My dad was born in 1946. His dad, my grandfather, was born in 1918. Both of them were born at the tail end of wars that everyone thought would be the wars to end all wars. Many things happened between those two births. Kenya officially became a colony, the Great Depression ruined the global economy, and a new, bigger, and more destructive war begun and ended.
My grandparents got married, hurriedly, in 1941 (or 1942). Their black and white wedding photo tells nothing of the turmoil that was already taking place. All it shows is a young couple in love, with my grandmother sitting in her white dress, shoeless, and my grandfather standing next to her. Nothing in the photo tells you that it was only months before my grandfather was conscripted to fight in a war he had no stake in.
His war was not in the trenches. At least not the literal ones. His was in the camps, in the medical tents, and wherever men and women trying to hurt each other finally succeeded. There was Burma and Egypt, and every battleground in between. In lieu of bullet or shrapnel wounds, he came back with his face and soul permanently marked. The reminders of chickenpox he contracted trying to make sure other soldiers didn’t. He came back with those scars, a metallic service bowl, and a virile need to survive. So immediately the guns went quiet and he could finally come back to his wife, they set at it. They spent the next decade doing exactly that, through the turmoil of the ‘50s. My grandfather spent his lifetime as a health officer. He sought stability and discipline, and his scars survived not just as physical marks, but as a nickname given to him by his boys.
I was born to my father in his 40s. He’s a man’s man and an introvert who prefers solitary walks to long conversations. On his face he has a scar from one such walk at night. Years before I was born, he was attacked on a walk and slashed on the forehead. He healed, but the scar hasn’t faded with time. On his ebony skin, even as age grows on him, it still defines the right side of his forehead.It made him more careful, but didn’t kill his love for long solitary walks.
But there were other things. Like his dad, who grew up in the early years of the formal colony, my dad also was raised in a land in brutal transition. His was not the kipande or labour system, it was the Mau Mau war. He was arrested, at least twice, while he was a kid in Kiambu. Once, no one knew where he was for three days. He and his cousin had been picked out of a random line-up by snitches covered in sacks-called gakunia-as Mau Mau sympathisers. They were barely 10 years old. Those experiences made them cautious, and the trauma made it easy for them to see enemies where there weren’t.
My dad does not say much about the Roaring 60s, but I think the decade meant a lot to him. He was in his 20s, he had hope, and he lived in a country full of opportunity and promise. Then the 70s had responsibility and commitment. The 80s too. The 90s even worse. Somewhere in between those decades, he became a police clerk, then settled on teaching as his lifelong work. And retired just at the start of the new millennium. In those decades he could count among his students two of my future teachers, and one future Attorney General.
As three generations of firstborn sons, our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. One lived through the early years of colonialism. The next through the Emergency years. I lived through the austerity years of Nyayoism, in the dying embers of the political revolution that begun in the early 80s. Did that define our chosen crafts? From a health officer to a teacher to a writer?
Of these men, I am the only writer and the only atheist. At first it felt unique to be these things, like I had the privilege of not having the trauma of war and conquest in my childhood. But it doesn’t feel like that anymore. Now it feels as if I carry the traumas of their generations as well as mine, and my love for history doesn’t help. As if my quest for knowledge is a quest to understand them, and at least find little ways to help my generation not repeat the same mistakes, and to process its trauma differently.
In 2002, my dad told me he would vote for Uhuru Kenyatta. I did not understand it. The man would lose, we rightly agreed, so why would he still vote for him? I thought he more than most would understand. He had seen bad politics break the society he worked in. He had lined up to swear the 1969 oath as a young adult, not by choice, but it still markedly defined how he views Kenya as a nation state. His trauma from the 1950s was weaponised for political gain, yet he was a curious soul for whom tribe has never meant anything in social and business interactions. He was there, not just as a witness and a student of history, but as a teacher of it for three decades.
I thought he would understand. He should have. But now I get him. I think. His reason at the time was loyalty, or something like that. Loyalty to home. To people. To an idea. It sounded incomplete, but it was a lesson in experiences.
