With this first article, I wanted to share a story of my beginning with mental illness. It is a genesis story, and a story of hope. Scientific studies show that mental illness doesn't just show up one day and changes who you are. For most cases, it is a very slow process that starts in early teenage years and gets to be full blown in the early 20's.
In April 2009, I was home for the holidays. I had just finished my first term of my third year in high school and I was very excited to spend time with my family and friends. My days revolved around studying during the day and watching some TV. During the evenings, I used to play football with my brother just outside our house while my mum prepared dinner. Sometime in my second week home, as I was playing football with my brother, I started feeling very happy, a sort of happiness that I had never had before. Then I started missing the ball whenever my brother kicked it to me. Nothing seemed to be wrong until I started diving for the ball when it was very far from me. All the while, I was laughing and having a wonderful time. My young brother was also having a fun time and thought that I was just fooling around. Then my speaking became very quick and everything I said did not seem to make sense; I remember clearly telling my brother that I would kick the ball to Brazil or Jamaica! When he asked me how possible that was, I replied that I would do it and that Jamaica was actually just behind him. It was then that my brother called my mum, who came and watched us play but did not notice anything to be the problem.
A while later, I abandoned playing football with my brother since it was getting dark and went into the house to grab a coat – I wanted to go off to the Tea Factory that’s close to our home since I thought that it was daylight there due to the massive lights that are usually lit in the night! It was then that my mum interrupted me and convinced me to stay home a bit longer (I would later come to realize that she had called my father earlier since she had suspected that something was wrong.) During my stay in the house, what followed was a horrifying incidence of me being very confused, paranoid and incoherent in my thinking and speaking. My dad came and took me to the hospital where I was given some medication that calmed me down.
That incidence was very scary for me. And it was very scary for my family. We did not talk about what had happened much, and we definitely never talked about it with our neighbours. I imagine that my parents did not want me to be labelled as the crazy child in the neighbourhood. I suspect that the news of this incident happened though, given how quickly any news spreads in Kerugoya. But my parents did a great job of keeping all the gossip away from me and downplaying the seriousness of it. This was good for me at the time, given that I was only seventeen, and if I had started thinking about the fact that my mind had played me, I wouldn't be where I am today.
My parents have played a positive role in my mental health journey. I wanted to start my story on Project AKILI with this story since it's the first time that I ever had experience with mental illness, and also since it set a very good foundation for how supportive and resilient my family would be over the years.
The following day after my visit to the hospital, I decided that I was going to climb Mt. Kenya. It is then that my parents decided to take me to a specialist at the general hospital, and that is where I got the help I needed: I got the right diagnosis –– I had just experienced a psychotic episode – and the right medications.
In the treatment of mental illness, consulting the right professional help is very important. For my first hospital visit, my parents took me to a private doctor who was a general practitioner (basically, he treated everything and anything!). While the medication he prescribed did calm me down, he did not have the knowledge to make a correct diagnosis. Therefore, on the next day, when the symptoms of my illness showed up again, my parents decided to take me to the general hospital where I met a specialist psychologist; she was able to give me a correct diagnosis, psychotic episode, and medication that helped me return to my normal self.
It’s been almost eight years since that incident. Thinking about it now, I can imagine the worry and scared-ness that my parents must have experienced. Seeing their bright seventeen-year-old son lose his mind must have been beyond stressful. But they handled the situation with carefulness, love, empathy, and saw my mental illness as just equal to any other physical illness. They really did, and I thank them for that. They did not let me be exposed to the stigmatisation in society, and they sought the medical help needed rather than seeking alternative approaches of treatment (such as witchcraft). What my parents have is a strong belief that mental illness is manageable, if not curable, and they sought the right help by visiting a psychologist.
And when they visited a psychologist, she told them that mental illness is like any other illness. Really, that is what mental illness is: just an illness. A great example that's usually given by psychiatrists is that mental illness is like diabetes in the sense that you need a change of lifestyle to be able to manage it. True: it’s manageable, it's curable and you can live a normal life with a mental illness. Over the years, I have learned to live successfully with my mental illness, cultivating habits that help me manage my mental health. For example, keeping a schedule and exercising often enables me to not only achieve any goals that I set out to do, but also ensures that I am not stressed and that I plan ahead therefore avoiding stressful moments that could impact my mental wellness. (I will write more on this in future blogs).
I wonder: what if our society started approaching mental illness with the same mindset that my parents did? Then, we would start caring more for those who face mental struggles; we would start empathizing with the mentally ill and helping them towards their recovery; we would start accepting those who struggle with mental illness and start listening to them, eager to understand and offer help if possible. I believe we will get there.
So, to end: Here's to my parents and all parents who love their children and support them despite their mental illnesses. I appreciate and love you all! You are the true heroes.