—you are there as if you never left, only, and this is where embodiment hinges, you are there not only with your past self, but your future self, with every self you have ever been.

If your poetry felt narrow before, it was because it came from a singular direction. But you are moving from a bidirectional plane into a quantum realm, and you can begin writing from it now like a prism.


You lose it, somehow, at a picture of a person you cannot have. You’ve known this, but this gray November eve, silted like pond scum, you flail uncontrollably about it like a drowning rat. You cannot get air in your thirty-four-year-old body—on your bed, you choke, rasp. Overnight, the nightmares flash and you wake with cheeks like corrugated plastic. All day, you run through your list of grounding aids: yoga, piano, breathwork. You take long exhales through pursed lips like your therapist taught you. If these work at all, they’re fragmentary, and in ten minutes’ time you’re back to the crawling panic under your skin.

In the depth of your mania, something else pulses. You sit in your armchair with the journal you took to Iceland and a poem bleeds itself in your Lamy pen’s scarlet ink. Somewhere, a part of you marvels. You, who’ve convinced yourself you aren’t a poet, whose attempts are formless tides signifying nothing, wrote something, at last, that glimmers with musicality.

Your therapy session occurs in the same armchair via FaceTime. “M—, I tried everything,” you plead. “I walked the dog, I played piano, I even wrote a poem! Nothing helped—I just kept on feeling—”

It dawns the moment the words slip from your mouth. “Oh. That’s it, isn’t it?” you say. “I’m supposed to feel it.”

Through your screen, she nods. She looks at you with a mixture of softness and pride. “You are. But we can mourn the loss of your dissociation. You needed it for a very long time.”

This essay is an embodiment. 

When you remain at long last in your body through the duration of the DBR session, when you’ve leaned into your responses for the better part of an hour, and your eyes cease their nervous wandering, your brows relax, your breathing regulates, and you slacken, even, against your Vanitas-Still-Lifewith-Flowers-and-Skull pillow, something remarkable, miraculous, occurs—you begin to laugh mirthfully, hellaciously.

“Sorry,” you tell M—. “I don’t know why I’m laughing.”

“You don’t have to judge it,” she says.

It’s as if you were made of helium, as though if the ceiling were pulled from your apartment like a doll’s house, you would float up and join the clouds and dance shapelessly. It’s midwinter, and the clouds are tinted periwinkle.

You name this sensation joy but it can also go by other names: contentment, wholeness, embodiment. It is a state of presence, of undeniable fullness. You have found this on occasion at other moments of your life, in travel, in love, but it was dependent then on an external force to summon it, only for you to have it scatter between your fingers the moment your flight home landed or your dear one departed. Now you find it within and know, whatever murks you dive into, you will not dust yourself to oblivion.

You are grinning like a pearl, like a sea, like an ecosystem.

¹ “DBR History – Deep Brain Reorienting.” Deep Brain Reorienting, Accessed 12 May 2023.

² Heim, Benjamin. ““Bodies Tell Stories”: On Meaning Making and Trauma in Social Work,
Poetry, Pandemics, and Embodied Practice.” REFLECTIONS, vol. 28, no. 3, Accessed 12 May 2023.

³ van Heugten-van der Kloet D, Cosgrave J, Merckelbach H, Haines R, Golodetz S, Lynn SJ. Imagining the impossible before breakfast: the relation between creativity, dissociation, and sleep. Front Psychol. 2015 Mar 26;6:324. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00324. PMID: 25859231; PMCID: PMC4374390. Krause-Utz A, Frost R, Winter D, Elzinga BM. Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Jan;19(1):6. doi: 10.1007/s11920-017-0757-y. PMID: 28138924; PMCID: PMC5283511.

⁴ Sebastian R, Gomez Y, Leigh R, Davis C, Newhart M, Hillis AE. The roles of occipitotemporal cortex in reading, spelling, and naming. Cogn Neuropsychol. 2014;31(5-6):511-28. doi: 10.1080/02643294.2014.884060. Epub 2014 Feb 17. PMID: 24527769; PMCID: PMC4108518.


Raised in Mexico City and the Midwest United States, Jael Montellano (she/they) is an ESL writer, poet, and editor. Her work explores otherness and queer life and features in publications such as Tint Journal, Beyond Queer Words, Fauxmoir, The Selkie, the Columbia Journal, and more. She is the interviews editor at Hypertext Magazine, practices a variety of visual arts, and is at work learning her fourth language. Find her at, at X/Twitter @gathcreator, and at BlueSky @gathcreator.