For most of my life, he was an agnostic, the first one I ever knew. He still identified as Christian, but something about denominations bothered him. He was a seeker, an open book as he called himself. Then, as the grey took over and his gait became more deliberate, he made a decision. He became the people he had been sarcastic about, choosing one denomination over all others. One way to worship over everything else.He had only seen his father as a man with the scars of war in timeless patterns on his face and heart; a man for whom death had been real and close. Perhaps his father’s commitment to a single church, the Anglicans, was why he needed to seek first. Decide later.
I have always been an avowed atheist. Still, every few years I wonder if age will make Pascal’s Wager look more enticing. Like it did for him, until it did not. Am I walking the same journey as he and his father, only in a different time with different experiences? Is it cascading through us, three men with alternating surnames, this life experience? Sometimes I think the difference is in what age they had to raise the next generation of men. My grandfather was just two years shy of 30 when he got my dad, while mine was well into his 40s. Their ideas were markedly different; one wanted to raise a strong son who would be his legacy, the other wanted his son to find himself from an early age. The only thing that made my dad tick, other than bad grammar and bad grades, was my experiments with all the girly stuff that littered our home.
I write because my father made writing, even letters to him, an exercise in expression. Letters came back marked with corrections and notes to improve diction. History books littered my childhood, and knowledge, especially questioning history, were one of the few things that made his eyes light up. His father was a distant man with the demons of war tormenting him even before the previous one had abated.
I write because I can’t not write. Even if I had ended up in a lab or at crime scenes, which was my chosen career, I would still write. I wanted to live in a lab to tell stories of sex, money and murder, the three pillars to any great story worth telling. Yet I found myself miles away from a lab, from trace evidence and semen samples, and in a world where they still exist, but seem to make more sense. What if that’s how, when he ended up in the war, my grandfather found himself treating the wounded and the dying. Making sure they didn’t contract more diseases or injuries than they already had? What if it was taking the road less travelled, and finding that there were several little paths that led from it? How my father, in the decade after independence, found himself offered managerial jobs in several companies but chose, instead, to be a police clerk. Then a teacher of women and men. A man who, even after he retired, still found time to teach older men and women. Who loved languages and history and everything in between. Was that his war, ignorance? Does he have scars from it I haven’t understood yet? What is my war? What is it that, by virtue of the person I am in the sands of time, is my lifelong work?
In my culture, there would be a generation transition every 30 or so years. It was a massive affair where aging men accepted they couldn’t fight any more. They couldn’t fend for all. And most importantly, that they had done their part. They needed to let younger men find and do theirs. Each generation understood it had a short window to get its work done. Its life purpose. Whether that was war or peace didn’t really matter, because each is a version of the other. The last one was just a century ago, the same year my grandfather was born, but its tenets are now lost. Its rules should have survived in some way, not just in retirement age, but as a concept. That youth is fleeting. That it’s the time to be energetic, and reckless. With your physical self, with your ideas of the world. A time to fail and succeed. To make stupid mistakes about whatever the new technology is at the time. To rage and fight and protest. To work and cry and try. To experiment. To simply live.
In our family this transition was marked somewhat by the death of my grandfather just months after I came into this world. He had done his part, and once told my mother that at least he had lived to see himself. Did he hope, like I see my father with his grandkids, that life would be better for me than it had been for him? That I wouldn’t carry his scars but I would learn the lessons they left behind?
I often wonder how these lessons have cascaded in ways I don’t understand yet. I am a millennial in a world where my generation is seen as needy, aggressive, liberal, reckless, and distracted. Like my parents were when they walked into the ‘60s with unbridled optimism, youthful exuberance, and a taste for the latest fads. That forced those older than them to ban miniskirts and long hair, because they were ‘spoiling the youth.’ Kenya has been here before, because the experiences of each generation shape how it raises the next. I think of this when I see how my generation, now young parents, are struggling to raise their kids in a world on steroids.
What makes a millennial a bad word? What makes it a thing to be said disparagingly? Is it because we live (according to Western statistics-which are wrong) in the most peaceful time in recorded human history? Is it because not only do we talk to each other remotely, we now live and work there too? Is it because we are more informed about sexual and reproductive health, about gay rights and right of Palestine to exist?Or is it because we didn’t live through some of the most defining moments of the nation-state we call home.Will we find, as we age into our 30s and 40s, the smartphone generation as obnoxious as older generations find us today?
