World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10th every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.
I have written/featured quite a few mental health posts on the blog before, but on this day specifically designated for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma I have chosen to open up about why mental health is so personal to me.
I have OCD and just before I first tried therapy in 2011/2012 I was wrongfully diagnosed with mild Bipolar Disorder (BPD). It was only in 2017 when I tried therapy again that I was rightfully diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I know some people will read that paragraph and go like “well shit! I always knew that bitch got issues. Finally there’s proof.” And that is something I have had to make peace with. I am well aware that this post will showcase me in all my damaged glory but I am under no assumptions that by sharing the rawest, most painful and vulnerable parts of my story the world will respond with kindness. But I started this blog to comfort and inspire and for every person that will tear me down because of my mental health struggles there is another that will be inspired by my relentless desire to achieve mental fitness.
So back to my story. I have shared before that I grew up in a very violent household. It took a while but with time I realised that having your father beat up your mother every other night was not normal. But while I was aware that my home situation was very different from those of my primary school classmates, I was not aware of how badly it would affect me the older I got.
The earliest indication of how the violence would affect me was in upper primary school when I first started struggling with compulsions. In my O Is For OCD post I wrote:
My earliest memory of struggling with OCD is when I was in Standard Seven/Eight in primary school. I was hunched over a classroom desk, pinching my nose to hold my breath as I thought something over and over again. I obviously do not remember the exact obsession I was struggling with but I was convinced that the only way it would stop was if I did not breathe as I thought it.
Of course I did not know what OCD was at the time so there was no way for me to articulate why I did the things I did. All I knew is that it was not normal but I did not know how to stop.
It was in high school though that my struggle with my mental health threatened to get the best of me. I look back at the person I was in high school and cannot help but be amazed that I had friends. I was an absolutely shitty person whose moods would easily swing from one extreme end to the other and I would get disproportionately angry at the smallest things. I was so bad that in hindsight even I would not want to be friends with my high school self. But I have since learnt not to judge high school Lwile too harshly as she was grappling with issues that were weightier than her teenage brain could possibly comprehend. To anyone I know from high school reading this I promise I am a much better person now.
One day during my second term in Form Four I started having difficulty walking and it grew worse by the day until suddenly I could not walk anymore. I was admitted to hospital where they ran tests to determine why I was unable to walk but the results showed there was anything wrong with me physically. It was concluded that my problem was not physical but psychological and so I began seeing a counsellor in addition to doing physiotherapy.
But I did not know how to take what was killing me on the inside and place it on the outside where the counsellor could take it and help me make sense of it.
Till this day I still remember the tears in my mother’s eyes as she pleaded with me to let the counsellor in. Quick aside, I wonder how long it will take before I can write about my mum crying without wanting to cry myself.
At the end my stress was chalked up to the pressure of the upcoming KCSE exams and I suppose the physiotherapy worked because with time I started walking again and eventually went back to school.
In 2017 I learnt from my therapist that what I experienced is known as conversion disorder; a mental condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation. According to WebMD:
While the specific cause of conversion disorder is still being studied, researchers think it develops as a way for your brain to deal with emotional strife. It’s almost always triggered by stressful situations and other mental disorders. And the symptoms usually develop suddenly.
Women are more likely to have it than men. It also happens more often to people with a history of emotional trauma, and in those who have a hard time talking about their feelings.
Coincidentally, one of the last things my mum told me before she died is that I keep things to myself too much … Of course at the time I did not know that the paralysis was my body’s way of dealing with emotional pain that had not been processed. Had I known I would have fervently sought healing because things only got worse after high school.
Feels like we’re on the edge right now
I wish that I could say I’m proud
I’m sorry that I let you down
Let you down
All these voices in my head get loud
I wish that I could shut them out
I’m sorry that I let you down
Let you down
Those lyrics are from Let You Down by NF and the instant I heard the song on Rick Dees it resonated with me deeply. In particular the “all these voices in my head get loud, I wish that I could shut them out” because for a very long time I struggled with just how “loud” my brain can get. I do not know if I can articulate this well but I once confessed to a friend that sometimes there is so much going on in my brain I just want to repeatedly bang my head against a wall to get it to shut the fuck up. I never did, but I thought about it sooo many times. I now know that was my PTSD making itself known, but at the time I could not understand why I was unable to stop my mind from being eaten up by dark thoughts. Why I just could not let the light in.
