By Femi Akintunde-Johnson
I beg you to resist the urge to see depression as a mere stress-related state of mind induced by a sense of loss and emptiness. Do not wonder impishly why some flighty indulgences cannot overwhelm suicidal tendencies: ‘spend little bucks on suya, pepper soup and some wickedly chilled bottles of Trophy, or some other alcohol (or spirit) and the sagging souls should bounce back to life’.
In understanding depression and its clammy hands on sensitive souls, ignorance is no bliss. The past few years have witnessed a surge of manic-depressive suicides without any data to help us aggregate the different root-causes, and possible palliatives to arrest the spread.
Many keen observers of Nigeria’s social dynamics have shown sufficient anxiety and alarm by raising help-lines and counselling centres to mitigate the slide to suicide-mania. Even as “social scientists” enjoin political leaders to fast-track national economic prosperity and security.
My focus today is to reiterate that suicidal intimations arising from profound sadness or creeping hopelessness are real… and not merely flights of escapism by lazy folks or weak truants. One has been on that route, and dwelled in that valley. In my 2011 book, “Lifelines: A Slice Of My Life’, a chapter (“When Death Was Better…”) was devoted to a period between 2002 and 2007 when suicidal meditations were not only lodged in tragi-romantic novels… and how I got out of the deep dark hole. Below is a copious excerpt:
“The air was stuffy; it was in the very early hours of August 8, 2005. I had been awake for over an hour, thinking about my condition, and meditating on my situation. My eyes were wide open on our dilapidated bed… My wife was lying down beside me, half moaning, half praying through the haze of her pains and worries. And I didn’t know what to do to relieve her. One of my children was on the mat, at the foot of the bed… pretty close to the cold tiled floor… she must have slept off trying to rock her mother to sleep… trying in her little way to assure her mother that all would be well.
Obviously, my little daughter did not fully understand the import of her infant sacrifice. See, she and her twin brother had been sent out of school, and they had not been able to return. They had missed the entire second term, and part of the third term. It was a good school in Ikeja, Lagos, we had dreamt they would complete their secondary education.
On this day, our business was already crumbling… our bank account was in the red; the newsprint supplier was threatening police action for repeated default in debt repayment schedule; the bond paper supplier was bombarding us with unending phone calls to redeem our pledge to pay his mounting bills. I had no money on me to start the day; I was not sure if the night would fall on my head… yet that was the day of our 14th wedding anniversary; and all I could afford to give my wife who had been faithful, devoted, inspiring, supportive, and my house pastor to boot, was a bitter-sweet kiss.
On that day, my thoughts boiled over into despair, depression, disillusionment, and hopelessness… then I started weeping. I was convinced that death was less painful than what I was going through; I was certain that every man had a depth beyond which he could not fall, and at such point, you should lessen the agony being passed on to innocent loved ones.
I made up my mind quickly, half-laughing at myself and the mockery my life had become, and I tore a page from an exercise book, jotted down a brief 18-word epitaph that should stand as my “Will”. I wryly mused at the Will containing my instruction on how to share my “belongings”, when even I could only see emptiness all around me.
You see, the pain of loss or the crush of poverty is better experienced first hand, before you “make it”. The misfortune is kinder then. But, when you have tasted fame, money and little pleasures of life for some time; the regression to lack and poverty is crushingly tangible. You cannot walk, talk, sit or strut where you used to…you choose a life of a hermit, a second-class citizen…and you will do that without any indecorous external prompting…that is if “shame” affects you.
But, I was one of those who could not beg for help (from friends, family or well-endowed acquaintances); because I stupidly align with those who say “iku ya je’sin” (which is saying, to die honorably is much to be desired than to be the butt of jokes and derision). But really, it was not as if some friends and relatives are not good-natured, and would not have helped to the best of their capacity. In our naivety, when we did not fully understand that our struggles were more spiritual than physical, we gratefully accepted some help. Without rushing into details now, we got a major financial lift from a kind benefactor, through a famous friend. God is our witness; all was pumped into the business, apart from the 10% tithe we gave the church. We didn’t even think of changing our dilapidated car. But the effect vanished on the business within three months! Who can explain that? God did. We still had few rivers to cross; all human help will continue to drain resources and our lives.
There is so much to reveal in my story of the past six years, that only time and more confidence will help me say more.
No, I am not ashamed of my past (in fact, I am so proud that I went through it, and that my experiences may help others go through it or anticipate such with some level of dignity, and not fear).
But all that was four years ago. By the grace of God, today, I’m no longer disillusioned. By the grace of God, I’m no longer hopeless. My children have returned to school; my wife is back on her feet…. To cut the story, God has given me the reason for the turn-around in our lives. He has made me to understand that I have a joint destiny and joint purpose with my wife, Ireoluwatunde (the goodness of the Lord has returned). And that what could have happened to our children, should be enough reason to instill in our hearts that we must find occasions and opportunities to offer concrete help to the less-fortunate around us – especially hapless Nigerian children.
If you happen to be in this situation (and it is almost impossible not to have a legion of Nigerians trudging through such hell-holes, what with the mess our leaders have turned the country to) understand that only a power beyond your imagination can arm-twist your limitations to submission. While I was in the valley of “dry bones” I never wavered in my hope and trust that God will come through for me sha ni… sooner or later.
Really, this is not another sermon…it is rather, the heartfelt…no, the hard-lived, pain-washed, fear-cloying blobs of my tortuous journey through this harsh yet beautiful life.
To situate the reason why I dream to impact young lives, and be a vessel through which God can touch others even more less-fortunate than I was; it is needful to let you in into a fair expanse of my story. What touched, and changed my life between 2002 and 2007… those traumatic but eventful years will forever act as torch-stone of whatever I will ever be in life; and I suspect the same will hold true for all members of my immediate family.”