Life is a lived experience. There is only one way to do that, to live it. To seek. To find, sometimes. To accept Trump as the clarion call to the next phase of American aggression, which might just drive us to the next war we historians will describe as the war of our generation. To accept that each generation has a purpose, and ours isn’t defined by colonialism and independence, as much as it is defined by our need for jobs, better Internet, fewer wars, more inclusion, and a more humanist approach to social problems. By rapid political transitions, a debt bomb, the traumas we inherited, and those we are inflicting on ourselves. Those are our wars, so far, and they are real. If the next generation has different wars, then so be it.
My grandfather, my dad and I are three different men, all born in the same century yet defined by different experiences. We are broken in different ways yet we have, if my mother is to be believed (and she’s a mostly solid source), similar in our ways. Our reactions. Our decisions. Our stubbornness. Our messes. Our mistakes. Yet still, our views of the world, our politics and ideas, are a world apart. Even though we mostly have the same genetic tools, we are different because we were born in different times, and we processed them differently. Their generations were broken, but they were also blessed. Mine is too. I am a millennial, and my generation is struggling to define itself. To find its purpose. To do its best and worst.
We are different. And that’s okay. For those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife, this is the only run. And fucking run we shall!
Depression Is an Illness of the Soul, and My Faith Failed Me
When we grow up in a religious nation, a huge part of our identity rests on religion/faith/God, whatever you wish to call it. When this is shaken, the centre cannot hold, and we crumble.
In 2014, a friend confessed that he had been battling depression and had been on anti-depressants for a number of years. This friend is one of the most brilliant minds I have ever met, he seems to have it all together, and is admired by many. This confession took me by surprise because I never could have imagined that someone like him would be struggling with depression. I voiced my doubts to him; I told him he seemed okay, he didn’t look like it, was he sure? My naivety on the subject was clear. But that confession did for me was life changing, and took me on my own journey to face my own demons.
What I knew about depression was that people who suffered from it were sad all the time. That’s it. However, since that conversation, my understanding has changed dramatically, especially suicidal depression. Looking back at my life in the months prior to that conversation, and as I read and educated myself on mental health, I concluded that if there is a spectrum on depression, then I am somewhere on it – despite my quick reassurances to my friend that day. I have days when I am overwhelmed with life, I question my existence and can’t find a good enough reason for it. It leaves me with a profound emptiness, which I do not know what to do with but sit with it, cover myself with and stew in it.
They say depression is a mental illness, but I think it is more than that. It is an illness of the soul. The soul as defined by Wikipedia is the “incorporeal essence of a living being. It is the mental ability of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc.” ‘Incorporeal’ means without a physical body, presence or form. Therefore, it makes sense to me that it is a sort of malfunction of the soul.
I have heard numerous psychologists rightfully say that some symptoms of depression include not enjoying the activities one used to, social isolation, and difficulty getting out of bed. On that last point, it is not the usual oh-my-god-its-Monday-I-can’t-get-up, rather it is that you literally and inexplicably cannot get out of bed. The thing about sleep in this case, like many of life’s vices including alcohol and drugs, is that for a moment you forget everything and do not exist. Getting out of bed means facing yourself in this mess, and it is too much.
On some days, the mess falls to the background, and there you are – smiling, getting work done, having a social life, being productive. However, the mess still clings to you, it never leaves, hence the yo-yo effect of: today I’m fine, next week I’m back in the thick of it. Sometimes this cycle is weeks or months long. And no, talking to someone does not seem to help. You don’t even want to talk to anyone, even a good friend. I lost a great friendship during one of these periods because I couldn’t bring myself to pick up phone calls as I felt I couldn’t do it.
As a nation that is religious, or spiritual if you will, depression can be closely linked with God. Let me explain. Like most Kenyans, I have grown up going to church. I grew up Catholic and even served at the altar. Every Sunday, my mother would wake us up, scolding us when we were not moving fast enough to make it for the 9am service. The struggle to get up and get ready to go to church, with all the rushing and scolding, always felt like a punishment.
