Wars we wage in silence

Many people would much rather suffer in silence than face the reproach that comes with openly admitting that they’re depressed or are suffering from any mental illness.

By: Pearl “Lebogang” Nicodemus

The word depressed is often passed around in conversations like salt on a dinner table or used as a generic substitute for emotions like sadness or distress. Yet the reality of depression or any other mental illness seems far too slithery to grasp for many who’ve never gone through the experience, as a result many people would much rather suffer in silence than face the reproach that comes with openly admitting that they’re depressed or are suffering from any mental illness.

On the eve of my check-in to a psychiatric hospital two months ago, poet and mental health activist Bassey Ikpi tweeted about a poem she had written to herself before she checked herself into ‘the hospital’ in 2010. I requested that she share the poem because I would be going in the following day. She responded with kind words and shared the poem on her website (Bassey Ikpi) where it was preceded by a note that read “… never be ashamed of how you choose to take care of yourself, I’m glad you’re taking care of it.”

Why did that one line resonate so much? As I walked into the ward, questions went off in my head. What am I doing here? Is there actually something wrong with me? Am I making things up? There was a lot of doubt, plenty of guilt because private health care costs a few limbs and shame, which caught me off guard. The decision I took towards my healing and recovery tasted like defeat, probably because of perceptions that depression is a personal failure or that narrative of “there are people going through worse in life” which of course does not take into account the fact that mental illnesses are medical conditions independent from external factors at times.

“Never be ashamed of how you choose to take care of yourself, I’m glad you’re taking care of it.” – Bassey Ikpi

In hindsight and knowledge acquired over time, I can pin point many incidents that were resounding gongs to alarm me that something was wrong, but I couldn’t hear because I did not know. And often, it is what you don’t know that pulls the carpet along with the floor from under your feet, leaving you desperately grappling for something to hold on to. The symptoms seemed like ordinary fatigue, burn out or insomnia so I paid no mind. But over time these prolonged and wreaked all kinds of havoc in my life. My mind is peppered with many incidents that detail the kinds of havoc; I remember a teacher going as far as sending the school taxi to come and fetch me at home one day in my matric year because I had completely checked out of myself; another time, the school principal phoned my mother to tell her that something was wrong with me but none in the room could put their finger on it, so they ruled it out as a case of ‘good but lazy student’ and sent me home with some energy boosters. These symptoms persisted through my tertiary and work life until a time where I could no longer function effectively. Almost like a TV trying to tune into frequency, showing an obscure picture and a lot of static noise. Its switched on but not tuned in to anything.

The decision to stay alive and put one foot in front of the other when your mind and body are raging otherwise was the fight.

My mind keeps going back to a conversation I had with my mother after I was discharged from hospital, who too survived a nervous breakdown, depression and medication in her early 20’s. I was relaying some of my challenges and she said “stop saying you’re struggling but rather that you are fighting.”  At that point I did not feel like I was fighting. Each day was like walking up a steep hill with the weight of a few lifetimes pressing against my chest while my body was adjusting to the medication. But that is what it was; the decision to stay alive and put one foot in front of the other when your mind and body are raging otherwise was the fight. We often look to the tangible or aesthetic when defining success, never so much the internal grafting that makes it possible. The small steps that someday translate into the milestones we celebrate.

We wage wars in silence because we are afraid of what people will think of us. A few days before I checked in, one of my brother’s closest friends committed suicide. He was 18 and no one knows why he did it. Never had I been as hard hit by the news of someone taking their own lives as I was by my brother’s friend’s death. I cried for days. I knew then what it was to be functional and “happy” on the surface only to plunge into bitter despair when I’m alone. I wondered too, how many people we lose in life not because they no longer had the fight in them to stay alive, but rather feared that even if they were to attempt to wear their scars openly, they may face bitter rejection or judgement.

I am learning my greatest lessons on love, patience in trial and empathy from the people who surround me and most importantly, being kind to myself.

When international hip hop artist Kid Cudi opened up to his fans about checking in to ‘rehab’ for depression and suicidal urges in a post, I was more saddened by how much shame he confessed to feeling. “It’s been difficult for me to find the words to what I’m about to share with you because I feel ashamed. Ashamed to be a leader and a hero…”  That on its own can be debilitating and stunt your progress even when you’ve taken steps to get well.

I cannot overstate the value of having a healthy support system. One that will help you manage your life and take little steps at a time when you don’t have the strength to do so on your own. Mine has been family, friends and therapy each playing separate but essential roles. I am learning my greatest lessons on love, patience in trial and empathy from the people who surround me and most importantly, being kind to myself.

This one line from Bassey Ikpi quelled the storm in my mind each time shame reared its head, I hope it does the same for you.  “…never be ashamed of how you choose to take care of yourself, I’m glad you’re taking care of it”.

To seek professional help contact SADAG (The South African Group and Anxiety) on: 0800 567 567

24hr Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)

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