It's okay to be not okay

Depression is real, our writer got help and is now the boy who lived

Words: Phumlani Pikoli | Illustrations: Kat Kali

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. - W.E.B. Du Bois.

I'm pretty sure that I've been depressed since I was seven years old. I remember living in Cape Town, Milnerton, sitting in my room and thinking about death and what a release it might be. To not exist. A vast, encompassing nothingness. I remember that by that stage I barely spoke any Xhosa, the language that most black Africans spoke in the Western Cape. The language I spoke best, and could best express myself in, is the one in which I write now. Unbeknownst to young me, I had grown up in spaces the fostered my cultural connection with whiteness best. Although my parents spoke to me in Xhosa, as did other family members, my tongue and cultural expression wrapped itself around what I should have considered foreign.

Depression and anxiety aren't easy things to get one's mind around. There's a vast array of complex stories and events that can lead to living with the condition, and I've suffered from it from as early as I can remember. It only got confirmed when I was fifteen. I've been in therapy most of my life. First when I was seven and diagnosed with dyslexia and having to repeat grade one. Then my child psychologist saw it when I was fifteen and needed behavioural therapy. 

By that stage, I was averaging six joints a day, which I'm sure didn't help matters all that much. When I was 21 I took a sabbatical from UCT in my second year because I was unable to function and returned to my childhood psychologist. By that stage I'd broken down after a series of unfortunate, traumatic events that I hadn't been able to properly deal with in preceding years.

Not ready to properly deal with myself and learn to heal, I gripped hold of the glamourised notion that writers are depressed alcoholics with a penchant to commit suicide. I wrote through events at which I drank furiously, I wrote through drug hazes that made my experiences more vivid, and I wrote through unbridled anger at a world dead set on my destruction.

I claimed woke, yet performed all this through the veil of hypermasculinity that people found both endearing and frightening. I cultivated a digital presence that essentially stood as a 'do not enter' sign at the door. I worked tirelessly as a journalist and ensured that everyone knew that I was already to be at the front lines of the most dangerous stories. I inculcated the Western paradigm that says work is everything and everything is second to work.

That stopped working for me about two months back. I knew I needed therapy and meds at some point, and to see a psychiatrist, but I carried on self-medicating and neglecting my relationships – claiming that I was simply trying to get closer to realising my dreams. My body and mind eventually set themselves alight and all I could do was crave death’s soothing touch. It never came, and when I thought I had no more options, others created some for me.

I was checked into Akeso Clinic in Parktown and hated myself for being so weak. Upon arrival, when I had to share a room with someone I now refer to as my brother, it felt like high school all over again. 

Except now there were so many black, Indian and coloured working class people in there with me, too. Initially dismissing the group as being basic AF, I later began to note how so many people needed the therapy – and how little we know about it as a broader society, and even less so in black communities.

A study conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) found that although the prevalence of depression amongst black South Africans is largely uninvestigated due to problems relating to language and cultural differences. Studies indicate that the numbers are seriously high, with approximately 18% of black patients presenting at primary health care facilities being found to be suffering from depression. This may even be an underestimation of the figures: it's been found that GPs fail to detect between 33% to 50% of depressive disorders in patients presenting to them. Dr Sebolelo Seape stated that “most black patients tend to focus on the physical symptoms of depression rather than reporting how they feel emotionally.”

By the second week of my treatment, my meds began to create pathways which allowed my brain to produce the serotonin and dopamine it severely lacks, and I was able to start standing outside of myself, appreciating just how privileged I am in so many ways. My support systems had never wavered throughout my episode, and the love that radiated around me endowed me with the same shield Lily Potter gave to Harry.

“Scars on my head on the boy who lived,” Chance the Rapper told me on Coloring Book. Suddenly I was more forthcoming in group sessions and giving insights that people sincerely appreciated. In an exercise in which we had to write positive messages to one another, someone randomly shared that they thought I was amazing and that they loved my presence. My presence? I had been shuffling around with headphones on through the hallways barely sharing fragile smiles with anyone. Yet, that person loved my presence?

I became the quiet guy with valuable input once I was moved into a smaller and more challenging group. I was the popular kid at high school again. I struggled to speak without recognising my constant privilege and always prefaced anything I said with that acknowledgement in mind.

There isn't enough space in this post to describe the way that people, humans, abantu, saved me from self-destruction. I can only hope that everyone suffering from the same afflictions can find the best ways to manage them. 

This doesn't suddenly disappear, it's a daily commitment to yourself. May you learn to be gentle with yourself. May you learn to love yourself. May you learn to be present. 

May you learn to forgive yourself.