A good friend of mine, Siyanda Mohutsiwa (@SiyandaWrites) once twote ‘The African middle class is a mirage. If you look too closely it disappears’ and a young me decided it was too complex (or personal) an idea to dissect.
For as long as I’ve known that the class system exists I have identified as middle class. My family definitely isn’t rich but I never thought we were poor either. I went to private schools and we had DSTV and bacon on good days. Poverty, to me, was absolute and all encompassing, as well as apparent. It was the envy, resentment and constant discomfort in my poor relatives’ stance. The relatives who still lived in the village and took handouts and never looked anyone else in the eyes – they were the closest face to poverty, to me, and I did not look like them.
Sure, we have three cars but only two work because we can’t afford a battery for the other one so it just sits there collecting dust.
I however, also didn’t look like my rich friends who never worried about the shit I worried about. My friends who had the full DSTV bouquet and three phones and a fully stocked fridge, who took vacations to places I only heard about in movies and had their school fees paid on time were living a life far from mine too. So I sat snugly in the middle class and believed the lie till just after high school.
Then my younger brother got accepted to the most prestigious (and obviously expensive) schools in the country. My parents used up his trust fund money (and I use this term very loosely) on the first two terms of school alone. The past few years have seen them applying for loan after loan just to keep him in school and slowly but surely, the truth of our circumstances has been revealed to me, it was only a matter of paying attention.
Sure, we have three cars but only two work because we can’t afford a battery for the other one so it just sits there collecting dust. Sure we have DSTV but not the full bouquet and behind this unpainted wall that surrounds our house our house is falling apart because of the cracks we can’t afford to fill and the termite infestation my parents either can’t or won’t attend to, I don’t know anymore. There are more overdue bills than I care to find out about and enough debt to make my anus shrivel and I don’t need the stress so I face my front.
The bottom line is we’re clearly struggling. Maybe not so clearly to outside parties but abundantly clear to me, and that realisation led me to swallow a bitter pill – we may not be the face of poverty but we’re definitely poor. The little privilege we have isn’t enough to hide the misery, debt and desperation that comes with hoping for a life one gets further and further away from with every pay cheque and purchase.
My psychiatrist prescribed me meds and I almost emptied my bowels at the pay counter the first time I saw what the total was without medical aid
Despite this realisation I’ve still internally hung on to the idea that it’s not that bad because of the few luxuries we manage to hold on to – one such luxury being our medical aid scheme which allowed me to seek psychiatric care after what I call The Great Mental Breakdown of 2015. At the beginning of 2016 I decided it was time to succumb to the madness I’d been trying to tackle on my own for the last six years because I simply wasn’t coping and for once I well and truly surrendered.
My psychiatrist prescribed me meds (antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills) and I almost emptied my bowels at the pay counter the first time I saw what the total was without medical aid – about R2000 for a month’s supply. I heaved a sigh of relief as the pharmacist told me I’d only have to pay 10 per cent of the overall total and thanked the Lord for small mercies. As luck would have it though, my medical would only pay for the next three months’ worth of my medication and after that I was alone. While I could apply to get the medication for free under medical aid cover because of chronic conditions and blah blah I’d be saddled with the cost while they processed my application.
That was five months ago.
I still don’t have the letter of approval I was promised would take a week.
In the last five months, I’ve had to compromise on dosages, as well as the meds I think I REALLY need and subsequently went from recovery to relapsing as I resorted to self -medicating for the simple reason that its way cheaper than obtaining the drugs I actually need. It took a little over a month for me to stop taking my antidepressants, as they are the most expensive. Then it was the sleeping pills and eventually I stopped taking the anti-anxiety medication too. I was back to square one, except a little worse off because as my body realised it was no longer getting the necessary drugs I began to experience the worst withdrawal symptoms of my life.
As an addict, I’ve experienced substance withdrawal before but this particular case was way worse because not only was my body protesting being abruptly denied three types of drugs, they were drugs I needed to function like a normal human being, and therefore my mind suffered too. Street drugs only cut it for so long and alcohol for two days at most. Eventually I let my body crash and went through it all – the shakes, the sweats and feeling every inch of my eye balls (it’s unbelievably weird, trust me).
Good mental healthcare is for those who can afford it and those who can’t will either go mad, become addicts or die.
After about a month of this (no, I’m not overreacting) I was finally sober for the first time in five years and free to think about things. One thing became abundantly clear to me – good mental healthcare is for those who can afford it and those who can’t will either go mad, become addicts or die. That’s it.
I can never quite bring myself to think about the hundreds of thousands of underprivileged African youth who know they have a problem and yet also know that they can’t do anything about it. People like me, who know what they need, but simply can’t afford it and have to watch their mental health and quality of life deteriorate. If you don’t have your mind in check, you really have nothing in check at all. My anxiety creeps up on me from the moment I open my eyes in the morning and has gradually progressed from simple (lol, not really) panic attacks to a combination of panic attacks, shortness of breath and stress vomiting.
My depression got so bad after I stopped taking my medication that I actually stopped bathing for a while and didn’t speak to anyone or go anywhere. And you know what? There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s easier to not scrounge for pills at all than to do that and know that once I don’t get them I’ll be experiencing the withdrawals again and end up at square one.
My tale is one of having then losing but what of those who’ve never had at all? The older one gets the harder mental health issues hit because wounds left untreated fester. Over the years more and more adolescent youth have been experimenting with drugs. Mistaken overdoses and suicide numbers are rapidly rising too. I’m inclined to think it has nothing to do with the fact that we’re apparently wild and emotional at all, having experienced both addiction and mental health struggles, and interacted with people dealing with the same thing.
When will the lives of the not-so-fine begin to matter to our parents, our governments, the pharmaceutical companies?
The kids are not alright and because our parents either can’t afford to help us or don’t believe we need help at all, we’re left to fend for ourselves. Suicide help lines are all good and well and I’m sure they save thousands of lives but for those of us who need more than someone to talk to, the future looks pretty bleak. By the time we’ll be able to afford to pay for the medication we need, we’ll be dealing with other things – addiction, child rearing, bills, life, in general – and so help may never come, should we live long enough to be able to afford it.
When will the lives of the not-so-fine begin to matter to our parents, our governments, the pharmaceutical companies (lol, fat chance, I know)? As things stand, I suspect we’ll see a lot more young people die over the next few years; it will be attributed to general recklessness and weakness because parents will pretend they knew nothing and friends the same. So what should be done about it? I won’t lie, I don’t know.
I’m not one of those writers who have solutions, I’m one of those writers who point you in the direction of where the bullshit is – I’m the messenger, and I’m telling you that shit is looking bad. Help your friends, help your kids, pool resources if you must but just keep them alive and help them move towards happiness or at least some semblance of normalcy because nothing is as painful as a life cut short due to suffering that could have been avoided.
Life is hard but life with mental health issues is even harder – help someone where you can if you claim to care.
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.