I regard myself as a Mental Illness Warrior because I have lived with this illness for more than 15 years: I have accepted who I am, and I know the strengths I possess as a result of managing my mental health.  Living with depression and bipolar means life hasn’t been easy, and even up to now it hasn’t been perfect.

Growing up in a Christian family in Zimbabwe meant my illness was regarded as some form of demonic possession.  Being “moody”, isolating myself from everyone, crying (melting down), over-sleeping, shutting down, and all the other signs of having a mental illness were considered signs that a demon had possessed me.  Therefore I had to go into a separate room and pray for it to go away.  I also learnt not to talk about these “demons” because it was considered a means of glorifying them.  It is better understood now that burying negative feelings makes them more powerful, and so it was no surprise that keeping silent did not make having the illness any better, but instead resulted in its worsening.

I was diagnosed with the illness during my last year of high school, after I had survived an attempted suicide.  However the diagnosis carried little weight with my friends and family, who remained convinced that it was a demonic possession.  The silence resumed and my suicide attempt wasn’t talked about after the day I survived.

Fast-forward to my university years, and that’s when everything started to come out into the open.  I would have meltdowns, bursts of anxiety, panic attacks… you name it.  That is how I started researching the realities of mental illness, seeking help from counsellors, getting support and educating my whole family on the issue.

Living with mental illnesses

Coming out about my illness and accepting it does not mean it’s gone.  I live with it daily.  This has not been an easy thing, but I am getting better at handling it day-by-day.  I now know what triggers my meltdowns, and I have certain coping mechanisms for almost everything negative that I go through.  I still have terrible, really terrible days, but I survive through them.  There are also times when I have horrible meltdowns which can go on for days.  Instead of suppressing them or trying to grit my teeth through them, I have learned to embrace them, and allow myself to heal slowly.  I have become a stronger person from learning to manage my darker days.

Stigma

There is a lot of stigma that is associated with one living with mental illness.  When I came out about my illness, I lost friends for it, and a few people who used to associate with me drifted away.  It was incredibly painful at the time to be cast aside when I most needed help, but obviously it is the people who do not have any knowledge on the issue that walk away.  It is not easy telling people that I survive with a mental illness, as most people have the wrong impression of the illness, and want to disassociate themselves with me as soon as they learn of its existence.  People fear what they do not understand, but mental illness is not a mystery – it is a health condition just like any other.  It is high time that society comes to understand that mental illness is just like having a headache, or a tummy ache, and there is no shame in one talking about it, or trying to get help.

Surviving the illness daily

My survival tricks on a day today basis include praying, journaling, exercising, finding something to laugh about each day, watching at least one episode of a comedy every day, and working on my projects.

I am very grateful for family and friends who check on me and take care of me when I am not well.  They have made surviving with this illness easier.

My project: The Afr-I-CAN in me

I recently started working on a project titled The Afr-I-CAN in me, whose main aim is to end the stigma that is associated with mental illnesses, and is based on my personal history.  If my story moved you, or reminded you of either somebody you know or yourself, I encourage you to connect with us.  Destigmatization can save lives – maybe even yours.

 

About the Author.