The Invisible Man

Yesterday a man died in my hometown. Cause of death: Suicide. Suicide rates have shot up in recent years and are highest among men. I want to believe the true cause of suicide death is lack of mental health services and social support because with the right support anyone can get through anything.

Accessing mental health practitioners should be as common place as consulting a GP to treat a headache or flu. Yet this is not possible in Zimbabwe and in many African countries. We should be concerned.

The deceased was a well known local, a family man, distinguished in his trade as a photographer. He was the first to take polaroid pictures in our town and was seen as a bit of an innovator for it. He was a serial entrepreneur, always hustling, always cheerful. He also happened to have been born with a physical impairment that necessitated use of a wheelchair. Many loved him, his disability was never inability as the saying goes.

Then last week one of his children drowned while playing with friends at a nearby stream. Soon after the funeral he discovered his wife had been cheating on him with a neighbor. The love birds eloped together leaving him heartbroken and grieving as a father and husband. So he drank poison and ended it all.

Now that’s a tough week for anyone! It’s a lot to take and would feel like the world is crushing down all around you. But it did not have to end in suicide.

Death and betrayal are perhaps two of the hardest feelings to deal with. Both leave you asking “Why?”. Why did this have to happen to me? You wonder what you did to deserve this tragedy. You wonder what you could have done differently to stop it. Anger follows not far behind and so many other feelings and thoughts we cannot even begin to imagine. It’s a really dark space to be in.

Here’s the thing, it is possible to walk through these phases of life. With the right support we can deal with the most painful experiences and not only survive but heal and maybe even emerge stronger. There are a wide range of mental health services available in the world now to help with this yet they remain inaccessible to many.

Counsellors, therapists, psychologists and a plethora of others mental health professionals are specifically trained to help us navigate the turbulent parts of our lives. They have the language to help us process the things we go through and the tools to help us heal.

The mental health professionals that are in practice tend to be expensive and based in the capital city. As a result many turn to social support to help manage stressful life events. They talk to a trusted friend or family or they talk to their pastor. Talking in any form helps release the worst of our emotions and the advices we share with each other can help with ideas on how to handle things. But not everyone has a community of people of who care, though, and often people are left feeling isolated and desperate trying to get through their storms alone.

When you are in your feelings it’s easy to think ending your life is the only option. But it should never come to that. I dream of an Africa where therapy is common place and carries zero stigma. I long for universal access to affordable, quality mental health care for all.

The silver lining in all of this is men are starting to normal acknowledging, sharing and managing stress. Albeit at the pub with half joking advices on how to deal with the issues they are struggling with but it’s a start. And while we wait for governments to take mental health seriously and invest in universal access, lets be there for one another. There is nothing that can happen in this life which you can’t get through. Absolutely nothing. We are strong enough to handle anything that can come our way. We get stronger as we break.

My weekly mental reboot

As the days blur into each other even more and we wonder how that is even possible I have been thinking about how to transition between the weeks in a meaningful way. Often we just move from Sunday to Monday with all the buggage and hangover of everything we dealt with and felt the previous week. As a result we carry all our stress and anxiety into the new week and stain the experience.

I could not find a ready made system for processing things, making peace with them and exorcising ourselves beyond the usual “What worked?”, “What didn’t work?” and “What are the lessons learnt?” framework. I am desperate for something that digs deeper though and surfaces all the turmoil of our being not just the doing.

So I looked to positive psychology and the narrative therapy technique. This technique is based on understanding that reality is relative to how we interpret it. In the end reality is the narrative we tell ourselves based on how we see things. So for example a negative performance review to one person may cue need for improvement while to another it means they are failure and triggers anxiety.

Taking time to actually look back at what our story is about what happened in the week, whether how we perceived things holds true, deconstructing problems to actually see the issues behind happenings and thinking through alternative narratives could be a great way to reboot as each week ends.

By definition rebooting is restarting the operating system in order to allow a machine to work normally again. When you reboot the machine runs all initiation processes again and correct errors. There are many errors that come up in how we interpret the world around us and how we see ourselves in the world. Our minds need to reboot regularly in order to correct these.

I have developed a very simple weekly reboot that involves reflecting honestly on the following questions every Sunday evening or Monday morning latest:

1. How did the week go? What happened?

2. What did I achieve and what helped me reach these milestones? Where did I drop the ball and what was the problem?

3. What made me feel good? What can I do to feel this way more often?

4. What were my triggers? How can I handle them better next time?

5. What occupied my head space? How did it influence me and how I showed up in different aspects of my life?

6. What am I looking forward to next week? What am I going to do to make it happen?

My hope is that by sifting through our narrative about each week we get to see where we got it twisted, detangle the tale and craft a new narrative for the next week. This way we show up empty and ready to write a new chapter every week. This way we make peace with the happenings and feelings of life as we go and can put them to bed so they do not interfere with the new as we forge ahead on this journey of life.

This is all still very new in my head, of course and untested. It will likely improve as we go. Give it a try if you are interested in moving through life free of baggage and let me know how it goes.

I am not Ok, Ok: Thoughts on Depression

I had everything a girl could want. Or so it seemed.

