Five times. That is the number of times that I have seriously thought about, and/or tried to end my life. I have been living with clinical depression since I was eleven years old, and I was formally diagnosed when I was sixteen years old. There are so many reasons I could give, for why it took so long for me to be formally diagnosed. But, the main and overriding reason is that the issue of mental illness is a taboo back home, in Nigeria, and even here, in Canada as well.
I came to Canada when I was fifteen years old, to continue, both my high school and my university education. I was enrolled in a private high school (that would remain unnamed for the purposes of this artcle), where I was to study for a year, before I moved on to study at McMaster University, where I am currently in my senior and final year. Coming to Canada, and leaving my home, when I was fifteen years old, was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. The sense of loss that I felt was unanticipated, incomprehensible, and irreparable. That sense of loss went on to trigger one of the longest episodes of depression that I have ever had.
My mind and my thoughts were fragmented. They were divided between a desire to cope and a desire to escape it all, with such finality, as it seemed only suicide could provide. Depression is a black hole that sucks you in, faster and further, as the moments go by, until it seems as though your only means of escape, and ironically, your only means on self-preservation, at least on a mental level, is suicide. I started to cope with my depression the only way that the fifteen year old me knew how, through psychological self-abuse, cutting, and painkillers. I figured that if I make myself feel worthless to the point where my 'self' ceases to exist in a substantial way, I could finally find the courage to end my life.
My composure quickly deescalated, and my high school at the time, caught wind of this, and in retrospect, I think that they were quite overwhelmed and did not know how to respond. I was sent for a psychiatric evaluation, and I was foolish enough to trust them, to the point where I let one of my school mentors at the time sit through the evaluation with me. I was quickly sent for more psychiatric evaluations, where I was ultimately diagnosed with depression, and pegged as a danger to myself. I was sent to a psychiatric ward, where I spent the next two to three weeks.
After my time in the psychiatric ward, I returned to the overwhelming environment that is school, my depression still intact. I was finding it harder and harder to cope with everything, and my resolve was wearing very thin. The school was keeping a close, watchful eye on me, and to everyone, I became a spectacle, I was reduced to this 'thing' that could explode at any moment. I still remember the day I was called into the office of one of the teachers at the school, and I still remember everything, from how the office looked, to the condescending look in her eyes, to the harsh and unsympathetic tone in her voice, when the words exploded from her mouth, "you have become a liability, and the school is thinking about sending you back home."
Take a moment to think about those words for a moment. Think about what it means to tell a sixteen-year-old kid, who is frustratingly and profoundly depressed, that they are a liability, and that they are not worth fighting for. My sense of my own self-worth, which was not very high at the time, dissipated further. I truly did believe that I was a liability to everyone around me, that I was worthless. And, even till this day, when I look in the mirror, the reflection that stares back at me looks broken, fragmented, and worthless. Those words, that idea, it is not something that you ever truly get over. There would always be a creeping whisper at the back of your mind that is ready to pounce at you at any moment, and remind you that you are, and would always be a liability to everyone around you, and to yourself.
When Robin Williams committed suicide, a whole discussion exploded about the issue of mental illness, and the dangers of a normalized silence on the issue, in society. However, it is not simply the case that society does not want to talk about mental illness. Rather, it is the case that, it goes further to, in some circumstances, criminalize mental illness. By labeling me a liability because of the erratic nature of my depression and wanting to send me back home, my school at the time successfully ostracized me from myself, imposed a broken image on me, made me believe that the broken image was who I was, and then went on to criminalize that image. But, this cannot be our response to mental illness, the actions of my high school cannot be a microcosm of how society responds to the issues of mental illness, and yet, it is.
There was a teacher in my school at the time, his name is Mark, and he was my English teacher. He knew I was going though a very hard time, and when others proceeded to label me as a liability, even my own family and friends did not seem to understand my plight, he saw great potential in me, as a writer and as a person, and he tried to cultivate that potential. We would meet after school, at least once every week, and he introduced me to the beauty of words and the insightfulness that can be found in books. He taught me about the power of poetry and the magnificence of the prose. And, everyday, he reminded me that I was someone, and my sense of worth, my 'self', and my identity, did not seem so insubstantial anymore. It is because of him that, for the first time in my life, I realized that I was not worthless, that I was not a liability.
My high school and society in general needs to take a lesson from his playbook because we cannot continue down this path when it comes to understanding and responding to mental illness, depression, and suicide. We have to do better, for the sake of the people suffering from mental illnesses, and for the sake of society, as a whole.
Today, I still battle, constantly, with clinical depression. My sense of self and worth still wagers on, and some days are simply or complexly, better or worse, than others. But, I was only able to survive because I had someone who did not trivialize my pain, through silence, ostracism, and criminalization. Persons suffering from mental illnesses today need their family, friends, their immediate community, and society as a whole, to emulate the same response for them, as my English teacher had for me. And then, maybe, just maybe, we would give them all a fighting chance.
This article is dedicated to my English teacher, role model, mentor, and the most amazing friend that I have ever had, Mark. Thank you for seeing and cultivating the potential in me, when others around me thought that all I was, was a liability. I am forever in your debts, for literally, saving my life, whether you know it or not.