With time I moved from being unable to let the light in to being unable to feel things. This was during my time at St. Mary’s when I was doing my International Baccalaureate (first time I have ever spelled Baccalaureate without Googling, lol) and I suffered some Grade A bullying. I remember getting home from school one day in tears, crying all evening and the next morning on the way to school I was still crying in the bus. That evening when I got home in tears my mum made me tell her what was going on and the next day unbeknownst to me she talked to one of my teachers who then intervened and the bullying stopped. Aki writing that is making me tear up as I think of how my mum is no longer here to be my defender and give me comfort from my pain.
I was bullied almost every day for well over a year and so to cope I began to detach from my emotions. I figured that if I did not feel things so deeply then the bullying would not hurt as much. I closed myself off to my emotions as much as I could until one day I was more or less numb on the inside. While I did not want to experience the pain from the bullying in school, I had not anticipated that detaching from my emotions would also make it difficult to feel shit out of school. So I tried partying as a way to feel something and while I had a good time at the club (Rock Night at Carnivore anyone?) I would go back home to my sad, empty self and with time I could no longer handle feeling so hollow. I was still a virgin in IB, which I am grateful for because I shudder to think that what I was looking for in the club I would have otherwise been looking for in men.
So what did I do instead to try and feel something? I experimented with cutting. I had read that cutters (and other self-harmers) are unable to feel emotions so they cut themselves to try and feel something. And I was desperate enough to try anything. So one day I ran a bath, grabbed the biggest knife I could find in the kitchen and tried cutting myself in the bathtub while my parents were watching TV in the sitting room. I use the word tried because I fear pain so much that I could not bring myself to cut deep enough to do any lasting damage. Though the cuts were not altogether shallow because the next day a classmate happened to glimpse the red, raw lines on my arm and jokingly asked if was cutting myself. How right he was! But instead I lied that I was scratched by our cat 😐 I may not have cut deep enough to leave very perceptible scars but if you look closely at my forearms, particularly the left one, you can see the (I call them low-key) scars. And now I can bet the next time anyone sees me they will be on the lookout for the scars. Lol. After that day I never experimented with cutting again as it did not give me the relief I was desperately searching for.
Heavy stuff right?
On a lighter note that was also the time I wanted to be a stripper. For real. One day I went for a gig at F2 and fell in love with a stripper called Salma. For real. The following week I went to F2 at lunchtime to find out if they are hiring. They said they will have to train me first to determine if I fit the bill so I joined them for practice every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1 p.m. – 2/3 p.m. I was quite rubbish though as I have zero upper body strength. As in I cannot even do a single handstand so there was no way I could lift myself on a pole. Lol. But I guess they saw something in me because they asked if I would be interesting in joining the team. Lol. To date that is definitely one of the weirdest conversations I ever had with my mum.
Me: So mum … ahh … ehh … I’m thinking of joining F2 as an … errrm … exotic dancer.
My mum: A what?
Me: An exotic dancer.
My mum: …
My mum: Ati you are going to be dancing? At that Florida heng?
Me: Errrm … more like stripping …
I laugh as I remember it but at the time I was dead serious. I had a conversation with the same friend I opened up to about wanting to repeatedly bang my head on a wall, as she was (unsurprisingly) having trouble understanding why I wanted to become a stripper at F2. I explained to her that being on a pole is the only time I am able to feel something and that (I still remember this vividly) I am probably chasing the same high as someone who does cocaine, but since I do not do coke the pole is my drug. But I eventually came to my senses and did not join the very talented ladies at F2.
Break my heart but don’t tell me I’m not doin’ fine
‘Cause I’m doin’ fine
Let me go, I’m spendin’ time
Not doin’ fine but I’m doin’ fine
Those lyrics are from the Lil Peep & ILoveMakonnen feat. Fall Out Boy song I’ve Been Waiting and it best describes my time in university. Uni was a weird flex in that I was partying like I was being paid, and while I was having a good time on the outside, on the inside I just could not let the light in. In 2017 my therapist helped me realise that moral development happens in adolescence and continues into adulthood. Which is why uni was so hard for me; that was when my brain was finally able to understand the magnitude of just how traumatic my childhood was. Of course I did not know all this at the time. All I knew was that I was spending time not doing fine but I was doing fine. The second tattoo I got (in 2010 during my third year of uni) was the Kanji symbols for strength and happiness. I am the second strongest person I know (the first being my late mum) but I was so tired of constantly pursuing happiness only to find fleeting moments of it. I wanted happiness that sticks. But I did not know how or where to get it.
