It’s said one remembers their first time but for me that doesn’t ring true. There’ve been many more times since then so I guess the first has been pushed to the periphery of my mind. I only remember the last time now because that was when I almost succeeded and decided never to try again.
As a child I remember being told that since one’s life was a gift of God, rejecting it was a ticket to Hell. Why? ‘Because God says, and he’s all knowing.’ And that was that; I was younger and not so intensely interested in matters of autonomy nor life and death. Or rather, I was interested but at that point it was irrelevant.
I’m not sure when my mental health began to go to shit, but it was some time after high school. I suspect it had something to do with the pressures of varsity life and probably my hormones settling in. One year I was fine and the next I was alternating between mania and depression, except at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was. During manic episodes I’d be the life of the party, the social butterfly capable of handling more liquor than my body was used to and simply raging, as we would say then.
Once the ‘crash’ came, I’d be completely incapacitated, unable to move and on some days even speak. At first I thought I was just tired from going so hard on the streets. My mood would suddenly slump or pick up; it was unnatural and beyond my control. After a while it got pretty bad, then absolutely exhausting.
I may be beautiful, intelligent and successful but I can’t always find a solid reason to keep living.
I stopped trying to fight these mood swings. The highs (manic episodes) became less frequent and the depression dragged on. My ‘bad days’ became a bad life – a bad life I eventually decided I didn’t want to live any more.
A lot of people think that depression is external influences getting you down – poverty, a bad relationship, a shitty family or bad grades – and certainly these things can trigger and aggravate. But some people just don’t make enough ‘feel good’ hormones. So no matter how ‘good’ life may be, they just aren’t happy. I am one of those people. I may be beautiful, intelligent and successful but I can’t always find a solid reason to keep living; some days for years now, everything seems futile and my existence unnecessary.
I’d try to discuss how I felt with my friends at the time, when it started. They did not try to understand. They said they wanted to help but their actions showed something completely different – they didn’t listen; they didn’t follow up and check in with me, they just told me to suck it up and keep it moving.
I’d decided I wanted to die, but I was also terrified of death itself. Whatever solace it might offer wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. I didn’t know what was on the other side, and I was willing to find out, but not abruptly. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Drugs became a way to self medicate as well as slowly lead me to my deathbed. I was too young and cautious (the irony) to try hard drugs, but I developed a taste for prescription painkillers for a few years. Prolonged use meant higher doses. Eventually my body started caving in on itself – kidney complications, respiratory problems from smoking too many things too much. I was dying, sure, but it wasn’t pretty and it hurt more than I’d anticipated.
The average person will never truly understand the despondency of depression.
In a last ditch attempt to be rid of myself once and for all I overdosed and, after puking a bit, waited for what came next. I fell asleep and woke up 26 hours later, confused and tired. Nobody had noticed that I hadn’t moved in over a day. I wondered how long it would have taken them to realise I was dead had I actually died, but that didn’t matter because I hadn’t. Having come so close to being gone, I had a choice: whether I actually wanted to live or to die, and I chose the former. I chose to try a little harder, to seek help – because I clearly wasn’t okay – and to stick around just a bit longer.
Since my last suicide attempt I’ve had a daughter, started seeing a psychiatrist and had way more conversations with people and myself about depression, suicide and society’s reaction to mentally unwell people and the issues they face.
The average person will never truly understand the despondency of depression – how it grips you out of nowhere and places you in a chokehold you can’t free yourself from, try as you might. It’s like a computer virus that deletes all your files and just fucks up your entire shit. It completely rips any shred of hope from you, no matter how rich, beautiful or loved you are. It’s a personal thing, a pain one cannot share, that always arrives with its lifelong companion Shame. I’m ashamed of the fact that I can’t seem to keep my shit together, or to beat this, or to manage it better. I’m ashamed of the fact that even though I love my daughter more than anything, my love for her doesn’t seem to be greater than this thing.
Our inability to express fully what we’re experiencing leads people to assume that it can’t be THAT bad, despite the suicide statistics proving otherwise when it comes to black youth.
The idea that suicide is selfish is as flawed as it is damning. Before one even attempts to end their lives they carefully consider just what it will mean to everyone around them. Contrary to popular belief, we are capable of love and empathy. We just also happen to be suffering in a way more mentally healthy people can’t relate to. Our inability to express fully what we’re experiencing leads people to assume that it can’t be THAT bad, despite the suicide statistics proving otherwise when it comes to black youth.
Treatment for mental health issues is often like putting an expensive band-aid over a bullet wound. I had harrowing withdrawals for months as my body tried to get used to not receiving the drugs I could no longer afford. During one of those nights it hit me that at 21, I was dependent on these drugs to help me function – drugs I couldn’t afford nor could I live without. And what would happen in ten years or twenty?
Despite the fact that I am talented and full of promise, I cannot shake this one thing that seems to cripple me at will. The older I get the harder it becomes to get out of bed and fake my way through life. It’s as if I’m regressing and while I can perfectly make sense of life in theory, the practical stumps me. Many still believe that I just need tougher skin – the irony is, I have the toughest skin of anyone I know, I just have little to no control over my mind and emotions.
There’s a certain disgust with which people view and treat you once they realise that you don’t have control over your moods and thoughts, no matter how successful and well put together you are. That disgust is what usually pushes people like me over the edge. I see the world reflecting back what I already feel inside.
In a world where everyone is caught up trying to keep up appearances and stunt on the next man, people with mental health issues are pariah.
People drop the ball on people with mental health issues almost all the time by not listening, saying the wrong thing and simply failing to love and support them when they need it the most. Above all else we need understanding, not blame, not shame, not your two cents. We need care. But in a world where everyone is caught up trying to keep up appearances and stunt on the next man, people with mental health issues are pariah. When one of us loses the battle to depression everyone wants to feign concern or even worse, judge us, even in death.
As if we failed at life somehow.
And yet, I don’t quite think it’s fair to depend on my best friend and my partner the way I do for emotional support when the going gets tough. But I’m glad they stand with me and provide the backbone I need on the days when I’m not all there.
I’ve had to teach them how to be there for me, as I’ve had to teach myself to keep going, and that has been an important part of our relationship and my journey because just as I don’t know how to tackle my episodes, they don’t either, as mentally healthy people. I’m fortunate to have their support and it has kept me alive in more ways than one.
Depression isolates those it touches. And that’s the worse. We’re trying, but we cannot do it alone.
This is part of a guest editorship series by Bakang Akoonyatse. She’s producing a series of pieces for TRUE Africa as a Guest Editor. More here.