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The cliff faced in depression

You know you are on a slippery slope when you find yourself questioning your existence and God’s ways

In Summary

• Depression is like you are sitting on the edge of a cliff and you can’t jump off nor retreat to safety

Depression struggler Amy Mjema
Depression struggler Amy Mjema
Image: COURTESY

In 2014, a friend confessed that he had been battling depression and had been on anti-depressants for a number of years. This friend is one of the most brilliant minds I have ever met, seems to have it all together, knows himself, and is admired by many.

 

This confession took me by surprise because I never could have imagined that someone like him would be struggling with depression. I voiced my doubts to him. He seemed okay, he didn’t look like it, was he sure? My naivety on the subject was clear. What that confession did for me was life-changing. I pondered our conversations on our pasts and future and took a closer look at my life.

What I knew about depression was that people who suffered from it were sad all the time. That’s it. However, since that conversation, I went reading and googling depression, especially suicidal depression. Looking back at my life in the months prior to that conversation, I concluded that if there is a spectrum on depression, I am somewhere on it.

What I didn’t know is that it was going to get worse for me in the next years, leading to the present. I have had plenty of time to sit and think about my life and my mental state, and have been trying to figure out the root cause of it. I have days when I am overwhelmed with life, I question my existence and can’t find a good enough reason for it.

 

PROFOUND EMPTINESS

It leaves me with a profound emptiness, which I do not know what to do with but sit with it, cover myself with and stew in it. They say depression is a mental illness, but I think it is more than that: an illness of the soul. The soul as defined by Wikipedia is the “incorporeal essence of a living being. It is the mental ability of a living being: reason character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc.”

Incorporeal means without a physical body, presence or form. Therefore, it makes sense to me that it is a sort of malfunction of the soul. I have heard numerous psychologists rightfully say that some symptoms include not enjoying the activities one used to, isolation, difficulty getting out of bed, and so on.

 

On that last point, it is not that usual oh-my-god-it’s-Monday-I-can’t-get-up-I’m-tired syndrome. Rather, you inexplicably cannot get out of bed. The thing about sleep in this case, like many of life’s vices like alcohol and drugs, is that for a moment, you forget everything and do not exist. Getting out of bed means, UNBEARABLE MISERYfacing yourself in this mess, and it is too much.

On some days, the mess falls to the background and there you are, smiling, getting work done, having a social life, being productive. However, the mess still clings to you, it never leaves, hence the yo-yo effect of today I’m fine, next week I’m back in the thick of it. Sometimes, it is weeks or months long, and you isolate yourself, brewing in hopelessness and no, talking to someone does not seem to help. You don’t even want to talk to someone, even a good friend. I lost a great friendship during one of these periods because I couldn’t bring myself to pick up phone calls as I felt I couldn’t do it.

 
 

As a nation that is religious or spiritual if you will, depression can be closely linked with God. Let me explain. I, like most Kenyans, have grown up going to church. We sang Jesus loves me long before we could comprehend what that love looks like. We were taught to pray and love God more as an obligation than because we meant it. I grew up Catholic and was even served at the altar. Every Sunday, my mother would wake us up, scolding us for being lazy bones yet were to be in church for the 9am service. The struggle to get up and get ready to go always felt like a punishment.

If you are Catholic, then you know how ceremonial the mass is. Having attended for years, I had gotten used to zoning out after the second reading, when it was time for the Father to preach. Around me were people dozing off, so I thought zoning out was better than blatantly sleeping in church. Besides, what if my mum’s friends from Jumuia saw me and told her?

So, we are taught to love God. Why should we love Him? Because He made us, His son died on the cross for our sins, because we hope to go to Heaven when life on earth ends. Doesn’t the Bible teach us to instruct our children in the way of the Lord and they will never depart from it?

So, we grew up believing all of this before we had time to question any of it. We are told that as children of God, we are special and are here for a purpose. It reached a point when I could no longer carry on with all of this simply out of obligation.

 

Suicide and mental health
Suicide and mental health
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

QUESTIONING EXISTENCE

In 2015, I started questioning this whole notion of a God-given purpose after going through a year of overwhelming hopelessness. I wanted to know for myself who God was, if He exists, if he loved me, what He wants from me and so on. I was really going out of my mind at this point because I was having an identity crisis.