If you are Catholic, then you know how ceremonial the mass is. Because everything is structured so tightly and unfolds in the same way every time, after attending for years you can be present in the body but be totally checked out mentally during mass. So because I knew the flow, I had gotten used to zoning out after the second reading when it was time for the priest to deliver the sermon. Around me were people dozing off, so I thought zoning out was better than blatantly sleeping in church. Besides, what if my mom’s friends from Jumuia saw me and told her?!
In any case, we sang, “Jesus Loves Me” long before we could comprehend what that love looks like. We were taught to pray and love God more as an obligation than because we meant it. We were taught to profess our love to God – more than actually understand it. Why should we love Him? Because he made us, His son died on the cross for our sins, because we hope to go to Heaven when life on earth ends. Doesn’t the Bible teach us to instruct our children in the way of the Lord and they will never depart from it? So, we grew up believing all of this before we had time to question any of it. We are told that as children of God, we are special and are here for a purpose.
It reached a point when I could no longer carry on with all of this simply out of obligation. In 2015, I started questioning this whole notion of a God-given purpose after going through a year of overwhelming hopelessness. I wanted to know for myself who God was, if He exists, if he loved me, what He wants from me and so on. I was really going out of my mind at this point because I was having an identity crisis. Relying on the idea of God loving me because the Bible says so wasn’t enough. I needed to know for myself, and I didn’t. The reason this is important is because when we grow up in a religious nation, a huge part of our identity rests on religion/faith/God, whatever you wish to call it. When this is shaken, the centre cannot hold, and we crumble.
I didn’t know just how huge a part of my identity God was until I was shaken and felt I had lost myself. The death in my life came from a loss of faith. It was time to get out of the childish way of obligatory faith, and really believe as a choice. But the truth is, I couldn’t find my footing. Feeling worthless, I began seeking out answers to my existence. I’m sure to those around me, I looked fine and had accomplished a lot, but inside I was stuck. My whole life felt like a lie the moment I wondered what my purpose in life was. Answers on the mystery of God, on how we should not question His ways were no longer good enough. It is like when someone dies, and people quickly say that His will is being done. Such answers didn’t cut it for me any more. I wondered, was I an agnostic, a nihilist? Are all depression sufferers just pessimists? It was the beginning of an identity breakdown that has brought me to my knees and left me there. I don’t know who I am, and the personality and character attributes ascribed to me by others feel foreign.
What I know is that on some days, it is like I am trapped in limbo, neither alive nor dead. I wonder why I am wrapped in this mess, never moving forward or backwards. It is like you are sitting on the edge of a cliff and you can’t jump off nor retreat to safety. This is what depression looks like to and for me. The anti-depressants you might be prescribed ensure you keep retreating to safety while suicidal ideation ensures you take that leap.
When I think about people I know or I know about who have died by suicide, including Millie Kithinji, Stephen Mumbo, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Avicii, several students in Kenyan universities… I am certain of one thing. Prior to their deaths, they were on this cliff, like so many of us are. Questioning their existence, even those who seemed to have it all – money, fame, love, power. Even with all this, they must have asked: who am I? They must have felt guilty and ashamed at the same time.
I know it sounds selfish especially to those of us struggling financially. You wonder, this person “had it all” and still ended their life. And so, people call them sinners and criminals for ending their lives, and we reach for the refrain we have always been told since childhood – that life is precious and a gift from God, even when we don’t feel it and when our cruel society shows us our lives don’t matter, especially if you are not rich and not politically connected.
Take Millie Kithinji, who died by suicide this March. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision for her – for a long time, since around 2017, she had been begging God for strength and grace to carry on through the trials she was facing, going by her Facebook posts. She was unemployed with a young daughter, the father of her child had abandoned her, and she was struggling to make ends meet.
The spiral was slow but steady. We don’t know what else was shaking her identity, to the point where she wondered what she was doing alive instead of dead. Who knows how many times she came close to ending her life, but perhaps the thought of her daughter kept her going, until this last time. Ultimately, ending the pain took the upper hand to holding on for the sake of love.
Another recent case was Stephen Mumbo, who was a star employee at audit firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). He was intelligent, a family man and a committed employee, he was put together and had everything going for him. The death of his mother shook him, and perhaps other things we don’t know. Piecing his last moments alive reveals a trail of work-related stress and a man who was broken long before he fell to his death.