Janine Blue

Intake: 4/4/2018. Brooklyn, NY 

Diagnostic Criteria
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
Bipolar I Disorder:

911 Caller: There is a guy walking around. He looks like he is crazy but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun and he’s like popping it like he’s pulling the trigger. He’s not pulling a trigger but he’s making a motion as if he is and there is something sticking out of his jacket.

Dispatcher: Ok, is anybody injured?

911 Caller: Nobody is injured.

Dispatcher: Ok, give me one second. Ok, help is on the way, I just have a few more questions, ok?

911 Caller: Uh-huh.

Dispatcher: You said it looks like a gun?

911 Caller: Yes.

A distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood, and increased goal-directed activity or energy lasting ≥1 week 
  1. Officers arrived at the scene around 4:30 p.m. and saw a man matching the description callers gave. In a news briefing later Wednesday evening, NYPD Chief Terence A. Monahan said the man “took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.” When asked whether the officers accounted for Vassell’s potential mental illness when they encountered him, Monahan responded that “this was not an [Emotionally Disturbed Person] call.”
(any duration if hospitalized), present most of the day, nearly every day
    1. The victim’s father, Eric Vassell, told the New York Times on Wednesday that his son had bipolar disorder and had been “sick for a long time.” Neighbors and local police officers also said they knew Vassell to be mentally ill and to drink heavily. Vassell had been taken to the hospital several times in recent years for mental health treatment.
Characterized by the occurrence of 1 or more manic or mixed episodes (the manic episode may have been preceded by and may be followed by hypomanic or major depressive episodes, but these are not required for diagnosis)

911 Caller: Hi I’m walking on Utica Avenue in the direction to…yeah walking away from Eastern Parkway towards Empire Boulevard. There’s a guy in a brown jacket walking around pointing. I don’t know what he’s pointing at people’s faces. I don’t know what if it’s a gun.¹ It’s silver.

Dispatcher: You said Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway?

911 Caller: I’m walking in the direction towards Empire Boulevard.

Dispatcher: So, Empire Boulevard?

911 Caller: Right. I’m walking on Utica in direction towards Empire Boulevard. I’m between Carroll and (Unintelligible Dispatcher/Caller audio overlapping).

911 Caller: I’m sorry. (Unintelligible Dispatcher/Caller overlapping).

911 Caller: He’s an African American guy. He has on a brown jacket.

Dispatcher: Brown jacket?

911 Caller: Right. He’s pointing a thing in people’s faces. He’s wearing blue jeans and black and white sneakers and a black hat.

¹  Officers later determined that the object Vassell had pointed at them was a pipe with some sort of knob on the end of it.

During the mood disturbance and increased energy or activity, ≥3 (or 4 if irritable mood only) of the following:
A. Inflated self-esteem or
Four officers, three in plainclothes and one in uniform,
B. Decreased need for sleepfired 10 rounds, striking the man,
C. Pressured speechwho was later identified as Saheed Vassell.
D. Racing thoughts or flight of ideasThe officers then called an ambulance,
E. DistractibilityNYPD Chief Terence A. Monahan said,
F. Increased activityand Vassell was taken to Kings County Hospital,
G. Excess pleasurable or risky
where he was pronounced dead.


Blumberg, A. (2018, April 6). NYPD Releases 911 Transcripts, Footage Of Saheed Vassell’s Final Moments. HuffPost.

Purse, M. (2022). Types of Bipolar Disorder Episodes According to the DSM-5. Verywell Mind.


Janine Blue lives in Illinois and is a PhD candidate studying creative writing. Janine’s prose and hybrid work intertwine feminism, police brutality, queer culture, and critical race theory. As a Black female, her intersectional identity is embedded into her writing regardless of the medium or subject matter. You can find her at and on Twitter @JeblueWrites.




Said Shaiye

How ADHD Meds Changed My Life

Preface: The essay is about how adhd meds changed my life, but it hasn’t been an easy road or a quick fix. It’s been blips of perfection surrounded by turmoil. The format is intentionally jarring – I hope to convey the uncertainty of the adhd life. This is merely my experience and not meant as a universal definition. The thing about being neurodivergent is that we all exist on a spectrum. My viewpoint is unique to me. Perhaps you’ll find parallels in it, but there will also be points of departure. Take it all with a grain of salt. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything but my lived experience. All photos in this piece were taken, on film, by the author in Minneapolis.


You can feel the fear in you. It wants to consume.

You just landed a dream job, a scholarship, new girl, anything worth celebrating.

The Fear says you are unworthy.

Or even worse: you will die before you ever enjoy this.

You were destined for misery. This Is The Fear.

