After my mum was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer on Friday June 15, 2012, an ironically sunny afternoon, her oncologist recommended chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy then radiotherapy as her treatment plan. After eight rounds of chemotherapy my mum had a mastectomy in December 2012 followed by radiotherapy in January 2013 to target the cancer that had metastasised to her spine. Unfortunately the doctors at Nairobi Hospital in charge of her radiotherapy fucked things up and ended up paralysing my mum from the waist down.
After my mum became paralysed from the waist down in September 2014, my aunt (her big sister) moved in with us for almost two months to take care of my mum. She slept on a mattress on the floor of my mum’s bedroom and during that time my aunt helped my mum to bathe and dress, she changed her adult diapers, made sure my mum took her medications … basically anything and everything my mum could not do for herself, her big sister was there for her.
Eventually we got a daytime nurse aide so my aunt moved back to her home and the caregiver baton was passed on to me as the firstborn. I took over night time duties and was also in charge of taking care of my mum on Sunday as that was the nurse aide’s day off. I had a boyfriend back then but for a very long time we never spent a single Sunday together because I had to be home taking care of my mum. I was the one who would change my mum’s adult diapers when she had done a number two. Having to wipe my mum’s butt like she was an infant is one of the most jarring experiences I have ever gone through and to this day I still get triggered whenever I see adult diapers in a supermarket. I was also the one who would give my mum her sponge bath, help her dress, wheel her around the house and give her her medications and meals across the day. In the evening I would wheel her from the sitting room to her bedroom, transfer her onto the bed, make sure she was positioned comfortably enough to sleep and turn her every two or three hours each night so she does not get bedsores. I had just turned 27 at the time but instead of going out and enjoying my youth with the rest of my peers, I had to come home sober each and every evening and at a decent time so that I could take care of my mum.
Taking on the responsibility of being my mum’s caregiver felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my 27 year old shoulders. All those responsibilities at a relatively young age, coupled with the fact that I believed my mum was dying, really took a toll on my mental health. It was one thing being my mum’s caregiver, but it was another thing altogether living in constant fear that my mum was dying, more so between 2014 and 2015 when she was being admitted to hospital on a monthly basis. In those two years no matter how hard my mum fought – and she fought like hell – it never felt like any of the treatments/procedures/medications were working and I was convinced she was slowly but surely losing her battle with cancer. So for those two years I had my own battle with anticipatory grief, an experience I wrote about extensively in theme 7 of 13. I spent most of 2014 and 2015 angry and in tears and it is not an exaggeration to say that I cried more in those two years than I have in all my 33 years combined.
Looking back now it is clear that I was depressed between 2014 and 2015 but at the time I had no idea. All I knew is that I was sadder and angrier than I had ever been in my entire life. All I knew is that when my mum eventually died I wanted to be buried alongside her because I did not want to live in a world where the love of my life does not exist. So I developed a number of coping mechanisms, some of them healthy but most of them not.
In 2017 my therapist at the time told me that people (or was it Kenyans?) have three main painkillers: alcohol, religion and sex. How many of us drink too much, or use drugs, because we would rather not face our difficulties head on? How many of us avoid dealing with the issue at hand because “my God is able”? How many of us engage in all of the casual sex because being alone is deeply uncomfortable? I am not religious so that painkiller did not apply to me, and I was in a monogamous relationship for three of the five years my mum battled cancer so sex as a painkiller also did not apply to me. That leaves alcohol which, coupled with cigarettes and weed, I grabbed as my painkiller of choice with both hands.
I drank almost every day between 2014 and 2015 and while I did not drink to get drunk every day, hardly a day would pass by without me having a drink. Being my mum’s caregiver meant I had to be sober more often than not, so I could not drink to get drunk every day, but I more than made up for it on the days I was able to get wasted. It was not long before I started to decompress at the office bar before heading home. I would smoke up, have exactly one glass of wine with two or three cigarettes then go home after that. That was my deeply unhealthy way of shedding all the stress of the workday and “stiffening up my upper lip” before heading home, because I knew what was waiting for me at home as my mum’s caregiver and I knew I had to be strong for her.
Back then I would smoke at least five cigarettes a day: when I got to the office, after morning tea, after lunch, after afternoon tea and before I left the office. That was my daily minimum and the number would go up (never down) depending on a number of things, the main one being if I was drinking. I started smoking cigarettes in December 2009 and between then and 2014 when I was out drinking, I would smoke socially as it was mostly for fun and I enjoyed it. But between 2014 and 2015 there was nothing social at all about my smoking when I was drinking. I would smoke as if my life depended on it. The irony! I would smoke as if the answers to my problems would be found at the end of each cigarette and the more cigarettes I smoked the faster I would get all the answers.
This carried on until August 2015 when my cousin planned a surprise dinner for me for my 28th birthday. I have never felt as loved and appreciated as I did that day, and I am sure I will never have a better birthday. Not just because of the beautiful, loving, well-thought-out surprise, but because of what the gesture did for my soul. It reignited my fire for life. It made me realise that, as difficult as it will be, I can live in a world where the love of my life does not exist. That party was my lifeline and it was then that I decided to stop smoking. My mum and her mum had cancer, which makes me very high risk and if I continued smoking I would move from being high risk to being a cancer victim/survivor. So I set a date when I would smoke my last cigarettes, settling on August 31st (the last day of my birth month) and I am extremely proud to say that I remain cigarette free 1,884 days later.