Those like Millie and Stephen were on the cliff, hurting, feeling the burden of their mess and how all the love from their families did not count in that moment before they jumped off the cliff. “They will be better off without me,” they must have thought.
When you are on the cliff, you sit there until jumping is the only viable option to end the pain. It is the only option because you have retreated to safety many times (perhaps from friends who checked up on you, or the thought of loved ones) yet here you are back at the cliff, and the pain is too much. Yes, suicide is a choice. It is the only choice in that moment, and if you have ever come close to jumping, then you understand. Granted, I still don’t have answers, I can only describe what my depression looks like in hopes that someone out there might see themselves through this. You don’t have to know my name, gender, age, or educational status to resonate with me. Because the truth is that a lot of things will bring you and your mess to the edge of the cliff. Mine is my identity crisis. What you can bear might be too much for another person. What has brought me here is a mess perhaps easily cleaned up by somebody else. What will bring you here is a mess that I could easily discard. What is your mess? Are you sitting on the edge of the cliff too?
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, or if you want to know more, reach out to Befrienders Kenya on +254 722 178 177, or the Meshack Samson Foundation, at +254 715 713 212. You can also find these organisations on Facebook.
Land, Dance and Finding a Way Through This Painful Life Together
Trusting one’s body, and one’s experience of the world is not celebrated or even tolerated in the formal education forced on Africa through missionary and colonial education. School and religion alienated me and us from ourselves, and from the Earth.
For British colonisers, the lands that now form Kenya were a space that needed to be traversed on the way to the ‘Pearl of Africa’, Uganda.
The Pearl of Africa was a place where kingdoms, a form of governance recognisable to colonisers from a kingdom country, existed. It was the place where the long-sought source of the Nile was found, and with it the assurance of outwitting challengers to the control of Sudan and Egypt. In Uganda, on top of the cotton varieties they found, the British saw potential for commercial cotton production. A place rolling with greenery, lots of rain, lakes and rivers, teeming with flora and fauna. Winston Churchill visiting in 1807 recommended that Britain should “concentrate on Uganda” whose people, climate, scenery and vegetation were “different to anything else in Africa”, and his statement reaffirmed the title of Pearl that had been given to Uganda earlier by other colonial scouts, Speke and Stanley.
However, to get to the Pearl there was the problem of a strip of coastal lands controlled by the Sultan of Zanzibar (and having had numerous other controllers in centuries prior), and the vast lands and peoples in between the coast and the prized kingdoms. No such fancy names as Pearl were reserved for what was to become Kenya and Kenyans. We were in the way. When the Uganda Railway (note the name), proved expensive, the lands and people that now form Kenya were dispossessed of their inherent value and of themselves, made objects, and turned to profit-making to enable this venture.
This was unseeing violence. Disembedding violence. Dispossessing violence. Appropriative violence. Thingifying violence. It must do something to you to know that you are only a throughway to a thing, body or place more desired. Your value only tied to enabling arrival elsewhere.
The first violence remade land into an inert source of potential capital to be realised through exploitation by a colonial State, and now by a post-independent and still colonial State. Life was rethought dead, chopped up and offered at a cheap price to profit settlers, who were producing value, to enable the journey to the Pearl. It was violence peoples’ bodies, being-ways, knowledge-ways, economies, cultures, and psychologies, on their embodied and unembodied earth relations, and on the interrelationships amongst them.
The dispossession and appropriation that birthed the Kenyan State in the late 1800s, did not end with flag independence in 1963, but was reinforced, frozen, made ‘State-ic’.
Peter Ekeh helps me understand how. In a theory of two publics which I think of as the two Africas, the psychological disruption of Africans who participated in the colonial system caused an unsettlement. To regain equilibrium, these unsettled Africans attempted settlement by being better at being the coloniser than the colonisers were. They regained a kind of psychological balance by being better at performing violence than those who first performed violence on our spirits, human, Earth and ancestral.
This goes on even today. Newspaper headlines regularly detail the numerous ways in which lands and bodies turned into things are appropriated and made disposable for the benefit of the few in State. It happens so frequently and so efficiently that we are numb, frozen, as we watch and hear play-by-play accounts of who can violate us more, like commentary in a football match.
