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I attempted suicide over eight times: Surviving to tell the tale, photographer James Gikonyo

Truly Kenyan
 James Gikonyo
James Gikonyo is a passionate commercial photographer Gikonyo struggles with mental illness after he was diagnosed with depression and histrionic personality disorder (HPD) HPD is an illness which exhibits itself as constant attention-seeking and sometimes emotional overreaction by the patients

James Gikonyo and I meet at the PAWA 254 offices, located along State House Crescent. He shakes my hand then quickly withdraws.

His eyes also dart away so fast from the brief eye contact we’ve made that I can barely process what is happening.

After stepping out briefly from the boardroom, James returns with a notebook and pen.

Slowly, as he lets loose the more we talk, I see his confidence emerge, he becomes more vocal, expressive and comfortable.

The nervousness earlier finally makes sense. I’m about to ask the 23 year old some very personal questions, and for him, I imagine, he is not too sure what to expect.

James is a passionate commercial photographer. He loves what he does to great lengths. His eyes brighten and his voice vibrates with enthusiasm when he talks about photography. He is also a digital marketer.

I ask him what it is like working for PAWA 254 and he tells me he doesn’t work for them, he works with them. PAWA 254, James tells me, is a co-working space.

When I ask if he’s ever considered experimenting with the other burgeoning co-working spaces in Nairobi, James tells me he has tried a number.

Didn’t like them. He’s also heard horror stories, of content and ideas being stolen and executed by the management, with no acknowledgment given to the appropriate owners.

Deeper into the conversation, James tells me he struggles with mental illness. He was diagnosed with depression and histrionic personality disorder (HPD). I understand the former, not quite the latter.

He describes HPD as an illness which, in lay-terms, exhibits itself as constant attention-seeking and sometimes emotional overreaction by the patients.

However, with time, James decided to disown that label. He feels like if he owns the HPD label, then he will become it. It will become a part of his identity, and he doesn’t want that.

Every few minutes, as we continue talking, James laughs, or giggles. He does this a lot, and it’s a good thing; it means he has fully warmed up to the interview. But I also see something else.

I see a distant sadness in his eyes. I see a yearning, to get better, to tell his story, and to be comfortable with the things he’s been through.

It’s a yearning only someone who’s been in his kind of shoes would fully be able to relate to. A yearning that needs an understanding ear, yet it remains one not many would be able to understand.

James talks to me about his family, the highs and lows of school, his girlfriend, and more about how he deals with depression, and, suicide.

James has attempted suicide over eight times.

When I ask him why he thinks he’s never been able to succeed in any of those attempts, he, after a long pause, says, “I think it is God. I think He still wants me alive.”

How did he attempt suicide? “I tried jumping, hanging, drowning, food poisoning, and cutting myself,” James tells me, while scribbling on his notebook.

To help me understand further, I ask him more questions. Like, what was the thought process behind cutting himself?

James Gikonyo answers this and more:

Tell me more about working with PAWA 254?

PAWA 254 is great. I help them with their  projects, and they give me space to practise my photography and digital marketing.

Creatives, I’ve found, are also very aware, understanding and tolerant of those struggling with mental health challenges. So it helps a great deal knowing that the people around me are more understanding rather than judgmental.

What else do you do apart from photography and digital marketing?

Now, because of what I’ve been through, and the contacts I’ve created, I help people who struggle with mental health issues deal with it.

What mental illnesses, do you struggle with?

Mostly, it’s irregular clinical depression.

Was this an official diagnosis?

It was diagnosed as something bigger, histrionic personality disorder. But I don’t want to subscribe to that label, if I do I’ll own it, and I don’t want to.

In the times when you struggle with depression, how does it manifest for you?

I don’t eat, I don’t talk to people, and this particularly, makes people wonder a lot because I’m a sanguine-melancholic personality type. And for sanguines, we are extroverts, so not talking to people and avoiding them is a big deal.

And when with your family?

Yeah, that has always been an issue. During the depression phases they tell me I spend too much time in my room, but when I try explaining to them what is happening is depression, they don’t understand. So I just lock myself in the room.

What, for you, triggers the depression?

For me it largely depends on the social environment. And this goes way back to when I was about 11, in class 5. I was a bit eccentric.

Eccentric in terms of? 

I was a bit “crazy,” I would do all these dares. I was really “strange” and “weird”so people just started avoiding me. And having grown up in love and support, I wasn’t understanding what was happening all of a sudden. It did quite a number on me, and that’s when I started writing.

What were you writing?

Everything! Journals, poems, rap, novels. I actually have five manuscripts done.


I know! (Laughs)

Writing was the only way for me, at the time, to channel and work through my frustrations.

And high school, how was it?

That was worse. I had all these issues and again, I wasn’t understanding what was happening at all.

I used to walk around with dictionaries and people said I liked the English language too much. When I became the first prefect, I was labelled a snitch. When I was social with the form fours that too, became an issue. It just never seemed to stop.

How did you deal with it?

After so many other issues and an eventual expulsion, I was transferred to a private school. There, we were told, it was compulsory for us all to see the school psychologist every Monday. After opening up to her is when I started understanding what was going in terms of mental health.

How are you dealing with mental health now?

With time, I have learnt and known how to practise cognitive therapy. It has helped me a lot.

What is cognitive therapy?

