imagine that in a better society, I would have been diagnosed as a teenager. Nigeria needs to get to a point where mental illness is not a stigma; it starts with the individual
For over a decade, I’d known something was not quite right with me mentally. I’d been living with the needless, sad and mad (as I called it) since I was about 8 or 9 years old, but speaking to anyone, let alone doing anything about it, was tough. When I was in the university, I used to go to the guidance counselling department regularly. It helped, but it wasn’t professional help in the real sense of it. It was just a way of coping without dealing actively with what I was going through. I left school in 2010 and from that time it was a slippery slope. I would have episodes and each time I’d tell myself that I really ought to get professional help, but then I’d start to pull through after a few days or a couple of weeks, so I never went in to the hospital. I was very functional.
By 22, I had my LLB and B.L. While I was still in Law School, I got recruited into the company I’d dreamed of working at. I was good at my job – Rewriting and Copy Editing – and within 18 months I’d moved on to better prospects twice. To everyone around me, I was good but to myself I wasn’t. I had always felt like I wasn’t good enough, like I could never be good enough. Mental illness clouds one’s judgement seriously. Outside of work, however, my personal relationships were a mess. I didn’t like people and kept away from them as much as possible. The ones I let in constantly had to deal with my moods. I was good at putting on a smile and what I called my “normal face.” I was good at holding the turmoil in for whatever number of hours I needed to. What no one knew was that I was dying inside. I’d go to bathrooms or toilets to cry, or just breathe, and then I’d blot my eyes and fan air into them, put back on my “normal face” and come out to face the world.
That had been my life since I was a child. As a teenager I used to say that I’d die young. Most people thought I was being melodramatic but I wasn’t. I really did believe that I’d die young. I wanted to die young. Dying would be better than trying to live with emotions that were like a swing set — up and down, never quite still, tormented by some ill wind. I believed I had somehow broken my brain. My doctors would later tell me that I have something called Borderline Personality Disorder, and one of its effects was exaggerated reactions and emotions.
Living in a society where mental illness is an unspoken thing is tough when you’re dealing with such illness. There are derogatory labels flying about, and I was scared of being labelled. I was scared that if I went to a psychiatric hospital, if I got diagnosed, someone would one day say: “Oh Rayo? She’s mad,” or, “she has mental problem.” “Mad” and “mental problem”: I hate both the word and the phrase, but it is what Nigerians commonly term mental illness. And the words would usually be said derisively. I didn’t want that. People with mental illnesses are often labelled possessed or witches. It isn’t unusual to hear people call the Yaba Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital “Yaba Left,” and this isn’t because the hospital is indeed on the left side of the road. No, it’s because the “Left” connotes “not quite right in the head.” It’s the same way people sometimes term those with mental illness “aro.” Aro, Abeokuta is the location of one of the country’s psychiatric hospitals but it has become a moniker for the mentally ill.
This is the society I live in, and those thoughts kept me away from the hospital. Those thoughts keep a lot of people away from getting professional help. No one talks about mental illness here; it’s usually covered up even by those who have it. In the past month, I’ve realised that it affects a lot of people in our society. I met a lot of young people in the psych ward. I’ve received messages from even more since I first spoke out. I spoke out because of ignorance that was being spewed on Twitter. Mental illness is killing Nigerians silently and we need to stem that. The key is to first erase the stigma attached to it.
Beyond changing the society’s perception of mental illness, patients and their loved ones also need to be educated about what is wrong with them so that they have a proper understanding of their situation. I’ll use myself as example once more. Before I first went into the hospital, I had been telling the people closest to me that I was tired of it all; that I wanted it all to end. I couldn’t give concrete answers to their questions like: what exactly are you tired of? They didn’t know how to help me; it’s hard to explain darkness.
One Wednesday morning, I woke up and opened my Instagram. I saw an image Bassey Ikpi — a poet and mental health advocate — had posted. The caption read: “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character.” For years I’d followed Bassey’s work and life and often told myself, “If Bassey can live a successful life with mental illness, so can your undiagnosed self.” She was an inspiration. I knew how to talk the talk about no stigma and all that, but I didn’t know how to walk the walk.
