• Two women and a man open up on fighting depression, with one still suicidal
• The lesson that emerges is the need for affection, peace of mind and counselling
"I have never felt wanted, never felt loved, and that’s why I’m chasing love right now, or at least [a sense of] belonging.
"I want people who will want me; my family never wanted me. I’m stuck in a position of bitterness and I don't know what to do with this bitterness in my heart."
These are the disturbing words of Anjela Collins* (not her real name), who wept as she spoke to the Star about her depression and thoughts of suicide.
Anjela grew up with a self-absorbed mother and an escapist father. Now aged 32, she said her very conception “must have been a mistake”.
She is just one of many desperately depressed and suicidal people in Kenya, most of whom are dismissed and suffer in silence. Some pull through and find coping strategies, while others sink further into depression.
“I grew up with selfish parents, who did not know what to do with me. My mother would manage her emotions by making me feel bad,” Anjela said.
Reaching for her handkerchief, Anjela said her mother hurt her feelings and her fragile self-esteem by repeatedly saying she needed to lose weight.
Even in school, she was bullied because of her weight. By then, she was a Class 7 pupil, who needed the love of family and friends.
“I remember holding a knife to my heart. I was bullied because I was big and big people were assumed to be smelly. I was also bullied because I used to read novels, but they did not know that was my way of running away from reality,” she said.
Psychiatrist Dr Chitayi Murabula says when weight is stigmatised, and when you try losing it without success, you get hopeless.
“Further, when you have little connection with your peers as well and you don't have hobbies, you’re at high risk of falling into deeper depression,” he said.
Anjela was bullied at home as well.“My mum told me one day she was praying for me to get a waistline. She kept saying I was too fat and that I ate a lot of sugar,” she said.
“I was fighting with my own mother. I grew up with self-loathing, my self-esteem went to the dogs.”
Anjela was 13 then, belittled and browbeaten by her mother as she struggled with the usual self-doubts and pains of adolescence. She started thinking about suicide to put an end to the pain.
LOVE AND BETRAYAL
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 196 suicides were recorded in 2019, up from 166 in 2018. Experts say that’s a serious underestimate and the number of attempts, many never reported, is rising as well.
Anjela contemplates suicide once or twice a month. It began when she was young and continues to date. It started with a feeling that she’s not worthwhile. “I asked why I was breathing, why I was eating. Couldn’t I just call it quits?”
She knew for sure she was suicidal when a car approached. “I thought, ‘Should I cross and get out of the way, or should I just stand here and let the car hit me?”
The World Health Organisation says globally, 800,000 people take their lives every year. That’s one person every 40 seconds. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in young people aged 15-29.
When she was in her teens, Anjela fell in love. She thought the guy was wonderful and their love would change her life. But he betrayed her and later died of an Aids-related illness, plunging a knife into her already desperate heart. That was in 2010.
“I loved Ray and we dated for eight months. It was a sweet love but I was shocked when I realised he was cheating on me. He later got sick and died,” she said.
“Ray's betrayal makes me mess up in my relationships and jobs because I don't know what to do. Sometimes I don't even have the energy to get out of bed. I don’t have the energy to make new friends or maintain older friendships.”
Some days she feels like she has moved on, but there are more days when she is stuck. When the love of her young life died, her mother did not console her. Instead, she just rubbished her.
“My mum was like, ‘Why are you crying? He’s dead, be happy you did not go with him,’” she said.
“Who says that to her kid? A 20-year-old woman shouldn’t go through that pain alone. She needs to go through the pain with somebody she loves. I don’t know how to deal with the grief. I’m still trying to process his cheating.”
Anjela struggled. She didn’t have a support system.
“I didn't go for counselling because I did not know it was an option. I was stuck in resentment and sadness. I didn’t know what to do with this bitterness in my heart,” she said.
The WHO says that in 2017, an estimated four per cent of the world’s population suffered from depression.
Local studies suggest that for every 100 Kenyans, more than 13 are depressed.
Blowing her nose, Anjela said since Ray’s death, she decided to jump into so many 'useless' relationships.
“I didn't go for counselling because I did not know it was an option. I was stuck in resentment and sadness. I didn’t know what to do with this bitterness in my heart,Anjela Collins says
“And I still do that because I am afraid of being alone. One of my ex-boyfriend's sisters told me I would never find a family who would accept me as they did. That hurt me. I think I chase acceptance and crave being loved,” she said.
She feels she has been alone for 30 years. She goes home, sits in a corner with her phone and doesn’t join the conversation.
She can’t talk to her parents and hasn’t been able to open up to therapists. She finds solace in alcohol, hoping to wipe out her depression.
“I figured that if I left home, drank and indulged in weird relationships, I would find the love I’d been chasing for the last 10 years,” she said. When she felt uncomfortable with a man, she walked out.
She hasn’t found love, hasn’t healed, hasn’t been able to love herself. “I didn’t know I had so many scars. I’m still grappling with Ray, the men who came after him and the rejection by my parents.”
The WHO says depression is a common illness that affects more than 264 million people. It causes suffering, poor functioning at school and work, isolation and, at worst, suicide.
As Anjela grapples with the condition, another woman, Mary Atieno*, 39, has struggled and finally dealt with her demons.
Atieno says carrying a lot of baggage for people caused her depression. “I was always available for people to tell me their problems,” she said.
“I ended up carrying so much pain. People value your skills and use you, so I became unhappy and withdrawn because it seemed everyone who came close wanted something from me.”