If you get anything worth having in life, it will be right before you die.

Surely your death must be near.

You, taste, happiness? Please.

You’ve watched enough Star Trek to know that Logic is the blueprint for life.

The logic of your life thus far says you will die just as poor as you were born.

We don’t care if you feel you’ve made it.

You’re still that dusty lil African kid in that Mombasa Refugee Camp.

Utaango, you forget that place? Your mother nearly died there. Your brothers were born there.

And you? You’re still that Feed The Children commercial.

You forget how they bullied you in first grade, no English, Atlanta? African Booty Scratcher.

I am The Fear. I am your only friend.

I am the only one who can stand your bullshit enough to stick around.

Everyone else will leave you. You know it’s true. They already have. Show me a friend you’ve known more than 5 years. You can’t, can you? Tragic.

You said what? You are unworthy of love?

Well, you’re not wrong. I don’t love you. I am The Fear, incapable of Love. But I am here.

this is how the world began

I used to do a lot of drugs. The thing about abusing substances is that it depletes your neurotransmitters. This leads to very bad depression. Combine that with being dark skinned and growing up in a place like Seattle with no real sunlight, and you get a vitamin D deficiency (aka Seasonal Affective Disorder). This makes the depression symptoms even worse. This makes you do more drugs to cope. Which make you more depressed.. which makes you… yeah.

I’d end up in the ER, in the psych ward, at the tail end of a long binge. I would be so depressed that a psychiatric hold felt like my only option. The ER doctors only ever saw me at my lowest state. At other times, I’d show up to the same ER (hi, Harborview Medical Center) in a state of stimulant induced mania. They put all of this on my chart and their natural conclusion was: Bipolar. The man wavers from depressed to manic, he must be Bipolar.

I accepted their verdict, along with the Lithium salts which promised to ease my instability. It’s very dangerous to get dehydrated while you’re on lithium. I was working as a pedicab driver at the time, so I was routinely dehydrated. One weekend, I signed up for a 3-day festival on that pedicab and… it did not end well. I felt like I was dying for 48 hours. I didn’t ask for permission when I decided to get off the lithium. Better alive & down then dead & treated.

That was only one such incident. I have a million more stories like that, stories I’d rather not tell because they’re too painful. The basic story arch was this: misdiagnosis / wrong medication / very bad effects from medication / get myself off the meds / rinse & repeat cycle.

I was beginning to lose hope, and not just from being depressed. I turned to self-medication. Look, at least with weed, alcohol, mushrooms, molly, coke, meth, Xanax, experimental research chemicals (hello, 2CB) & everything else I got my hands on, I could control the flow of feelings.

Did I care that all this drug abuse was putting me in dangerous situations (I’ve had guns pulled on me, seen close friends OD, nearly died myself so many times)? No. It didn’t really matter because, as dangerous as this life was, it was better than the eternal malaise I was in sans drugs.

Years later, I would get sober, clinging to faith as my bedrock. Faith was the only thing keeping me from going back to the Old Ways. It didn’t occur to me that all the difficulties I was having could be attributed to ADHD or complex trauma or being Autistic. I had a feeling, but I had no way of knowing. We can’t know what we know until we know it, right?

See, I grew up in this culture that teaches you to be grateful for everything. Say you come home and say “mom, dad, I’m struggling with school. I feel sad all the time, and I don’t know why.” You would get a shower sandal flying towards your head (for daring to be so ungrateful), followed by a lecture on all the people back home who would kill for the opportunities you take for granted. You might be reminded of all the sacrifices your parents made to get you to this position. The refugee camps, the bullets flying overhead, the near starvation.

You want to say something like: yeah, I went through all that, too, except I was only a child, who didn’t have any way to process that level of death and destruction, and so perhaps that’s why I’m feeling so damn sad all the time. Perhaps that’s why I can’t relate to my classmates who only ever talk about the newest shoes or the latest reality show. Perhaps I am not ungrateful, but simply drowning in sorrow so deep that gratitude is the least of my concerns.

You know you can’t say any of this so you shake your head and shuffle off to your room. Cry into your pillow or something. Jack off and hope the endorphins make the pain stop. Cry again.

These days, I work as an adjunct professor, teaching composition courses at a slew of community colleges. The nature of adjunct life is such that you take whatever courses are offered. This is how I make my living, so I pretend to be grateful for the opportunity.

