My mental health journey: Depression, PTSD, Anxiety, Fatigue and Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you tell someone you have a physical ailment, the conversation is most likely to include advice on seeing the doctor, home remedies and concrete suggestions. Switch that ailment to a mental health condition and watch the reaction. Tell someone you are seeing a shrink or psych and it gets even more interesting.

In 2018, we lost two of my entrepreneur Heros to mental health diseases. The great Anthony Bourdain, who took us to so many wonderful places and made us appreciate culture through food. We also lost Kate Spade. I am a sucker for all bags Kate. 9 out of 10 bags I carry are that brand.  Their deaths were a serious blow.  Mental diseases are equally as critical and vary in severity like their physical counterparts. Mental diseases do not discriminate. I have suffered different variations of mental illness. This piece chronicles my journey, how I cope and continue to cope as I become whole.  

Feeling sad is part of life. Life changing events trigger moments of feeling blue. The issue is when sadness starts to degenerate to hopelessness. Once hopelessness leads to not wanting to live and enjoy life, we have a problem.  Mental health conversations have been a taboo in Nigeria for so long. No one talked about it. We ‘suffer and smile’ like the late legend Fela Kuti once observed. We use religion to mask our issues. If I tell anyone living in Nigeria that I am suffering from depression, the response will most likely be “what is making you depressed? God has been good to you. Encourage yourself in the Lord, it is well.”  The last time I checked, a good chunk of the Psalms of Kind David showed someone who was in anguish of soul.

My first battle with a mental health disease was in 1999. I was home Christmas of 1998 and a gang of thieves attacked us at home.  I was raped by 5 of them. It was a traumatic experience.  No one could take me to the doctor after the incident so I walked 3 miles to our family doctor to inform him of the situation.  My parents were also traumatized. They could have been killed.  As the good first born, I tried to be strong for them. All I wanted to do was leave the country and head back to my high school in Norway. I bottled the pain, the trauma and it affected my academics, my self-esteem, everything.  I would be in class but I was not learning. My mind will wander away, sometimes replaying the traumatic experiences of the past. This was not the first time I was violated but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I guess you can call this PTSD.

Let us fast forward to 2005. It is the second trimester of my pregnancy with my daughter. Deep down I wanted the nurse to tell me it was a boy. I was afraid.  Since my parents could not protect me from sexual predators, I felt I was ill-equipped to raise a daughter or protect her. God decided to play tricks with my mind and He gave me Tami: ever sweet, ever trusting, ever smiling, never seeing faults in folks, never suspicious, all you can ask. I was given a former version of me prior to the violation and I did not know how to handle it. I quarreled with my daughter. I had no love to give her the first 8 years of her life. It was cat and mouse. I did not know how to handle this sweet girl. Sometimes I would look at her and the events of the past will play over and over again. 

Winter of 2012, I began to feel tired. All I would want to do is sleep. I would have no motivation for anything!   There were times I would not shower for days. I would binge on Netflix shows, binge on food, go back to sleep. This will be the modus operandi winters of 2012, 2013 and 2014.The lights around me had to be bright in order for me to do anything. I could not wait for spring season to come. My mood will improve and it will be as though nothing happened. It was during one of my meetings with my psychiatrist that he gave it a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD.

When my ObGyn informed me of the cancer diagnosis, I was livid! I had just received the occupancy permit to start TamBo’s Kitchen and now this?!! It just seem like I was taking one step forward and ten steps backward. I was not going to go down without a fight. I was going to face cancer headlong. In my mind, I had planned the treatment plan, the survival plan, the recovery plan…. I put a timeline to everything!!!  I would go for my chemo treatment all ‘glammed’ up and ready to power through treatment.  Boy was I wrong!

Father’s day coincided with the 6th treatment cycle. I had to run to Stop and Shop to pick a few things. As I got to the cash register, I picked a copy of US Magazine and it had a picture of Olivia Newton John. If you don’t know that name, go watch Grease.  She had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer 25 years earlier and the cancer came back.  I froze for a while.  Then I began to have cold sweats. This cancer MUST not come back I said.  The treatment was no cake walk.  After such treatment how can cancer come roaring back?! My countenance was no longer the same. When my oncologist saw me for the 6th cycle, she knew I was disturbed. I broke down and told her what happened the Sunday before. I was inconsolable.

I tried to stay positive but it was a struggle from there. I was suffering from anxiety and depression related to treatment. I went in for the mastectomy thinking the recovery was going to be similar to when I did a C-Section.  Another timeline was thrown out the window. I had to be very careful. My usual outgoing self was locked in post-op cage. The nail in the coffin came when the Plastic surgeon told me not to lift anything greater than 10 pounds for the rest of my life. This was to prevent lymphedema. Prior to breast cancer, I could lift 100 pounds of rice and not bat an eye.  The use of my right hand was going to be limited. It was depressing. It was gruesome. I would cry, I will question how I got to where I was, I asked ‘why me?’ My mind was so broken; all that kept flashing were negative events. The nightmares were a different strain entirely. I struggled to pray. I stopped keeping hope alive. This was my life up until late 2017.

How did I come out of my funk? My oncologist saw the need to seek therapy. She asked me to see a psychiatrist. There was a psychiatrist attached to the Weymouth campus of DFCI so I took advantage of it.  I remember telling someone close that Dr Chi said I needed to see a psychiatrist. You could see the question mark hovering over his head. He did not think I needed it. I looked okay to him. Why would I need mental health services?  I was DONE  being strong. I needed to take charge of my mental health.

Seeing the psychiatrist has been the best decision I made throughout the recovery process. My doctor listened all the way and he assured me that my feelings were no different from how other breast cancer patients felt. He did mention that the aggressiveness of my treatment took a toll on my mental health too. The lack of motivation was called Cancer related Fatigue.  He recommended that I start the baby dose of Venlafaxin ER, 37.5mg daily.  He asked me to wait 30 days to see the full effect. It was also going to  help me manage the hot flashes from hormone therapy.  It worked!!! I noticed that I was able to get out of bed and manage my daily activities. I fell into depression again after my second surgery but I bounced back. While on this treatment plan, I have learnt to identify events and activities that trigger depressive episodes.

The first and foremost trigger was me dwelling on the cancer and feeling betrayed by my body. Today, I am learning to let go and doing all I can to stay active and healthy.  I wake up in the morning, I practice thankfulness and I dance in God’s presence for another breaking of day. Yes, my body may be weak (it was weak in-utero) but the joy of the Lord will continue to be my strength.  The second trigger was avoiding stressful situations at home. For example, I would fret about all the house chores that needed to be done. I would fret about the kids not cleaning their room. Those days are over and done! The other trigger was me not feeling enough. Personally I have felt like my life has gone through some roller coaster rides that cost me some opportunities in the past. I have realized that the past is past. I can only surge forward with renewed sense of hope and trusting that I will continue to triumph in every trial. Lastly I have forgiven my violators. As for the thieves, may they find salvation wherever they are. 

I am still in recovery. I pray. I read the Word. I practice forgiveness. I take my medication. I live. I breathe. I look forward to another day.