When I saw that image, I went to the bathroom, took my bath, dressed up and went to the psychiatric hospital. When I got there, I almost turned back because from the gateman to the nurses, social worker and guards standing in the Emergency Unit, I was asked, “Do you know what kind of hospital this is?” My answer was the same: “Yes. I just want to see a doctor.” When I saw a doctor, they asked me why I was there: I said I was suicidal. Looking at me, one wouldn’t know it, but my journal entry that morning had been:
“These days you think about disappearing a lot. Maybe you’ll die. Maybe not. Maybe you’ll just disappear from everything. You know you’re not in a good place in your head and you’re scared of the place you are. You’re scared of the things you think about. The things you want to do. The ones that will be irreversible. You think about the saved web pages. The hours of poring through text before settling on a combination of methods which you believe will be fail proof…maybe even painless. You’re tired and you don’t know how to stop being that, or how to stop being at all.”
I was suicidal. A doctor would eventually diagnose depression and put me on Amitriptyline. Things seemed better at first, till they didn’t any more. I went back to being unable to sleep or eat, and having anxiety attacks, depression and rage. One morning, I was crying at my desk at work so I called a psychiatrist friend who had been talking me through things even before I first went to the hospital. He referred me to a friend of his at the hospital and I left work and went to see her. She called other doctors and after what seemed like hours of questions they all came to one conclusion: the initial diagnosis was wrong and what I have is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). They put me on new drugs and told me I’d be fine. That I was young and doing well professionally and had a lot to look forward to. They told me I wasn’t well adjusted and had exaggerated reactions but that the combination of drugs and cognitive behavioural therapy would make me just fine. What they didn’t tell me was what exactly BPD was.
On my way home, being the voracious reader that I am, I googled the condition and was poring through pages of text. It was scary because it was me. Most of the symptoms were things I knew about my personality but had never thought of as symptoms of an illness. To me, they had just been part of who I am. I felt raw. Depression I could deal with, but BPD? It was bigger, it was scarier and it was too accurate. When I got home, I was unsettled again and got into a rage that night. I didn’t know what to do with the new diagnosis. I didn’t want to have to deal with it. The next morning, I tried to kill myself by taking an overdose. My boyfriend took me to the Emergency Unit and I spent the next five days in a psych ward. I suppose the doctors had no way of knowing I’d do all that research before even giving my new drugs a chance to work, but a little more professional education the day before might have helped me, I keep thinking.
Everyone needs a support system. People with mental illnesses need it even more. I am lucky. I have a great support system. My boyfriend and the friends closest to me were always there, despite it not being easy on them. My family members have been supportive since they found out. Over the years though, I’ve had to let go of some friends because they didn’t understand. Some of them thought I was being “weird” because I saw it as the “artist thing to be.” They had no idea what I would give for normal…for even the illusion of normal. As a society, we need to be a lot more understanding.
As individuals, we need to be more accommodating, especially if we have people with mental illnesses who are close to us. Growing up, I got into a lot of trouble because I was seen as “difficult.” I imagine that in a better society, I would have been diagnosed as a teenager. Nigeria needs to get to a point where mental illness is not a stigma; it starts with the individual. Be more observant; be more accommodating of the “different” people. Love them a little bit more. Reach out to that person you suspect might be living with a mental illness. This doesn’t mean that people’s privacy should be invaded of course…that is the flip-side that can be frustrating for people with mental illnesses. But keep your ears open for the cry of help.
Since I left the hospital, I have been getting better steadily. It’s not just about drugs and therapy though, a lot of it has to do with consciousness. I have to be conscious of what triggers moods and episodes and I have to avoid those triggers. I have to make lists of things I need to remind myself and I have to read those lists over and again when I feel the tiniest bit of panic, rage or sadness coming on. I have to constantly ask myself: “Is this a normal reaction or one borne from BPD.” Also, something that has helped me over the years is reading about other people who are overcoming various mental illnesses. Their lives serve as inspiration. I have no shame about having a mental illness. I repeatedly tell myself that I am a normal person overcoming BPD. I see needing drugs and therapy to live better as something like needing glasses to see better. The first step in overcoming is acceptance and a willingness to get better.
In Nigeria, for every person getting treatment, there are thousands more who seem normal to people around them but need attention. It will require, if possible, a conscious effort on their part and an understanding from people to get the right kind of psychiatric attention.
Much more than people with mental illnesses, a society with a fatuous treatment of mental conditions has to heal itself. It’s only with that that we start the first steps in giving hope and life to the helpless.
Adebola Rayo is a full-time writer and copy editor.
30 Days 30 Voices series is an opportunity for young Nigerians to share their stories and experiences with other young Nigerians, within our borders and beyond, to inspire and motivate them.
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