The unglamorous kind of crazy

It is a little difficult to know where to even start when it comes to talking about mental illness and other related demons of self. I suspect that just the mention of the subject has made some of you tense up or worse; leave the proverbial room.

I have had my fair share of fights with depression, high-function depression, and anxiety over the years, which were all dialed up to 100 when I lost my mother; I will get into that shortly. First, we take a step back and educate ourselves.

The way the current generation deals with the subject of mental illness is very polarising:

On one hand, some people view all forms of mental illness as serious conditions that require our attention. On the other hand, some people believe that said forms are as a result of the shortcomings/weaknesses of the individual in question.

Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t made it any easier. While some movies and shows strive to portray the fact that one can live an awesome life in spite of their mental or physical illness, they inadvertently glamorize it in some cases. In other words; they normalize crazy to the extent that very few people, if any, take the illnesses seriously. When one of our peers or family members shows signs of mental illness or even admits to having any form of mental illness, we tend to rush to think that it might be a cry for attention. Or that they are just mirroring what they see on T.V.

Well, take it from someone who thought they were whatever superhero they had just watched on the big screen; the illusion eventually shatters and one is brought back to reality. Mental illness, however, tends to stay with you unless it is properly dealt with.

It is not all doom and gloom where the representation of mental illness in mainstream media is concerned. There are lots of shows/movies (and other forms of media) that properly represent this delicate subject by both informing the viewers/readers, and showing them that there are ways to have a fulfilled life nonetheless. Some of my favorite shows are BoJack Horseman, Rick & Morty, and The Legend of Kora not just because they are some of the most hilarious and nuanced shows on T.V in this age, but mainly because of the innovative ways they choose/chose to deal with issues concerning Depression, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and existential nihilism.

Speaking of informing the readers, let’s try to demystify this grand subject. According to the American Psychiatric Association;

Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. About 19% of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.

Forms of mental illness include but are not limited to Anxiety & Panic Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, High-Functioning Depression, Eating Disorders, Schizophrenia, and Substance Abuse & Addiction.

Depression/Major Depressive Disorder/Clinical Depression is a mental illness that causes feelings of sadness and hopelessness/emptiness that can last for weeks, months, or longer. It goes beyond the perfectly natural feelings of sadness that presumably all people get at one point or another in their lives when something hurts them. What makes it different is the fact that Clinical Depression usually lasts a lot longer (symptoms are present for at least two weeks for a qualified health professional to diagnose it as such). Depression is also recurrent, and sometimes requires no reason at all to strike.

For some people, this may start seemingly out of the blue at one point in their lives and never truly go away, while for other people, it may be triggered by a traumatic event/experience. One of the main distinctions between depression and “normal sadness” is that depression usually affects the patients work, and/or social lives. This is also true for pretty much all forms of mental illness.

Depression comes in different shapes and sizes, which makes it difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. Other forms of depression include Postpartum depression, Psychotic depression, Seasonal affective disorder, Bipolar disorder (Manic Depression), and Persistent depressive disorder (also called dysthymia).

Browsing through a list of the symptoms of depression and most other forms of mental illnesses is like looking at a list of any and all things that can go wrong with the human body. It is not surprising to find symptoms that seemingly contradict each other because mental illness affects different people in wildly varying ways. How it manifests with one person is not necessarily how it rears its head in another person’s life. Treatment of mental illness is the same way; there isn’t a “one size fits all” remedy. Therefore, If the drowning sadness or overwhelming anxiety (or another symptom) persistently comes between you and your work and/or between you and your ability to form meaningful social bonds or participate in social encounters, then it might be a form of mental illness. We shall see how to go about slaying that dragon or learning how to live with that all too familiar dragon later.

High-Functioning Depression is just as tricky. A person suffering from this particularly incessant and downright annoying illness can usually get things done: go to work; go to school; you name it. But, they still can not shake the feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or the myriad of symptoms associated with the Major Depressive Disorder. Although the signs and symptoms may be relatively less severe and the individual may even be able to get themselves up and go to school, work, etc., they still face so much internal suffering.

Anxiety, in this case, is more than just the body’s natural response to fear/threat. Anxiety as a mental illness is the kind of stress, worry, or fear that can persistently interfere with one’s daily activities. Anxiety disorders include panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Safe to say that if you are a bit more organized than your friends but have no such compulsions to keep certain things is specific orders or patterns that it interferes with your life (work, school, etc.) then you do not have OCD and should therefore not make one of those jokes (about having OCD) that have sadly become common. OCD is a very serious disorder characterized by persistent thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where Hollywood may have done more harm than good by glamorizing the illness and by extension, undermining the attention that patients deserve.


