The first time I ever heard of suicide, was when I was maybe nine years old. My grandmother’s best friend was found in her kitchen having hang herself. It was also kind of the first time I really came into contact with the reality of death. The most vivid memory that I have is of my grandmother locking herself in the loo and in her room and crying – her wailing, heaving sobs, the only indication to my young mind that something horrific had happened. Aunty Mwanahamisi explained to me what had happened and that my grandmother was so anguished because she was so shocked and dismayed.
When I was about twenty, I came to learn that the only son of one of my mother’s closest friends had taken his life. We spent a lot of time together when I was young and as is the nature of life, our paths had gone differently. But I remember my mother’s shock and dismay upon hearing of the news. I don’t think at this time, I considered my own views on suicide and I had no real understanding of depression. A few years ago – maybe five, I saw my mother again distraught. Her friend had taken his life – with much premeditation, I learnt. He had carefully organised his life and property over a few months and when he was set, he effected his exit. He had dinner and drinks with his friends and they remember having a whale of a time laughing and making merry. The next day, they learnt he was gone.
While being with my mother as she worked through her shock and sadness, I first started thinking seriously about what suicide means. I did, I confess, take the view that it was an act of cowardice and selfishness. That before one should consider suicide, they should think of the fallout that they would cause in the lives of their friends and loved ones. My view at the time was that escape from life was to bow down to it and give up, that it was to exhibit weakness. And I was brought up a Christian and remember being taught that by taking one’s own life one assured themselves a first class ticket to hell, where they shall be visited with damnation and the eternal gnashing of teeth.
I have since grown and I now have a different perspective.
Depression aside, Life is hard. Sometimes, I think that with all the advancement that life offers – technology, media, the daily constant buffeting of information and perspectives and knowledge – even with all that, I think its become harder to navigate the complex current world. I think at different levels we all struggle to stay afloat and as we grow, we learn that we may not have it all as under control as we thought. As life acquires new dimensions and nuances, its more difficult to find the answers.
“Jesus is the answer,” someone at a conference decidedly told me.”You wouldn’t go and kill yourself if you take yourself to Jesus!” We were talking about Chester Bennington, the Linkin Park who recently committed suicide. The lady at the conference told me that it is a life of sin that would drive one to kill themselves and quoting a few verses of the bible. She was so certain that she had all the answers – well, the final answer at least – to life.
A couple years ago, Robin Williams, one of the funniest actors to ever live – a man who gave joy to so many people, who brought laughter to millions of people, committed suicide, much to the world’s shock. “But he was so funny!” exclaimed some. “But he had such life,” mused others.
Robin’s death caused me to think even more deeply about suicide. I was made to read on it and to read on depression. I have found that there are many of us who often feel that life is just heavy – every day and often that one is losing control of it.
I have found that there are many of us who battle depression – this dark fog that encompasses lives and just makes it hard to live – and that this is regardless of one’s success in their profession and even personal lives. Many of us put on an act and smile with our loved ones, not because we are happy but because they need to feel that we are happy. Many of us do not ask our friends and loved ones how they really are – and accept that we do not have a solution for them except that we listened. For many, the lives they live are façades that they must maintain despite their own need to lock themselves in a dark room and sleep.
Many of us try hard to keep afloat – just afloat – by throwing ourselves into our passions and hobbies. And what is worse is that for many of us, these are placed upon the alter of responsibilities – to our loved ones and our dependants, or even to our own sense of responsibility. We feel that we must maintain a measure of control so that we don’t rock the boat.
Recently a friend of mine told me that he is not happy being married – but he has to stay in the marriage and smile and go through the motions everyday, because he loves his children and he simply can’t put them through what divorce does to children.
I once tried to write a book on the experiences of people who were tortured at Nyayo House. I travelled this country and met all of nine people. The last of these people broke me and I was unable to continue. In a truck stop on Kenya’s Mombasa road in Sultan Hamud, I met a lady. She was at the time an avowed catholic, a highly educated woman. The horror that she had been exposed to when she was tortured made her simply want to die. But she didn’t want to go to hell. So she was working hard to contract HIV at the truck stop, drinking way too much and not taking care of herself so that she could die of natural causes. Even years later, she hadn’t contracted the disease and except for a bit of weight loss, she couldn’t be physically healthier. I cannot imagine the hell that she lived in.
“I am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.”
― David Levithan,
I have learnt that Life is hard, people just try to cope. That husband who goes to the bar until 2am in the morning, only slipping into his home after the family is asleep, that wife who is having a sweet illicit affair, that young player, that young lady managing sponsors with the deftness of a Sacco executive, that friend of yours who seems to spend most of her life sleeping, that dude who is the life of the party and who is always over the top, that executive who has thrown himself headlong into his work, that priest who prays and cries incessantly in the chapel, that youth who is working hard on keeping up appearances. People are simply trying to cope.
I have learnt that there are no answers. We just have to be tolerant of everyone’s responses to life’s challenges.
Every time we can, let us make the time to ask: “Are you okay?” and to listen keenly, even when we have no idea how to solve the problem.
I have learnt what David Foster says is true: “The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
When someone does take their life, feel sad but don’t judge them. They coped as best they could.
Above all, I have learnt that I have no answers to life.
Also published on Medium.