At the beginning of my second semester as an adjunct fresh out of grad school, I received an email that shook my world. “Due to low enrollment, we have no courses to offer you next semester. We know that your income, as well as you health insurance, is directly tied to the number of credits you teach. We encourage you to apply for food stamps, or disability, or unemployment, or find a wife who is willing to pay your bills until enrollment turns around again. We understand that you are Somali and Muslim, and that the expectation is for you to be the breadwinner in a household. We also hear that twitter discourse dictates you need to be a 6 figure salary (with benefits) man just to qualify for a first date. We see you and hear you. Hopefully you don’t get evicted while you try to find a new basket for all your eggs.”

Okay, maybe I’m taking creative liberties with the email. Much of what I wrote is true advice I received from other adjuncts: apply for food stamps/unemployment/disability; find a partner who can pay your bills until things turn around. I did not endure 3 years of MFA hell just to end up more job insecure than ever before. It was so disheartening that I signed up for a coding bootcamp, vowing to become a well-paid techbro & leave the adjunct professor grind for good.

Just as I was losing hope, two of the colleges I have relationships with reached out. One college wanted me to teach two classes. The other college wanted me to substitute for a professor on leave (5 classes for 6 weeks). Being in dire need of the money & benefits, I said hell yes.

Never mind the fact I’m Autistic & teaching in person is terrifying for me. I don’t enjoy being the center of attention, don’t do well with group settings, despise making eye contact. My voice isn’t very loud, so I have to scream for the entire class to hear me. I end up sweating at the front of the class for an hour & fall apart immediately afterwards. This isn’t a very healthy way to live, but this is how I pay my bills. What did Vonnegut say? So it goes.

I’ve always had a soft spot for caffeine, sweets, fatty foods, and nicotine. I quit smoking cigarettes a long time ago, but a hookah addiction had crept into my life in the last few years. I wasn’t proud of it, but it served a purpose. It helped me get through the long Minnesota winters. It allowed me to focus on tasks while I smoked. I did not know that these were all signs of ADHD. I just assumed that was my coping mechanism for stress. I thought it was a personal choice. A moral failing.

Years ago, I was addicted to much harder drugs than caffeine and nicotine. Think stimulants (coke & meth, mainly). During recovery, I used self-blaming as a sobriety device. I said it was due to trauma, I made my mistakes, but now I’ve moved on. I was right, but also wrong. First line treatment for ADHD is stimulant medication. Amphetamines, to be precise. The drugs I used to abuse on the street were nearly identical to what a doctor would prescribe me had I been diagnosed with ADHD at a young age.

I wasn’t born in this country, and neither were my parents. We came here from a refugee camp in Kenya. I was 7 years old when I my family landed in Atlanta, Georgia. I watched cartoons to learn English & American Culture. School was hard, but I am a quick learner. I soon was coming home with awards and being moved up in grades. My parents were proud, but they also reminded me that failure wasn’t an option. As the oldest son in an African Immigrant family, the pressure was on me to save the family. I never had a childhood in Africa (war will do that to you). I was sad to learn that I was expected to be even more mature in America.

There’s a lot about this country’s healthcare system that my parents were not equipped to understand. Because I seemed so smart and capable, no one thought to get me tested for anything. If I complained of being tired all the time, I was told that I was still young. If I wanted to feel real fatigue, try working a double shift at the Marshall’s factory like my parents did. I was always a good son, and eternally empathetic, so I told myself I needed to try harder. I don’t blame my parents for any of this. They did the best they could with what they had. They just wanted a better life for me. They couldn’t have known what they didn’t know until they knew it. I love them for all the ways they supported and encouraged me. I don’t think I would have become as skilled in so many aspects of life if they hadn’t pushed me. I wonder what life would have been like if I’d gotten an early diagnosis. I tend to think things would have been easier, but what about the downsides?

I recently watched a Good Morning America segment on the former NBA player Tony Snell. He was getting his son tested for autism after a teacher noticed classic spectrum traits. As he sat in on those sessions with his son, he found himself identifying with many of the diagnostic questions. That led him to discover, at age 31, that he was also autistic. The GMA interviewers asked him if he’d wished he got that diagnosis earlier in life. Tony said no, definitely not. Paraphrasing, he said something along the lines of: ‘People would’ve put limitations on what I could or could not do. They would’ve put me in special classes and discouraged me from pursuing my NBA dreams. They might’ve said that’s just not something someone like you can do.’

I immediately found parallels to my own life. To make it to the NBA, Tony needed endless determination and countless hours of practice. He needed grit and self-belief. He had to push himself well beyond his limitations or others’ expectations. When I got sober, I did it cold turkey. Quitting the hardest drugs known to man requires endless grit and self belief. Returning to college after 10 years away from higher Ed required grit and self-belief. Finishing an MFA degree as a recovering addict with undiagnosed disabilities required (in my mind) even more determination than it took to find my way to sobriety. I often ask myself how much easier life would’ve been had I gotten an early diagnosis, but I rarely think about how much more limited my outcomes may have been.

