I use my own story to be open about mental well-being in community-building workshops. I do this because there are millions of us. Mostly suffering in silence with no outlet for help.
The reported suicides of Kago Moeng (at Wits) and Tiyiselani Mpangane (at UCT) made me think of when I considered taking my life.
Drug overdose or hanging? Which one would leave the least mess to clean up for whoever found me?
Depression is hard to pin down through words. People experience it in different ways. Sometimes death, losing a job, or another traumatic life event brings it on. Sometimes it’s poor self-esteem. Or feeling like you’ll never fit into life roles that were created for you, expected of you – especially gendered ones.
Sometimes nothing causes it.
The longer depression lingers, the deeper you sink. I observed life around me through a heavy gauze, like a diver 20 metres down barely able to see sunlight. Everyone around me seemed happy. I remember wondering why I was the freak.
Feeling depressed makes our inner voice turn more harmful than usual. That voice – a negative, harsh critic – nags and harps on about you. From you. To you.
In South Africa, it takes on another dimension: “People have no jobs, no food, what do you have to feel bad about? You have a roof over your head, you’re at varsity, you have a damn job, get on with it.”
You try some self-help stuff: go outside, take a walk, eat better, maybe say yes to more invites. Nothing works. I still felt horrible. Talking casually to people was almost impossible. Apathy. An overwhelming sense of failure. I felt ashamed. Self-loathing set in. The conveyor belt of negative emotions looped like an Escher sketch and made about as much sense. My brain was trying to process irrational thoughts and my mind wouldn’t co-operate. Soon all the self-loathing got tiring, even to me. I was sick of my self-pity and sick that I felt self-pity when there was “nothing wrong with me”.
I didn’t eat much and lost so much weight (and got compliments). I felt numb. And that’s when I started not caring. I went through life on autopilot. Varsity, when it really set in: lectures, assignments, exams, no real friends. Even racist micro-aggressions were just another thing happening to someone that I was watching, who happened to be me. Later, at work: get up, go to job, no breaks or lunches (because why would I eat or socialise), go home, try to sleep, don’t sleep, go back to work, feel fatigued. The racism and sexism I experienced just compounded the depression.
Suicide ideation became my norm. I wanted an escape. Even if there was no life after death, being dead would be better than this, surely. No one knew about my depression, least of all me. I just assumed I was defunct, broken, not worthy – of anything. Not even life itself.
Later, I told my older sister in a casual way about taking my life. Like, should I make a will to leave my house to someone? I couldn’t understand why she was so horrified.
She made an appointment with a therapist and dragged me into her car. I fought back, physically. But I also thought “who the hell cares, it won’t work so let me just pacify her, in a few days we can forget this”.
There was no moment when I took a pill and just got better. Looking back, it feels that way. But having recently found the journals my doctor encouraged me to keep I was startled to re-experience my recovery. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors are one thing. But the hard, tough, insanely steep work on myself was the biggest challenge. I mention this because I don’t want to airbrush recovery. It’s tough, no doubt. But from my experience, it has been incredibly worth it.
Suicide seems like a viable option when we’re depressed. As a nation we deal very poorly with mental health and suicide is extensive. We stigmatise mental illness, we accuse sufferers of losing faith in God, we say people are weak (“man up, bro!”), we make fun of people being “crazy”, or assume it’s something only white people can get. The media doesn’t help: we still see reporting that someone “committed suicide”, a reminder of a time when it was a criminal act. It is not. Language matters. The residual shame associated with an actual crime continues to be attached to suicide. It should be “death by suicide”.
I share this story freely. I don’t feel shame. I talk about it at work. With my friends. I use my own story to be open about mental well-being in community-building workshops. I do this because there are millions of us. Mostly suffering in silence with no outlet for help.
We don’t need to. Reach out for help. Better yet, reach out to help someone. My sister did that for me but it can be a stranger, it can be anyone. Even physical barriers can prevent a planned suicide, and there is little doubt they work, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The notion that “if someone really wants to kill themselves they will” just doesn’t hold true. The student in Braam was on the balcony for two hours.
All it takes is, perhaps, one person stepping in. One hand being extended or spatial design that considers the value of a life. Doing this we can change the conversation around mental illness and suicide. Because lives depend on it. DM
Ayesha Fakie is the Head: Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice & Reconciliation. www.ijr.org.za