Slowing down enough to feel the pain
Violence hurts. Violence injures. One common response to violence is to brace oneself and keep moving. After all no use in crying over spilt milk, right? And there is so much more that needs doing, who has the time to feel? Not feeling is a powerful protection against potential future vulnerability and violence, and there are times we need this survival. But this does not, cannot, go on forever.
In my psychology study and practice I have come to learn that trauma which doesn’t get processed gets stuck and continues to replay until we acknowledge it and move it through our bodies and psyches. Slowing down enough to feel and witness the pain of the historic and present day violences on our spirits is far from indulgence. Rather it is what enables me, and us, to be resilient and to retain my humanity, pushing back against the actions and forces that would have me be an object with no inherent value. Here is an example:
It is August 2018. I am at a protest and memorial for the 34 humans slain during the Marikana Strike in 2012. This protest is happening outside the South African High Commission in London. Speeches are made, we sing and hold signs. A tall thin man, briefcase in hand, walks past us briskly. After he goes some distance, he turns and shouts, “You already got your independence, fuck off!” I laughed at his receding back.
What I didn’t say was “ouch.” Later that evening I am in a group workshop on racism and colonialism. We are doing some role play, and one man is taking the role of a coloniser. He says this, acknowledging a truth he didn’t even realise, “We took what we wanted, and we left what we didn’t want.”
A dam breaks and I weep. Slowed down, I can breathe my pain – the same one I couldn’t when the brisk walker shouted. In that moment I have the space to create a relationship to my own hurt and pain at the violence we and I have been through and continue to go through. Through the tears a song comes – the same one I had led at the protest: Senzeni na. What have we done? A comrade sings with me.
Even while it is not always easy or comfortable, I have learnt that I need to go through my pain to pick up my power, lest I harden, and also become a perpetrator of appropriative violence, seeking to outdo the one who was first violent towards me.
Seeing with new eyes
When a people are mired in the unseeing dynamics of dispossessing violence, we begin to believe that there is nothing to see in ourselves, our places, our histories after all. So I have to remind myself of all that was unseen, in order to reclaim our value.
British colonisers unsaw us and all who we are. I mean us in the full sense of community: human spirits, embodied and unembodied earth spirits (plants, animals, ancestors, and more). They unsaw the remarkable irrigation systems of the Cheranganis, the wonder of setting life to the rhythm of bee migrations, the beauty of decentralised cohesiveness in various governance systems, the science of making rains, the studied play of producing life from an equally dancing set of ecologies as pastoralists do, the connective rituals with which we ensured cycles of life, incorporating the past, present and future, and so much more.
It doesn’t help that for the majority, our upbringing doesn’t tell us of these lives and lifeways either. I recall my high school geography class for instance, which focused on how we can do more unseeing in the style of those that first unsaw us. “Tropical indigenous forests are uneconomical because they grow in mixed stand [i.e. haphazardly, going by that worldview]. Planted coniferous forest is more efficient as it enables mechanised harvest.” This is true, if your goal is to take without reciprocity. And there is no need for reciprocity where the other is a thing without value. The goal of the coloniser was to take, and to enable arrival and capture of the Pearl without putting back.
I set different goals – reciprocity, rebuilding and reconnecting relationships.
We are not the dregs of humanity. We are not what is not wanted. I am not what is not wanted. I see my self, our selves. I want to always sink deep into the knowledge that I have value. We have value.
Re-membering land as living entity
Trusting one’s body, and one’s experience of the world is not celebrated or even tolerated in the formal education forced on Africa through missionary and colonial education. School and religion alienated me and us from ourselves, and from the Earth. I, and we, learnt to trust only in our teachers and in the state-approved textbooks for knowledge.
In trying to reconnect broken relationships I am constantly re-evaluating my relationship with land and with those with whom I share this Earth – plants, animals, soil, etc. I recollect and learn new practices that reaffirm the intrinsic value and self-possession of embodied and unembodied entities that collectively share the Earth.
I do this by talking to plants and trees, approaching them as the living selves they are, and listening to what they say. Thanking my food for making its way to me. Sitting in silence by water and acknowledging how often we treat water badly. Lying on the Earth and taking the time to really feel how the Earth holds me from my heels to the back of my head, inch by inch.
