When I was thirteen I drank a cup of paraffin because I wanted to end my life. I drank it on a Tuesday morning after brushing my teeth getting ready for school. The paraffin had a chemical oiliness that I approved of. The drink covered my tongue and throat. It tasted toxic and I was convinced that it would end my life, freeing me from the misery of being alive. After drinking a full glass of poison I almost felt happy thinking about the prospect of NOT existing.
I was barely into my teens but I was exhausted. All my reserves were depleted. I did not see the point of being alive at all. God had gifted me with life and I was desperately looking for the receipt so I could return the life that did not fit me. I had been constantly sad, feeling empty and having no will to live. It had been months of feeling this way. Nothing I did brought me joy. I could no longer find refuge in the love my mother had for me. Escaping into literature using the magic of books no longer worked. I was like a magician with a defective wand.
My sadness shadowed me all the time. I would wake up to find it sitting at the foot of my bed. It would spend the day with me, following me everywhere, whispering words of discouragement. My thoughts were in an audio-loop that whispered how meaningless everything was, how the meaninglessness would be endless, how the pain would always stay. I felt tortured by my own mind. At the end of each day I would turn off the light and sadness would snuggle with me. Reminding me of how joyless everything had been that day. I could foresee a future in which I felt the same tiredness, and my sense of self-preservation kicked in. I decided to be kind to myself by stopping my suffering using death. I did not think of how my mom and sisters would deal with my suicide. I was only focused on stopping my own pain.
As you can guess the paraffin did not work. I stayed stubbornly alive. In fact during school that day I went to the bathroom and found that my panties were soaked in paraffin. My body was rejecting my murder attempt. The paraffin was leaking out my bum and I was horrified. I was still a teen and having paraffin leak out of me was embarrassing. I lined my panties with recycled single-ply school toilet paper and got home in the afternoon and cleaned myself up. I felt very let down by the paraffin manufacturers. I wanted to write them a very strong-worded letter until I realised that the paraffin performed its duty being fuel. It just drew the line at being my sword.
That was my only suicide attempt, but my depression has lingered way into my adulthood. And what made it so difficult is that I grew up in a community where all sadness needed a cause. If you were sad after some tragic loss like after divorce, or the death of a loved one, then people understood the cause of the sadness and rallied in support. No one knew how to deal with sadness without an outward tragedy. People like me who were sad without outward causes were seen as ungrateful and self-indulgent. Being depressed while being black and poor is lonely. There is no Xhosa word for depression.
I suffered throughout my teens till adulthood. At the age of 29 after giving birth to my daughter I had the worst depressive period of my life. This time I was married with two children – one just starting school and the other one newly born. I used to think about ending my life. I would worry about leaving my kids orphaned, so I started having fantasies of killing myself by walking into the middle of a busy highway so my death could look accidental.
I finally went to my doctor and broke down, explaining my feelings. He wanted to know what was wrong. Honestly, at that point, nothing in my life could account for my profound sadness. I had a job I enjoyed, a growing family whom I loved, but I was STILL suicidal.
The kind of depression that I have is as a result of a chemical imbalance in my brain. My brain struggles to produce serotonin, the happy hormone. At the doctor’s I was offered a lifeline for the first time in my life – pills to help correct the imbalance. The doctor gave me an anti-depressant, and since then I have been on the pills as needed. They help me cope. They save my life.
There is still a huge stigma attached to mental illness in my community. People view failed suicide attempts as attention- seeking. When we explain to people that we are depressed, we are always told to count our blessings.
Communities need to be educated that the mind is a physical organ just like the lungs are. In the same way you do not tell an asthma sufferer, “There is so much oxygen around,” you should not tell a depressive, “There are so many blessings in your life.” Depression needs treatment such as anti-depressants the same way that asthma needs a ventilator.
We need to be educated that depression is a medical condition that needs to be treated.
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.