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Silencing the voice of schizophrenia

Reproductive Health - By Yvonne Kawira

Nicole Nyawira Nyamoo during a past interview with The Standard in 2019. [File]

Do you wonder what it feels like to be dead?” Nicole Nyamoo would throw the question out to her friends and family when the opportunity presented itself.

She would pretend that she was making idle chit chat, yet it was anything but.

“No I don’t,” the reply would come, often accompanied with a frown.

“Do you often feel sad?”

“Stop it, Nicole,” was always the standard response.

Another variation of the answer would be, “Snap out of it” or, “You are so stressed, you need to relax.”

And that is how she realised that she wasn’t quite like the others. She had always wondered if everyone was just like her.

While other teenage girls back in the 80s were obsessed with Diana Ross or how ‘hot’ David Bowie looked in his tight leather pants, you could bet on finding Nicole tucked away somewhere in her room, deep in thought. Thoughts about death.

“I would often wonder how it would feel to be dead,” she admits wryly.

To the then 15-year-old girl, being six feet under was beginning to seem more attractive by the day.

“I had a deeply rooted sadness that I couldn’t quite shake off no matter how hard I tried. Death seemed like a good escape.”

No music videos or TV shows or any other teenage fancies would get the sadness to go away. And many observers easily shrugged off her peculiar ways as a phase or the antics of just another spoilt rich kid.

“I come from a wealthy family, and we had our problems just like other families. But I would always blame myself for anything bad that happened; that I had either caused it or could have done something to prevent it,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion.

The trigger

But that is all many moons ago. Nicole is no longer a teenager. She is 50 now. Her face has a soft radiance to it, and she works as a counsellor and motivational speaker. It suits her aura. Her voice, with a soothing timbre, carries an unmistakable American twang.

Does she still have a dark cloud hanging over her head? I prod.

“Sometimes, but it is under control. I now know I suffer from schizophrenia. And while it is a work in progress, I am under medication.”

The journey to her diagnosis was a winding one that was fraught with wrong turns only a young woman grappling with something beyond her comprehension can understand.

When young Nicole completed her high school education, her parents sent her to California State University in the US to study business administration. She was 21.

“I was still struggling with who I was, and I wanted to fit in; to be like my peers. I remember drinking a lot and even abusing drugs. They would help fill the void and stifle any pain I felt inside. I didn’t know how else to deal with it all. In the course of all that, I met a dashing Swiss man who swept me off my feet into a whirlwind romance.”

Briefly, she was happy. Her mind was occupied by a lot more than her thoughts.

But she fell pregnant, and as if on cue, Prince Charming turned into a frog and abandoned her. And not wanting to disappoint her parents, she promptly procured an abortion.

This action set off a disease that had been lying in the shadows.

The damning voices

Nicole could not handle the guilt that came after the abortion and she began sinking deeper into depression. And that is when the voices in her head began.

“I would hear voices. Loud voices of people talking about me; about my abortion and my weaknesses. No one else seemed to hear them other than me,” she says.

She couldn’t understand where the voices came from and she was visibly disturbed.

“Even when walking on the streets where I was sure no one knew me, I still could hear people talking about me.”

At that moment she realised that there was something horribly wrong with her.

Afraid and very much on edge in a foreign country, she asked her family to fly her back home to Kenya. They agreed, and soon after, she enrolled at a local university to complete her studies.

But unbeknownst to her family, she was on a mission to end her life.

“I had come home to kill myself. I didn’t want to live like that anymore.”

But her mother, deeply worried for her daughter, introduced her to a psychologist who initially told her that he thought she had severe depression.

“In one of my appointments, my doctor, after listening to me sharing my history, realised that it went deeper than depression. He diagnosed me with schizophrenia.”

And so she was put on medication to relieve the stress from her brain. Hospitalised, and with the aid of medication, she was put to sleep for three days.

“Waking up, I felt so much better, but the doctor said I still had a long way to go. I needed therapy and counselling and to take my medication religiously,” she explains.

Nicole stayed in the hospital for another two weeks as she received psychotherapy.

This would mark the beginning of her journey to recovery.

“My treatment is still ongoing. And it is going to be a lifelong thing for me. I still take medication, some of which has negative side effects,” she says.

She has, however, learnt to cope with the effects. It has been, after all, 29 years in therapy.

“I sleep long hours; I also have trouble exercising. At least I feed well, but I still feel the need to be alone and isolated sometimes. I get very emotional at times and get mood swings too. But now at least I know what is happening and I am in control of things thus far.”

Runs in the family

Nicole is not the only one in her family who has battled mental health issues.

“I have cousins who have died of drug overdoses. They have battled depression. Just the other day I was speaking to a nephew who was telling me that he thinks it is like a curse. He is sad all the time and knows it is not normal. Well at least now he has someone to speak to unlike in my days where I was told to snap out of it.”

For Nicole, the fight for her sanity still continues.

“I have been keeping my creative juices flowing through writing and I have managed to put together a book titled Living Human Document on Drug and Alcohol Abuse. I am telling my story to show others going through similar addictions and abusive relationships that they too can chose to live a different life and follow their dreams,” she says.

“I still haven’t given up on marriage and having a family of my own.”

With that, the interview is done. Nicole, with her serene and positive attitude, leaves to tick off yet another task on her to-do list.

PSYCHIATRIST SAYS

Source: Dr Susan Magada

Schizophrenia is a mental illness where one interprets reality differently. While an exact cause isn't known, a combination of factors could make some people prone to the illness.

Common signs of schizophrenia

1. Altered behaviour

When a person presents themselves, the first thing a psychiatrist will check for is history. Here we are looking to see if they have had complains of altered behaviour, which means that the person’s behaviour suddenly changed.

2. Voices

People with schizophrenia will hear voices that other people do not hear. Some say they hear voices of someone calling them or speaking about them.

3. Varied hallucinations

Besides hearing voices, a person with schizophrenia may also experience hallucinations. Sometimes it can be smelling something that is not there. They will also explain that they feel as though their thoughts are being controlled by other people or belong to another person. These thoughts can sometimes instil fear in the victim.

Common schizophrenia triggers

For someone genetically predisposed to schizophrenia, a couple of things could trigger its presentation.

· Stress or a stressful situation

· Substance abuse. When one already genetically predisposed begins abusing alcohol and drugs like cannabis, it can a trigger schizophrenic reaction.

Treatment

The severity of schizophrenia is what determines the treatment given to an individual.

· People exhibiting milder symptoms do not need to move away from their usual work and with a little bit of therapy, they could understand themselves and are able to cope with it.

· Others with the more severe presentation may require more attention and also counselling and talk therapies which is psychotherapy in this case.

· Some cases require hospitalization for management through a combination of therapy and medication.

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