HOW I KNEW I HAD A PROBLEM
I have known for a long time that something was not quite right about how I navigated the world. When my mother passed away from losing the fight with breast cancer when I was 12, everyone told me that time heals all wounds. So I waited for time to heal me. Over the years it was also heavily implied that talking about mum was wrong and showing any signs of grief was a sign of mental regression. There was also a lot of emphasis placed on the idea that because I was the first born, I had to be strong- and strength meant stoicism. To everyone that knew me post mum’s death, I was very artistic, quite smart, highly assertive, but a bit atypical and somewhat aloof. High school masked my issues because there were clear structures that dictated everyone’s social conduct. For as long as I adhered to whatever was required of me, it did not matter that I spent most of my time in my mind trapped between the past and the future. It was never noticed that I never really participated in the present other than to tick the prescribed boxes. So I swayed between filling journals with painful poetry and haunted drawings, and resurfacing only to cram some formulas to vomit them onto exam sheets. Because I was eloquent and I passed all my exams, no one ever thought to check in on me. After all, I ticked the boxes. After high school, the structures became blurred and I found myself having to make very uncomfortable decisions about my future. Decisions I was not ready for. So I let my environment dictate my path and stuck to the high school formula of burying my head in my thoughts and resurfacing only to fulfil my social obligations. And this was the beginning of my unravelling.
Between the ages of 18 and 25 I slept walked through life. I refused to take any responsibility for my life and clutched on to that fucked up high school formula even when it began to hurt me. I did not want to live, because living meant that eventually I would die- just like she did. I wanted time to stop, for just a second; just so I could breathe. And the more I held my breath and refused to move, the faster time ticked away and the more violent my surroundings became. I resurfaced once for seconds to see myself standing in the shower, guttural cries tearing from my throat; afraid to touch my breasts. I resurfaced once in an urban planning class and wondered how the fuck I got there. I resurfaced another time mid argument with my partner at the time, mortified by the level of cruelty I had permitted to enter my space. I resurfaced again and noticed that I had gained so much weight and had barely noticed it. I resurfaced for a minute and saw myself sprawled across the bed for the 4th week in a row, surrounded by empty liquor bottles, crusted plates and not even having the energy to hide the depression. The mind that I had damed so carefully for years finally broke its banks and spilled over into reality. I had to swim fast or drown.
I started with the easy part. I cleaned up my act on the outside and pretended I was okay- A clever iteration of my earlier high school coping mechanism. I lost the weight, pulled away from toxic people, did well in my master’s programme and genuinely tried to participate healthily in life. When all the outward clutter was cleared away and I thought I was finally okay, I broke. I had one unit left to do in order to complete my masters. This was my thesis. For some reason before starting my thesis, I did not want to check my overall year’s score. So I did not. When I was in a meeting with my supervisor, she excitedly told me that I had a great score and was on track to get a distinction should I do well in my thesis. The level of rage and fear that filled my body after she said that confused me. For the three months that followed, I could not write down anything for my thesis. It did not matter how much I tried. Something within me had fractured and for the first time in my life I could not file it away in my mind and outwardly pretend that all was okay. I started therapy because I had to. Literally. I was utterly unable to write my master’s thesis, and in order to apply for an extension, I needed to have a letter of recommendation given by either a doctor or a psychologist. Rather than fake an illness and forge a doctor’s note, I decided to begrudgingly see the school therapist.
THERAPY ATTEMPT NO. 1
Dr. Sanya was a lovely lady. She was one of the school therapists. She reminded me of some of my aunties- Mostly well meaning but almost entirely unhelpful. In the first session I balled my eyes out and admitted some of the things that had been barking in my head for years;
- I missed my mother painfully
- I resented my father
- I was deeply insecure
- I was afraid to live
- I was angry, and I was scared.
Though I did get a few helpful insights from Dr. Sanya, I felt that she was more interested in talking about my current relationship and affirming her religious and career choices. Even so, it lit a spark within me to work through whatever unhealthy ideas I had cultured over the years. So I turned to books.
THERAPY ATTEMPT NO. 2
Three books were very instrumental in resolving some of my feelings. The first book I read was On Grief and Grieving by C.S Lewis. It was a painful one to read. This book was the author’s journal as he tried to work through grieving his wife. I was struck by how familiar his reactions and feelings were to me. This book validated the way I had interpreted my pain. It gave me a language for the suffering. The second book I read was called Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore. It floored me. For the first time I was exposed to the idea that grief is not something you heal from- it is a right of passage; something you live with. This book genuinely saved my life. All I had been craving for was empathy, someone to see me. This woman, through delving into her own pain and the pain she had witnessed in thousands of others, saw me more clearly than I saw myself. After I finished that book, for the first time I felt that I was normal. Whatever I was going through was okay. There was absolutely nothing absurd about how I was responding and that the world itself had some really dumb ideas about how grief should be handled. It was a solid way to begin to heal my relationship with grief. I then started on the third book, Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. This book was also written as a journal by the author. He was dying from cancer and decided to write this book to detail his thoughts and feelings as he confronted his mortality. This was a hard one to read. I must admit I have not finished it.
Time ticked by and I had to leave Oxford. As soon as I landed in Nairobi, I put aside my books, and I stopped pushing myself to understand my grief.
