In February of this year I had the chance to give my testimony at an event put on by a society I am a part of at university. The word testimony usually means to testify to something, or give an account of. This was the story of my life in fifteen minutes. Thus I had to talk very quickly or cut a lot out, and I chose the latter. This post is recapping that talk (sorry it is so late for those who asked for it earlier) with bits added. There is a bigger focus on the role depression has played in my life because that is what I want a lot of the content on this blog to be about. Just a heads up that this is a lot longer than most posts will be. Apologies in advance. (edit: this was a lie, most are about this length)
I was born in England just outside of Manchester, but spent the rest of my childhood in East Africa. My parents were volunteering with NGO’s In Western Uganda at the time. We lived in a very rural place that was in the midst of a civil war (or at least civil unrest). The Lord’s Resistance Army (the LRA), which was led by Joseph Kony at the time, was fighting with the government, abducting children to fight, and doing all sorts of other horrible things. I remember hardly any of this because we were evacuated out (my dad stayed behind at first because he is a doctor) when I was just three. The only memory I have is of my mum being worried about my dad because of all the land mines.
The next fourteen years of my life were mainly spent in central Kenya. There I went to Rift Valley Academy, made lots of friends, and built the foundations of a relationship with God. I have always believed in God and believe He is perfectly good and loving. Thus it is my privilege to serve Him (or at least try my best to) in all I do. I learned this by watching my parents and how they gave up so much material gain to spend time in a more complicated situation in East Africa.
Growing up in East Africa makes me a third culture kid (TCK). A TCK is someone who has spent a significant portion of their formative years in a culture other than their parents’ culture. Thus Britain, my parents’ culture, is one culture, East Africa, the place where I grew up is another, and I am the third one, a cultural cocktail shared only with other TCKs. People who are like this are becoming increasingly more common with mobilization across countries now relatively easy. They have a unique set of experiences but also face unique set of challenges.
With that in mind I hope that it should be easier to see why I found my first year at university so challenging. It was a massive transition with so much change. I was not comfortable with anything in the UK and certainly had no idea how things were done over here. Culture is very deep seated in our souls. It isn’t just the way which we speak or dress, but the way that we perceive reality and how that is expressed. I had no idea of the totality of it until I started at university in 2012.
The first year was all the usual cultural shock. I’d known it was coming thanks to various seminars I had been to and books I had read, but it still caught me off guard. There were all sorts of little things which I had not anticipated struggling with. One of the things I’ve struggled with from day one is greeting people, particularly when you meet a person for the first time. I didn’t know whether to shake hands, how friendly to be, how much information to share, or how many questions to ask. Some people would even hug the first time they met you, which threw me for a loop. I had grown up in cultures where guys hugging girls was not appropriate. The strict rules about such things at my boarding school had not prepared me for life in the UK. This was a particular shame because I love hugs, even if I have no idea when they are appropriate in the UK.
There were other more practical challenges which also added to the difficulty of cultural transition. For the first 3 months I lived in the UK I thought that you could only use ATMs which were of the bank your card was from. Thus, in St Andrews, I would always walk past several cash machines before getting to the Lloyd’s Bank machine. No one had thought to point it out to me because everyone understands these simple things in the UK. Luckily I caught my older brother using a standard ATM and he explained to me how they work.
The area I struggled with most was definitely building relationships, the most important part of life. I had spent the last few years in a boarding school which, for all its faults, was a wonderful environment to build deep, sincere, and mature friendships. I lived with about 20 guys my age and we slept together, ate together, went to class together, played sport together, and went to church together. One cannot escape other people in such a situation, usually ending in deep relationships being formed. There was a big transition (not uncommon for university students) from a place of many friends to a place where I knew no one.
Like many other students I went to university starting afresh looking for new friends. However, there is a large challenge posed by coming from a vastly different culture. I had no idea what it looks like to make friends in this cultural sphere. There were several questions which I had no idea how to answer or even learn how to answer.
- How do you know when you are friends with someone?
- What constitutes a friendship?
- How well should you know someone before you should share intimate thoughts or feelings with them?
- How would you know if someone was a good friend?
- When is it appropriate to ask to hang out with someone?
- Is it alright to be close friends with a girl?
- Can I spend too much time with friends?
- How should I best care for a friend when they are sad?
- How should I let a friend know I am sad?
- When is it ok to hug my friends?
These are just a few of the questions I can think of off the top of my head. Now, for most people these seem like quite simple things. The answer to most of them is that it comes naturally. However, they only come naturally because you are familiar with the cultural praxis of the environment. For an outsider, even one who has competent social skills, this is horribly difficult. Whilst it is true that all of these questions need to be answered on an individual basis, the underlying foundation is cultural. Thus my first year was very tough. I struggled to get to know people and make friends. A result of this was that I was quite bored because I didn’t have friends who I could ring up to have fun.