Eventually, circa 2011/2012, I opened up to my mum about how badly I was doing and together with my friend (the one I talked to about wanting to repeatedly bang my head on a wall as well as stripping in F2) we agreed I need professional help. My friend suggested I can try a psychiatrist she had heard of and was covered by my insurance at the time. Unfortunately when I saw the psychiatrist I was misdiagnosed with mild bipolar disorder (BPD).
I say misdiagnosed because in 2017 after a few therapy sessions I told my therapist about the diagnosis and she countered that I do not have BPD, mild or otherwise, but rather PTSD. Around the time I saw the psychiatrist was when my mind was starting to understand the magnitude of just how traumatic my childhood was, yet it did not know how to process this trauma. As my therapist said, moral development happens in adolescence and continues into adulthood. So my sanity was hanging by a thread under the weight of the trauma, but I lacked the emotional maturity, life experience and/or professional help to handle the emotions that came as a result. My moods were, understandably, all over the place and the psychiatrist took that snapshot and concluded I have mild BPD.
I hated “having” BPD for two major reasons, the first being because of how my family made me feel. Before making this point please bear in mind that I harbour zero ill will towards my family. I completely understand where they were coming from because at the time conversations around mental health were nothing like what they are today. The world is more educated, tolerant and inclusive now, meaning people are according conversations around mental health the seriousness and sensitivity they deserve. But at the time my family really made me feel like there was something wrong with me, more so because for years I secretly believed that there really was something wrong with me.
Every now and then my sister would tell me I have BPD as she laughed and my mum made sure to blame my every mood swing on it. I was not allowed to be angry, even justifiably angry, because it was chalked up to my BPD at its finest. Anytime someone/something annoyed me and I reacted (though now I know better, so I respond), the ensuing conversation was always bipolar this, bipolar that. My fam going on about my BPD validated my (incorrect) belief that I was less worthy than my contemporaries who seemed to have their shit together. My mum in particular would make me feel like some of my flaws were fundamental issues, and that I would be a better person if only I could be more like my sister, who has always been a gentle, even-tempered, cool-headed, lovely person. Sweardown she was every auntie’s favourite child growing up. Probably still is. Grrrr! Lol.
If you peep my About Me it says:
Quintessential Leo – fiery, huge ego, loyal AF, bold, bossy, big personality, way too real, intelligent, domineering, arrogant, passionate, impatient, opinionated, generous, headstrong, funny.
I have always been a quintessential Leo, even before I could articulate it, and it was only until I started therapy in 2017 that I realised there is nothing fundamentally wrong with me. I may not have my sister’s temperament but that is okay because the intrigue of human beings lies in our diversity. Mystery is sexy. Just imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same.
Also, some of those traits – fiery, huge ego, arrogant – are frowned upon by society more so for women. But over here on Lwile the Leo we do what makes us happy, because we owe it to ourselves to live life as fully and as passionately as we possibly can. Guise life is short. I would say that with an offhand air to it for years, but after my mum died that phrase is now laden with gravitas. Absolutely none of us are guaranteed to see tomorrow. Life is short, and provided it does no harm to others you should do what makes you happy. Find your happy (coincidentally the first post to be written under today’s new category) and protect it whatever it takes. And if what makes you happy is not as per societal expectations then society and its expectations can fuck all the way off. Sorry not sorry.
The second reason was that I hated the medication. It made my emotions flatline because that is what the meds were supposed to do. People struggling with BPD can experience manic and depressive episodes so the medication helps one’s mood not to swing from one extreme end to another. As a result while I was on the medication I went through life in a very subdued manner; it was impossible to feel any emotion at full capacity because the meds would not allow me. Which I absolutely positively fucking hated because:
The meds also absolutely annihilated my sex drive which I found intolerable because I really really really like sex.
I do not recall exactly how this chapter of my life ended, but I think after I was no longer covered by my previous insurance I stopped taking the medication under the guise that I could no longer afford it.
