The problem with the stigma around mental health and mental illness is really about the stories that we tell ourselves as a society.Matthew Quick
The first time I heard the woman’s voice, I was in a crowded market. This was before lockdown. I was there to buy tropical fruits, which, lately, had become an obsession. As I spoke to the vendor, I heard a female voice – it appeared as though whoever it was, was talking to another person about me. It was very confusing because when I looked there was no one there, and most importantly no one was talking or looking in my direction.
“He’s about to buy all the mangoes! What a bitch!” The female voice said, louder than ever. I looked around again, but there was no one there. More confusion, but I rationalised it was my vain imagination. I went about feeling the fruits and avoiding the dirty look from the vendor who clearly didn’t like me feeling his fruits, “these are not breasts young man! Just pick one!” I was not a fan of UK markets mangoes, I preferred ones from Marks and Spencer – they were the closest to the taste of mangoes of my childhood – however, they cost an arm and a leg. I bought 6 mangoes from the vendor. As he prepared to put them in a carrier bag, the voice piped up again.
“Buy the melons too!” The voice giggled as if taunting me. “And some grapes!” she added angrily like a drill sergeant. To this day I am not sure why, but my rational thoughts told me obeying was better than disobeying. I bought a variety of melons and grapes. I looked around to see if anyone else heard the voice – it was apparent no one did.
I paid for the fruits and hugging my bags, I walked hurriedly towards the car park. For whatever reasons, I was scared for my life because I was aware of my thoughts versus the female voice.
“Go to the fucking library!” I was so startled I dropped my bags, I was not used to such crassness.
“What do you want?” I pleaded as I looked around me wide-eyed and shaken. “Who is speaking?” I was in tears and snot. No one was around but the voice was as clear as day, “shut up, bitch!” The voice was angry, loud and abusive. I stood rooted to the ground, contemplating the next course of action. Suddenly, I was jolted into action when the voice, louder than before, demanded I go to the library. I picked up my bags, hugged them and made my way to the library. I could feel people’s stares on my puffy face, but I kept my head down as the library loomed. I also got an unsettling feeling that I was being followed. I was petrified and confused.
As I stood in the fiction aisle, wondering which books to borrow or why, I wondered if I was losing my mind. I’d seen people talking to themselves in the streets, I figured this was probably how it started; I too, at some point, might need to converse with the invisible woman. How insane was I to follow instructions from an invisible person? I shook my head at the absurdity of it all and made my way towards the exit. Suddenly the voice echoed, “get any Danielle Steel title!” This time I was pretty sure everyone heard it, but no one looked up from whatever they were doing. At this point, I could hear my own heart beating, I could feel my blood flowing through my veins, I could hear my ear drums pounding, my armpits soaked, and my bladder was threatening to explode. I grabbed the nearest DS book.
Without warning and to the biggest shock to my already fragile system, a male voice reverberated, “no! Get a fucking Stephen King title!” My bladder gave out. “Who said that?” I screamed and started to cry from fear and embarrassment. This time people looked at me, but I hung my head in shame.
I borrowed two books – ‘the apartment by DS’ and ‘night shift by SK’ – both fairly new titles and to avoid conflicts between the voices. The voices which I knew were not in my head but were in my presence. I knew there was something horribly wrong in my brain or in my mind. I cowered as I ran towards my car, fearing the voices might tell me to jump in front of moving vehicles. I knew I shouldn’t ‘obey’ them but something else told me that if I disobeyed, something awful would happen to me or someone else. I was in psychological agony. My head was spinning, and my thoughts were out of sync with anything I thought I knew.
To this day, I have no idea how I got home. I don’t remember stopping at any red lights, maybe they didn’t appear. I don’t remember paying for the parking. I don’t remember if I checked out the books or I simply walked out. I couldn’t be sure if I wore a seat belt or not. I doubted every thought that crossed my mind. However, I was very aware of my thoughts versus the voices. My thoughts were (and still are) in my own voice, but the voices were in voices of people I didn’t know or recognised.
I am sick. I am very sick – no runny nose or fever, no visible physical symptoms but a head full of darkness: no broken bones just a broken mind. I have been seeing mental health professionals who told me I suffer from schizophrenia. They gave me a bunch of pills that keep the voices at bay, and I am receiving therapy.
Three weeks ago, I called my father who lives in Uganda. I told him I’d been sick though I didn’t tell him from what illness; he also didn’t ask. His biggest concern was my unemployment status and the stagnant projects that need funding. How could I tell him I spent months in a mental health hospital and consequently lost my job?
My biggest dilemma now is how I would break the news of my mental illness to my family: because my family blames the devil for anything they don’t understand or want to understand. If they can’t blame the devil, they will say I must have done something to cause it, or I wronged someone, and I should ask for forgiveness. Or someone is jealous of me and have therefore cursed me and I must atone the gods.
How can I explain mental illness to them without losing them? How can I make it easy for them to accept and understand when I can’t accept or understand yet? Moreover, I am fighting this illness while in psychological agony about my family? For now, I am keeping my mental illness a secret from them.
When someone has a physical illness, they get all the sympathy and understanding; when someone has a mental illness especially in the many BAME communities, they are chastised and isolated. Why is that? It is time to lift the lid on mental illnesses. Help is readily available.
Photo credit: Alex Green – pexel.com