The world places a big premium on being sure of things. Knowing what you want. Having what they call a burning ambition. To be somebody, to be something. It’s almost a crime to admit to not knowing what you want. If you admit to being unsure of the future then you are considered a lost soul.
I can’t tell you whether this is connected to having been diagnosed with clinical depression or not but I can tell you that for the four decades I’ve had the privilege to walk this earth, I have never been sure of what I want. Not once. I loved school. It was the only place where even I knew that I was good at something. But when it came to “what do you wanna be when you grow up?” I simply have never had answer, at least one that I felt really strongly about.
When asked, I always gave an answer that I thought the person posing the question wanted to hear. I would say “Dentist” and my mind would immediately find a reason why I couldn’t be one. “Doctor”, “teacher” “soldier”… There was a reason I couldn’t be any of those.
The answer I gave went hand-in-hand with this huge desire to be liked for the answer I gave. This desire to please and be liked by every adult I met meant that I adapted the inner me to suit that person. And if they didn’t like my answer they didn’t like me. Sometimes I wonder why it was so easy to believe that most people didn’t like one answer over the other but that’s what it was. A roomful of adults meant a room full of people who potentially didn’t like me.
The only thing I was sure of was being unsure. Undecided. All the time. But because my brain learnt that wavering is frowned upon and appearing sure was seen as “good” I learnt to appear sure. I would say “Research Scientist” without batting an eyelid and proceed to say how I hated routine, hence my “love” for research. Only thing was, the minute I said the words, that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach would grow, reminding me that I’m “lying”, that I didn’t know what I wanted out of life.
This always left me feeling inauthentic, like a fraud. “You don’t know what you want to become but you are busy telling people that you want to be a chemist/microbiologist/research scientist/teacher”. Not a nice place to be, this “unsure” place. Permanently indecisive. Not a very nice place. Everyone around you being sure that they want to be an aeronautical engineer! And you couldn’t even pronounce it, you feel quite small.
I’m not really sure why I had to get this out there, but there you have it. Most probably because even though I have identified this problem, it returns from time to time, making me unsure of being sure about anything. Uncomfortable. But it feels better to know.
The man to the right of US President Barack Obama on the photo above is Thamsanqa Jantjie. The photo was taken at Former South African President Nelson Mandela’s Memorial at the FNB Stadium in December 2013.
Thamsanqa suffers from schizophrenia.
A lot was said about how a confirmed schizophrenic stood “two feet away from the leader of the Free World, Barack Obama” at Mandela’s Memorial. OMG! Two feet away from Obama! (Forget about two feet away from Raul Castro, Cyril Ramaphosa, the Chinese president, President Zuma, it would seem they are all dispensable, Not Obama!). Please people, get over yourselves. If Thamsanqa Jaantjie had become violent on that stage, I seriously doubt he would care who was on the podium. But my issue with everyone is not that, it’s more about how there’s been a deafening silence on the man’s condition.
Come on, schizophrenia? I’ve seen it in the movies you say. “People with the condition just simply go crazy and violent, they destroy things and hurt people”. Don’t get me wrong, he had no right to be on that stage if he was not qualified to be a sign language interpreter or he was a danger to other people. But all we got was how everybody was so shocked that he slipped through the net and ended up next to Obama!
It would shock a lot of people to know that people suffering schizophrenia are no more likely to become violent than some drug addicts, so whilst there was a chance Thamsanqa could become violent on that stage, there’s also a chance that some drug addict could attack you on your way home today, oops, didn’t mean to scare you.
The reason I chose to write this is even now, three months after the event, Thamsanqa Jantjie continues to be the bane of social media jokes, and some publications continue to use him in perpetuating the stigma and stereotypes around mental illness: I’m certain that if you are familiar with the picture above or the story that followed it you were one of the people who considered Thamsanqa Jantjie a madman. And a joke.
If you do, the joke is on you. You wouldn’t laugh at a person declaring their HIV status would you? Or somebody telling you they have been diagnosed with cancer, or even diabetes? But a mental illness is considered funny, how so? I also find it particularly funny that 90% of the people who find this such a joke are people who cannot read or understand sign language. So, by all accounts, that man, that sign interpreter pulled a joke on not just the FBI, ANC, South African government and the US government, no, also on you! So the joke is really on you if you still think that his mental health is a joke.
By the way, people with schizophrenia have been known to win the odd Nobel Prize in Mathematics.(Remember the movie A Beautiful Mind for which Russel Crowe won an Oscar? A true story. So yeah, laugh. I’m certain they’ll start handing out Nobel Prizes for ignorance soon.
(A part of me wishes Thamsanqa had leaped at one of the leaders to give all the ignoramuses out there a reason to say “see, mental health illnesses result in violence”, but then again, he didn’t and the still talk.) Enough already!
“Help me understand, make me understand. How did you do it? Which child did you kill first? Did he fight back? And after that, you killed your younger boy? Did he fight back? Before you did, between the two killings, did you not get a chance to reconsider, to maybe say, I’m stopping here?”
