About two years ago I was asked to give my testimony at an event at a university club. This testimony was the story of my life and the role God played in it. At the time I was just coming out of a haze of depression and anxiety. I gave the talk (or so I was told) without scarring too many people there, but I understood so little of what I was going through. I didn’t at the time realise that my mental health problems extended beyond depression and anxiety, though I still don’t know to what exactly.
I never thought I would have a mental illness. I wasn’t the ‘type’ that got depressed or anxious. I was a popular, clever, athlete, so didn’t have to worry about my mental health. That was just for lonely, lazy, and sad people, right? Obviously, this is a lie. I would grow to learn that mental illnesses don’t discriminate.
This isn’t the only part of my story that I wanted to share. I am a Third Culture Kid who grew up in East Africa to British parents. When I finished school, I moved to Scotland for university, which wasn’t easy. Moving from one country to the next is complicated, takes ages, and isn’t helped by the unsatisfactory British weather.
When I gave that first talk two years ago it was difficult. At the time, whenever I talked about mental illnesses I froze. I lost the feeling in my arms and face if anyone said the word depression around me. I hated to talk about it. It was something that terrified me. I lacked the vocabulary to articulate my struggles. Life became different in a frustrating manor and I didn’t have the tools to comprehend it.
Yet, I knew that God wanted me to talk about it. So that night I tried to muddle through what being a TCK was like and how depression had changed my life. Despite feeling completely confused about my situation, God used the talk to help others lots. Recently, I got the chance to talk about it again, in a more wizened recap. The good news is that I have a slightly better grasp of what exactly being a TCK and having depression is like. The bad news is that over the past two years I have used all my jokes up.
Chilling in East Africa
I loved my life growing up. I lived in Uganda for a few years before being evacuated to Kenya after we got caught in a wee civil war. My only memories from that time are my mum being concerned about the land mines and watching Cool Runnings. The two aren’t related, but I would highly recommend the film. However, for the bulk of my childhood I lived in central Kenya. I was surrounded by loving friends and family.
Without a doubt, my favourite part of school was the relationships I had. Put 24 guys in a dorm together and amazing things happen, and I am not referring to the smell. I made so many good memories with those guys, whether it was fight night, sneaking out late, or stealing the girl’s dorm chicken. I did have some friends who were girls, although my school tried its best to prevent such a ‘sacrilegious’ situation. I was popular and had great social skills.
I played a lot of sports, mainly football and rugby, although I was happy to play anything. Whilst I favoured team sports, my friends and I were partial to streaking in our boarding school. Rugby was probably my most successful sport with my school playing in the most competitive school’s league in Kenya. Several players I grew up playing against are now professionals and one was at the last Olympics (I never lost to him either). All that to say I was very athletic and coordinated.
In my 6th grade year a chess club was started in my school which I eagerly went along to. At first it was mainly so that I could beat my brothers at home, but I ended up loving it. Within a year I was playing at international events. By the end of my chess ‘career’ I was fortunate enough to have played at the World Youth Chess Championships, the World Youth Chess Olympiad, and captained the Kenya team at the African Junior Chess Championships. Apart from giving my friends a legitimate reason to call me a nerd, it kept my brain sharp.
Most importantly, I had a growing relationship with God during my time at school. Like any relationship it had highs and lows, but it was constant. It had been written it into the very core of who I was that God loved me, God was good, and I had to serve God. When I was six I remember asking God to use me in any way. What I had in mind was very badass, I wanted to be a martyr and a hero. But behind these arrogant designs was a deep-seated belief in who God is.
Time for Transition
In short, things were great, but they got significantly tougher after I moved to university in the UK. Moving away from that situation was always going to be tough, particularly if you know anything about British weather. I grew up in quite a temperate climate, but it didn’t rain 363 days a year (we usually have a 2-3 day summer in the UK).
Cultural transition is always hard. There is so much loss and grief involved, most of it slips under the radar. Losing your friends is tough. You feel isolated and lonely. Losing the place you know is really hard. Familiarity is replaced with insecurity. However, a lot of the little and unnamed losses tend to build up into a storm. When I moved I lost the languages I grew up hearing, I lost the customs I had known my whole life, I even lost the slight tan on my skin. Now I look as pale as a ghost, also known as a healthy-looking Scotsman.
Despite the challenges, my transition was going well until my second year at university. After a few weeks I realised that I was very sad all the time. My energy had left me and I wasn’t sleeping well. After pretending I was okay for a couple of weeks I finally gave in, I knew I had depression. However, I also thought that depression was for the weak, and I wasn’t weak. I thought that if I pushed hard enough I could just ‘toughen up’ and get through it. I didn’t need to be a burden on anyone, I was too resilient for that.
If you didn’t know, these are all lies. Depression is a psychosomatic illness which may happen to anyone for a variety of reasons. What this means is that you should never feel responsible or shameful about having depression (Despite this I have felt this strongly at times, these are quite common symptoms. Don’t worry if you do, just remember that the depression isn’t your fault). It is not a sign of weakness any more than a cold is. It is not something you can get through by ‘toughening up’ any more than a broken leg is. Finally, people with depression are no more of a burden to others than anyone else in the world. We all have problems, depression is just one in a long list. It is not a moral failing, but a part of living in a messed-up world.
