Stigma and discrimination have long been attached to anything that is remotely related to mental health issues worldwide. Mental illness is a disease that causes mild or severe disturbances in thought or behaviour patterns, resulting in inability to cope with life’s demands. It doesn’t matter if its depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar, eating disorders, OCD or Post Traumatic Stress, the list is endless. The belief is that it’s not really a sickness but something one can get over if they tried hard enough.
‘Don’t judge me unless you have walked in my shoes’ I have found that its easier for people who have not yet suffered from anything related to mental health issues or have someone close to them suffer from it who take the issue so lightly. Mental health to most is just something to laugh over or something they associate with that homeless person. It’s something to be shunned; it’s for weird people, people who can’t cope with life, weak people. Take that stigma and discrimination that’s on a world scale, that’s coming from educated people who society deems, should know better, who should be looking at the world without any blinkers regarding mental health? Take that stigma and add to it people who have little knowledge about depression or psychosis and attach anything that they cannot relate with to witchcraft or black magic.
I’m a Journalist and I feel my story of surving, yes surviving mental health can encourage someone. I talk about mental health whenever I get the platform, I could write a book about what we had to face on a day to day basis and I will.
I grew up in a society that simply didn’t understand issues around mental health. My mother is Psychotic, has been for more than forty years; which is more than my entire lifetime. She was a young bride and lost four children whilst she was still young, which I believe was a contribution to her condition. Having lost her mom at an early age and raised by a not so loving step mom; she didn’t have anyone to talk to or counsel her.
Psychosis is manageable if you take medication, but my Mom has been in denial and continues to be in denial despite numerous efforts by family and friends to try and make her understand that sometimes she acts beyond the “normal”. Telling her she is unwell only seems to aggravate her as she has convinced herself that the voices in her head are her normal and everything and everyone else are simply out to get her. Over the years I have watched her slowly deteriorate from having an episode once per five years, to twice per year, to “crazy” being her normal everyday behaviour. Trying to get help for her condition has always been a nightmare because of her denial and the current state of medical facilities in my country. Her denial has meant that we have had to drag her screaming and fighting to the hospital everytime she has posed a danger to the community. Our medial care facilities do not really cater for people with mental health issues, in the whole country there are only two proper state facilities that cater for people like my mom. These are both found in the two largest cities and those of us who live in smaller towns are stuck. We have to make use of hospitals that are ill equipped to take care of mental health patients. Patients end up being strapped to their beds so that they don’t pose a threat to other patients; they are subjected to inhuman treatment. Not only this but there is a lack of genuine sympathy to mental health patients from the nurses themselves.
Psychiatric nurses that I have been exposed to thorughout my long journey with my Mom lack compassion. None ever attempted talk to my mom; she was just treated like a child who didn’t know anything. They perpetuate the stigma attached to mental health; one would be taking you to her office for counseling, upon meeting up with a colleague they would laugh and say they were the ‘mad’ nurse for the day all this in our presence. We were just a joke to them and the so called counselling sessions were just two minute ordeals with half hearted attempts at understanding my mom or her situation.
Living with someone who is Psychotic is a bit like living with someone who has multiple personality disorder. One minute you could be conversing nicely and the next she will be trying to hit you with a brick or anything that she can put her hands on. The reason? She could hear how in your heart, you were busy insulting her, calling her names. So growing up you had to learn to read Mama’s mood which was a bit hard considering how erratic her moods are. If you placed your shoes facing the ‘wrong’ way, it meant you wanted to kill her. If you made too much noise washing dishes (which was a given because we used steel plates and pans), you were communicating with the devil to harm her other children. So growing up was a constant battle not to do anything to provoke mom.
Then came the times she would just disappear and you would have absolutely no idea where your mom was. Yes, it was difficult living with my Mom but she is my mom and I love her to bits. So you can imagine the trauma, the heartache of not knowing if your mom is alive or dead. At one time, about three years ago we went for four days and nights without knowing where she was. You can't eat, you can hardly sleep; every sound you hear you think it’s her coming back or the police coming to tell you that they found her somewhere dead. Then the other time when I was younger when she disappeared for a whole month and was later found in a different city at a hospital, after she had been involved in a hit and run accident. You can well imagine how difficult it was growing up and not having your mom around in as much as she was physically there. We basically had to mother ourselves and build a cocoon around ourselves so that her words and the words of the world would not hurt us. My mom in her element had a tongue like a sailors’, she could hurl insults and say obscenities that would make one cover their heads in shame. When she was okay our home was a no cuss zone, it was a challenge having to deal with different shades of my mom.
Her sometimes violent behaviour has meant that relatives have distanced themselves from us. We have had to deal with, to cry and to learn to stand up for ourselves on our own. To learn that no one else would stand up for us; if we didn’t do so ourselves. Basically, it has been me, my sister, my two brothers and dad against the world. Our ordeal has made us stronger, it has taught us to laugh even in pain, and I am able to lift someone up who is growing through trauma even when my heart is breaking because I learnt throughout my life not to let pain break me. Yes, there have been times I have almost given up but being the eldest girl I had to endure for my siblings’ sake. I’m a little broken inside because I have had to deal with societal misconceptions, with constant fear, with being pointed at as the crazy woman’s’ daughter. But I’m all the stronger. I always say I dont know how my mom or dad or how we managed to survive and get an education, not have succumbed to depression or suicide because it’s been hard. All I can say is God has been gracious; He gave us strength in our weakness. Yes,i wonder how old age coupled with her condition will mean for us but I have also learnt to take each day as it comes.
We have established a support network where we can feely talk about mental illness. I'm an advocate against mental health discrimination, we can overcome!