I worked as a medical interpreter for several years when I first moved to Minneapolis. A line I would often interpret, in the emergency room of a children’s hospital, was “you can’t bring your kids here for primary care. ER’s are designed for acute care, not long-term follow-up. You need to find a regular doctor and take them there for checkups.”

It was then that I realized how, all these years after we’ve been in this country, many of my people still struggle to navigate this country’s fraught healthcare system. This isn’t their fault. Even people who’ve been in this country for generations struggle to navigate it. I understand that is by design, that it ties into capitalism & money-hungry corporations disguised as hospitals. Having worked in hospitals, I understand how the bottom line is often more important than the patient. As Omar Little used to say: the game is the game.

The game doesn’t leave room for people like me. It forces us to go undiagnosed and struggle to make something of ourselves while carrying unseen burdens. Had I known I had ADHD, that I was Autistic, when I was a child… I probably wouldn’t have ended up nearly overdosing on the streets of Seattle for a good 5 years. I may have accomplished a lot more with my life. I may have gotten married and had a family by now. A mortgage, retirement plan, college fund. Golf slacks, nigga. Stock options and PTO.

But I’m Muslim, and though I lament the failings of this country, I understand that What-If’s are the devil’s playground. I believe in pre-destiny, which means there is nothing anyone could have done to change how my life played out. And I accept that. It’s not always easy, but I accept it.

I see how things played out in my life and how they continue to play out for younger versions of me. I feel it is my destiny to write, not for accolades, but to share my story. In doing so, I hope to help people avoid years of pain by getting the right supports. I know that’s a very cliché thing to say, in this influencer era that we live in, but it still bears worth saying.

Perhaps, if I my body & mind’s needs had been met, I would have been a more positive person who didn’t think so negatively of the world, even as a child. But there’s no way to answer those kinds of questions. What I do know, without a doubt, is that stories save lives. A friend told me recently: your survival story will someday serve as a roadmap to someone else’s liberation.

Perhaps I needed to go through what I did so that I could share my story with others. There aren’t very many of us (Somalis, or children of immigrants) who are brave (or stupid) enough to pursue writing as a life. It’s not easy to reject the trappings of this world when your people desperately need you to make it, to lift them out of poverty.

Perhaps a lot of people have gone through exactly what I went through, but how many of them are writers? Or: how many of them have been stubborn enough to continue writing, even when years of effort produced no tangible (I mean, fiscal) results? We may never know. All I know, for sure, is that I am honest to a fault, I love writing, and I’m always telling my story to strangers.

It may be shortsighted to make a direct connection between all the pain I’ve endured and the fact that I’m a writer now. Did I endure the pain just to become a writer, or am I writer because of the pain? Either way, I’m in a position to help light the path I’ve walked for those who may be at its beginning. Here, watch out for this pitfall. There, be careful of that monster’s lair. Turn left after the next curve. Be kind to yourself along the way, beloved.

Things went like this until, one day at the doctor’s office, I got a high blood pressure reading. I was 40 pounds overweight and my blood pressure was high. I had them run a blood panel to see what my cholesterol was saying. Just as I suspected: it was higher than I’d ever seen. Oh shit.

I asked the doctor what could cause all this, and how can I change it?

Smoking, eating fast food, and stress are all known contributors to these things, Said.

I looked for a camera in the room. Surely this was a prank?

My lifestyle was a direct result of this hellish job, these uncertain circumstances. Not knowing if I would have classes to teach from one semester to the next, my health insurance always in danger of being pulled, getting ready to apply for unemployment as an employed professor? It weighed heavy on my heart, on my body, and my creative practice had been thrown out the window in favor of survival. I was numbing pain & stimulating my brain just to do my job.

Hanif Abdurraqib, in his collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, titled an essay “Brief Notes On Staying // No One is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”

I did not feel like dying, but I certainly wasn’t living. And I was so depressed that thoughts of no longer wanting to exist couldn’t have been far away. I made a decision, right then and there: YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR LIFE (shouts to Rainer Maria Rilke).

I had been diagnosed with ADHD for almost 2 years at this point, but I was scared to give medication a try for several reasons.

One, my addiction history – what if it was a slippery slope and I ended up right back in The Darkness? Two, and perhaps just as important: the cultural stigma in my community of taking medication for anything mental health related.