Cognitive therapy is, essentially, talking and evaluation. For me, I’ve learnt introspection, talking to myself, analysing why I’m doing what I’m doing, and figuring out whether that activity is useful or not. But it’s also talking to others, especially those who understand quite a bit about mental health.

Who, in your life, do you talk to that understands?

My best friend, I have other friends who are psychologists, and I also talk to the founder of PAWA 254, Boniface Mwangi.

He, has particularly been of such great help; we talk a lot, we share a lot, I’m very grateful.

Tell me about the suicide attempts?

Suicide has been an issue for me throughout my life. I’ve attempted it severally, starting from primary school.

What goes through your mind, at that moment, when you are trying to take your life away?

You’re just tired of life, you know?  You’re sick of it, and nothing makes sense.

There’s nowhere to go, there’s nowhere to turn, you don’t know who to call, you don’t know who to talk to. You convince yourself that no one will miss you and you just want it all to end.

What else do you think in that moment?

For me, in addition to all that, I ask God to take me away. I pray to him, I beg him to just take my life. In that moment, being gone seems like a much better option than going through life’s hardships.

And when you were cutting yourself, what exactly was the thought process? Was it logical?

Logical, I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But people around me weren’t understanding what I was going through.

It wasn’t their fault to not understand, but they just weren’t, and I wanted them to. I wanted them to understand that I was in pain. That I was struggling mentally.

Okay. So is it because you were really struggling mentally, that you needed it to show physically, for people to understand?

Yes. That is exactly it.

Are you happy to be alive today?

I am! (Smiles) I really am. Mostly because now I’ve found myself helping so many people who struggle with mental health issues.

How do you help them?

I talk to them, a lot like counselling. But most importantly, I also try to be their friend, one who understands exactly where they are coming from and what they are dealing with.

They don’t have to go through everything I’ve gone through to get on the other side. They can talk to people, people like me.

What group of people have you helped so far?

So far, for some reason, any time someone gets raped, they are referred to me. That’s really encouraging. I like talking to the victims about mental health and guiding them.

I’ve also had to talk to people suffering from mental health issues and their parents. To make them understand one another, because often, there’s a vacuum between family members and no one knows how to navigate it.

With life having ups and downs, do you think the next time things go wrong you’ll go back to that dark place?

Not now. When I was younger maybe, but not now. This is mainly because when you understand the mental space, there’s something else that you acquire, and that’s emotional intelligence.

And emotional intelligence involves being able to adapt to an environment at any particular time. Now I think I’m capable of adapting fairly well.


This is not to say I won’t have tough times that I won’t struggle. Like everyone else, I will, but I think, and I hope, I’ll be able to navigate those tough times adequately.

What are you struggling with most now? 

(With heaviness in his voice) Friendships. It’s the one thing that will haunt me for a very long time.

Apart from some slight scars and bruises here and there, I can’t quite show you evidence of all those suicide attempts and my struggle with depression.

 But the friends I chased away, (pauses) that was terrible. I really pushed so many people away. I’m still struggling with the guilt.

Who is an ideal friend for you?

That’s quite a question. (Thinks) I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d hope to have friends that would stand by me, that won’t give up on me.

That would understand that sometimes, I’m not my best self, but it doesn’t mean I care for them any less. I care for the people around me a lot, but I’m not very good at showing it at times.

Are you dating?

(Breaks into a warm smile) I am. She’s in university, a bit young, but quite mature at the same time. However, I haven’t opened up to her fully about my struggle with depression and suicide.

Why not?

I don’t know. I don’t know how she’ll react to that revelation. I don’t know if she’ll understand.  Do you get what I mean?

I do. 

Yeah, mental health is not the easiest topic to have with someone you care for. But she’s such an amazing person.

What does God mean to you?

Gosh, Yvonne! What’s with these tough questions? (Laughs)

Alright, let’s ease into it. Do you believe in God?

I do. Although there are people who would tell you I was an anti-Christ and an atheist in my younger years. I don’t go to church as often as I should, but I do believe in God.

What does He mean to you now?

God to me, (long pause), is someone that everyone needs to know.

There are things I’ve gone through in my life, including the depression, that have shown me that there really is a God. People should seek Him.

Do you sometimes ask, “Why me?”

Yes. But I think I found the answer. I believe I’ve gone through what I have in order to help other people.

What would you like to tell your parents?

Oh parents. This would apply to all parents, watch what you say to your children, especially when you are angry. There is lots of power in words, words can really affect and contribute to a child’s well-being.

Looking back at everything you’ve been through, what would your message be to your younger self?

I’d let myself know that life is not about others; it’s only about you as you are your own best friend.

What do you hope your life will look like at 40 years old?

I hope at 40, I’ll be a mentor and a leader. I hope I’ll be helping others the same way others have helped me.

What’s your message to someone struggling with depression and or suicide today?

The first thing I will say is, it’s not your fault.

Anything else?

Talk to someone and get help. Also, take your time, it can get better.

The guests in this series share their stories voluntarily. They hope that in sharing their stories, the process will be cathartic for them, give comfort to fellow survivors and help show that anyone is susceptible to mental illness . If you suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction or any other form of mental illness, please reach out for help. You are not alone.

Yvonne Aoll is a writer who is keen on telling people's stories. You can read more of her work at  http://www.yvnaoll.com/



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