One contrast of my life in the UK, which has added to that feeling of boredom, to my life in Kenya is the relative stability. Things were much more exciting in Kenya. I am using the term exciting to mean up and down, like a particle can be excited in science. For exampe, in the UK camping stories include lots of rain (obviously) and maybe the occasional squirrel or midges. Last time I went camping in Kenya I had to get up in the middle of the night to put more logs on the fire to keep the buffalo from coming any closer to camp. Here the rain on the tent keeps people awake, there it was the whooping laughs of hyenas.
In the UK my friends frequent the pub as a Saturday afternoon activity. In Kenya we would take our piki piki’s (motorbikes), drive into the Great Rift Valley, and chase giraffe, antelope, and zebra. Here my friends go on spontaneous trips to the shopping centers in Dundee. There me and my friends went on spontaneous trips to Uganda (10 hours away on bus) to raft the Nile. So in many ways life was a lot more scintillating for me in Kenya. There is nothing wrong with the activities in the UK, but I am not as excited by them.
However, for all the ups of East Africa there were lots of downs. As I said we were evacuated form a war zone when I was young, which has left its mark mentally on my family (not so much me and my younger brother who were quite young at the time). In 2007 the Kenyan elections were rigged and it result in nationwide fighting. People were going around fighting and killing each other because of the tribe they belonged to. We had about 20 people hiding in our house some nights because they were afraid that their houses were going to be attacked. I distinctly remember my Mum asking me if I minded having all the people in our house at night. Of course I didn’t because God commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves. I wasn’t phased in the least, it was just part of life. I was always relaxed and very rarely stressed. Despite these things and many others I love Kenyan cultures. The people there are incredibly warm and welcoming, always friendly and willing to take in a stranger.
Despite having experienced these challenges nothing could have prepared me for my second year in university. In that September I realized that I had been quite sad without a clear reason for 4 weeks in a row. I had become quite tired and easily annoyed (I wasn’t one to get quickly annoyed except by my wonderful brothers). Soon I lost my appetite and started to feel very anxious about everything. Thus I started to wonder if I had depression.
Now it is very important to jump in and say something about depression at this point. I will write my next blog post on ‘What is depression?’. There I will go into a lot more detail about what it is and the mechanisms responsible. I will also include tips I have learned for both people who suffer from depression and people who have friends who suffer from it (just a quick spoiler, this will be about 99% of you even if you don’t know it). Thus I will not go into great detail here. For now all you should know is that depression is not a case of a bad attitude to life, a lackluster spiritual life, or just an emotionally tough time. Clinical depression is an issue with the chemistry of the brain. It is often caused by an emotional trauma, which then changed the physiology of the brain. It is a physical infliction as much as breaking one’s leg is. Both are problems with the body’s physiology and need to be treated as such. It is not someone’s fault if they have depression.
To add credence to this, the only time I had experienced depression prior to this was when I had concussions from sport. I would get kneed in the head playing rugby, black out, and wake up with depression. A blow to the head would leave me depressed for a few weeks, then I would be back to normal soon enough. The emotional part of depression is very important and I will talk about it at great length later, but it is of the utmost importance depression is seen as a physical ailment, like breaking a leg.
I was lucky because at my school were forced to go to depression seminars (this is a very good idea if any RVA staff members are reading this! Please keep doing it). I thought this was silly and repetitive. Even though I knew there were depressed people at school I didn’t see the need for it. In hindsight that was both typical and foolish of me. As a result of these seminars I recognized the symptoms fairly quickly.
Identifying the problem and understanding that depression was a physical illness were the first steps in going to the doctor and receiving prompt medical treatment. In a similar vein, if someone has a broken leg they go to the doctor. I then let my friends know and they were very supportive of me in this tough time. They offered me the support I needed and helped me greatly.
The above paragraph is what it would be like if I had a broken leg. But depression is different. That is not even close to what happened. Instead it grew worse. The isolation I felt from culture turned into a grotesque loneliness. I knew in my head there were people who were my friends and who cared about me deeply, but I felt like I might have been the only person in the world. I felt more bitter and lonely than I thought possible.
Along with the depression came anxiety and a whole host of other symptoms. I started to have lots of headaches and feel very light headed. I could not concentrate and my memory became very poor. My brain interpreted life as a haze, nothing seemed in focus and my memory seemed only able to hold onto sad or annoying memories. My appetite disappeared (although I kept eating, I love food) and I stopped sleeping properly.
Everything that I had previously enjoyed had all the happiness and joy ripped out of it. I would play football (I love sports) and hate it. Nothing interested me anymore and there was no reprieve. There was nothing I could do to make it better. I would spend time in a group of friends and feel lonely and isolated. Every moment I spent by myself with my own thoughts would leave me more bitter and annoyed at life.
One of the most challenging aspects of depression are the feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. These are proper symptoms and so theoretically one should not feel bad about having them manifested. However, these symptoms usually spiral out of control because one feels like they shouldn’t feel that way. I wanted help so badly, but didn’t know where to turn. I felt ashamed because I had always been so strong emotionally, even through very tough times. I started to think that getting help wasn’t necessary because I could do it myself. In hindsight this was wrong, but I have a lot of sympathy with my former self for thinking it.