These things had held me back, but I figured, look: I’m self-medicating in extremely unhealthy ways. So, what the hell did I have to lose? Why not give medication a try? Why not reach out to an ADHD specialist who will monitor my medication side effects and give me guidance until we figure out something that works? And so, I took the leap…

I met a Nigerian brother who had a small clinic which did ADHD medication management. I looked him square in the face and said I need help, but I am scared. I laid out my past experiences with drug abuse in painful detail. I shared all my fears and asked for his advice.

He put it to me like this:

                                    Brother, I commend you for your honesty and self-awareness. Your concerns are valid, but let me play devil’s advocate. You were at a different place in your life during the addiction years. You were young and had no idea of your disabilities. You assumed that your dropping out of college and turning towards drugs was due to personal failing. You didn’t make the connection between school struggles and undiagnosed ADHD. You were forcing your body to do things it wasn’t capable of. I’m sure you see the COLLEGE DROPOUT section of your life as the fall, but what were your high school years like? You said you started struggling in middle school and your grades never matched your intellect. You told me you were depressed in high school and barely made it to college. We have to look at the bigger picture here.

            Now, let’s look at where you are in your life. You’re in your 30s, have been sober for over a decade. You went back to school, got your BA, got your MFA, published A BOOK which was a major award finalist while you were still in grad school. You did all of this with no medication. You told me yourself that you’re still healing from the pain of those experiences. You asked your body for everything it had, and then you took some more. You have accomplished incredible things, by the grace of God, and you are at a different place in your life. You have too much to lose – you’ve worked entirely too hard to just throw it all away now.

            Here’s my suggestion: let’s get you started on a stimulant medication. The non-stimulant class is too similar to antidepressants, and you’ve told me how many terrifying experiences you’ve had with those. As long as you can be honest with yourself and with me, and you take the medication as prescribed, and you watch your diet/exercise/sleep, I don’t think anything will go wrong. Worst case scenario, it won’t work and we’ll get you off the meds. We’ll try something else. But look at the alternative. As you said yourself, you are self-medicating in unhealthy ways. If these meds work, and I am confident you will be responsible in how you take them, they could change your life in ways you can’t even imagine. How does that sound?

I listened carefully and let it all soak in. I agreed with him. I was scared, but I was more desperate for solutions. I agreed to give it a try. I prayed to God for assistance. I asked Him to keep my steadfast and to protect me from relapse. I had tried everything else. Now it was time to give meds a chance. Internalized stigma about meds be damned. I was drowning, and this sounded like a life raft….

///             ….             ….               ///

and this is how the world ends

Ramadan, 2023

2 weeks of fasting. 2 weeks w/o adhd meds. 

I’ve completely regressed into my worst self.

Sugar cravings every night. Random mood swings. Inability to start or finish tasks. Distracted constantly. Sabotaging relationships I’ve worked hard to build. Overthinking EVERY THING. Poor impulse control. Lethargy. Hard crash after socializing.

Poor organization. Opening a new browser tab & forgetting what I wanted to search. Snapping on people when they ask too many questions or try to socialize with me when my social battery is drained. Negative self-view. Less optimistic. More worried & scared (especially about money). Going on spending sprees (even if I can’t afford it). Falling apart. Falling so far. Fell.

A few weeks back, I started this article and called it HOW ADHD MEDS CHANGED MY LIFE. I stopped writing because something felt missing. Now that I’m back to The Old Said, Unmedicated & Ornery, I see the perspective I was lacking. 

I forgot how hard my life was before I found these meds. How impossible it was to sustain momentum, or relationships. How I constantly dumped my weird feelings onto anyone who would hear me. Most of the time, it pushed people away. Maybe that’s what I wanted, or maybe The Fear made me do it. Thing is, you can’t constantly leak your worries to everyone in your life. Even if they love you, humans only have so much capacity. They will tire, and that’s understandable.

I’ve had poor self-esteem & negative self-worth for most of my life. I assumed I was born to live that way. Getting on ADHD meds, finding the right medication & dose (which is a journey and a half of itself), has changed my life. I cannot stress this enough.

My life changed so drastically, so quickly, that I forgot what it was like without them. I realize that sounds rather like addiction, or dependence, but you have to remember: the ADHD brain is not like other brains. We deal with chronic under-stimulation. A lack of dopamine or some shit. I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. I hear words and wrangle them.

What ADHD meds did for me was balance out the lack of dopamine. Make more of it available to my brain so that it could function how a brain is “supposed” to function. I put my body through hell just to get through the day without my falling apart. Even the best of medicines comes with side effects. It hasn’t been easy, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

It was not an overnight fix & I had to make MAJOR life changes for the meds to work. Strict wake-up & bed times; clean, healthy diet; regular exercise; GALLONS of water per day; rest days scheduled into my med routine. I worked with an ADHD specialist to help me troubleshoot side effects & move up to the right dose when I was ready.

