Mental health is gaining traction, more people are speaking up which is great. Getting therapy is becoming normalized (at least via Western media)- also great. But as with most things, “trending” comes along with distortion and confusion and a lot of ignorance. Between November 2020 and April 2022 I have struggled with recurring episodes of severe depression to the point that I can say my great achievement of the last 17 months has been surviving. I promised that if I survive it I’ll tell the tale because I think one of the hardest things is explaining to our family/friends what depression is. Especially when they expect/assume you to be okay. Because loving someone with a mental health problem is hard… yourself included. And because we cannot truly ‘normalize’ and properly address what we do not understand.
But writing about experiencing mental health issues is hard. Mostly because writing it out means thinking about it and it is easier to escape. For instance, I have been wanting to write about my emotional eating forever. Hoping that writing would bring some sort of healing, that if I express it, it could be diagnosed understood, and I could be fixed. But I haven’t been able to; writing requires you to think/feel what you want to express and what I want to express is the fact that I eat to cope with hard emotions. Hence writing would be evoking the hard emotions making you want to eat more. I’ve regularly ended up self-soothing with food while writing/thinking of writing about self-soothing with food. So this has taken forever…
That is why I’m trying this strategy: an interview with myself. Responding to questions directly, The interview format is kind of like using 2nd person. The topic is still hard, but the use of delimited question help so that feelings don’t flood all at once. You can think of it as a test you’re answering and not a baring of yourself
So over a set of instalments which I’ll put on my blog under the category of #DemystifyingMentalHealth, I’ll share interviews on different aspects of mental health issues and wellness. Hopefully, it helps someone. Most of the questions I have responded to in this episode are from my friend Ettamba; if you have questions you’d like me to answer, drop them in the comment section and I’ll consider them for the next segment
On Depression (Questions from Ettamba)
It’s taken me a while to understand depression as a condition, specifically clinical depression as a disease which is different from sadness. And even longer for me to acknowledge it as a thing given that it’s not adequately acknowledged among Cameroonians… and sometimes I still falter over whether I’m ‘claiming negativity’ as some Christians and ‘toxic positivity’ people put it…
In 2018 when I first decided to really seek help understanding what this is. I went to my university’s health centre and scheduled a session with a psychologist and asked them to test me so I can see/have an actual diagnosis. I wanted something like an x-ray to show a broken mind and explain why I was not okay… I needed something to explain that this was not a passing feeling of sadness but something much deeper rooted and that my helplessness in the face of it wasn’t made up.
The psychologist explained depression in this way: everyone has hormones which affect how they feel and the balance or imbalance of those hormones means you are generally starting off from one of three points- She drew lines on a piece of paper to explain this…
Very happy —————————————————————————————————–
Very sad ———————————————————————————————————–
Non-clinically depressed people were those who mostly start off at the neutral line, so when they get sad, they can fall below the neutral line when things are bad, but not so much they are at nothing. Likewise, it’s easier for them to go up to happy zones because they’re starting off midway. But clinically depressed people, she explained start off below the neutral line. It is harder for them to go into the happy zone- it takes more effort… and it is easier for them to go down to the low point because they’re already below neutral…
I like her explanation and it stayed with me. However, I must say the most accurate explanation of what depression is- for me- how it differs from just sadness was found in Harry Potter. Yes, I know how that sounds. But still, Harry Potter (book 3, in particular) has the best non-medical, for-the-average-person explanation of depression I’ve read.
In it, Harry is having a horrible reaction to Dementors which one can see as vectors of depression. As he is more sensitive to Dementors he wonders if it’s because he’s weaker than his peers; the following is a conversation from that book that captures it:
“… I suppose they [Dementors] were the reason you fell?”
“Yes,” said Harry. He hesitated, and then the question he had to ask burst from him before he could stop himself. “Why? Why do they affect me like that? Am I just —?”
“It has nothing to do with weakness,” said Professor Lupin sharply, as though he had read Harry’s mind. “The Dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don’t have…”
“…Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth… they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you…You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. And the worst that happened to you, Harry, is enough to make anyone fall off their broom. You have nothing to feel ashamed of.”
Replace Dementors with depression or triggers of depression and you’ll get it. People with clinical depression are those who tend to be more vulnerable to extreme sadness because they have more bad experiences, more insecurities, more fears, and more emptiness than positives for “Dementors” to prey on. It’s not necessarily that the things that make me depressed are “great tragedies”, my problems are not that great. It’s just that I’m more sensitive to triggers; while a certain bad statement/experience can be easily brushed off by someone with a healthier sense of self, it could affirm some emptiness within me that another doesn’t have and be amplified. That’s depression for me.
Another way I would explain what depression is to someone else is that it is being prone to “feeling too much”. This can be scientifically backed with those diagnosed with depression being more hormonal. It’s not that I’m sad all the time, it’s that I feel intensely or nothing at all and that my overall being is extremely sensitive to my hormonal balance. Happiness at extremes, sadness at extremes or numbness.
I can recall having experienced the hollowness aspect of depression as far back as age 10. Of course, I didn’t know what I experienced was depression but I remember episodes of the numbness from back then. Perhaps the first episode which was clearly depression to me was in my teenage years in boarding school… My classmate and bestie at the time (N.L) would be the one to see it. We still didn’t call it that. I had considered suicide and taken steps to buy poison, after being caught and scolded by teachers to who I had been reported, she was consoling me but we still didn’t call it depression.
My depressive episodes feel like one of three things;
I recall the Christmas Dr SEA died, I had been depressed on and off through 2018 – that was the first year I tried anti-depressants. I knew things were bad because I was dancing and crying. Like the joy was there but I was numb to it… I was participating mindlessly, the way one ‘participates’ when in a dentist’s chair under anaesthesia.
