Source: Daily Nation
13 September 2011
My eldest brother was 17 years old when he committed suicide.
He had suffered from some form of mental illness for some time and had been seeing a psychiatrist.
Just before he was due to report back to school for a new term in 1992, he started behaving out of character.
He was delusional, and kept saying that people, who he couldn’t identify, were after him. Soon afterwards, he took his life.
We would later learn that he had taken an overdose of pills. I am the one who found him. He was lying on his bed foaming from the mouth.
I was 11 years old. Terrified, I called my parents, who rushed him to the hospital, but it was already too late.
That was the last time I saw my brother alive. Now that I have read a lot about mental health, I suspect he could have been suffering from schizophrenia.
A dark cloud hovered over our family after Kung’u’s death. We were all consumed with grief and shock, but we never really talked about it. We each tried to deal with his death in our own way.
I believe that this traumatic event is what triggered the once dormant bipolar symptoms I suffer from. Bipolar is a mental illness characterised by a swing between hypermania and depression.
People with bipolar can be extremely hyper one moment, and the next, descend into a depressed state, making them incapable of doing anything.
Before my condition was diagnosed, my moods would fluctuate without warning. When I was happy, I would be elated, and when I was sad, I was inconsolable.
For a couple of weeks, I would ride on a happy cloud, and then for no reason, I would find myself sitting on a dark cloud.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in 1997, when I was in form two. Two years later, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I was a quiet and mild-mannered child, and could have passed for a fly on the wall. Initially, I thought it was just my personality, but as time went by, the more I felt that there was something wrong, though I could not put a finger on it.
In class, I was mentally absent. Due to my inattentiveness, I was always at the bottom of my class, even though I never failed to make the pass mark.
I did not participate in any activity unless I was forced to. I was a non-responsive recluse who preferred my own company, and found it hard to connect with my peers and make friends.
At break-time when everyone else was itching to go out and play, I would wait until I was alone, quickly make my way to the toilet, and then rush back to my seat.
I felt like a prisoner, a feeling that followed me to high school. I was extremely meek, and I suppose teachers suspected that I had a problem, but no one really asked me about it.
Since I was afraid to share my thoughts, I did not seek help from the guidance and counseling department.
I just did not know how to express myself concerning what I was going through, and so I carried the problem until it became a huge monster.
Before the diagnosis, I would get symptoms that were consistent with various illnesses, but all medical tests would return negative.
I also had symptoms of a heart ailment: regular palpitations, chest pains and a very high pulse rate even when resting, but an ECG test ruled out heart disease. Doctors were at a loss of what to do.
Finally, my parents took me to see a psychiatrist. He started to treat me for anxiety and depression. I was put on antidepressants, which the doctor told me would stimulate a part of my brain which had no activity.
Soon afterwards, I started to experience grief over my brother’s death. I grieved for about a year.
After high school, I joined college, but after only two weeks, I had a nervous breakdown and had to be admitted in hospital.
In fact, I was hospitalised five times, between 2002 and 2006. I was so ill, I almost committed suicide.
When I was discharged, I decided not to return to college because I feared that I would be stigmatised for trying to take my life.
I applied to a college in the UK and was accepted. Two months before I left, I convinced myself that I could function without medication, and stopped taking it.
I wanted to be “normal”, and wanted to get rid of the bipolar tag. The withdrawal symptoms set in soon after the plane landed at Heathrow airport.
I was delusional, and disoriented, and could not remember where I was or what I was doing there. Airport officials thought that my behaviour was caused by drugs.
They scanned me for illegal substances, but did not find any. Luckily, I had a prescription note, and they let me go after calling my sister, who was then working in the UK, to pick me up.
Without my medicine, I could not function, and since I could not see a psychiatrist without a referral, I had to travel back home.
By the time I returned, I was back in the abyss. I was hospitalised for about nine weeks, but even then, it took months before I could rebuild my psychological reserves to get back to a functional state.
I joined a different college in Nairobi to study business management, and graduated in 2008. I got my first job in 2006, when I took a year off college to sort out my health problems.
I worked as a business administrator with a software company in Nairobi. I worked for three months until a disruptive episode forced me to leave.
We were due for a meeting with a very important client, but on that day, I woke up in a terrible non-functional state and could not go to work.
I switched off my phone and locked myself in the house. After I recovered, I figured that my boss would not understand why I had behaved that way, so I decided not to return to work.
When I resumed school the following year, I met a former colleague. He told me that my boss still wondered why I had left without a word.
My conscience pricked, I decided to go back and explain what happened. I even showed him a letter from my psychiatrist, and explained to him that I had bipolar disorder.
To my surprise, he offered me my old job back, and even gave me flexible working hours that allowed me to take time off whenever I had a disruptive episode.
I had not fully recovered at the time, so when my assignments at work became too technical, I got overwhelmed, and sent my boss an email saying that I could not complete my projects.
After I recovered, I doubted that my boss would give me another chance, so I did not go back to work.
In 2008, I graduated with a degree in Business Administration from Swiss Management Academy, Kenya campus, and started to job-hunt, while I updated my IT skills.
The following year my boss, who surprisingly still hadn’t given up on me, sent a colleague to check on me and ask if I was willing to give my old job another shot.
Grateful for yet another chance, I went back. Since then, this is where I’ve been working.knew that I was very lucky to get a third chance, and so I resolved to fight this illness, and promised myself that it wouldn’t determine whether I worked or not.
My boss has been very supportive, and encourages me to take my medicine, focus on my career, and work towards a bright future.
I have also found that talking about my experience is therapeutic. I talked about having bipolar disorder for the first time in 2009.
I was terrified of how people would take it. This was during a Science Café session organised by KEMRI/WELLCOME Trust.
Surprisingly, I found it very liberating. Since then, I have talked about my experience with bipolar several times.
As a member of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (USP), a support group for people with disorders like mine, I am involved in mental health advocacy, which I consider my second job.It is something I am now so passionate about, that I have been able to overcome my social anxiety and make presentations about mental health.
It has also made me a better researcher and speaker, which has had a positive impact on my paying job. In the past, I would get discouraged about the time and opportunities I felt I had lost to bipolar.
However, I realised that regret wouldn’t achieve anything, therefore, I asked myself how I could turn my experience into something that could help others in the same situation.
Through wide reading, I discovered that some very influential people like Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln suffered from mental health problems, but still made a positive impact in the world.
I realised that I needed to take responsibility for my health, and not be a victim of bipolar.When I stopped fighting treatment, my life became easier. I take my medicine and seek my doctor’s help when I need it. I have not had a disruptive episode since 2006.
It is important to talk about these invisible mental illnesses because they cannot be wished away. I have found joy in helping others who suffer from various mental illnesses such as social anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.
I am also grateful for my parents and siblings, who are very supportive. My treatment has been very expensive, especially when I had to be hospitalised.
It was financially draining for them, but I never heard them complain even once. They also treat me with understanding and give me as much space as I need, whenever I need it.