When she started to push back, her parents thought it was teen rebellion. They did not seem to know she could get depressed because she was generally a pleasant child.
“In my 20s, I had had enough so I just rebelled outright. I hit the peak of depression at 20,” she said.
As so many people were taking advantage of her good heart and giving nothing back, Atieno decided to escape.
My mind gave out. I spent four days in hospital, where I didn't know my name, where I was or anything else about me except that I had a baby, and I wondered where I was,"Mary Atieno says
“I got married to escape what I felt was a lack of understanding at home. It wasn’t working, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.”
They had a baby but Atieno was still struggling. “I wanted out but wasn't sure how to bring it up. And there was still this lingering thought, ‘Is this really what I want?’”
One night, she collapsed when she was about to go to bed.
“My mind gave out. I spent four days in hospital, where I didn't know my name, where I was or anything else about me except that I had a baby, and I wondered where I was,” she said.
Atieno had suffered a nervous breakdown. She didn’t remember or recognise her husband.
“He visited every day and I thought he was a good person to visit me, but I had no idea who he was. After a day or so, they put me in the psychiatric ward,” she said.
Sometimes people were talking to her and she thought she was responding but her lips were not moving.
“The doctors said I had an emotional breakdown. On the third day, I began to remember a little about myself and to converse. The doctors said I couldn’t be discharged unless I began to recollect.”
She started to remember her name and her parents, so she was discharged. But the hospital, Nyeri General Hospital, gave her medicine in case she had another episode.
“Sometimes I'd have episodes and just flip and do something unexpected, so finally, they took me to a doctor who gave me meds and said I was to avoid anxiety,” Atieno recounted.
Her husband left her after that. By the time she was around 23 or 24, she had stopped taking her meds for depression and instead started drinking and smoking bhang.
“I was an alcoholic at 26 but no one seemed to notice. During that time, I met someone who used to drink heavily and used to drink more. We partied every day, and as long as I could drink and dance, I was happy,” she said.
When she was sober, she wondered whether this was the life she wanted. After three years, she got pregnant again, by another man.
“That’s when I got jolted back to life because I didn’t want to raise a baby as an alcoholic. I began to stabilise,” she said.
Atieno stopped drinking, smoking and clubbing, but she still has trouble saying ‘no’, especially if she feels she will let people down.
“I take time out when feeling overwhelmed. I plan my time so I don’t have things pending or piling up to cause me anxiety over things crushing me. I exercise and I pray. I catch up with friends to talk and laugh. That’s how I stay healthy,” she said.
After she delivered, she dedicated her time to her children. Her parents took her to the family doctor to help her stabilise her life. The doctor reiterated she had to learn to manage anxiety and identify triggers.
“My psychology teacher in college also taught me to draw boundaries and would counsel me occasionally,” she said.
Dr Murabula the psychiatrist says depression can be caused by biological, physiological and social factors.
“Depressed persons can also have a genetic correlation, whereby you are told your mother was not cared for and now she doesn't care for you,” he said.
Murabula said anything that causes pain that doesn’t let up can make a person think of suicide.
“These people feel hopeless and guilty. Anything that can trigger pain and risk factors can cause them to commit suicide,” he said.
He said some people fear moving on. “People with strong personalities become too attached to the things that cause them fear. Be it the death of a loved one or just bullying. This category of people needs deeper analysis therapy that not only deals with psychosociological depression but with personality first,” he said.
LIVING BEYOND MEANS
Justus Ochieng's*, 37, depression journey began in 2017. All of a sudden, he started drinking too much and did not want to do anything productive.
His output at work drastically reduced. “I was unhappy and felt like nothing in the world was moving in the right manner,” he said.
Ochieng felt like he was stagnating in his career between 2015 and 2016. He was also having a hard time in his marriage.
“Due to too much drinking, I ended up taking loans to sustain the lifestyle of escape that I had created. But when it came to paying, I started struggling and this was the point where, in mid-2017, I attempted suicide thrice,” he said.
“I was mostly using 'poison'. I would make concoctions but I would only end up being sick,” he said.
“At the end of 2017, I decided to seek help. I quit drinking and started therapy, which helped me get back on track. But this is not to say I have not been depressed later on. I have actually had mental meltdowns several times since then, but I am able to manage them better now.”
Between 2018 and 2019, his ‘mistake of a marriage’ continued to be a depression trigger.
“But this year has been better from around June after a mutually agreed separation. In 2020, I focused on myself. Even became selfish with my time and how I use it. I focused on doing the things I love and also trying new skills,” he said.
“Depression is not an end in itself. Seek help. Speak out. Do not be afraid of walking away from toxic environments.”
Even became selfish with my time and how I use it. I focused on doing the things I love and also trying new skills...depression is not an end in itself. Seek help. Speak out. Do not be afraid of walking away from toxic environments,"Justus Ochieng says
Dr Murabula says if you are depressed, consult a professional who will help you to stop overthinking and linking many failures to one scenario.
He said people can also read books about people who have survived depression. They can also join support groups.
Counselling psychologist Rose Wangui says those who are depressed and afraid of talking to someone should buy a diary or instal one on their phone.
“It is like talking to someone. Download a journal so you feel secure to write everything you feel there. This will give you some comfort,” she said.
“Change your circles, be around positive people. Surround yourself with the people you want to be like, learn from them, share with them.”
Edited by T Jalio