Flash-forward to 2017 and I did nine months of therapy which saved my life. My mum died on December 13, 2017 so it will come as a surprise to exactly no one that 2018 was the worst year of my life. Learning to exist in a world without the love of my life is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. But this year I said I owe it to myself and to my mum to see what can happen if I do anything and everything in my power to be the best possible version of myself in all aspects of my life. Aka, Intentionality. And if you read the blog you can attest to the fact that I have made 2019 my bitch. And not only have I made it my bitch, but 2019 is the happiest I have ever been. So happy mpaka last month at the gym someone told me I am the happiest person they know and that I am so happy it is even creepy sometimes. Lol. But fucking hell as you now know I have earned this happiness a thousand times over.
Though, keeping it real, how happy I am now really took me by surprise hence I opted to take a booze and kush break in Q2 to determine if I am really happy or I am just high. Spoiler alert: I AM really happy.
This “New Me” is also why and not a single fuck was given that day and any day to what people think of me. I am not for everyone; and it took some time but I now know unequivocally that neither do I want to be for everyone.
It has taken me my whole life but I really really really like who I am now. I am not perfect; I remain flawed just as every other human being is. But while I continually work on mitigating the flaws that get in the way of me becoming the best possible version of myself, I remain in love with the woman I am now and excited for the woman I am becoming.
But, as you can imagine, getting to this point was not easy. Many times my mental struggles threatened to get the best of me and for so long I carried all the secrets I have revealed in this post inside me, struggling with the belief that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Kwanza every one of my nearest and dearest who reads this post is going to be shook AF because they did not know almost all of my story. As I said, coincidentally one of the last things my mum told me before she died is that I keep things to myself too much.
And with that now you can understand why any and all things pertaining to mental health are so personal to me. Which is why I was deliberate in using this post to officially launch a Mental Health category on the blog for World Mental Health Day. It felt wrong to shelve mental health posts under Et Cetera. Through this category I intend to do everything in my power to destigmatise conversations around mental health because every mind matters.
I fucking hate it that in 2019 people still think therapy is for weak/crazy people with a shitload of issues. Society okays me to see a GP because I have a headache but deems me “mwenda wazimu” if I need to see a psychiatrist because my head is consumed with dark thoughts, my heart is hurting and I need some help. FOH with that weak shit!! It is high time people understand that it takes a shitload of strength, vulnerability and courage to accept that you need help and to go ahead and ask for it. We focus so much on physical fitness, I mean just think of how many fitness bloggers you know, yet we shy away when it comes to mental fitness. How many of us can name the symptoms of breast cancer, appendicitis, migraines etc. etc. just as easily as we can name the symptoms of OCD, PTSD, BPD, anxiety, depression etc. etc.? Not many I presume. And that is something I feel driven to change because the thought of someone out there suffering the way I did without being able to get the help they need no longer sits well with me.
As I said in T Is For Therapy:
If you are thinking of trying out therapy but do not know where to start, feel free to DM me on Instagram/Twitter (@misslwile) or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help where I can.
Disclaimer: I may take some time to reply but I always do.
For me, singing sad songs often has a way of healing a situation. It gets the hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness.
Obviously this post was not easy to write. First of all because it is a whopping 4320!!!! words so let me start by saluting you for making it to the end.
All jokes aside though, I really hope that my story helps anyone struggling with their mental health get their hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness. Fun fact: the title and theme of this post was inspired by a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show who was telling his heart-breaking yet triumphant tale. He said those exact words (let the light in) to Ellen and they immediately stuck with me.
I know this will date the post but IDGAF! If you follow me on Twitter (if you don’t errrm …) you know that I fell swiftly and deeply in love with Made In The Streets, H_art The Band’s arresting debut album. Today I was finally able to articulate just why with this tweet:
Lastly, I know that my story is a sad one, and reading it has probably made you feel sad. It was sad to write too; I cried. But do not feel sad for me; be happy for and inspired by my triumph instead. It is my hope that my tale of triumph over the demons that threatened to get the best of me helps anyone battling their own demons believe that they can win as well. You can absolutely Sam and Dean Winchester your demons; they thrive in darkness so you must keep fighting to let the light in. Hang in there whatever it takes and one day, maybe even when you least expect it, you will Sam and Dean Winchester your demons, emerging victorious in the battle for your mental health. Because, with the right support system and professional help, eventually humans win.