My story

This is a brief story of how I made peace with the figurative voices in my head; of how I learned to sleep with a scary and scaly dragon next to me; and of how I learned to get out of bed and walk with a weight on my shoulders. Sounds grim, right? It is a picture drawn for the sole purpose of shock so that the seriousness of living with a mental illness can be brought into perspective. But take solace in the fact that those aforementioned voices in my head and that scary scaly dragon sometimes have very hilarious stories to tell and comments concerning just about everything. Ironically, in some less-than-ideal situations, they are the only familiar things I can hang onto to pull myself back to sanity.

To the best of my knowledge, the first time I felt the kind of depression that lasts a while was in 2010 in my high school. It stemmed from a form of existential nihilism (feeling that I and everything else that exists had no meaning or purpose. That we were all just drifting along in this cold vast universe that couldn’t care less). I felt empty and void. Like I had just lost a big chunk of myself and it lasted for months. I told my mother about it and also mentioned how the thought of suicide had ever so briefly crossed my mind. I’ll never forget how she cried right beside me. In all honesty, it scared me senseless to watch her cry because of my pain, which I had now made hers as well. And that’s the day I resolved never to tell her anything hurtful again. This was not exactly the greatest idea because the last thing a person going through depression needs is to be without a support system. I understand that she cried for me, and not because of me and that only a good mother could truly feel the anguish that matches the level of their child’s pain. Despite knowing all that, I felt I could not put her through that again so all the myriad of times I was depressed after that, I never shared with her. I wasn’t alone though. I still had a few other healthy outlets to let the pain out.

While that was the first time the depression lasted a long time, it certainly was not the first time I had felt something that intense. I think the trigger of all things weird and unhinged in my life was going to boarding school. Forcing a young introvert into a socially charged environment before his mind is fully formed was, in retrospect, a very bad idea. As pretty much all introverts can attest, we are not special and are not trying to be special, but we just want a couple of hours in a day to ourselves. We need our “me time” to recharge and get ready for the next day and when we are denied that time, or that space we can call our own, we start to come undone. It is a lot like going on for days without sleep.

In a boarding school, sharing a large room with about 20 souls and a classroom with even more people, not to mention the dining hall, playgrounds, compounds, chapel, library, etc. with lots of people. Hell! even the washrooms were seldom without a person or people hanging close by. Not that their state of sanitation would have made for a great hide-out anyway. I quickly started to feel like I was, for lack of a better word, suffocating!

I did not hate the people. I did not even hate being around them. Some of them were my best friends without whom I wouldn’t have made it through school. All I wanted was to have just a little time in my day to find my centre. To calm those voices and to pacify that dragon. Without that “me time”, my mind fell out of balance and some very “interesting” things started to happen.

On a couple of occasions, starting around 2009, I experienced brief but very scary moments when I would lose my mind: I would forget who I was, where I was, and everything I believed in. In those moments, I would at least remember to pause and essentially try to remember myself. Sometimes, to bring me all the way back to “Sanityville”, I would have to say it all out loud so I could hear it. “This is who you are … This is where you are … and these are the things you believe in and the values you hold dear … These are the people you love and care deeply about … ”. Those are some of the scariest moments of my life thus far. They held a kind of raw fear and anxiety I hadn’t felt before but was, unfortunately, going to feel again.

I barely survived high school. I don’t think I would have survived another year in that state but I have grossly underestimated my resilience before so maybe … just maybe, I would have. Naturally, I had lots of nightmares about school after I had just finished. It wasn’t so much about the fear of exams and tests although that was undoubtedly part of it, but more so the fear of being forced into the kind of environment where I couldn’t truly be myself.

My days at university were very different. I had a room to myself and with a safe space to call my own and to retreat to whenever I felt overwhelmed or just hang out with myself and unwind, I felt well balanced. I still had friends and family and classmates that I loved spending time with but whenever I needed to, I could retreat into my space and find my centre again. I still had a few moments of anxiety and mild depression but it was usually because I had let myself fall out of balance and it was usually nothing a healthy routine couldn’t knock back into place.

After university, I moved back home so I could enjoy that free food and housing as I tried to figure my life out. Mom was excited to have me. If it were up to her, I would have stayed home till I was 100. She loved us so much and didn’t want to let us go. She would jokingly ask my elder siblings to move back home but we all knew she wasn’t really joking. She, however, perfectly understood our desire to leave home and build lives of our own so she would fully support (financially and otherwise) anyone who was ready to move out.

