Grace Maureen Wairimu, is a lawyer by profession, trainer by practice and singer by hobby. She struggles with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts.
We meet on a warm weekday afternoon at a café situated along Argwings Kodhek Road, Hurlingham, just next door from where she works.
Grace shows up right on time and immediately asks that we change sitting positions. Being surrounded with people makes her uncomfortable. It intimidates her. She wants an isolated table, no food, just a milkshake.
Grace tells me work has been in excess, but she loves it. Her eyes light up when she tells me more about the clients she trains; teaching graduates how to get into the workplace, helping improve their self esteem and giving them an edge to become top professionals in the workplace.
She further explains to me how proud she feels when her team or colleagues come to her for help on how to go about certain issues. It makes her feel not only very competent but incredibly appreciated.
As Grace continues to open up to me, I, in turn, continue to regret our choice of location. It is noisy. There are sounds of clinking cutlery; vocal waiters; confused, agitated corporate customers and random, inconsistent volumes of music. I apologise to Grace.
As I look at her in her moments of silence, I wish we had met somewhere better, somewhere quieter, somewhere more deserving of Grace and her story. Somewhere like Gigiri’s Serenity Spa. With a gentle and warm understanding, she smiles the chaos around us away, unperturbed.
With everything that’s going on with her, with all the turmoil she’s dealing with, Grace impressively carries with her a quiet assuredness; like someone who’s been through it all and whom very little now affects her.
Grace tells me she has been drowning herself in work lately. She’s been staying on until late, explaining that this is because she has, in recent times, been feeling very depressed. To avoid this feeling and any suicidal thoughts, work easily becomes her saving grace.
She is nonetheless aware that drowning herself in work is not healthy, and she needs to talk to someone about the issues she struggles with. But herein, lies another challenge, affordability.
Whilst Grace could easily go to the cheapest psychologist she could find in town, she wants a proper one, a non-judgmental one and a particularly skillful one, one who listens.
Such mental health professionals don’t come cheap, and when she considers going for about four or more sessions a month, it becomes infeasible and almost unachievable.
Grace, at only 26 years old, has lived a life of being largely misunderstood, judged too harshly and having no friends to call her own.
Living, for the most part, has, for Grace, been a solitary existence where she knows not who to call or where to turn.
With depression, her mind easily becomes a raging battleground of loud thoughts and conflicting voices and unending debates. For suicide on the other hand, albeit she is logically aware it is not the answer, it, at times, seems like the only way out.
Alone, scared, overwhelmed but quietly hopeful, Grace Maureen Wairimu tells me, amid sudden, occasional bouts of tears, what her life has been like up until now, and what she hopes we, as a society, would realise about mental health.
Grace, when did the battle with mental health all start for you?
When I was born. (Laughs) It’s been a very rough 26 years. (Takes a long pause) Sometimes I wonder if this is how rough life is supposed to be. No internal joy. No peace. Always trying to conquer a battle of sorts. It’s hard. But I think it all stems from my father.
Tell me a little about him?
He is very violent. Now, with the awareness I have, I understand that he too may be ill. I think he struggles with bipolar, and for him, it manifests as anger and aggression and violence.
I grew up seeing him do some unthinkable things to my mother. No one should ever have to go through that. No one deserves to be treated that way.
In what way?
An extreme case would be the instances he’s threatened our lives. When alone with my mother, he has on occasion turned on the gas, asked her to call us and say her last words, and been prepared to burn both my mother and the house down.
I don’t know how she did it, surviving it all. I really don’t. She is the most loving, hard working and generous person I know. Thank God they are divorced now.
How did this affect you?
I could never understand it. I was always trying to make sense of it all. When I was younger, I found a note where he had described me as a prostitute. One who was bound to amount to nothing at all. I never talked to him about it. What do you say? How do you start?
But my mother, I think sometimes mothers just know. She suspected I found the letter and told me to dismiss it, not to pay attention to any of his words, but it was too late. The damage was already done. I tried not to believe it, but as a child, it (tears begin shaking in her eyes) it, it…
…(as tears roll off) it messes with your head, you know? You begin asking yourself why your own father would think so little of you. It was a struggle.
Is that how the depression came about?
Yes. I was in this family setting that wasn’t quite functioning. My mother, who we would have ordinarily run to, was struggling herself, how were we to get out of it?
I started performing poorly in school. If I got 50% and the pass mark was 80%, I’d be caned 30 times, per subject. None of the teachers bothered to ask what was wrong, if I was okay, if I needed help. No one ever asked.
And your friends?
They didn’t bother either. I have this face, it’s not the most welcoming face, it’s not the friendliest, I put people off.
Now, I’m beginning to think it must be my way of subconsciously protecting myself, but then, those I went to school with just labelled me a snob, too proud to interact with anyone, too full of myself. The pattern unfortunately continued all the way to campus.