I did not know it at the time but given that between 2014 and 2015 I worried day in, day out that my mum was dying, I developed major anxiety. Which explains why when my mum was in hospital and I did not need to wake up every two/three hours to turn her, I still could not sleep through the night. I would go to bed relatively early and sleep for just a few hours before I was up again. And from the minute I woke my brain would be inundated with hundreds of thousands of thoughts, most of them dark and depressing, and no matter how hard I tried I could not stop the thoughts from running wild in my head. I did not understand mental health the way I do now so at the time I did not know what anxiety was and that it was the reason I could not sleep through the night. All I knew is that even though I got into bed tired AF, I would be up in a few hours, my brain running amok with dark and depressing thoughts I could not keep at bay no matter what I tried. So I started using alcohol as a sleeping aid because I would get drunk, black out and voila! it was morning. I was not aware that I was using alcohol as a crutch until a colleague of mine who I also considered a friend pointed it out to me in 2015.
My anxiety more or less went away in 2016 when my mum’s health began to improve, but it came back again with a vengeance after she died in December 2017. Luckily I had had 10 therapy sessions that year so I was well-versed with all things anxiety and had learned better coping mechanisms … though I did not always apply said coping mechanisms 😐
Speaking of therapy in 2017, my therapist at the time also helped me realise that I was using my then relationship as an escape. My ex and I started dating exactly one month after my mum became paralysed and we broke up exactly one month after my mum’s death. When we were together he would be in the country for approximately two weeks every month, and when he was around I would be at his place from Friday evening until Monday morning. I would hand over my caregiver duties to my sisters, and even though I would check in with them and my mum constantly, the burden of being the caregiver was not mine to bear for those few days. So being away at my boyfriend’s for a few days each month was like taking a much needed vacation from my responsibilities and I would return rejuvenated and ready to care for my mum.
That being said, the reason my therapist said I was using the relationship as an escape is because I stayed in it for three years and three months even though it was not a healthy relationship. We had our good days and our bad days just like every other couple but when it got bad, it was really bad. One of our biggest problems, if not the biggest, was that we did not fight well. Healthy relationships view conflict as an opportunity for growth and connection, but that was never the case for us. We fought often and not well, not because he was a bad guy but because our personalities did not suit each other at all. We both have fiery personalities and so when we fought none of us was willing to diffuse the situation by simmering down. Our fights never ever got physical at any point, but when our arguments escalated to the point where I started crying, he never stopped then. If anything, he would bear down on me more and it would only make me cry harder. In 2017 I was talking with a colleague of mine who told me that whenever she fights with her husband and she starts crying, he immediately stops the fight to comfort her and I just thought “must be nice.”
I was also depressed for the first 14 months of the relationship and was grappling with major anxiety as well as anticipatory grief, but as mentioned I was not aware of any of that back then. So if I did not know what exactly I was going through, how could I expect someone else to know it and be there for me? How could I expect someone else to love me the way I wanted to be loved when, because I was dealing with shit I had absolutely no idea how to handle, I did not know how to love myself well? Also, love is more about giving and less about receiving. And you cannot give what you do not have. For those 14 months I was mostly empty inside so how could I give love when I did not have it inside me?
It was not all negative coping mechanisms though because in 2014 I discovered Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy. I watched 10 seasons of those shows back-to-back and they provided a much needed escape from my grim reality. Binge-watching may not be the healthiest coping mechanism because by doing so you are not dealing with your issues but simply pushing them aside as you get lost in the show, but it is much better than getting blackout drunk every other day. Those two TV shows really came through for me back then and Grey’s in particular has a very special place in my heart. In fact, “Grey’s Anatomy” was my WhatsApp status for about a year between 2014 and 2015 because that show really made an impact in my life and when it eventually ends (sob! sob!) I am getting a ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ tattoo because sweardown that show saved my life. It may seem rather strange that a show about other people dying is what pulled me out of my anticipatory grief, even just for a bit, but I laughed, I cried, I shouted at my screen, I shipped so hard … that show saved my life! So much so that last year on March 27th, 14 years after the Grey’s first premiered in 2005, I put up an entire blog post about the show that you can check out here if you have not yet read it.
Music also provided great comfort to me between 2014 and 2015 because at the end of the day I would light a blunt, pour a glass of wine and depending on my mood/the song, I would either dance it out a la Grey’s Anatomy’s 30 second dance parties or I would break down and have a really therapeutic cry. And during my mum’s copious hospital admissions I ALWAYS played Shake It Off by Taylor Swift when walking into the hospital. Taylor is my favourite artist of all time and because I resonate deeply with metaphors, I would play that song real loud through my earphones and shake off whatever negative emotions I may have been feeling. Whether it was a bad day at the office, a fight with my then-boyfriend, or just general frustrations with life, none of it had any business carrying over to my mum’s hospital room.
In 2015 I turned to books as a way to cope because for as long as I read I was able to leave my problems behind in the “real world” as I lost myself in the author’s world. I came across Popsugar’s 2015 reading challenge in mid-April, meaning I was almost four months late, but I still managed to read 52 books that year. The next two years I did the reading challenges from Goodreads and read 55 books in 2016 and 54 books in 2017. I have not participated in any structured reading challenge since 2018 because the prompts have not interested me and after my mum died I was unwilling to participate in anything that would ultimately feel like a chore. So since 2018 my reading challenge has been to read at least 30 books a year and at the time this post goes up I am on book 29/30.
A number of us carry so much pain that we keep buried in our deepest selves and talk to no one about. I would know because for a very long time that was me. But you have to find HEALTHY ways to cope, manage and ultimately move on from the pain otherwise it will chew you up and spit you out. I do not have it all figured out yet, but I continue work on myself in and out of therapy and I take great pride in being a WIP because I have come from sooo far and I know the best is yet to come.