Last week, I watched an episode of Oprah in which she talks to a young mother who’s serving 35 years for smothering her two boys to death. Devean was two and his little brother eighteen months old. The questions above are Oprah trying to get the sequence of events of what happened. She eventually does get some sort of answers out of the mom.
This was one of the most difficult pieces of television I’ve ever watched, and I do watch a bit of TV. You might have heard of the story. It happened in 2010. A young mother flagged down a law enforcement officer indicating that her two children were in a car that had just began sinking into a river close to the busy road. The two children’s bodies were retrieved, and initially believed to have drowned. Postmortem results revealed no water in the lungs and therefore concluded the kids had died before the car got in the water. The young mother confessed to strangling both her children, a crime for which she is currently doing time. 35 years, no parole.
Read her full story here: http://murderpedia.org/female.D/d/duley-shaquan.htm
Oprah’s reason for the interview was so that some viewer out there who finds themselves in a similar situation can be helped through the interview. Watching the interview though left me thinking Oprah sought to convince the obviously distraught young mother that she had had a lot of time and opportunity to change her mind during the course of that fateful day.
It might be so. We’ll never really know if Shaquan had the presence of mind during the ordeal to consider stopping. I doubt she did. Shaquan talks of having had an out-of-body experience that day, an altered state of consciousness. You might dismiss it as a load of rubbish but I think for a mother to take the a life she brought to the world indicates a very advanced state of mental sickness which only someone who has gone through can fully understand.
“I was depressed once, I know what depression feels like”, Oprah tells the young mom. After which she goes on to badger the poor young mother into agreeing that there had plenty of points at which she could have changed her mind but didn’t. The supposition here being that depression is not enough to explain the young mother’s state of mind and why she went through with with what she did.
Let me say right now that I’m no expert on depression and how it affects different people. What I know is what I’ve been through and what I’m living through.
A common mistake that people make is equating a bout of depression to the illness itself. Every living human being does get depressed, it’s normal. But Depression the illness is more than just feeling down. Just as a person who suffers a headache once in a while cannot claim to understand the life of a person who suffers from chronic migraines, a person who has a single bout of depression cannot claim to know what the illness does to the mental capacity and emotional well-being of the sufferer.
Don’t get me wrong, what Shaquan did is inexcusable. She deserves to be put away for society’s safety and her own, or so society says. Otherwise every murderer in jail can turn around and claim depression.(During the interview with Oprah she had her hands and feet shackled, and I wondered if it was for Oprah’s safety or as per regulations, we wouldn’t want her going crazy and strangling Oprah on camera now, would we?) Whatever society says, we demonize people like Shaquan to the disadvantage of society. Every ‘normal’ person watching that interview must have thought good for her, these ‘mental illness’ cases cannot be trusted.
What prompted me to write this piece is Oprah’s equating her bout of depression to what Shaquan had suffered or continues to suffer from.
Depression, because of its nature, can go un-diagnosed for years. I believe some people live their whole lives with the illness. Undetected. Some with severe depression and others with mild depression.
Depression and other mental illnesses seldom have physically presentable symptoms. And in certain cases, the first time a person is diagnosed is when they do something atrocious like strangle their own flesh and blood that we can know for sure that they are sick.
Because ordinary folk do not have a manual that says if a person does ABC then look out for depression, the illness goes undetected in many people. In fact, in most people, their depression is commonly mistaken for a part of their character. Shaquan’s own mother says her daughter would go into these moods ‘where she shut me out, as if nothing I said got through to her, like there was a wall she created to shut me out’. There were times when she neglected personal hygiene and not bath for days, putting her own children through the same. I didn’t know it a few years ago but such behavior constitutes classic signs of depression or mental illness.
The most unfortunate part of mental illness is the sufferer is often the last to notice or know that they are sick. But even when they do, society’s stigma against mental illnesses makes it hard for sufferers to seek help.
As I watched Oprah’s gut-wrenching interview with Shaquan Duley, I became totally convinced that you cannot say you understand Depression the illness from having suffered just one bout of depression yourself. I suppose it’s a bit like a pregnancy, I can’t ever lay claim to knowing how a pregnant woman feels, not ever. Yet that’s what society seeks to do to the likes of Shaquan Duley, concluding that “there is no excuse for what she did”.
There is no excuse for what she did Oprah, and anyone else who thinks like her, but there is a reason for it, that reason is a mental illness called Depression.
By continuing to demonize people like Shaquan, we refuse society an opportunity to learn more about this condition. Human beings are a funny lot, when confronted with what we regard as “unnatural” behavior we revert to a holier-than-thou state. “I would never strangle my own children”, “She is a devil to have done that”, “let’s permanently remove her from society to protect ourselves”.
We miss an opportunity to ask ourselves how is it that a “seemingly normal” woman who loved her own children can transform into a “devil” overnight?
I personally think it’s impossible. Just the same way the medical fraternity goes into overdrive each time a new kind of cancer is discovered, society should go into overdrive when cases like these surface. Instead of permanently removing from society people like Shaquan, we should strive to use her tragic story to learn more about mental health and how we can prevent cases like hers from becoming a norm.