Appropriative violence empties all of spirithood or personhood, making all living things parts of a machine, a means to an end. Acknowledging that I am held and nurtured by the Earth puts a pause on that lie, and helps me to be present to what kind of interaction I want to have with all my Earth relations. This replenishes my stores of care and value that I then come to the rest of life with.
Building collective power
What does one do when they are stuck? Move. The violence that continues to (re)play out today in ever tenacious forms is a collective violence. As I seek ways to name what happened/happens, and to see, feel and move through it, there is work that must be collectively done to repair the harms inflicted on us. Movement and movements do that for me.
Moving my body and doing so with others through dance is a form of collective healing to unstick the stuck places in order to be well, and to be well with others. Dancing with presence has become a practice to shift and move things that I cannot do only with words.
I also work to build movements that can acknowledge and heal this collective violence so that we can start again from a different place. I combine working for justice with healing in my movement building, and understanding healing to also be justice work. I think this is necessary if we are to avoid the race to outdo each other in who is better at performing appropriative violence. It is a way of rewriting our origin story to begin elsewhere. An elsewhere that acknowledges our value – all of us, human, Earth and ancestral spirits.
An ADHD Diagnosis: ‘My Nights Were Characterized by Racing Ideas, and Days Filled with Failed Projects’
My mind had failed me so many times I could no longer trust the ideas it put forth, no matter how brilliant or mundane they were. The tipping point came after a violent altercation with my cousin, which landed her in hospital and me in the refurbished blue container recounting my life story, and eventually, finding a turning point.
The diagnosis came about seven months ago. I was sitting in the counselling room of the hospital, a refurbished 40-ft shipping container painted light blue. I remember being annoyed by the breaks in the painting caused by the vertical ridges on the walls, and sucked on piece after piece of hard candy to calm down.
After a series of routine questions to get my history, an analysis by the psychiatrist, and several written tests, the verdict was delivered to me. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At first I was skeptical about the diagnosis. It was a strange case of déjà vu, one on which I’d sat in the same position across a psychiatrist two years ago and was given a host of diagnoses: I was told I had major depressive disorder, then affective disorder and then bipolar 1 disorder.
So I prodded the doctor, testing to find out if my symptoms covered a wide scope of diseases, or comorbidities, as the medical fraternity called them. To put my heart at ease, he showed me a TED Talk of a lady talking about her struggle with the condition, and the end of the video, I broke down and cried.
I’ll call the beginning of my visible symptoms as the crash. I’d excelled academically in primary and high school. I was a relentless high achiever, adapting the routine of school life which accommodated my bursts of energy and productivity. I graduated from high school with a good grade and joined university. But campus life came with the absence of a strict routine, and the unravelling at the seams of the thread of my life began.
I dropped out of my course after one semester and was kicked out of the halls of residence after failing to pay accommodation fees, due to procrastination. I resorted to clever methods to hide the absences in school from my parents. To cope, I drank and smoked a lot of weed. My nights were characterized by racing ideas, and days filled with failed projects because I couldn’t map them out; the brainstorm process ended up being crowded by other ideas and my mind couldn’t shut down. Then came the shame and low self-esteem. My mind had failed me so many times I could no longer trust the ideas it put forth, no matter how brilliant or mundane they were.
The first psychiatrist I visited was a referral from a general doctor. I’d arrived at the triage suicidal, struggling to breathe, and paranoid that I was being followed and watched. He prescribed some sleeping pills and handed me a sealed envelope addressed to a private psychiatrist clinic at the Doctor’s Plaza at Nairobi Hospital.
I didn’t feel bipolar – I was told bipolar disorder entailed massive mood swings, and this didn’t quite apply to me – but I accepted the diagnosis as it gave me a semblance of peace. At least I had a reason for my behaviour.
For two years, it cost nearly Ksh800 a day to pay for consultation and medication. Physically, the drugs left me feeling comatose on most days, and demoralised because I was still messy and erratic, but with a Ksh288,000 annual price tag to keep me stable. I sunk further into depression, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.
At the peak of my treatment, I was on a cocktail of seven different pills in the class of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medication. They gave me sleep jerks at night and vivid nightmares — eventually, I developed a dependency on the lulling effects of the anti-anxiety pills to help me sleep. The tipping point came after a violent altercation with my cousin, which landed her in hospital and me in the refurbished blue container recounting my life story, and eventually, finding a turning point.