THERAPY ATTEMPT NO. 3
I came back to Kenya early 2020 and covid hit the world. Amid the confusion, I decided to try for the first time to push myself to follow my creative dreams. I threw my first event in Early March. Despite covid concerns, the event was pretty successful. That night I had my first panic attack. Soon after that my cousin Chebet Chumo died and I found myself spiralling in grief. The panic attacks were regular now. I found myself getting scared when night fell and not wanting to be alone. I did not trust myself to breathe. I did not trust my heart to beat. I had to get help. I had saved a tweet by Tessy Cherono showing a list of therapists in Nairobi. I decided to bite the bullet and contact an organisation on that list called Lean Counselling.
Leila from Lean Counselling became my therapist for the next year. Leila’s style of therapy is a bit unorthodox. We started with 8 sessions of therapy that had numerous work sheets and calls to actions. Over the first 3 sessions, my panic attacks escalated. I stopped sleeping all together. I started having severe migraines and would be anxious about absolutely everything. I could not tell what part of my stress was real and which part was imagined. It was horrible. But it was necessary. Leila was excellent in that she intimately understood the Kenyan context and our usually pathological way of managing emotional stress, especially grief. The reality that mum was dead hit me again, and again and tried to drown me. I could smell her. I could feel her. I could taste the tears running down my face when I was told she had died. I could feel my heart exploding out of my chest. I felt the rage and bitterness crawl up my throat and threaten to have me heaving. And when it all became too much I broke and went numb. And repeat. Over and over again until those 8 sessions were through. I hated every minute of those 4 months. I was angry at Leila for putting me through it. But through the pain, I started to sense some healing, something I had never felt before.
THERAPY ATTEMPT NO. 4
After our initial 8 sessions, Leila set me free to go on about my life armed with toolkits on grief and her phone number if I needed it. I refused to work on the grief. I was exhausted from the months of therapy. I felt I needed some time to just exist for a bit without drowning. My love Luka came to see me and he was a wonderful distraction from dealing with my mental anguish. I felt whole and happy. I was pushing myself at work and engaging with life more than I had before. Then he suggested that I should go for my yearly medical check up; something he had been hinting for me to do for the passed year. A bizarre mix of childlike petulance, fear and hostility filled me. I was able to step out of myself for a moment and see the truth of why I did not want to go to hospital. I was still subconsciously clinging to the insidious idea that I was dying somehow because mum died, and if I were to go to hospital, they would only confirm that. So I called Leila.
We had two sessions before the hospital visit where we delved into the source of my anxiety. The first session was done in the AAR waiting room as I waited to be told how to go about setting up an appointment. Leila held me as I balled loudly into her chest. My breasts and arms were throbbing with phantom aches and I relived my mother shrivelling up to dust again. And I saw myself in her as she did. The second session was done over the phone the night before my appointment. I was in my car in the parking lot at work sobbing as Leila had me confront some of my most twisted conceptions of life, death and the meaning of mortality. The next day, my dear Cousin Shiku took me to my appointment. We made jokes throughout the process, even as I cried during the breast exam. A few days later, my test results came out clear. And I broke again. My heart broke and came together simultaneously. It came together when I finally felt like I could live, and it broke when I languished in the fact that mum could not. This was one more thing taken away from me to hold on to her. A severed connection. Now I got to live when she didn’t. It confused me how people were okay with being alive. How did it not tear apart their minds? I wondered how people didn’t physically feel the time ticking passed as the end scratched and tore at their psyches. How was this not everyone’s reality? How was it mine? I could not stop seeing her… Laughing and crying. Laughing and dying seconds apart from each other. Living and dying. Alive and dead. So full of life, then blue skin, to rotting flesh, to bone, to dust. And I felt destined to follow that same path. Living and dying- mere seconds from each other. Each of my days was filled with a million whispers of life swiftly nullified by a million thrashes of death. I was exhausted. Still am. I often wonder how people live in this state. Being alive and dead at the same time. Or am I the only one? A ghost that casts shadows. A tortured memory skulking through life like it’s all a lucid dream. Acutely aware of the fragility of life. Transfixed by mortality in one moment- numb in the next. And Repeat.
WHERE AM I NOW
I am tired. So completely tired it astounds me. Leila tells me often to give it time and to be easy on myself. And I am trying. But it is difficult. I have 14 years of malignant hypotheses so slowly dissolve. So it will take time, and quite a bit of it. I pull one loose thread and soon find that it cracks open some of the essential foundations that I have built my personality upon. And it is frightening. It is a strange feeling to be afraid of my own thoughts; to be unsure about my own sense of what is right and wrong. To self parent and hope it is not too late. To break myself over and over again and hope that this pain is somehow building me and not killing me. Though I often lose faith in this process and in myself, I am trying. Just a little harder everyday. And that is what counts.
Therapy is great. It is often touted as the end all be all. But therapy is just a toolkit. It entirely up to me to do the work. And it is so much more difficult than I envisioned and does not actually guarantee that I come out of the other side thriving. So why do it? There is an analogy about the ostrich putting its head in the sand in the hopes of escaping danger. I was that ostrich for many years. Then I tasted a bit of danger and realised the flaw in my strategy. Therapy is a way of me pulling my head out of the sand. It does not eliminate the danger, but it forces me to confront it and device different ways of saving myself. It does not guarantee that I will survive, but it gives me a fighting chance. One that I for sure did not have a couple years ago with my head in the ground and my ass in the air waving around like a bullseye to a dart. So I will keep pushing myself to live, even when it hurts to. I will keep lovingly breaking myself over and over until I evolve. This is what life is. It is the call to adapt and change in order to survive. Anything less is choosing death. And I have died many times before. Death is easy. To live, you must fight. And I am for the first time.