But I struggled to believe these truths. I started to feel lonely and isolated. I was always seeing people and constantly making new friends, but it felt wrong. These weren’t the warm relationships I had grown up with. I felt cold and distant from everyone. It seemed that nobody at university cared for me. All my thoughts towards my friends were angry or frustrated. I was more likely to reflect on how much I wanted to kill my friends rather than how much I liked them. Happiness had left me, with a promise to never return. I had gone from someone surrounded by friends to someone who felt like he had none.
Anxiety made this time very difficult. I became scared of my friends. The idea of meeting up with them was terrifying. I would literally rather die than meet up with friends at that time. I had gone from loving adrenaline rushes and playing rugby to fearing getting out of bed in the morning. Everything panicked me and made me more angry and frustrated.
All this made me wonder if I was a monster. How could a human being feel and think these things? Each night I would go to sleep hoping I could die in my sleep. Not only had I lost the will to live, but I had developed a desire to die. Death wasn’t particularly attractive, but it was the only alternative to life, which was hellish. Yet, I knew I couldn’t commit suicide. I knew that God loved me, God was good, and I had to serve God.
One of the tragedies of naming mental illnesses in the way that we do is that it gives off the impression that they are solely an emotional problem, which they aren’t. I started noticing that physically things were changing for me. Some of the symptoms were more constant, like losing feeling in my arms and legs. Other symptoms snuck up on me. I started noticing that my balance got a lot worse. I started to fall over at unexpected times. This was particularly challenging when I was trying to play sports. Falling over at random times isn’t conducive to being a successful athlete.
My physical symptoms came to a head last November in the middle of a meeting. It was one of my favourite times in the week and I was engaging in a discussion as usual when my brain seemed to disengage or ‘unplug.’ Over the next 24 hours I developed more symptoms and started to struggle to walk and talk. There were plenty of other symptoms too, none of which were fun. The doctors don’t think that this was caused by solely depression and anxiety, but aren’t sure what triggered it yet. Regardless of its origins, my mental illnesses (or potentially additional neurological issues) have given me serious problems. I had gone from being an athletic sportsman to being unable to walk.
My brain hasn’t been spared these travails. I started to notice that my memory was struggling when depression and anxiety started. Over the past several years it has gotten worse and worse. Sometimes simple things seem impossible to remember, like what time I am supposed to be meeting up with people. Other times it is more significant things, such as how old I am or what my friend’s names are. I played chess competitively for about 5 years and could remember every single move over that time. I could replay thousands of moves in a particular order without intentionally memorizing them. Now I couldn’t play back a single one. My brain has fallen far from its previous capability. The change has been frustrating and difficult.
My brain works more slowly than before. I used to be able to do everything rapidly, whether that was chess or my homework. However, now I struggle to process things at all, let alone quickly. The silver lining is that this can be handy as an excuse whenever I lose to my girlfriend at scrabble. My brain power has taken a big hit. I have gone from chess prodigy to not being able to remember how old I am.
It has been five and a half years since I started struggling with mental illnesses and it has been a horrible experience. I feel like I have changed completely. A lot of that change has been forced and in a direction that I wouldn’t have chosen. I am less happy than I was before, I am more tired than I was before, I am a lot more anxious than I ever was, and I have all sorts of health problems which I never imagined I would have had.
After graduating from university last year, I am currently unemployed because of my health. One day I can be fine and the next unable to walk. I can’t commit to much responsibility because I don’t know what my health will permit each day. Planning for the future becomes very difficult with this unpredictability. The only constant seems to be the regular doctor’s appointments as we try to figure out what is going on.
Throughout this whole ordeal I have known that God loves me, God is good, and that I need to serve God. Mental illnesses have a way of stripping so much of who we are away. All the beliefs, practices, and desires that are even remotely superficial will be under threat. I was left with only my most central beliefs. For the first 18 years of my life God cultivated these ideas and wrote them onto my heart. Clinging onto His truths has been the only thing keeping me going. At the time, I didn’t know that this would be what would stop me from committing suicide.
This is the Important Part
It is important that we talk about mental illnesses. The reality is that mental illnesses will keep occurring, and are likely to increase in prevalence. If you don’t have one, I can guarantee that you know someone who does. You may not know it because of their clandestine nature, but they are everywhere. They are horrible for those suffering and for the community. I was inadvertently prepared for my struggle by God, and it literally saved my life. Not everyone is so fortunate.
This is crucial in cross cultural circles where mental illnesses are more common. They are a potential result of the trauma of transition, yet are still mostly taboo. Particularly if you have a TCK in your family, please make it a point to have open and frank discussions about mental health long before anyone suffers from it.
Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about being a TCK or mental illnesses, or if you just fancy a chat. Leave a comment with any ideas or questions you have, as other people are probably thinking the same thing. Please share this with other people so that we can keep the discussion about mental illnesses going. We must talk about this!