At this point the anxiety was crippling. I was terrified by any loud noises. Crossing the road terrified me. Getting out of bed terrified me. Spending time with friends terrified me. Spending time with my family terrified me.
Emotionally I was destitute. I had lost all passion and happiness. That year I was happy one night (at a friends murder mystery birthday party), but apart from that it was horrible. I could not feel happy, sad, or excited. The only emotions I could feel were anger or bitterness. This made grieving very difficult. Any situation where one would normally be devastated, such as a family trauma or a break up of a relationship (both which happened at the time), is met with apathy. Not because I was putting up walls, but because my body had lost the ability to be sad.
Then the unimaginable happened and it got worse. Every day for the next 5 months I would have rather died than get out of bed. I didn’t have any joy, there was no passion for anything. I couldn’t feel loved and I couldn’t feel like I loved anyone or anything. My body had turned against me and was defeating me from the inside. I am totally convinced that life could not have gotten any more miserable. In a sense I was internally stripped of almost all the things that made life worth living. I knew intellectually that these things were not true, but it made little difference.
I had quickly gone from being a very sharp, energetic person, to the opposite. My mind worked slowly, as if fighting through a haze. I had no energy or motivation to do anything. I stopped enjoying all the things I did before. It was a very dramatic change which I had no choice in and it was terrifying.
There was one thing that had kept me going through this time. Even though I hated life and knew death would be preferable, this one thing still kept me going. Since I was born I have believed and trusted in God (even though you may not have been able to tell from my behavior). I believe that God is good, that He loves all and that there is nothing more important in life than serving Him. On top of that I know that He wants me to love others and that He wanted me in St Andrews.
I would have been happy to die. I was ready to be done with life. But the only issue is that I knew that my life was not the most important thing. Serving a perfect and loving God was more important than my life. So I kept going. I knew suicide was not an option because God would not want it and His will is more important than mine.
God makes us a lot of promises about what is to come. Promises about how God will restore the world and all the broken relationships in it. How the environment will be restored and earth will be turned into heaven. He promises to love us and always be there for us. And these promises always give His followers hope. One of the most prominent features of depression is an emotional despair. This is normal. But it needn’t rid us of all hope like it did for me.
It was March of that year that I went to the doctor about it for the first time (mainly thanks to persistent friends who were slightly concerned that I had been ill for the last 7 months). I gave him my list of symptoms.
- Emotional turmoil
- Lack of balance
- Anxiety about everything
- Memory problems
- Light headedness
- Loss of feeling in my extremities
- Lack of energy
- Problems sleeping
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of appetite
There are probably more that I am forgetting, my memory is still quite poor. The doctor’s response was horrible. He told me I would be fine and to just try and get some sunlight. I will go into lots more detail about how to respond to someone who is depressed in later posts. However, saying it will be alright is a horrible idea, as is not taking it seriously. I was suicidally ill and needed help but was told to try and get some more sunshine (which, by the way, is virtually impossible in Scotland). I would have been devastated if that were even possible.
The summer of 2014 I was going back to Kenya to attend a reunion for my leaving year. Every class has a 2 year reunion. My state hardly changed as I went back to Kenya. In fact a family who I was staying with sent my parents a message saying that they thought that I was depressed (both the parents are doctors. This family has a very special place in my heart). However, as soon as I met up with my friends I was instantly cured. For 3 weeks I had no problems with depression. I was happy, I could sleep, I loved playing sports again. I had energy, motivation, an appetite. It was incredible. During those three weeks I realized that I had forgotten what it was to smile sincerely. I had forgotten how to feel loved and how to enjoy myself.
The day after my friends left the depression came back. It was as if I was stumbling though a thick mist. I had for three weeks found a paradise where life was clear, but the mist quickly took over. All my symptoms returned. However, now there was a difference. I had been reminded that a horribly depressed existence was not all there was to life. So now when I am apathetic and start to hate life I still have hope and can cling to God’s promises.
That was where my talk finished. I am still depressed. I am on anti-depressants now which is great. Depression still impacts every aspect of my life, more than I know. I hate being depressed. However, I have also realized that it is very common. Almost everyone has experienced depression or knows someone who is depressed. However, there is a significant stigma and misunderstanding of what depression is and how to deal with it. As a result it is far more isolating and challenging than it needs to be (although it will still suck).
After I gave my testimony many people came up to me and had discussions about depression. They said it helped that I was able to talk about it in public. People who have never discussed it before managed to tell me about it. These are the reasons I am writing this blog. People have asked me to write it and I want to help people. I am by no means am an expert on this topic, but I have learned a lot over the past few years and am keen to share my insights to help people.
If anyone has any questions please message me or leave a comment. If you think this could help someone else please pass it along. I will be writing one soon on ‘What is depression?’ I believe strongly that to properly get a grip on dealing with it we need to fight existing stigma and educate people. All the following posts will have tips from myself and others about what to do if you have depression and how to help people you know with depression.