Inside the world of a depressed child
CHILDREN'S HEALTHBy N. WAIGWA | Mon,Dec 14 2020 09:00:00 EATBy N. WAIGWA | Mon,Dec 14 2020 09:00:00 EAT
I have this childhood memory of my mother scolding me. I was 10. She would say, “Why are you sulking, nobody wants to be around that!” And thus began a ritual. I was to take my long-face to the quiet of my bedroom, and wait for it to pass then I could return to the rest of the world. I’m older than I care to admit now, and yet I still often need to take myself to the quiet of my bedroom to wait for feelings overwhelm to pass. I guess you don’t outgrow everything! As far back as I can remember, I have had big feelings, often overwhelming feelings that drowned out everything else around me. I couldn’t “snap out of it”, or “cheer up”. I had to feel what I was feeling for as long as the unwelcome emotions visited.
In my pre-teens, I would get head-splitting migraines that would land me in hospital. But really, I did not mind these as much as the episodes of soul-wrenching sadness. I did not know it at the time, but I was experiencing the first couple of depressive episodes. I also went from being a straight A student at the start of high school to frequent skips in attendance, owing to a myriad of minor ailments. One such day, I woke up as usual, ready to go through the motions of another drag of a day at school, but found that I couldn’t stand up straight to go brush my teeth. Instead, I had what I could only describe to you as the worst ache in my stomach. A pain so severe I thought my inside organs were signaling a premature death. I remember shouting for my brother to come help me stand up straight. Instead, when he tried to help, I thanked him with a banshee like scream. Cue-doctor’s visit.
It isn’t always teenage rebellion
I was sent to see a gastroenterologist, who promptly admitted me due to the severity of my unexplainable pain for “further investigations.” Several blood draws, pain meds, and the dignity destroying enema later, we had no answers. The endoscopy and colonoscopy had hoped to find some blockage that could be cleared up and return me to good health, but instead, the doctor said “we’ll discuss this tomorrow when your parents come in.” The finding? My intestines had tensed up/contracted. Why? Stress. Stress? What does a 15-year-old have to be stressed about, you might ask? Heck! I didn’t know either. I hated school, but didn’t everyone at my age? In hindsight, a previously straight-A student now getting Cs should have raised alarm bells, but teenage rebellion is a regular phenomenon, right? Well, befitting a teenager, I used to drown out my still overwhelming feelings of sadness with music so loud I couldn’t hear myself think but perhaps not so fitting. I’d also cut my wrist and watch it bleed, because somehow that was pain that I could bear. I’d eat and throw up my food, or go without eating to feel in some way in control over the anguish I felt inside me that was beyond my comprehension.
I didn’t understand my emotions. I was a privileged kid. I came from a good home, in a good Catholic school, with all the potential for a bright future ahead of me, or so the elders kept saying. Yet I felt despair more often than I could ever admit. My inner turmoil was surely unreasonable and unjustifiable. I desperately wanted to be like my peers, to feel young and carefree and just fit in.
Back to the doctor’s stress diagnosis, a psychiatrist was called in to see me. He was not new to me. I had met him a year earlier, just as I was turning 14. My parents had had the good foresight to understand my poor performance was “uncharacteristic” of me, and my melancholy had gotten too noticeable to ignore. This time he came in, sat by my hospital bed with a warm smile. He was kind and gentle. We had a long chat, and then, the diagnosis he presented to my parents? ‘Major depression’ with a side of ‘anxiety disorder’. Enter my journey into the world of mental healthcare.
Today I am functional, whole, and live a normal life, and I am dedicated to helping others with similar stories. I pursued a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and ended up in the profession of those who had helped me. I would like to encourage you, dear reader, if you struggle with your mental health, to understand that life can indeed get better. In the thick of it, it might not seem like you can even survive it. But I’m here to tell you, not only can you survive, you can learn to thrive.
Also, know that not every person that struggles with mental health has had a crazy, neglectful, or abusive childhood, or lived a life of poverty and struggle. Mental illness does not discriminate, and statistically, early teenage is when most mental illnesses start to show up. But this often goes unnoticed or is swept under the rug, with the more palatable explanation of “adolescence”
N. Waigwa is a practising psychologist based in Nairobi
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