Monday, October 27, 2014

In Case I Eventually Check Myself Out…

Edit Note: I first wrote this in October 2014. I am republishing it because the term Mabirizi trended on Twitter last week, as people cracked jokes about the fact that a man jumped off a 7 storey building and as the tweeps put it, "failed to die." He died in hospital the next day and Red Pepper reported that his dream had finally come true. These kinds of statements show how much our heads failed the whole point of education. When we are confronted with what we don't understand, we mask our ignorance with callous mockery. Had we not missed the point of education, our instinct would be to Google it, pick up a book or ask someone who might know. But many of us missed that point by miles. 
Anyhow, the old post:  

Yet another person has committed suicide under circumstances that allow the public to know about it. This time it is a young woman who jumped off Workers’ House. Two months ago, it was a famous actor. Naturally, people on social media are falling over themselves to showcase their ignorance and callousness regarding the subject of suicide and the mental state that precedes it. To paraphrase some of the postings and comments that followed these incidents:

On Robin Williams: You see them happy and rich but when they are dying inside. Okay… also dying inside are all people with terminal illnesses such as cancer. Would you like to gloat about those too?
On the 26 year old Asaba: Do people jump off Worker’s House because of adrenaline?  Who knows? Maybe let’s Google that?
On Robin William: One thing I am grateful for is that here in Africa; we have social structures to support us. Indeed. Is this why nobody has ever committed suicide in Africa?  
On Both: It is crazy and selfish. Right. But posting the picture of a dead person on your page to get a few more views and likes to massage your ego is neither crazy nor selfish.  

Following all the local social media callousness that followed Robin Williams, I set out to write a post about depression in the irrational hope that perhaps I’d get through to the humanity of those people whose sense of humour didn't rise above correlating his suicide with his three marriages. I did try but halfway through I was crying over my keyboard in the office so I put it off. I have been stewing on that post since, so here goes a second attempt. 

So, statistically speaking, there is a chance that when I die, it will be at my own hands. No, I am not suicidal. Not right now anyway. But, I do suffer from depression and a huge proportion of the people who take their own lives are depressives. Also, I notice that I have a markedly different reaction to news of suicide than most people. Yes, the image of a young woman jumping off the 14th floor of Worker’s House is chilling to me too. As is hanging one’s self. I doubt I would do either. But my chills are brought on only by the how not the what. That is; I think, there are less horrendous ways of committing suicide, not that there is something intrinsically wrong with suicide itself. I figure that death is death whether it comes by suicide or cancer. Clearly I am further out of my mind about this than most people are but that’s the story.

I suffered my first serious episode of depression when I was 10 or 11. Following a not particularly noteworthy beating from my mum, I tried to run away from home and failed. I didn't think it through well enough even for a 10 year old runaway. I ended up at the home of one of my mother’s colleagues, who of course sent for her. So I was a runaway for what? Two hours maybe? What followed however was not a joking subject. I fell into a sadness so profound that I literally couldn't speak for about a month. Whenever I tried to, tears just streamed down my face. Imagine my mother’s terror – she never laid a hand on me after that. Imagine my own confusion. The profound sadness did pass but was then followed by a year of inexplicable ill-health. Vague illness kept me in and out of school for much the year that followed. I even developed the very grown up disease called ulcers. I was constantly crying at little to no provocation.

Even prior to all this, I hadn't been a particularly happy or easy child. My grandmother used to swear that the first time I spoke, I said a full sentence, repeated it thrice and it was, “Nja kuffa.” (I will die!) Take that with pinch of salt. I, proudly, come from a long line of storytellers. Still, I was a pretty sad child, even to my own recollection. Now, of course, as with most stories of childhood depression, there were familial circumstances on which my apparent sorrow could be blamed. I will not go into those because I have come to think of them as mere triggers for an underlying condition that would (and still does) anyway come to the fore regardless of what is going on in my physical world. 

I may have suffered another episode around the age of 14 or 15 but that wasn’t clear cut sorrow. It was more in the form of swings between hyper happy and sulky. Plus teenage is so confusing for everybody that even with hindsight, it is hard for me to pin down what was going on. Still I remember certain things that have come to characterize my depression in the years after – waking up to weep in the middle of the night about something that wouldn’t make me cry ordinarily, the feeling that I was drifting aimlessly through life and this would be my eternal lot in life, a deep craving for drugs in the belief that they’d make things alright (I am still managing to stay away from them, save for the occasional recreational joint of weed). The thing is that the above feelings were completely unfounded. As far as teenage goes, I was pretty successful at it. I routinely topped my class and was well acknowledged (admired even) by my peers and teachers. My parents thought me a well behaved child yet I was still managing to sneak off to daytime discos at Little Flowers & Club Ambience. I once even harbored a friend for an entire day before we jumped the fence and successfully got into Club Silk that night. At 15! What else does it take to be a successful teenager? Yet, that inexplicable sorrow never quite left me. For stretches of weeks at a time, I would find myself crying into my basin of bathwater for reasons that I don’t recall. In any event though, teenage certainly wasn’t the worst time of my life.

