And all I thought was, something is wrong with me
This is what I consider a mild account of struggling with mental illness. For a long time, I’d always known something was wrong with me, I just didn’t know what it was.
It started with upper back pain. I was 14 years old, in the middle of my first year of high school when this stubborn “knot” appeared beneath my left shoulder blade. I tried massaging it, pressing it against hard surfaces and applying rubbing creams, but it remained there for nine more years.
At first, I blamed my bad posture. Then it spread to my lower back and my bones randomly started clicking. I told my mom about it and she and my dad took me to a doctor; X-rays were ordered, but they found nothing wrong with me. The doctor blamed it on my squash-playing – I was supposedly using poor technique – and prescribed me muscle relaxants. They didn’t work.
I’d spend nights googling life-threatening illnesses, trying to diagnose myself with something. The pain was excruciating, so it had to be something serious? But I got “used” to it. I secretly lived on Panados, popping pills whenever the throbbing began, and the headaches emerged. I noticed I had begun clenching and grinding my teeth, but I ignored it. “It’s just stress,” I reasoned.
Stress? I was 16 years old…
There were other symptoms: fear of people, feeling “jumpy”, expecting danger around every corner, obsessive thinking and worrying. I remember fearing that someone in my immediate family would die. No one has, but I still worry.
Since childhood, I’d been shy around adults and strangers. It generally took me a while to open up to people. I hated big family gatherings because I was expected to shake hands, chat and interact. I was insecure about the fact that I spoke English more than Zulu. They’d often make comments about it. I couldn’t tell if it was light-hearted or judgmental, either way, I felt “half-caste”.
I just wanted to be left alone. Most of the time, I preferred being alone.
I had a sense of humour, I smiled immensely, I was a good pupil, respectful, and most importantly, I wanted to die.
When grade 11 came around, my academics began slipping. I was in boarding school, not too far from home, but far enough to feel lonely. My concentration levels were declining, I felt constantly tired and my nights were spent in tears. Silent sobs, so no one else could hear. I told myself I was being lazy, that I needed to get myself together. But nothing worked. I was a seemingly productive teenager.
I took on numerous responsibilities both academically and in extracurricular activities. I had a sense of humour, I smiled immensely, I was a good pupil, respectful, and most importantly, I wanted to die.
The thought of suicide crossed my mind a few times. At first, I thought I was being dramatic. I believed the myth that suicide was just “attention-seeking” behaviour. Perhaps for some, that’s true. Who knows? What was true for me was this looming feeling of darkness, that wouldn’t go away despite my best efforts.
“Perhaps awards will numb the pain?” Nope. “Another badge for your blazer?” Sorry, won’t work. “Get a scholarship to university!” Didn’t quite crack the nod. “How about losing that weight?” No, black girls don’t have eating disorders.
Matric came around and I did well (by everyone else’s standards). I had set high expectations for myself, which were impossible to reach, so of course, I felt like I’d failed. That’s the other “symptom” – perfectionism. It didn’t make any sense: my parents clapped hands, my family was proud, but I was so disappointed.
Then there was university. I moved far away from home to a city I’d never set foot in before. Cape Town. The stress of academia, change and “semi-adulthood” ravaged me. I was living off-campus and had autonomy over my meals. The result was extreme weight loss. It hit me when I put on my jeans one day and they slid below my hips. “What’s happening to me?” I thought.
The darkness began consuming me when I realised that achievements just weren’t going to make me whole.
I stumbled into a short-lived yet toxic relationship. I’d never had a boyfriend before and thought he’d be a remedy. Finally, I’d found someone to love the darkness into oblivion, but instead, the darkness became blinding. I thought he’d validate me but, I’d chosen someone who was a manifestation of the negative voices in my head. And for a while, I was okay with it.
I had developed a new “symptom”: blurry vision. I blamed it on the hours I spent staring at computer screens. But when my stress levels were low, my vision would suddenly improve. “What is happening?” I’d think.
We eventually broke up. I wept for nights on end and was desperate to return to this boy who made me feel worthless. It was like Stockholm Syndrome and I was captive to the endless monologue of, “What did I do wrong?” “Am I not pretty enough?” “Did he even love me?” “Maybe he’ll change, and I’ll change, and we’ll fix this.” “This is why you’re not worthy of love!”