Relying on the idea of God loving me because the Bible says so wasn’t enough. I needed to know that in my heart, and I didn’t. The reason this is important is because when we grow up in a religious nation, a huge part of our identity rests on religion/faith/God, whatever you wish to call it.

When this is shaken, the centre cannot hold, and we crumble. Death shakes it. By this, I mean when you lose a huge part of yourself perhaps due to the death of loved one, the end of something profound, even losing a part of your physical self, such as a limb. I didn’t know just how huge a part of my identity God was until I was shaken and felt I had lost myself. The death in my life came from a loss of faith. It was time to get out of the childish way of obligatory faith and really believe as a choice. I couldn’t find my footing. Feeling worthless, I began seeking out answers to my existence. I’m sure to those around me, I looked fine and had accomplished a lot but inside, I was stuck.

My whole life felt like a lie the moment I wondered what my purpose in life was. Answers on the mysteriousness of God, on how we should not question His ways were no longer good enough. You know how when someone dies, and we comfort ourselves that His will is being done? Such answers didn’t cut it.

Was I an agnostic, a nihilist? Are all depression sufferers just pessimists? It was the beginning of an identity breakdown that has brought me to my knees and left me there. I don’t know who I am, and the personality attributes ascribed to me by others feel foreign.

What I know is that on some days, it is like I am trapped in limbo, neither alive nor dead. I wonder why I am wrapped in this mess, never moving forward nor backwards. It is like you are sitting on the edge of a cliff and you can’t jump off nor retreat to safety. This is what depression looks like to and for me.

The anti-depressants ensure you keep retreating to safety, while suicidal depression ensures you take that leap. And then I think about those who have committed suicide: Millie Kithinji, Stephen Mumbo, Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Avicii, students in Kenyan universities… And I am certain of one thing. Prior to their deaths, they were on this cliff, like so many of us are. Questioning their existence, even those who seemed to have it all, money, fame, love, power.

Because those who seemed to have it all must have wondered, is this all there is? Who am I? Feeling guilty and ashamed at the same time. I know it sounds selfish, especially to those of us struggling financially. You wonder, this person had it all and still ended their life. And so, people call them sinners and criminals for ending their lives.

TWO WHO SUCCUMBED

Isn’t life precious? A gift from God? Most of us have read and invested our time on the story of Millie Kithinji. On the surface, it seems a simple case of a jilted lover. What’s the big deal, you ask? What her fiancé did to her is terrible, but she isn’t the first woman to be abandoned by her man, you say.

However, if you take a look into her timeline, for this is the only peak into her life we have, you will see signs of someone spiralling down. For a long time (since around 2017), she had been begging God for strength and grace to carry on through the trials she was facing. We don’t know what else was shaking her identity that she wondered what she was doing alive instead of dead.

Who knows how many times she came close to ending her life but perhaps the thought of her dear daughter kept her alive, until this last time? Like an urge to sneeze, it finally built up to a point she had to sneeze. Pain over love.

Stephen Mumbo was out here being a star employee at PWC. Put together, intelligent, family man and committed employee. The death of his mother shook him, and perhaps other things we don’t know.

Those like Millie and Stephen were on the cliff, pained with themselves, feeling the burden of their mess and how all the love from their families did not count in that moment before they jumped off the cliff.

They will be better off without me, they must have thought. You sit on that cliff for too long and jumping is the only viable option to end the pain. It is the only option because you have retired to safety many times, perhaps from friends who checked up on you, the thought of loved ones… Yet here you are, back at the cliff, and the pain is too much. Yes, suicide is a choice. The only choice in that moment, and if you have ever come close to jumping, then you understand.

Granted, I still don’t have answers, I can only describe what my depression looks like in hopes that someone out there might see themselves through this. You don’t have to know my name, gender, age or educational status to resonate with me. Because the truth is that a lot of things will bring you and your mess to the edge of the cliff, mine is my identity crisis. What you can bear might be too much for another person. What has brought me here is a mess easily cleaned up by somebody else. What will bring you here is a mess that I could easily discard. What is your mess? Are you sitting on the edge of the cliff, too?

PS. I am just a depression struggler fascinated with death, who finds herself on the edge of the cliff often.