Editor’s Note: As a friend of Brandon, I hesitated posting this, I hesitated reading it. It’s a hard pill to swallow but I applaud his bravery and I am humbled he chose my site to share. Last Night I said It’s always the ones who laugh the loudest hurt the deepest, so scary how true.
Warning: This post includes a frank discussion on mental illness and its effects such as suicide and isolation. If this topic may be a trigger for you Please proceed with caution
The first time I tried to kill myself, I was 15. I lunged through a window in my 5th form classroom and was pulled back by some of my classmates—who subsequently made much fun of the whole debacle. A few weeks later I tried clumsily to swallow a bunch of tablets–Excedrin Extra Strength to be precise. I had a massive stomach ache afterwards, but death was (sadly) nowhere close.
My teenage years were, in fact, a spate of suicide attempts and anxiety attacks. I confided in a friend of mine, whose mother contacted mine. In a fit of rage, my mother burst into my room and declared: “If yuh ever kill yourself, jancrow woulda nyam yuh body. If yuh tink mi woulda gi yuh a funeral, yuh mek a sad mistake.” Without a doubt my mother thought I was being a dramatic teenager in the throes of puberty who was merely acting out because something didn’t go my way.
That quip from my mother has always stuck with me—a lesson that she wasn’t one to go to when my head was all dark.
I had my first nervous breakdown at 19 in the middle of what was then the biggest project of my professional life. It led to me being homeless for four days and were it not for the fact that the project came attached with a hotel room, I would have had nowhere to sleep for those four days. I moved in with one of my ‘uptown’ friends and lived with her family for nine months. Another ‘uptown’ friend encouraged me to seek therapy. LOL—WHAT? Gyal somn dat. Rich people somn dat.
But I was in a dark place, a place where the concept of time changes. A place where there are no days or weeks; only a sharp silence and a everlasting darkness. A place that absolutely breaks one down, strips one bare. A paradoxical limbo; a place of possibilities and sharp realities, of fact and fantasy. A place where one’s “purpose” is annihilated. A place where idealists are raped, a place where hope is replaced with a very sorry kind of wisdom. It is a place where the thought of taking your own life is completely rational. It is a place where you can regret not taking your own life before, a place where you hate the fact that you were even born. It is a place where there is no hope, a place where it physically hurts to even be awake. It’s a place where you stay… unless you get help.
Eventually I got help. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders, placed on anti-depressants and had weekly psychotherapy sessions. They helped, and I thought I was better. At the time I believed this was not only a temporary thing, but also that I had better things to do with my time and money. I was wrong.
Since I decided I was better and stopped my treatments my adult life has become reminiscent of my teenage years. I found myself having anxiety attacks regularly, isolating myself, deleting people and things I enjoyed from my life. Most of all, I have not dealt with several large issues—from death to family—in any real way. The cup finally ran over, again, three weeks ago. I broke down; but this time instead of being homeless I was institutionalized at the Humber River Regional Hospital, Keele Site. There, a lovely nurse named Madge (well, not only her) helped me come to grips with the fact that my ‘issues’ are not just ‘issues’. Depression and anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that require treatment (please note I did not say medication or consulting a pastor who is not appropriately trained).
I am mentally ill. Wow. It doesn’t make sense… but yet it does.
I have seriously tried to take my own life over sixteen times. I have thought about it an incalculable amount of times. Even more alarming, I have regretted not doing it too many times. I wear a sweater, no matter the temperature, because I am always anxious and fearful that people will touch me. I wear my ‘resting asshole face’ 24/7 to avoid anyone I don’t know asking me questions or thinking I’m friendly because I am literally scared to death of interacting with people, doing something wrong, saying something wrong. It’s why if there’s one person at the table I don’t know, you won’t be hearing from me all night.
Accepting that I am mentally ill is something my family and friends are struggling with. I forced my mother to say it out loud and she stuttered before breaking down in tears. I explained to her that while her behaviour toward me during my childhood might have made my depression worse—it wasn’t really her fault. I understand, now, that my mother and most Jamaicans are of the ‘help-yourself-nuttin-nuh-wrong-wid-yuh’ ilk. This was a foreign thing for her and best dealt with through some concept of tough love.
It is instructive to note that all the black people on the ward with me were of Jamaican descent. One woman repeatedly came up to me saying “Hi daddy, mi a di ugliest bitch alive don’t it?” throughout my entire stay.
We must begin to ‘de-brown’ mental illness in Jamaica. Ironically, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are more likely to occur in people who are poor(er?) and more disadvantaged in society. At some point we have to question why all the mental illness events and walks and days are seemingly supported by the same kind of people—‘brown’ and ‘uptown’. Why it is that the conversation about mental illness happens solely in the Golden Triangle. Why it is that the cost for getting help for mental illness is so high. Why it is that there are no support systems in primary and secondary schools to help students deal with the ever-increasing pressure of an archaic exam-centric educational system with a multiplicity of other problems that have a severe impact on them.
Depression is much different from ‘feeling sad’ or ‘being down’. It is a terrible mental illness—and I want you to read that sentence out loud. People who experience depression deal with severe negative feelings and thoughts that become their general routine. This despair affects every aspect of their lives. Those who are so depressed to consider suicide never do so thinking ‘this is the easy way out’; we do so thinking this is the ONLY way out.
Taking your own life is not a trivial matter. It is something that people usually think about for some time before making an attempt. In my own case, when I tried to hang myself from the pull up bar in my room five weeks ago, I thought not of myself but of my friends and family. I thought that I would be doing them a favour by leaving them with a memory of a good friend, and not having them deal with the dark horrible person I thought I had become. I felt like I hit a wall in my personal life with financial and school troubles, and I was absolutely tired of being a burden on the universe. For me it was a selfless thought, a heroic act and even though I am being treated now for my depression, I still regret having been too tall for the noose to do its job.
This is not a call for the government; it is a call for us all to seriously look at our attitudes towards mental illness. How we support our children, siblings, parents, friends and colleagues who are affected by the gamut of mental ailments. It is about us, as a people, being more open to the idea that sometimes we actually do need help and that ‘help’ is not always a case of cultural imperialism or ‘uptown’. It is an open call, for anyone who want to be a better human being, to understand that people who struggle with mental illness need support and love. It is an open call to read just a little literature on mental illnesses and find out how you might be affected by it (either in your own life or that of a friend).
Brandon Allwood is a student at York University in Toronto. He is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s National Award for Excellence in Journalism, The City of Toronto Award for Excellence in Community Development, a writer and serial procrastinator. He is mentally ill and lives with chronic depression and anxiety disorders. You can tweet/follow him at @brandonallwood.