Five years ago, this month, I was returning to university from my summer holidays. I had spent a wonderful vacation visiting where I grew up in Kenya. I was spending lots of time in the sun, enjoying life, had healthy relationships and had just climbed Mount Kenya, so I was in quite good shape. This had been a refreshing break from university. Transitioning to university in another country and culture had been very tough so far.
When back in the UK I was determined for this enjoyable momentum to be carried forward. The start of the semester was one of the most exciting times because no one had any work yet. So, I enjoyed meeting up with friends, making new ones, and delighting in the Scottish sun while it lasted (yes, Scotland does have sun. But it only comes out one or two days a year). Things were going very well.
A couple of weeks in, I was spending lots of time with people, getting lots of fresh air, and doing lots of exercise. The picture of health, right?
But something wasn’t right. I started to get annoyed at people a lot more easily than I did before. My slight irritation with people would then consume my thoughts, as I spent hours dwelling on all the people who had ever wronged me (not limited to that one painful incident when my brothers managed to pop my birthday football before I even got to play with it).
Over the next few weeks my pattern of spending time with people and making new friends continued, but it felt wrong. With each passing day I grew more indifferent to people. Whilst I was still putting in the effort, I grew incredibly frustrated at what I perceived as the lack of progress in our relationships. I wasn’t experiencing the same depth of connection I had enjoyed with my friends from school. I was quickly disenchanted at the lack of success in overcoming cultural barriers. I still invested in the relationships, but they started to seem pointless.
Despite having great flatmates, I never wanted to go back to my house. It seemed to have become a hovel of my despair rather than a safe place. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I had stopped sleeping properly. Every night I would lay in bed for hours, my mind indulging in negative thoughts. It seemed that my body was much more interested in getting annoyed at all the bad things in the world than getting some sleep.
Most potent was the apathy. I felt like I couldn’t care about anything anymore. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to care, and it wasn’t that I didn’t try. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t cry at bad news and I couldn’t smile at a happy thought. I felt like a monster. What sort of person couldn’t smile when a they are having a ‘good’ time with their friends? What sort of person wasn’t upset when bad news came? I felt barbaric, like I was less than human.
With each passing week these symptoms worsened. They were soon accompanied by more somatic (physical/body) symptoms. I started to lose the feeling in my legs, arms and face. I regularly lost my balance and could fall over at a moment’s notice. This made it incredibly difficult to play football, which I had to stop. Honestly, this didn’t bother me because football had become a bit of a nightmare. I started to hate putting in the effort and despised some of the more sinister aspects of the game (people in Scotland are dreadful at tackling; once Scotland realises that kicking lumps out of people is not a legal tackle they might start winning).
Obviously, something was wrong. I hated it and it was horribly difficult. It ruined what I liked about life and left me feeling like an aimless husk of a person, desperately wanting things to end, one way or another.
This was just the onset of my mental illness. My depression started that year and became severe quite quickly. For the best part of that year I would go to bed each day hoping that I would die in my sleep and never have to wake up. The frustration here is that some nights I wouldn’t get any sleep anyway. If I did manage to get some sleep, getting out of bed was a nightmare. It was a lot safer and easier to hide in my duvet. There were many days I never would have bothered to get up if I didn’t have to go to the bathroom.
The list of symptoms continued to expand. I lost my appetite. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat food anymore, but that my tummy wasn’t very good at saying when I should start or stop eating. I ran out of energy. The lack of sleep will have contributed to this, but it wasn’t simply tiredness. It was a pervasive and pure form of exhaustion. The type of thing that can’t be pushed through some days. A feeling as if every muscle in your body is tied down by a weight. This didn’t help with my diminishing levels of motivation.
In the public sphere, depression is often associated with sadness. I hardly felt sad, but I did have despair. I felt that life was not worth living and that I wanted to die. I despaired because I ‘knew’ that I would never improve. I ‘knew’ it was my curse to live the rest of my life in this state of pointlessness. Whilst this turned out not to be true, I was still convinced of it.