Yes. I’ve never really had friends. I’ve had one or two, but eventually they get tired of the friendship, of me, they think I have too many issues.
There’s a guy I used to talk to, we were really cool, I thought. He knew what I’d gone through, but it got to a time when I was really struggling, I reached out to him and when he got back to me, he told me not to expect anything more from him. That was it.
Who do you talk to now?
Up until very recently, I used to be very open with one of my family members. We were going through the same things, we could share and talk and navigate things together, but now, that changed too.
One of our other family members struggles with what must be bipolar too, he exhibits it the same way my dad does. And one day, not too long ago, he just got angry and choked me. I was literally not breathing for some seconds before he finally let go.
When I reached out to the family member I was close with, telling her I just needed a change of environment even for just a week, and her house would be ideal as she lives alone, she declined. She didn’t want anyone invading her space. That crushed me. I never expected it. I never saw it coming. It was very hurtful.
And now, if you really need to confide in someone, is there anyone you can reach out to?
Yes, one. One of my colleagues at work. He’s such an inspiration. He tells me I have all these things to offer, that I’m capable, that I need to work hard, brand myself, and everything else will fall into place.
I never understand it sometimes, how a stranger can see all this potential and wonderful qualities in me yet my own family does not. I don’t understand that.
My colleague gives me great motivation, however, I’m also careful not to overwhelm him, so I only reveal things when I must. I’m very thankful for him.
What don’t people understand about depression?
That it is not sadness. Yvonne, if I could only be sad.
If I could just be sad and not depressed, I would be so happy!
Depression is something else. It is…(pauses)…it is something else. (With tears flowing) it consumes you, overwhelms you, everything becomes dark and bleak and hopeless. You cannot eat, you cannot move sometimes…(grabs tissues and wipes away tears)…
Take your time.
…it…it…depression (pauses). People say it all the time, when something goes wrong, “Ah, I’m depressed,” but they don’t know what they are saying. They really don’t. If they did, they would never utter those words.
Tell me about some of the instances where you attempted suicide?
I’ve attempted suicide four times now. When I was in 3rd year in campus, I was giving up, had no one to talk to, and was just at a point where I was really tired of life.
I took one of my scarves, tied it on one of the double-decker extensions, and hang myself. Because I’m short, I figured it would work. I was there a while, but it later unravelled, I found myself on the ground.
(Laughs) I know. When I got up I was like, “Really?” (Laughs again) We can laugh about it now, but then, at that particular time, I was at my wits end. I was completely, mentally exhausted. I wanted out.
And the most recent attempt?
This was not too long ago, when I was still at my previous place of work. I couldn’t handle it. I felt extremely unworthy and unwanted. I was tired of trying to make sense of things.
So I walked to one of the top floors of the building and was ready to jump. As I stood on the edge, I thought of my mother. I made a call and then I stepped back. But before the call, I was sure I was ready.
Do you ever think about the pain of committing suicide?
Yes. The pain I’ll feel as I die. But also, more strongly for me, is the pain my mother (voice breaks, chokes in tears) would feel. She’s been so kind to me. So understanding. I think she helps keep me alive.
If you could ask God for one thing today, what would it be?
(Long pause) Family love.
What do you say to people who conclude that those who commit suicide are cowards and selfish?
(Speaking in great sadness) Like depression, being suicidal is an illness. It is not logical. When you are attempting it, when you are at the point of defeat, logic is not part of the equation. There probably is no equation. You are just in a state. You are overwhelmed and you want out.
But unless you’ve been there or you know someone who has, it’s very easy to use words like “coward” and “selfish.”
Blessed and fortunate are those who’ve never had to deal, experience, or be around people who struggle with mental illnesses.They are blessed. May they always be this fortunate. Truly.
What do you hope to achieve in sharing your story?
Except for a few seasons here and there, I’ve always felt largely alone.
I’ve gone through this struggle alone. I hope my story can influence and encourage someone who is struggling with the same issues I am, someone who feels defeated and alone.
I hope they see that I’m trying to make sense of it all. That I’m trying to get help. That I’m doing what I can. I hope they realise they have more to give to the world. And I hope they give themselves a chance.
And for those who don’t suffer from mental illnesses but have read your story?
Oh, Kenyans. I would like to hope that Kenyans would be more understanding. I hope that they get exposed and read and understand and have more empathy.
Mental health illnesses, like cancer, do not discriminate, anyone can suffer from them. It is also not as simple as, “Life is unfair, bad things happen, get over it.” If it were that simple, we would all get over it, believe me, we would. It is way more complex than it seems.
Are you happy to be alive?
Honestly, I think it has to be God’s doing that I’m still alive. It has to be God. I want to make good use of this opportunity to be alive while I still can, however I can. It is still very hard sometimes, but I’m grateful to be alive.
The guests in this series share their stories voluntarily. They hope that in sharing their stories, the process will be cathartic for them, give comfort to fellow survivors and help show that anyone is susceptible to mental illness.