Living with untreated ADHD is like playing life on European Extreme Mode. Except no one tells you that your brain is working overtime just to fail twice as hard as people who seem to be exerting only half the effort you are.

Now that I’ve been off meds for a few weeks, my body is returning to The Old Way — self medicating with stimulus seeking (anything to get a quick boost of dopamine). Food, caffeine, sugar, endorphins.

I’ve been sober since 2012. All I have left for stimulation is food & caffeine & exercise. I really can’t do any of that during Ramadan. My body has been pushed to its limits by the combination of fasting, dehydration & sleep deprivation. All I can do wait for month’s end.

I’ve noticed myself seeking more sugar at fast break time. Keeping sweet snacks nearby. Hanging out at my coffee shop more, even though I can’t drink any of it. Wanting to commit sins, but not following through, for fear of God in this Holy Month.

I am at an impasse. My life has quickly fallen apart and all it took was 2 weeks of not taking my meds + my body being stressed by the rigors of this month. I feel like a Bad Muslim when I think to myself “I can’t wait for Ramadan to be over.”

It’s not Ramadan I want to end. I love this month & am grateful for its transformative nature. It’s just that my body *quite literally* needs that medication to function as an adult.

When non-ADHD people take ADHD stimulants, they get high. They feel euphoric & do wild stuff. When we take ADHD stimulants, we feel like (what I imagine) the rest of you feel like. The first time I took meds, I looked up and immediately knew this is how the rest of you feel.

I was mad as hell. You Niggas just WAKE UP like this? Overnight I found I could have full, productive days without crashing at noon. I made small talk with strangers while standing in line. I built a social life where I met with friends in person. Hit up the gym at 6pm. In bed by 9. Asleep by 10 or 11. Up by 8am, fully rested. Rinse and repeat, even on weekends.

I had never thought that kind of life was possible for me. When friends told me about their typical day, I’d get sad and think “must be nice.” 

Nigga. All I needed was the right medicine.

I had an uncle who told me once, right before I snapped on him, that I was fine but probably needed some type of medication. He wasn’t sure what, but something needed addressing. I’m sure he meant well, but I don’t do well with unsolicited advice.

I took it in the worst way possible: Are you saying I’m broken? Do you want to put me in your group home with the other broken, medicated people?

There was a lot of context for my outsized reaction. At the time, he owned a series of group homes that specialized in Somali clients. They provide a culturally relevant approach for people who need to be under long-term care, with medications. This all sounds great in theory, but in practice… it’s a lot. I had tried to work for him at one of those group homes and I fell apart. I couldn’t handle the overstimulation, but I was also bothered by the whole setup.

The fact that my uncle made obscene amounts of money from this endeavor, and that people who had similar life experiences as me were effectively trapped there… stuck on medication for years, eating the same old food, having every aspect of their life micromanaged… it really bothered me.

I remembered a time, back in Seattle, when this same uncle came to scout a location for a new group home. I was extremely depressed at the time, laying on a mattress on the floor. He came in and casually appraised me. His voice always had a robotic quality to it. I was in so much pain, and all he could see was a new business opportunity. Something about that bothered me, and I guess I always looked at him through that lens. Exploiting sick people for personal gain, ain’t that the American dream?

The other side of the argument is that if he hadn’t created culturally specific group homes, those same clients would end up in white institutions that didn’t understand their needs with nuance. A lot of the clients had complex diagnoses that needed a lot of support. I now work in the disability sector, so I see how hard it is to help people within the narrow scope of State regulations. There are so many agencies and rules and systems and so much and. It is less than ideal even in a best-case scenario.

I also realize that I’m too close to this issue to have objective thoughts on it. Being autistic makes it hard for me to hold opposing/conflicting views at the same time. I tend to see things in black and white, as all or nothing. It’s hard to see shades of grey. Every autistic person is not like this, because there’s no such thing as an autistic archetype, but I know it’s true for me. I have more compassion for my uncle these days, but back then I only felt attacked. Like someone wanted to fix me. I once heard Ross Gay say: “to fix means to mend, but it also means to kill [as in euthanize an animal]…” I wonder why this world wants to fix us so badly?

3 of the biggest blessings of my life: coming back to Islam (thank you, Allah); getting sober (drugs are hell); getting my right diagnoses (Autism + ADHD). 