I had graduated university. Immediately got a job. Lived in a big house and had just bought a car. I had a beautiful family. A man that loved me to bits. Yet there I was sitted in my car watching the sun set, money in the bank, Brazilian weave and all – crying my lungs out and wishing I was dead.

I thought of my kids. Thinking of those you love who would miss you if you were no more is supposed to help. It didn’t .

I tried positive affirmations. Those are supposed to make you feel better. Right? They didn’t.

As a last resort I prayed. Soul rending, heart felt prayer accompanied by groaning of the spirit. Then I waited .

I waited to feel better. Waited to hear a still quiet voice say everything would be okay. Still nothing.

So I wiped my years, put on lipstick, drove home and got back to playing happy families.

I was in this state for years. For a while would be semi-fine then on and off the waves of despair would hit me and drag me under. I focused all of my energy on going through the motions. Invested my effort into being to loved ones what they needed me to be. Happy, strong, carefree and all that.

I locked my negative feelings away in a corner in my heart and hung the key on a long chain around my neck. I had managed to get over myself I figured. Settled into the numbness and thought I was winning.

But feelings are things. Live, breathing organisms. Monsters. Beasts. You can only cage them so long.

Things came to a head a couple of years later after I added into my hurt locker a second bout of post natal depression, burnout and a massively stressful job. I became very ill and the depression took over my life, finally.

I couldn’t sleep and when I did I didn’t want to wake up.

Getting up in the morning became my biggest struggle. I had no reason to get out of bed. No motivation to get up and go. All the usual “think about your family, they need you” nonsense wasn’t working for me.

I found myself sitting in a food court one day waiting for my order tears streaming down my face. I wanted to shout at the top of lungs – I am not ok, I am not ok, I am not ok until my voice got hoarse.

Doctor prescribed medicine. Friends advised natural remedies. Others prayed with me. Mr Man was googling testimonies of survivors and how they made it through the darkness I was ok in.

I tried exercise. Diet changes. You name it. Nothing.

Earlier this year, 2019, I went in to the GP with yet another headache and a long list of physical ailments as usual. The doctor that I saw was new and really looked at my file with fresh eyes and interest. For half an hour we spoke about my medical history, my life and this constant hollowness that accompanied me everywhere.

“You know what? I think you are clinically depressed. I am going to refer you to a psychologist” she said.

“Well, I am a psychologist you know. It’s just going to feel strange having another person in my head” I replied in a cheap attempt at humour.

Honestly speaking I was horrified that someone had finally called my feeling but her name. Depression. And if I was to get past this I had to do the work.

In the months since then I haven’t seen a psychologist but I have done some things that got me out of the woods.

1. Break the silence

The thing with depression is it will have you sit in dark corners drenching your carpet in tears alone and take you away from conversations with people. Part of the reason why seeing a shrink helps is they get you to talk. And that’s half the battle. You get out of the dark into the light when you talk about what you are going through. You squeeze the pus out off your emotional wounds when you share what’s on your heart.

Initially I started opening up to a few trusted friends about my condition. They got it. Imagine!

When I shared publicly for the first time on a Facebook page I had created just to get my thoughts out off my head there was such an outpouring of love I was amazed so many people cared. And you won’t believe the number of people who sent #metoo messages. People struggling with the exact same demons I was. Just knowing this was such a weight off of my shoulders.

2. Identifying the root of the problem

The best way to kill weeds is of course to pull them out by the root! I had never really thought about how the depression started, what may have caused it or was fuelling it. But if we look at our lives we can see the patterns so clearly. Be it rejection, failure, hard knocks – if you take the time to look back at your life you can see what the significant moments have been where you were lifted up or pulled down.

I did this kind of reflection and it sobered me up real fast. I realised I had taken quite a lot of very hard knocks and my mental state was actually okay for a person going through all of that with no break. I was finally able to say, “Hey it’s been tough but you are still standing. Good going girl!” and give myself a high five.

3. Cut yourself some slack

After learning to call my depression what it was and acknowledging what led to it something profound happened for me. I was finally able to cut myself some slack. Given the circumstances I was doing mighty fine actually. With that new understanding I made a decision to shift my focus to creating the happiness that I want in my life.

4. Project Happiness

I am in a phase of creation now. Visioning new dreams, new future plans, finding new interests . It is an interesting experience. Did you know we can create happy feelings? I would wake up dreading the day then put on my favourite upbeat music to listen to as I forced myself through my morning routine. Everyday bathe, pretty up, make the bed, eat breakfast, get some sun. Someway into the ritual I would find myself singing along, dancing even. Because music is my first love. I am addicted to the bass and ever ready to sing along

This post would be in complete if I did not talk about prayer. In my long winter I swung from prayer warrior to cynic to almost atheist and back again. Amazing thing in all of it was I prayed for peace, joy, happiness and my very sanity but didn’t seem to get any answer. My existence continued to be one long flat E. But I would pray for others and get immediate answers and elaborate dreams. Looking back I realise I was where I needed to be. Sometimes we are in God’s workshop and he is taking us apart to put us back together again. He is kicking us across the river to greener pastures. Sometimes He is carrying you across the valley so you can get to the peak with the lovely view on the other side.

May you grow from whatever you are going through and someday share testimony of how you made it – how God saw you through.

Be blessed.

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