I wish I had known the signs earlier

Columnist Karen Kotze.

There are signs I wish I had known earlier. They were just so subtle.

I remember before I got the call about my friend of 16 years committing suicide, I had missed a call from her. Her voice message sounded positively uplifting. 

“I have figured it out… I feel like a butterfly about to get her wings. It’s all going to be okay,” she said.

That was her goodbye to me. Later that day, she took her own life. She was a strong, capable independent woman, the mother of four beautiful children.

And she wasn’t the first suicide I have had to deal with the shrapnel of. There have been many.

Wendy, when I was just a child. No one knew why. She was my mom’s work friend and a philosophy student.

Melanie, a mother of four – a school time friend. She took enough heroin to kill a small army. There’s no doubt it was intentional; she was never an addict.

Shane. He hanged himself with his belt after purposefully getting into prison so he could kill his rapist, who was serving time for the largest haul of child pornography the Western Cape had ever seen.

There have been four more in the extended family circle over the past two years.

And then. My nephew, last year September. Still no words for that one.

He was 24, teaching English in China. The only sign he gave was deleting his Facebook account. When I asked, he said: “Ah it’s all just rubbish, Aunt of mine. I can’t be bothered with it – I just want real things around me for a while.”

Honesty is what we need to address depression and see it for the mental health issue it is and not something to be ashamed of.

It’s what Damien wanted: no more pretence in this world, real conversations, real feelings. Connection with substance.

I am left – like everyone who has had this bomb dropped in their lives – with questions that we will never have the answers to.

While their notes may make sense to them, if they leave them at all, I am struck again and again that the underlying message is that they are leaving because they want their pain to stop. Not their lives, but their pain.

They seem to think that by leaving, they are lifting some sort of burden from us. As if.

My friend’s action split up her entire family. Each child went to a different family member. The youngest was just 2.

But I can only briefly sketch the outline of this experience. It really is like a bomb.

It blows everything apart. The dust takes an interminable time to settle. It is on everything you touch, for years after – jokes you have shared, places you visited, their favourite chocolate, the photos.

All of it brings home the necessity for us to be present in our lives, and to invest in learning coping mechanisms that see us through the inevitable problems and challenges we will face.

Learning meditation, doing yoga, being more physically active, paying attention to nutrition may all well help to create a more balanced, mindfully lived life.

But tell somebody steeped in depression this and you’ll likely get slapped. If they even have the energy for that.

Sometimes these things will help. Sometimes the necessary help is medicinal, in combination with therapy. It is seldom only one of these on its own.

The trauma carried by young people, in particular, is overwhelming. The pace our world runs at and the expectation they feel in combination with their, as yet limited life experience, leaves them particularly vulnerable. Addiction is a common response. And consider what this then becomes: a person already suffering from mental health issues, now an addict as well.

And don’t overlook the helpers: they are often carrying too many people’s burdens.

This makes them no less at risk. My friend was one of those. So strong. Until she simply wasn’t anymore.

If your family has a history of mental illness, tell your children. Show them how the relevant person dealt with it. If that is not a success story, make sure that history does not repeat itself.

Research depression. Invest in learning how you personally respond to stress, so you can pinpoint where your own sore points are, and then learn how to manage and overcome them.

Anna Els is a trauma counsellor at Muizenberg police station. She has seen more than most, and still steadfastly believes that life is beautiful. Difficult, yes. Challenging, heck yes. But still, and always, worthy.

Anna says listen to your loved ones, watch for how they react to life’s knocks. Watch for signs of depression, for changes in behaviour.

Talk to them. And then, create opportunities for them to talk to others. To doctors and/or to professionals.

We can’t address what we don’t acknowledge. There are signs, but they are subtle, and the rest of your life is a long time to wish you had paid more attention to somebody else’s pain.

* Anna can be reached at 073 355 6807.

Alternatively for counselling at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, email:zane@sadag.org
To contact a counsellor between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Sunday, call 011 234
4837. For a suicidal emergency, call SADAG at 0800 567 567 or the 24-hour helpline at 0800 456 789 or visit its Facebook page.