It was one of those slow days with very minimal buzz of activities till I logged unto to social media and saw the news trending of the man who committed suicide. These are things that naturally I hate to read about; it was especially harder with the negative comments that trailed the news. You see, the struggle of mental stability is something that I have battled with and it really breaks my heart when I see how trivially people treat these things. I have faced self destructive depression once upon a time; for the sake of this narrative, I have decided to talk about three closely related key experiences (out of the many in my life) that nearly wrecked my psyche, and how I was able to pull through. But before I do that, I’d like to state clearly that it actually took me a lot of struggle to pen this down and open up, as these are issues that I would rather not talk about. They are my personal experiences, coming from a very deep place.
The first time I battled crippling depression was after I got diagnosed to be HIV positive. The days that followed saw me at my lowest point. I sort of withdrew from the world outside and became a fading shadow of myself – shutting out the world and exhausting myself with my tears day and night. It wasn’t as though I had a very active sexual life; I always thought I was careful enough to stay out of harm’s way. But somehow this happened. It was one of those days when breathing became a struggle. Graduation was not so far away, and my life felt like it was ending before it’d begun. I loathed myself so much I couldn’t look into the mirror, and that quickly became a self destructive force. I never knew I had it in me to attempt suicide, but it had begun to feel like living in my body was like I was trapped in a burning house, struggling for each breath.
And so, ending my life seemed like an ideal escape route. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself or have someone try to stop me. I wanted to die. The first thing I did was to secure the lock on the doors, to make sure I’d be alone and undisturbed. Then I opened the medicine jar and gulped down every single pill I saw in there. I don’t fully recall the events that followed; I was utterly unconscious, blacked out for a length of time I really cannot say. And then, somehow, I was waking up to find myself on the cold floor. Still alive. How I survived that eerie period is still a mystery to me. I couldn’t stop crying in that moment – whether out of pain or the failure of what I wanted to accomplish, I couldn’t say.
In the weeks that followed, opening up to the people I had around me was probably one of the best decisions I made. My dear friend Dave was the first to know, then later Phil, who doubles as family. I could tell you so much about these two and how I owe my life to their selflessness, but let’s not go into that. I remember one of the things Dave said to me was: “Even if this is going to be the death of you, the least you could do is not go out easy.”
Soon, I got around to breaking the news to my family, one at a time (apart from my mother; she doesn’t have the heart for such news). Somehow, attempting to die and failing gave me a suddenly different outlook to life, an outlook that didn’t care what the worst outcome could be. And with Dave playing his mind games with my head, I found the strength to channel all that negative, self destructive energy into fighting for my life. The enormous moral support I got from close friends and family I opened up to helped me along the way. I remember my brother telling me, "I love you, and this will not make me love you any less as it more or less doesn't exist to me when I look at you."
I made tremendous progress that started off as baby steps after commencing medication. I managed my health, judiciously adhering to medications, though the meds were not easily accessible. Sometimes, I’d go the extra mile to obtain them. I took responsibility for my own life and fought my own battles, with little involvement from family aside moral support. This paved the path to attaining a stable health and an undetectable viral level. It wasn’t easy, but it happened, and I’ve been living a normal life ever since.
Sometimes I still look back at the young man who tried to take his own life, and wonder what would have been my fate if I hadn’t reached out. Sometimes all that’s needed is reaching out, an extra hand to pull you through. You’d be amazed how much a little bit of care and listening ear can accomplish in matters of depression.
The second and third encounters happened when I was slowly building up my life as a gay man living with HIV. I’d decided to open up to loving again. That was when I met Steve. He wasn’t exactly a good looker, but there was something about him: he had this charm, a spark in his deep brown eyes, eyes I wouldn’t mind staring into for all eternity and a day, and a smile that always made me weak. In the months that followed our acquaintanceship, we got increasingly fond of each other. It was a beautiful feeling that was fast-tracking into an actual relationship. Sex was out of the equation at the moment because we didn’t want to complicate things and wanted to be sure we truly wanted each other.
Then came the problem of disclosure; not that I posed any form of health threat to him. I just couldn’t live with the fact that he could get blindsided by details about me if we were going to be anything. But it was something I had to do, and I wanted it to be done right – full disclosure, all cards on the table. We were out on a date when I broke the news to him. I told him about my past and he told me about his. But somehow, in the days that followed, he couldn’t handle the things he’d learned about me, and that caused a drift between us. He wouldn’t talk to me when I tried to reach out. He pulled away and became cold and distant. The charm that was once there left. I still don’t regret coming out clean to him; in my books, a man who would leave me for being undetectable is still going to leave for some other reason in a matter of time. I resented him though; my resentment towards him was due to the very hurtful things he later said to me. He borderline made me feel like some dying patient and that being with me was a risk he would never be ready to take. His words cut me deep, though I didn’t cry before him. I guess it’s true what they say, about there being a thin line between love and hate, because all I could feel for him was resentment. Each time I laid eyes on anything that reminded me of him, all I could hear were his words resonating in my ears and something inside of me died a little bit. And on the heels of the resentment came a tidal wave of depression that threatened to weigh me down.