Tired. Tiredness in my soul. Drained. Hungry and weak. The hunger is actually psychological and emotional but in the absence of that what I am yearning for, I gorge on the food that is available. I can do this to the point of sickness, i.e having a tummy ache or heartburn from over-eating.
My worst depressive episode to date remains that of 2007. It remains the worst because I actually attempted suicide by drinking half a bottle full of expired drugs. It was an extremely hard time, I’d dropped out of school. My mother had ‘disowned’ me, I’d fled a family friend who had- in a drunk stupor sexually harassed me, and the only other ‘real relative’ I had to depend on had left the country without telling me. It’s the most ‘alone’, misunderstood, unloved and unlovable I’ve ever felt. I can rank all my major depressive episodes, and that one remains the worse, because, during that one, I had no life-lines. Surviving that one through an encounter of faith- and that becoming my conversion story to Christianity remains one of the reasons that keep me alive.
Recently I noted that my worst episodes of depression had something in common; they occurred at a time when someone I needed to love me gave up on me, 2007, 2019, 2021. When something I’d hoped my life would be no longer seemed possible. The one difference between the more recent ‘worst’ episodes and that of 2007, is that my 2007 self really had no one to turn to, not even God. In the 2019 and 2021 episodes, I have had lifelines which I have built over time. Even if my faith is broken there is the memory of what was to fall back on, and there are friends I have made family.
Binge-eating, doing nothing and yet being tired, over-sleeping, excessive crying without a trigger.
I wasn’t able to identify it until the past couple of years… perhaps from mid-2019. I started to identify the onset/predict what is coming by using a period-tracking app. The only reason I had the app in the first place was to ensure I know to expect my period and dress accordingly lol, no one wants to be wearing white when they are expecting Aunty Flo… The unexpected benefit of the app was the features which enable you to track how you’re feeling at different points of your cycle. I soon saw the relationship between my depressive episodes and my hormonal levels across phases of my menstrual cycle.
Still, it’s not that simple. It’s not merely the cycle; the cycle just explains why you’re more needy or sensitive during a certain time. What I know now that I did not before, is that my depressive episodes build up, little things… a rejection, something/someone you need not being there, some other bad news, and someone’s words internalized… etc. All these would happen over the course of weeks, little things untreated then seemingly out of nowhere there’s a wave of depression. The droplets accumulate.
Little depressed- I can talk to people about it, I can try to articulate what I feel in poems, or in my diary… I am making an effort to get out of it.
Extremely depressed- I can’t do anything. I’m done. I want to not exist. I don’t think anything matters.
This is a loaded question… It’s not one thing. I wish it was. Until I started depression this year I didn’t even understand why certain things/losses triggered my depression so much. Why is having a home so important to you, why do you feel unloved/unlovable because of a certain person’s inaction, why do you require a plan for everything, why aren’t you comfortable in just existing, why do you feel unworthy when you’re unproductive, why does this current life which pleases other people not please you… To go back to using Harry Potter book 3 to illustrate… In that book, there is a creature called a Boggart, a shape-shifting creature which takes the form of your worst fear. The Boggart- like Dementors- illustrates another aspect of depression, in that it triggers your worse fears. So you already have what ‘causes’ your depression in you. You grew up with it, were socialized with it, the vacuum is there just like your hormones are there… so the mildest thing like a careless statement or a big thing like someone’s sudden death, or someone you love giving up on you can ignite what was lying dormant within. So I feel it redundant to say I’m depressed because this person said something to me. Nah, it’s more like; this person unwittingly unlocked a trauma I haven’t healed from.
Well I know I would be happier if I felt less intensely if I was able to compartmentalize better, and not so sensitive…
I’d likely be a different person, perhaps I wouldn’t be in my current field; being more sensitive contributes to my being more empathetic and that has fueled my interest in/passion for social justice issues, my overthinking definitely helps in academia lol! So there’s some good to come from ‘feeling too much’.
Perhaps I would be able to take things as they come better… I feel it affects my relationships because I tend to overwhelm people. I am extremely selective in who I can date because I require intimacy and sharing this requires someone who can actually handle it… hence I don’t have ‘carefree fun’ like others. I don’t think I’ve ever lost anyone I already had because of depression per se. I would say I’ve been unable to be understood, or to get close to some people because they unwittingly/unintentionally trigger me. But those kinds of people aren’t exactly a loss.
I wish people would differentiate between being sad, experiencing an episode of depression and having clinical depression. They are three different things. And I wish people knew that living with clinical depression is like living with a chronic illness that makes creating a reason to live harder and more necessary.
12. What would you say to those who still think depression and other mental health issues are a thing of the West/limited to white people?
Well, I’d say they should stop being so narrow-minded. Yes, you might be hearing of mental health issues in this day and age more than you have before- but as Will Smith said of racism, it’s not because it’s new or getting worse, it’s just getting “filmed” recorded/made public more. We’re a generation that has more at our disposal to share and have been encouraged to. I am sharing this because I have benefitted from others being transparent and validating me/my feelings with their transparency. People all over the world have suffered from mental health issues. Depression is literally recorded in the bible… Suicide is a theme in our own folklore.
What makes us see mental health problems as a western thing is not that we don’t have it, but rather that we have so many problems, more easily identifiable and validated problems that the last thing we acknowledge is the mental health problem. In Cameroon, for instance, alcoholism is normalised without a query of what one is chasing away with the bottle. We claim “it’s a Cameroonian thing, we just like to drink… problem no di finish”. We refuse to unpack it. In fact, we don’t have time to unpack it. You need time to be introspective and self-analyse, we are spending that time facing/bemoaning more apparent issues like the fact of water scarcity and regular power outages. In the face of our physical/subsistence needs, our mental health needs are presented as a luxury. This is definitely not so.