The risk of relapse

This is how we talk about mental illness: Take this drug for another fortnight because you might relapse.

This is how we think about our relatives with a mental illness: My daughter saw her sister only twice in the four months she was in Mathari. My other daughter saw her every other day. I’m so sad she was ashamed to be related to her sister.

This is how we respond to a story about a person who has been committed to a psychiatric institution: nervous laughter. The unspoken, “Is she going crazy again?” “Is this him slipping away from us again?”

This is how you dress when you are going to a psychiatric institution: You wear a beautiful outfit, shoes that fit just right, a coat and scarf that are more elegant than your friends have ever seen you wear.

This is what you think when you go to a psychiatric institution: I need someone to come with me because they might take me in and I’ll have no one to speak out for me. What if this review goes the wrong way? What if I don’t leave for months?

This is how you respond to a fellow patient asking you if her acne is serious: What do you think? Because a part of you is afraid that this is of a piece with her illness. You feel relief when you realise the person who insisted she was well and had no idea why she was here is actually keen on the skin clinic’s location.

This is how you start to speak after you speak openly about mental illness: Don’t say, “I’m mad”, don’t say “This might be a crazy idea.”

This is what happens when a lady who has been committed speaks to a patient there for review: Tears well in your eyes when she steps out of the locked area and asks the latter how she has been, when they hug, when the one no longer in stripes tells the one in them, “Utakuwa sawa. Utatoka tu.” You know she’s not issuing platitudes, this is something beyond empathy – she has worn these shoes.

This is what happens when you speak openly: People assign extra importance to everything. When you are sad, everyone sees Massive Depressive Disorder, not a person who is sad. When you open your inbox, you see truths that so many of us so desperately want to share.

This is how you know love: Tell me when next you are going to the doctor so I can take you. When your brother, a typical unbothered teenager, cracks a joke about you being committed and tells your mother in your absence, “I can take her for review.”

This is what fear looks like: Walking out of the ward at which you are reviewed to the sight of a woman taking off her clothes in public and wanting to save her from herself. Hearing a resident who looks and sounds so much like you say she’s headed to the jacuzzi as she walks to the bathroom at 11am.

This is what hope looks like: Today morning I felt the same sort of exhaustion I felt before I got help. I spoke about it with my mom and I could see the fear in her eyes. But I could see something else in them when I said, “I’ll deal with it.”

This is what trust looks like: I am going through a tough time, you say. And the reticent friend, the one who likes their weekend to themselves says, “Come over” and you don’t not go.

This is what life looks like: Choosing every day to stay alive. And loving it on some days.

Note: This post is part of #CuminWrites366, my year-long attempt to write a post a day. Find the rest over at

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