Professionals, and nonprofessionals alike, may not want to admit this: but all of us are at risk of being depressed. Depression is a mental illness that we Africans, and Christians, would rather not talk about despite the frequency with which it is affecting many people around us.
On this World Health Day, I have decided to share my personal encounter with depression to create awareness about the reality of the illness. With no respect to race, age, gender or social class, anyone can suffer from depression but there is hope if we can learn to openly talk about it and support those suffering to get out of it and live happier productive lives.
At the prime age of 35 years I was busy living my life until I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As a professional nutritionist I was confident that the diagnosis would not affect my life in any big way. As far as I was concerned the greatest part of managing the disease was through maintiaining a good healthy diet and lifestyle – for which I had professional know-how so I naturally expected it to be a walk in the park. Unfortunately, the illness ushered into my life the unexpected.
The frequent routine medical checkups for insurance purposes were the beginning of my 18 month journey of clinical depression. The sad part is that I did not even know I was depressed until several months after I started recovering from this mysterious, very dark, life chocking season of what I could hardly understand or explain as I went through it.
Some specialists say you need only 3 of these symptoms: fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, insomnia, irritability, loss of interest in social activities, lack of sleep, suicidal thoughts etc. for a period of more than 2 weeks to be classified as clinically depressed. I had all these symptoms (and more) for 18 months, and I survived to encourage someone else today. I struggled in every area of my life affecting my career, personal life, marriage, friendships, you name it. I felt like a failure and lost interest in everything. I found myself planning and thinking of my death several times, but I could not muster up enough courage to execute any of the ideas that crossed my mind such as overdosing on my diabetic medication or stabbing myself with a knife.
This was an experience that shook my faith and existence to the very core because I was so lethargic and struggled to accomplish even the simplest of tasks you can think of, including getting out of bed. As a performer and result oriented person, I lived with the guilt I felt for always being tired, lethargic, and unproductive although my very understanding boss thought I was being too harsh on myself, something that we discussed during my performance review.
A recent chat with a psychiatrist helped me put things in perspective. Even though I did not understand what was happening, my body was rebelling and fighting. I subconsciously struggled with questions such as “How could I get this lifestyle disease when I was taking care of myself, eating and living well being a nutritionist by training? How could I be going through this despite being a good Christian?”
How did I get out of this dark tunnel?
The reality that death and life happens to everyone, not just those fighting chronic illnesses hit me one day after a number of deaths of close friends and relatives within a period of 3 months; this was the beginning of my recovery. I needed a “resurrection” myself, being brought back to life after a period of being emotionally and spiritually dead despite being “physically alive”. I learnt that my healthy person, like my good friend, can die within a twinkle of an eye. And I learnt that depending on how I handled my condition, I could succumb to the chronic condition I was suffering from like my uncle who had succumbed to blood pressure and diabetes. Although I had a few friends and family members who tried to help me although they themselves did not quite understand my woes, my recovery largely depended on my resolve to confront depression and rise above it
Life after darkness
I am amazed that my walk with depression has made me a stronger and better person. I have learnt how to manage and prevent stress in my life and continue to make healthy life choices because I have committed to use my experiences, good or bad in a positive way. I look for the good even in tragic experiences. I have become more understanding and non-judgmental, knowing irrespective of what life's journey takes us through and where we land, situations can work out for our good and that of others.
What I can say in conclusion is that whether we admit it or not, many people are suffering from depression, and we better talk more frankly and openly about this potentially devastating mental illness, throw away any unhelpful cultural believes and superstitions on mental health and reach out for help. For those of us who are not depressed, let us really care for others, going beyond asking how people are doing just as a formality.
I have read that the rate of recurrence is high but I am determined to resist the illness which overshadows and chocks life out of even the strongest person for many months. If you are suffering from depression it is important that you seek help from qualified professionals. It doesn't matter that you could have previously been the epitome of strength in your professional and social circles.
Let us all work together to ensure that there is a safe space for all people to air out their life's pressures - big and small alike - before its too late. This will help reduce the increasing number of depression cases, and especially those that can result in suicide.
The writer is a public health nutritionist who lives in Kigali