As my undergrad progressed I carried this thing with me. I went from being on the Dean’s Merit List to barely scraping through my final year. I remember graduation day. Everyone was so proud, but it just wasn’t enough. No class medals, no degree with distinction, no awards. Just a blue scroll, a certificate and that bloody back pain. I think that’s the day the centre began to unravel. The darkness began consuming me when I realised that achievements just weren’t going to make me whole.
The year after my undergrad I opted to study my Honours and take on a full-time internship at the same time. Not the wisest idea. My graduation was in April that year. I took a few days off to spend time with my family. I was falling apart but I smiled for them, for the cameras, for the piece of me that wanted to keep going. But the day they left I realised how alone I was in this city and how much I needed support. I wept bitterly as they drove away, to the airport, to a home that I hadn’t been to in months.
I failed my Honours and the next year, I quit my job to redo the degree. Stuck in this weird identity crisis of being a “working woman” and a university student, more symptoms began to show: nausea, insomnia, hypersomnia, nightmares, chest pain, panic attacks and short-term memory loss. I would often plan to do the simplest tasks, then immediately forget. My productivity was slow, I was struggling to string sentences together, my emotions were numb and my back was killing me. But somehow, I continued to smile…
It wasn’t until I spent 48 hours in bed without eating, bathing or brushing my teeth, that I realised I was in serious trouble. I couldn’t keep asking, “What is happening?”
I began secretly resenting the people around me. My family, even my friends. I was envying their accomplishments and feeling like a failure. I embarked on a social media blackout for a while because I couldn’t bear to see everyone so “happy” and “fulfilled”. It made me sick.
It wasn’t until I spent 48 hours in bed without eating, bathing or brushing my teeth, that I realised I was in serious trouble. I couldn’t keep asking, “What is happening?” I had to get answers. I opened up to a friend who convinced me to see a psychologist. After a few sessions, I was referred to a psychiatrist, and that’s when I finally got my answer.
“You have clinical depression and generalised anxiety disorder,” he said. “I’m starting you on medication immediately.”
It’s one of those instances where, “you know”, but you “didn’t know”. I knew I had one of the two, I didn’t know I had both. I was mildly shocked, but of course, I smiled my way through it. I’d been averse to taking medication – l didn’t want to be labelled a “psych case”, but I relented and took the pills.
At first, they made me nauseous, which escalated to vomiting. I have mild tremors, a side-effect which rears its head whenever I try to drink a glass of water. My balance is off, and I often trip on random objects. And yes, I’m still on medication – the change of tense wasn’t a grammatical error.
But something happened. After a few weeks the back pain that had plagued me for nine years receded. “Oh!” I thought, “It’s not physical, it’s mental!” Suddenly the dark cloud had a silver lining. It didn’t go away, it hasn’t gone away, it just has less power. But for me, the drugs help, they don’t heal. The healing comes from fighting that inner voice. The voice that says you have to work yourself sick, compete, achieve, neglect your well-being until one day you snap, and you’re crying on your bedroom floor because you can’t find matching socks.
It’s in those moments when you have to stop, breathe and fight negativity with kindness.
Tell yourself you’re beautiful and perfect as you are. Tell yourself you’re healing. Remind yourself that you’re loved, even if it’s self-love. Get out of bed one toe, one foot, one leg at a time. Congratulate yourself for overcoming the hardest part of the day. Feed yourself, take a shower, and listen to some good jams. Dance, for goodness sake! It’s wonderful exercise.
Become needy. Call a friend whenever you feel down. If you don’t have close friends, find a community of people who understand what you’re going through, even if it’s online. Resist the temptation to isolate yourself, let people into your struggle. Let them see you cry, let them see you at your lowest, so they can understand just how precious the little victories are for you.
It’s hard, but it gets better. I still struggle to get out of bed, struggle to sleep, struggle to eat, but I’m miles better than I used to be. It’s a journey, it’s a process.
This is a small piece of my journey. I hope it moves someone to take action and save their life. If it’s not you, but you notice someone you love struggling, reach out to them. They may push you away, but don’t take it personally. Be persistent and keep pursuing them.
As the social media adage goes, “Check on your strong friends.” I was one of them. Until I realised my “strength” came from carrying pain. Pain that I never needed to bear. Pain that I could have been freed from sooner, if I’d just screamed, “Help!” DM/ ML
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