The psycho-stimulants prescribed by the doctor were a relief. I could finally consistently complete my tasks and rein in errant thoughts, but the new ADHD diagnosis was exhausting. I imagined having to explain myself again to my friends about my condition over and over like I’d done for the past two years, and I was hardly prepared for the emotional or mental labour.
ADHD is a condition of limited self-regulation rather than a deficit of attention. A person with ADHD is able to concentrate for long periods of time in a state known as hyperfocus, that is when they are interested. ADHD exists on a spectrum and some people have it worse than others. We all have moments of ‘zoning out’ and procrastination, but for the ADHD individual, their symptoms fall on the extreme end of the scale and can be crippling.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a range of functions in the human body including emotional regulation, and motivation to guide your brain to accomplish specific tasks in order to get the desired reward. To use an analogy a psychologist gave – our brains are engines. Different parts initiate and receive tasks, others execute them and help manage one’s routine. Dopamine is the fuel between these areas, but ADHD brains have a deficit of dopamine. The result is that coordination is missing.
ADHD is a highly comorbid condition, meaning it exists with other mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. The emotional dysregulation and hyperfocus often leads to misdiagnosis as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder or other affective disorders – like it happened in my case.
The DSM V – a diagnostic criteria by the American Psychiatric Association used to identify mental illnesses, leaves out a key factor of ADHD diagnosis – emotional dysregulation – from its list of symptoms, further increasing the likelihood of misdiagnosis.
While ADHD in children is extensively studied and treated, very little academic literature covers adult ADHD, and in particular ADHD in women, which is complicated by changing estrogen levels that affect the availability of dopamine in the brain at different points in the menstrual cycle. The link between estrogen and ADHD means that at different times of the month, the symptoms get worse and might require a recalibration of medication and more money to cover the cost of drugs.
By the time an adult is given an ADHD diagnosis, their lives are littered with failure because of trying to conform in a neurotypical world, with shame, guilt, broken relationships, and a calcified negative view of themselves as lazy, inconsistent, rude, violent, stupid…the list goes on and on.
As I discovered, conventional therapy is often expensive and limited to brief sessions with the psychiatrist and counselor once a month. Adults with ADHD need extensive help, an almost round the clock treatment in the form of non-judgemental accountability partners to help them form a routine, map out their life and follow through on decisions. In the case of an adult diagnosis, and given the individual demands of everyone else’s lives, such accommodations seem like ridiculous requests and one continues to live with their dysphoria.
ADHD and its treatment is very misunderstood. There are stereotypes such as “We are all a little ADD”, and there’s scepticism over whether or not it’s a real illness. Misleading media coverage about the alleged performance-enhancing abilities of the drugs used in treatment also hinder objective discourse about the reality of living with ADHD. The victims are the adults who continue to suffer, very often without knowing what their condition really is, at the workplace, in school or in their homes.
My life hasn’t completely changed, but it’s a lot better than it was. I have interacted with other adults who also live with ADHD and formed a small support group of sorts. I got back on track with my studies and graduated. Living with ADHD forced me to be extremely honest with myself about what I can and cannot do, who I can be and who I am not. There can be no illusions about my strengths, weaknesses and ability to commit to tasks, in order to avoid that vicious cycle of depression and anxiety.
As for the medication, it is not a panacea. I needed to be honest with myself about this too. It was easy to use the drugs as a crutch and avoid putting in place mechanisms to regulate my behaviour – and then blame mishaps on ‘being off the meds’.
What do I look forward to? More research. Particularly on ADHD and women and how environmental factors, socialisation and biology exaggerates or diminishes how the symptoms manifest. I keep a journal and note down observations on days where something strikes me as odd, and use that to inform my treatment. It’s the beginning of my own personal research, and I hope it can help someone else someday.
To conclude, ADHD is neither a gift nor a disability. We can have no illusions about that. It can make you prone to certain harmful behaviours and may give you some advantages over neurotypical brains, but the labels of gift or disability may prevent us from being objective about its management. But with a little more knowledge, and a lot more empathy, we can create a society where lives are not littered with failures that could have been avoided.
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