This hasn’t even touched the surface on the woes of anxiety. It can ruin your life. I went from being confident and popular to being terrified of leaving my bed. A dramatic and not very fun transformation. Feel free to read more about this in my other posts.
It took me 6 months to let anyone know I was suffering, but even longer before I learned to ask for help. It was such a terrifying experience. I was scared and didn’t know what was happening to me. I thought that I was being weak and needed to deal with it myself. I was ashamed for not being able to deal with it myself. I didn’t know how to articulate it. I couldn’t even mention the word ‘depression’ out loud.
The onset of mental illness was a terrifying experience. It was isolating by nature and devastatingly subtle.
But here I am five years later. My depression and anxiety are far better than they were but are still knocking about. I am about to set up a meeting with a psychiatrist to explore a potential somatization disorder. It hasn’t been plain sailing. I have hated a lot of the last five years. I have written more about my story in other places here, so please read them. It is crucial that we talk about mental illness more.
I have been loved, looked after, and have an incredible network of friends and family. I know from others’ stories that this is not the norm. Most people who have a mental illness are not in supportive and loving environments. We must keep working hard at supporting and caring for others. We need to talk about mental illnesses more and make mental health a priority. It cannot be something which we are passively aware of until tragedy strikes us more directly. We must proactively discuss and engage with it.
Mental illnesses are difficult to understand and can seem a bit random. I was doing exercise, had lots of friends, and had very healthy habits. I was ticking lots of the right boxes for protective factors.
Although one significant risk factor is being a TCK, I am not sure if it was cultural transition that has made me ill, and I probably won’t ever know for certain.
Struggling with a mental illness is the toughest thing I have done. It has been far more painful than any other experience in my life. I cannot accurately express the terrible toll that they can exact on someone. I used to think that having a mental illness was a sign of weakness, which is far from the truth. As it turns out, some of the strongest people I know are people who have dealt with mental illness.
Despite the terrible nature of these illnesses, there are certain silver linings. I have grown in humility over the past few years. Being stripped of your strengths, as you perceive them, can help you have a richer perspective on life. Whilst any form of suffering can be a formative and wisdom-shaping experience, mental illness worked the charm for me because of how destitute I became. I had to change and turn to other solaces. Luckily for me, God supported me, and I had people pointing me to him.
A second blessing that has come through these dark times was being able to help others. Prior to my own experience I knew very little about mental illnesses. Most of what I knew was the product of inaccurate stigma. I ‘knew’ that people with depression were sad and weak and that people with worse conditions ‘just needed to get a grip on reality.’ I arrogantly thought that I would never succumb to these issues because I was tough (this attitude can ironically lead to mental illnesses. Men not talking about their feelings, nor being honest about their weakness, creates a toxic culture. The biggest killer for men under the age of 40 in the UK is suicide!). Thankfully, I know a lot more now!
What this meant is that I could never have helped someone if they were struggling with a mental illness. I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on their struggles and I wouldn’t have been wise or humble enough to help. But now, I have taken a step in the right direction. With my experiences shaping me I have been able to help others by sharing my story. People often don’t feel like they are alone in their suffering when they hear stories of similar struggles. One of the most helpful things which helped me articulate and process my own trials was other people articulating similar experiences. I can do that for others now and hopefully pass on the favour.
With that in mind, please pass this on. Sharing this on Facebook will make a big difference to people’s lives. It is so encouraging when you are in a tough spot to know that other people are thinking about these things and engaging with them. You never know who might be struggling and needs to have a chat. There is nothing wrong with struggling or facing a mental illness. Let’s normalize these topics so that we can always reach out for help when we need it.
If the blog has helped you or someone you know please share it. Any way in which you interact with the blog, liking, commenting, subscribing by email etc. helps the blog grow and brings more people into this mental health dialogue.