On the 5th of December 2020, I had a feeling of being overwhelmed with stress. A pervasive mind-set of my own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, guilt, shame, worthlessness and hopelessness. I felt a strong urge to withdraw from all social interactions: a burning desire to hide. Safely away from people, situations, events and demands that I had failed to live up to.
This feeling morphed into even more stress / anxiety about re-engagement. How would I respond to the 11 people who had sent messages on twitter, the 51 missed calls, and the 20+ notifications on Facebook? How do I say sorry? How do I expect others to forgive me when I cannot forgive myself? This feeling lasted for 10 days.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 264 million people are affected by depression around the world. It further estimates that 76% -85% of people in low and middle income countries receive no treatment for their disorders. As such, depression is ranked as the single largest contributor to global disability (7.5% of all years lived with disability in. 2015). At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.
These numbers, as high and alarming as they are, sound abstract. Generalized. Removed from the reality of our lived experience. My experience, is much more personal.
The most prominent example of my struggle with mental health has been my academic performance. Particularly during my tertiary education. I have failed University multiple times (been academically excluded / forced to change my degree programme / made to repeat an academic year / barred from graduation) and multiple failed modules in addition. My friends and family as well as employers have seen this, with a sense of frustration. What could be wrong?
Even I have fallen into the trap of equating correlation and causation. Looking at the symptom as the underlying malady. That a failed academic performance was inhibiting my capacity to lead a healthy and “normal” life, comparable to peers of my age (or “intelligence”). A graduation ceremony in November 2018, capping of a rough transition period before the “happily ever after.” How wrong we were.
How wrong I was.
I have been diagnosed with depression once before. In 2016, after a particularly rough period of self-loathing and hopeless dissatisfaction. In his clinical wisdom, my therapist said I had a “disposition for depressive behaviour.” It felt, oddly, liberating to be so diagnosed. The (short) intervention I had undertaken did not result in any prescription medication as just this awareness provided a mood enhancing boost that lasted for a significant period.
But, a disposition is not an event. It is a perpetual vulnerability. It doesn’t get cured, it doesn’t go away. At best you treat it. Manage the pain. For now…
In 2020, this “disposition” demanded to be felt. Triggered by professional demands, familial demands, financial distress, academic demands, creative pursuits, personal ambition, incessant social media chatter, express and implied obligations… my mental health was in perpetual peril.
There was the WhatsApp message from a girl I met in March 2020. I promised to help her with her writing. She sent (multiple) messages to follow up on our initial encounter. And my mind, clouded by guilt, shame, restlessness and lack of grit did not answer her. Not just her, but the 230 other WhatsApp chats (not messages, chats) that went unanswered until the phone itself crashed and burned.
There was the work colleague who met a girl. A beautiful girl from what he said. He met her, they connected, the relationship blossomed and he may actually be married. As his friend, I was meant to be party to the courtship as it grew. Yet, the mind conspired to make his wish untenable.
I haven’t spoken to him in months.
There was the international friend. Who had incredible amounts of patience. Who would send multiple voice notes checking on my health and my wellbeing. Pledging support for the global reckoning with black lives. Itching for us to make solid plans for meeting up when he visits Namibia at the end of the year. Again, that personal cord was sabotaged by my predictably inconsistent communication.
There was the woman. A beautiful woman. Enticing a potentially fulfilling relationship. Spurned for the relative safety of lustful entanglements. I had no faith in my capacity to love. This disbelief having been baked in by years of self-induced romantic sabotage.
There were the days of lost appetite. Of restless sleep. Of dark rooms and cloistered being. The anger outbursts, the silent tears. The panic attack in a bathroom at work. Falling into anxiety induced hysteria. The moments of rumination. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years extending ad infinitum from the past into the future.
Blame me, if you must, for not seeking medical help. Professional, white walls, understanding clinician and pills from prescription help. In this regard, I have not.
I have tried managing my condition though. With meditation and mindfulness. With internet sourced self-diagnosis and personally administered affirmations. With silence. With writing and creativity. With entrepreneurial zeal. With “resets” induced by severing ties with people, partners, projects, passions, addictions, commitments. I even took a sabbatical. Changed my location, my daily routine and my “space.”
And it worked, for a while.
On the 5th of December 2020, I had a feeling of being overwhelmed with stress. It is my view, that a disposition for depressive behaviour means this feeling, this horrible feeling, is not something that can ever be confined to history. It may just be chronic. A perennial disability.
I write with uncanny calm: symptomatic of either illness or recovery. Learning to be honest with self, true to my lived experience. To live with myself. With my strength and creativity. With my weakness and vulnerability.