That woman was so damn perfect! She was kind, smart, beautiful, and well ahead of her time. Some of my friends used to call her a “dot-com” mother because she spoke perfect English (she was an English/Literature teacher — a damn good one — and was later promoted to HeadTeacher of a secondary school). She related with us like we were best friends of the same age.

On Wednesday, 18th April 2018, Annie Nabimanya Kanyubure Tumwesigye Makaaru, my lovely perfect mother, died in my arms and there was nothing I could have done to stop it. She lost consciousness at around 9 pm, I followed all the instructions of the doctors on phone (who were on their way home) but they arrived too little too late. A deadly combination of Hypertension, Diabetes, and Stress overwhelmed her body. I watched and felt her body jerk as she fought for her life. An image that hasn’t left my mind to this day.

My mind broke after that day. I had experienced levels of depression and anxiety in 2016 and 2017 like never before. They were usually triggered by my worry for the future and the fact that I felt my career was going down the drain. But I had no idea of the levels of depression and anxiety that lay ahead in 2018 after 18/4/18.

Alcohol didn’t help so I started nurturing an unhealthy and downright abusive relationship with Cannabis/Marijuana colloquially known as “weed/grass”. I had read about how it can be helpful in grief and how it is used by cancer patients to relieve pain and how it is legalised for both medical and recreational use in some states in the USA so I figured … What’s the worst that could happen? My two cents’ worth of advice; DO NOT MIX WEED WITH ANXIETY AND/OR GRIEF! I lost my mind, and that’s an understatement. Adding crazy to more crazy doesn’t produce sanity.

I wanted to end my life on so many occasions that I lost count. On one of those occasions, I went as far as writing a suicide letter but never finished it. I decided to force myself to make a promise to Mom, to live in her honour.

I am happy to report that I found more healthy ways to deal with grief and with depression and anxiety in general and I am now sane enough to make something meaningful of my days here.

I created a small memorial piece of art (in her honour) in the form of interpretive dance that you may watch here.

I am not an all-knowing source of wisdom when it comes to all things mental illness or when it comes to anything really. And I bet my story isn’t even the most compelling you’ve ever heard but I share it nonetheless (even against the judgement of some of the voices in my head) not as an attempt to measure my pain against yours or anybody else’s but as an attempt to reach out to anyone who is struggling with the same or similar things. To say, “Things will get better. The pain may never go away but with the right kind of help, you can start to have a lot more good days than bad ones.” I believe we are all crazy. Your specially tailored brand of crazy may not be of the glamorous variety but I assure you; YOU ARE AMONGST GREAT COMPANY.


Remedies and band-aids.

It is important to mention that depression or any other mental illness is not a lack of mental fortitude or a form of weakness. Some of the strongest people you will meet may struggle with a one form or another of mental illness. Also, mental illness can affect anyone despite their status, fame, or wealth. Many ailing people have feared to ask for help because they thought it would be perceived as weakness or being ungrateful for someone of their status or intellect or wealth or even religious belief to admit that they struggle with something like Depression. This only changes when we change the way we and society as a whole perceive such illnesses. To paraphrase something I picked up from Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy (A funny book about horrible things):

I DO NOT FULLY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE GOING THROUGH, BUT I AM HERE FOR YOU IF YOU NEED ME.

Instead of defaulting to judgement or even before we rush into giving advice, I implore you to adopt that statement.

When celebrities who seemingly have it all die by suicide because of mental illness (especially Depression) it is a little hard for some people to understand it or to imagine getting to the depths of despair that can convince someone like Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Vincent Van Gogh, and Avicii (died by suicide using broken wine bottle) to end their own lives. If something chips at your will to live for long enough, possibly over a couple of decades, it might lose the small battles every day but it just might win the war in the end.

Everyone has to work to find what combination of activities and treatments work best for them but I can offer up what works for me:

Exercising at least twice a week, eating healthy (for most meals), simple deep-breath exercises when I am spinning out of control, 7–8 hours of sleep, enough work to keep me busy, rest, family, friends, dancing, drawing and talking to myself. The most important thing to remember is to maintain balance. Too much work and I come undone. Too much free time and I will lose my mind. Too much time around people and I will get irritable. Too much time alone and I will start to get lost in my own mind.

If you struggle with mental illness or think you may have a form of mental illness, it is very important to talk to a qualified health professional about it. You may require talk therapy, medication or a combination of both. If reaching out to a professional is, for some reason, difficult or not an option at the moment, then talk to someone you trust. Talking to someone has been proven to make a difference for many people living with a mental illness. It is an important part of having a strong support system.