Being Autistic with ADHD is a unique experience. I have friends who are just Autistic and friends who are just ADHD and friends who are both. The combined experience is something I’ll struggle to make sense of for years, but I am not ungrateful.

In many ways, I relate more to ADHDers than to other Autists. The ADHD has a propensity to take over my life, while being Autistic is more of a background feature. Don’t get me wrong – I still struggle with sensory sensitivity (eating in a busy restaurant is one of my worst fears). Social situations are still challenging, but that may have more to do with an under-stimulated brain than it does with Autistic vs Allistic communication patterns. Could be a little of both, but I’m no scientist; just a dude trying to write his way to a place of understanding.

Prior to ADHD meds, I had chalked up most of my issues to being Autistic in an Allistic world. And I was not wrong! However, I completely disregarded how many parts of functioning in modern society are hampered by ADHD.

What the hell am I trying to say? I’m running out of energy. 

My nigga, long story short, ADHD isn’t what pop culture has led us to believe. It is complex & subtle & overwhelming. It looks like personality traits. It looks like a Broken Brain. It is simply a shortage of dopamine in the brain. Therapy helps, but all the therapy in the world won’t change the fundamental issue. 

I was against meds for a long time because of my bad experiences + cultural stigma. Now I can’t picture my life without them. I was NOT living life before this. I was riding the waves from one crash to the next. I was falling apart smiling & accepted it as my life.

I know how all this may make me sound — perhaps like an addict. Brother let me tell you: I’ve been to the deepest depths of addiction. It nearly destroyed me. I clawed my way to sobriety & learned to live a sober life. I rekindled my faith in God (by His Mercy) & put my trust in Him. I went from college dropout & hopeless addict to Published Author with a Master’s degree. A Keynote Speaker & College Professor. Always giving back to my various communities in any way that I can. I am grateful.

I know what it means to have nothing — I lost my country at the age of 3 and watched my younger brothers’ births inside a refugee camp. I learned to be an adult before I ever knew childhood. I have lived no less than 17 lives in my 35 years on this earth. I know what I am, what I am not. Perhaps I’m still an addict and perhaps I don’t care.

Medication isn’t for everyone, but I know they help me live a life worth living. 

Alhamdulillah for everything, even this.

I’ve done too much explaining. Here’s a poem:

                                                I can hear the sound of papers rustling

                                                On the other side of the room

                                                In this busy café, filled with noise

                                                I can’t process which part of the noisescape

                                                Is most overwhelming to me right now

                                                All I know is the barista in front of me

                                                Wonders why I’m looking out the window

                                                Instead of sustaining eye to eye contact

                                                All I know is these big bay windows

                                                Let in too much light, even on cloudy

                                                Days I wish life was easier, or made sense

                                                Days I wish I didn’t exist, forgive me Lord

                                                Nights I awake in a cold sweat, bad dreams

                                                Seen people burning, hope it’s not me, I pray

                                                I see heaven one day, screaming for forgiveness

                                                On Judgement Day, pleading with my Lord like

                                                Dear God, did you not see the ways I suffered

                                                On your earth, at the hands of Your creation?

                                                I beg thee, beloved Lord, forgive all my sins on this

                                                Most hallowed of days, when the sun is just inches

                                                Away from our sweating bodies, and the earth has been

                                                Flattened like a scroll, and the humans rush from left

                                                To right and plead forgiveness for the sins committed

                                                Against one another, for they know that this day is unlike

                                                Any other day which came before it, and now, just now

                                                All they can hope is that they lived just right enough

                                                to walk into Heaven, even if it’s a hard walk

                                                All I can hope is that my few good deeds and my

                                                Endless inner breakage, the tears shed, deep grief

                                                I hope it’s enough to lift me from that eternal fire

                                                I pray for this, and dream it, and write it, every day

                                                This was meant to be a treatise on being Autistic + ADHD

                                                It turned out to be a prayer and a wish, a hope everlasting


Said Shaiye is an Autistic + ADHD Somali Author, Photographer, Professor & Disability Advocate in Minneapolis. He is represented by Mariah Stovall at Trellis Literary Management. His debut book, Are You Borg Now?, was a 2022 Minnesota Book Award Finalist in Creative Nonfiction & Memoir. He has contributed essays to the anthologies Muslim American Writers at Home and We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World. He has published poetry & prose in Indiana Review, Texas Review, Obsidian, Brittle Paper, Pithead Chapel, 580 Split, Diagram, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota, where he was a Graduate Instructor of Creative Writing, as well as a Judd International Research Fellow. He was a 2023 Loft Windows & Mirrors Fellow. He can be reached at