Chilling images of mental illness in Africa

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In some of the most war-ravaged countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, severely mentally disabled men and women are shackled and locked away for years on end. This photograph of a young man chained to the floor of Juba Central Prison in Sudan (now South Sudan) is featured on the cover of Robin Hammond’s book, “Condemned.” January 2011 photo by Robin Hammond/Panos

This series of photographs, published in a book called Condemned by photographer Robin Hammond, has been on my mind for days.

In war-ravaged countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, severely mentally disabled men and women – even children – are chained and locked away for years on end. Mental illness is a neglected issue everywhere – and it is horrific to think about how people are suffering. Many of these people – probably the majority – are undiagnosed and receive little or no treatment.

This is what the photographer had to say about his project:

“I’ve spent my career documenting human rights issues but I’ve never come across a more neglected or vulnerable group than the mentally disabled in African countries that are in, or recovering from, crises.”

These images break my heart. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people living with mental illness could experience the same kind of respect, compassion and access to treatment as people living with any other illnesses?

In honour of my therapist

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therapy

 

I owe a great deal to my psychologist and psychiatrist. They are amazing people and although I know I pay them to help me, that’s not the point for me. I once read something about how important it is to honour the people in your life who believed in you and gave you confidence when you needed it most – and that is how I feel about them. I actually know I wouldn’t be alive if I wasn’t for them. They helped me realise that my story isn’t over yet. They showed me how to feel emotion again. Because of them I realised that my life is valuable. And that comfort of having someone really listen to your story – the really honest version with no edits. Such a relief and so much freedom.

 

 

Second chances, a cup of tea and a conversation

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suicide

Isn’t this story just amazing? I saw this on my Facebook feed this morning and the story has been on my mind the whole day.  Suicide is a subject that is very close to my heart because I was there a few months ago. It is a very scary place to find yourself in – to be so lonely and completely desperate that you see no other way out.

Whenever I hear about someone who has taken their own life, I always wonder about the circumstances that brought that person to the point where they are so desperate that they see no way out. Was there no one they could talk to? Did anyone listen or take them seriously? What if they had someone, like the man in this story, who took the time to listen? That’s quite a story to tell, don’t you think? A second chance at life, all thanks to a cup of tea and a conversation.

I remember that night when I contemplated suicide. I just wanted out. I had no interest in life anymore and the war within me was just too much. My my mind was racing with all kinds of thoughts: would it work, how long would it take, what if it doesn’t work. This isn’t something I talk about often – it isn’t exactly the greatest conversation starter –  but it was a significant moment in my life. The turning point. I knew something was really wrong.

I am so grateful that I got a second chance at life. In that moment I realised that my suicide would destroy other people and cause so much pain and I didn’t want to do that to anyone. I didn’t want my son to grow up without a mother, either. When I gained some perspective (weeks later after intensive therapy) I realised that I didn’t want to end my life – I wanted to end the pain. And there were so many better ways deal with that pain.

The bravest thing I’ve ever done was continuing my life when I wanted to die.

 

Stigma, depression and outing yourself

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how to treat mental illness

This image got me thinking – what if we treated all illness like we treat mental illness?  Can you imagine saying these things to someone who has cancer? Never! Then I have to wonder why someone who is clinically depressed, has anxiety or is bipolar has to suffer so much.

A big part of my struggle has been the silence around depression – it is almost like this major fear of outing yourself. Before I decided to be more open about my journey with depression, the fear of people finding out was actually more scary than living with depression. Talking about it is a big risk – there is a lot of judgement and misunderstanding.

But why must it be a secret? If I had diabetes I wouldn’t feel that I have to hide the fact that I take insulin. If I had cancer I would make no secret of my treatment. And depression is exactly the same. I have a chronic illness. It doesn’t define me, but I do have to live with it.

In an earlier blog post I mentioned Martha Manning’s book Undercurrents – it has been so insightful and helps me understand more about depression. This is how she describes depression in her book:

“Depression is such a cruel punishment. There are no fevers, no rashes, no blood tests to send people scurrying in concern. Just the slow erosion of the self, as insidious as any cancer. And, like cancer, it is essentially a solitary experience. A room in hell with only your name on the door.”

My hope is that society’s understanding about mental illness improves. I hope that one day people who live with mental illnesses receive the same respect and compassion as someone with any other medical condition. I hope more people start talking because there’s freedom in that. How else can we get rid of the stigma?

Find your silver lining

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siliver lining

You know that saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’? I’ve decided to think of depression as the silver lining in my life. This realisation didn’t come to me overnight – I can assure you that – because I don’t like labelling myself. I always resist labels because I don’t want some external standard or idea to define me. I guess it is fear of judgement. There is so much stigma around mental illness and honestly, who wants to deal with all that?

But now I see it all differently.  What I understand now is that knowing what I’m struggling with and giving it a name has been so helpful to me. I know I have to manage it. I can take responsibility for it.  Some days I still feel so angry about the many traumatic events that caused this to be part of my life, but I can’t do anything about that now. I have to find constructive ways to stop depression from becoming an all-consuming thing in my life.

For such a long time my life was completely unbearable. It required so much energy to get through each day. I thought that I was just having a (very long) series of bad days. I had clinical depression and I was struggling with post traumatic stress (for years!) and I didn’t even know it. There was always this nagging feeling that something was really wrong. I saw the warning signs, but I thought I would try and “hang in there” and “tough it out”.

I’ve learnt an important lesson.

My clinical depression diagnosis was full stop in my life, a line drawn in the sand. It was a signal to slow down and gain perspective. The anxiety, fear, flashbacks and depression were all signals that pushed me to act.  It created awareness about the things harmful in my life – because if I didn’t do something about my depression it would have completely destroyed me. It is a completely debilitating thing– but the signal was there and it was something I had to deal with immediately.

So this is why I view my depression as something that’s completely changed my life – it is my silver lining. I’ve discovered so much beauty and inner peace and self- acceptance. My life is so wonderfully good. And I am so grateful.

And this is my favourite part – it has been an opportunity to totally recreate myself. How exciting is that? I get to go on a journey of discovery about myself. Try new things. Figure out what I like. Discover things I didn’t know about myself. And it isn’t a selfish thing at all. It is so necessary.

Think about it this way: if depression is a shadow your life, there must be a light cast from somewhere. Don’t live in the criticism of your shadow. Life in the part that brings hope, renewal, joy, inner peace and happiness.

Country roads and shooting stars

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I think this video made to Death Cab For Cutie’s Passenger Seat is so beautiful. It is one of my favourite songs and the video makes the song extra special for me. It’s one of those tunes that gets right into your soul. The music makes me feel like I want to go on a long road trip to a remote place where I can drive with my window down. It reminds me of a beautiful place called Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. It talks about things I love like dark country roads and shooting stars.

I’ve battled through some difficult days recently and then it helps to listen to this song. I think everyone needs that one song that can make everything better. It soothes my mind and helps me gain perspective again. Music is wonderful – sometimes it is the best thing to help with depression and anxiety because it helps me to feel. Where words fail music speaks.

If you haven’t heard anything by Death Cab For Cutie, go and find them. It is an alternative rock band and their music is just amazing.

I’m pouring a glass of this

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wine label

 

I bought some wine today (not a rare incident, I can assure you) and this is what the description on the bottle said about this wine. Isn’t it just wonderful? 🙂 It’s the most beautiful wine description I’ve ever read – a one-sentence summary of all my favourite things! Food, fires, holidays at the coast, nights out, evenings in, quiet dinners and loud guests. 😉 All that I’d like to add to this list is good music. Now I’m going to try the wine!