Till one day I read something about forgiveness.
As cliché as this may sound, reading about forgiveness brought me the realisation that I’d allowed someone else steal my peace of mind, and that letting go of the hurt was the only way to get it back. It’s like when an abscess develops inside the body; the only path to full recovery is for the clinician to drain it of its pus, otherwise, if left unattended, the injury would kill you. The pus was the aftermath of the hurt I suffered, and forgiveness was the only way to get rid of it. Most times, we tend to hold on to the grudge due to the pain we’ve suffered; we hold so firm, not knowing that it’s slowly stealing our peace and becoming the death of us. I gradually had to let go. I reached out to Steve as a way of letting go. My mental health was too dear to me to let someone rob me of my sanity.
The third experience was with Samson. Due to the sensitive nature of my encounter with Samson, there are events I cannot divulge here, forgive me. With Samson, all I can say is he would have been better off as a friend than a lover. He understood; I didn’t have to lie to him or keep secrets about my health because it was all out on the table from the get-go. With Samson, it was a beautiful experience while it lasted. Finding someone to be free with felt like a whole new experience, one I’d never had before. I was free to be myself and we made plans together.
But not everyone who knew about us was as unrestrained as I was. Dave would warn me to be more discerning, but I guess the heart is foolish when it wants what it wants. Overtime, Samson began to get distant despite the plans we had. I didn’t know how to react. No man had ever made me cry before, ever! But for him, tears came unbidden. His words later made me realise that though he did feel something, I just wasn’t enough. This was a part of him I wasn’t completely familiar with when we started dating. It was my mistake. So what do you do when you find that special someone who gives you this sense of completeness you want, but somehow you are just not enough for him? Will you settle for what looks a lot like love and make do with the little satisfaction you can find, knowing that there is likely going to be no change – I mean, some argue that half a loaf is better than none at all and that monogamy is somewhat unrealistic. I’m not one to tell others what should work for them, but in my own personal life, I subscribe to a school of thought that says: Better alone and happy, than miserable and attached. Staying in a place of inadequacy feels too reductive for me.
And so, for the sake of my mental health, I had to let go, even though it was so hard. I disconnected myself mentally and began loving myself as I wanted to be loved. Let me state it categorically that I’m not in any way trying to impose my own definition of happiness on anyone. It’s your own prerogative to define your own happiness and live accordingly. You may call me overtly emotional, but I cannot live with the understanding that you’d give what ought to be mine to someone else, making him feel what only I am supposed to feel. This taught me a valid lesson in dealing with depression – to walk away from the place of hurt disguised as happiness, because in the long run, all it simply brings is more ruin. A wise man once said love is natural like rainfall; that no matter how much you wish, pray and hope for rain, it only happens when it is meant to happen. So I have let go of that expectation of finding love with someone and focus on loving me. I have decided to break new grounds career-wise, go back to school for a second degree and an MSc, to accomplish that which felt impossible, to focus more on personal goals than on relationship goals. If love happens, good; if it doesn’t, good too. I’m just not holding my breath waiting for it.
Somehow, I am glad I have my experiences, appreciative of how they have shaped me to become a more refined version of me, taking responsibility for my life, refusing to go down without putting up a fight, making me bolder in my perceptions, and knowing what I want, refusing to settle for anything less.
But the depression that comes from seeking love as poz gay man (double stigmatization) is a struggle I can’t fully make you understand. It’s something only a personal experience can make you understand, not that I pray for any HIV negative guy here to become positive. But then, we all have our demons to wrestle. In my little experience with depression, I have learnt to know when to reach out, when to forgive, and when to let go. I can’t say I have my life completely figured out, but I know I am not where I used to be.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. Whatever you do, just keep moving.”
You must not have life all figured out. And you don’t always have to be strong about it. There are days when you have to cry because you’ve been strong for too long. When it happens, cry till your heart has shed its last drop. The feeling is cathartic, and the aftermath is that you will find renewed strength to carry on. Whatever you do, just keep breathing.
Just keep breathing.
Written by Theon