I think the trophy for worst time of my life would go to the period between 27 and 29 years of age. I honestly feel like I lost three years to the sheer effort of keeping out of the darkness. During this time it got so bad that flashes of my slit wrists crossed my vision at random hours of the day. That, plus the waking in the middle of the night to weep my heart out. I didn’t even trust myself to take care of my child – hence a few shameful parenting decisions hereabout. In addition; more than a few other shameful personal choices that shall remain unsubstantiated. My older Facebook friends probably remember those ‘my life is pathetic’ updates and blog posts! Some, bless their hearts, went as far as coming out of the internet into my life to support me. Thankfully, though, this episode happened then not earlier. Around the age of 25, I had started to learn about depression as a disease. I came to learn that it wasn't just a personal tendency to be sad but rather an actual physiological disease that stems from underlying chemical imbalances in the brain. I came to know that it can be treated or managed. Just as importantly, I came to name the thing that occasionally took over my life just for its just. When it first returned in my late 20s, I of course didn't recognize it right away. I blamed my disorientation on my personal and work situations, the stresses of adulthood/motherhood, childhood baggage, the media and all its bad news, the existence of awful people like those who sprayed Dr Besigye’s eyes with pepper spray every few days etc. So I slogged it out for two whole years. However, when the slit wrists started to flash before me, all the learning I had done about depression was triggered into my consciousness. I recognized that I was sick, not sad. This would be the part where I tell you that I took that insight and started fixing things.  Except, fixing things was more like:
Go into panic mode.
Make unjustified and unsustainable changes to your life.
Go into erratic mode with the changes and decisions.
Calm down when you’ve amassed a tidy pile of random meaningless experiences.
Make changes slower and more deliberately now.
Start to see that glimmer of calm light at the end of this section of the tunnel.

Maybe the above did fix things. More likely, once again, the thing took three years of my life and then left. Nonetheless, I think knowing what was happening to me when it was happening really helped me cope. That’s one reason why mental health education and services are so important – not just that famed African social support structure. So the worst of that episode is behind me. Still, even today, after a slight disappointment or unwanted change in my life, I might catch myself involuntarily pining, “I just wanna go home.” This is a scary and stunning thing to hear yourself say involuntarily especially when you are sitting in your own living room. I am not naïve about what ‘going home’ means there.

I definitely plan to keep this beast at bay and outlive you all and, I am quite the achiever so that’s probably gonna happen. But if one day it stretches my mind so far out that I go beyond the flashes to actually slitting my wrists (yikes!), I want all random social media peeps to be reminded of the below when they post declaring me selfish, seemingly happy but dying inside or an adrenaline junkie.
  1. I have been keeping this beast at bay since I was 10. When they call me selfish, ask them what struggle they've fought so determinedly for so long.
  2. At that point, I will be just as dead as I’d be if I died of cancer. Remind them of that.
  3.  Because of the number 2 above, I wouldn't be reading their status updates so do point out that their moral lesson will be kinda lost on me.
  4. Related to number 3, I wouldn't be suffering the ignorance and callousness of people like them anymore. Joke then that death isn't without its minor benefits
  5. Most emphatically tell them that I have lived a pretty darn good life. Depression isn't a full time illness. Despite it, I have squeezed some pretty fun experiences into my thus far short life. Tell them that I have abseiled besides Sipi falls, been inside the Taj Mahal, climbed (a certain number of steps on) the Great Wall of China and have lived inside a lover's t-shirt. Tell them I lived a life. What do they mean I was dying on the inside?   




If however you were to be a person who actually knew me, loved me and wanted me to hold onto my life just for you; I wouldn’t know what to say to you except that life is rough and we aren’t always in control of things. I’d just hope that the very deliberate effort I put into making my connections worthwhile will keep your heart warm with some pretty awesome memories made just for you. And I’d hope that the knowledge that nobody gets out of life alive, would help you keep your perspective.

Eh! Nga now this sounds like my will. I am not dying or planning on it. I am not even sad or depressed. Yes, you even can buy me coffee and beer. Yes, both. Tuli mu future! Let’s live while we are still alive.

Update: I thought I'd share this collection of portraits that illustrate the duality that living with (at least some forms of) depression can be like. 

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