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A life well lived

Not many of us are blessed to have a life as long and fullfilling as my Grandmother had. Not only did she live to be a hundred, but of those years, after her kids had grown and ‘flown the coop’ she continued to enjoy herself, taking holidays all over the place and visiting friends, taking life in its stride and not letting one thing hold her back.

As far as we could remember, my nan never got sick – she was the strongest (both physically and emotionally) woman we knew, and she did everything for herself. She was beautiful – so beautiful that it is said we all got our genes from her – oh and those legs – I have to tell you even in her nineties she had the most beautiful, strong, long, straight legs of any woman even half her age.

She was a trendy Cucu – none of those embarrassing moments with her grandkids – actually she was well travelled, well dressed, knowledgable and all, always groomed to perfection – even her house was neater than anyone else’s – her food immaculately cooked and served – her tea always hot and her cups never chipped. She cooked for herself and never, ever allowed anyone to go near her kitchen or utensils. I think through my Dad we have all inherited a little bit of my nan – especially the strength, the beauty, and the legs – yeah I have to emphasize the legs cos.. well, We girls in the Guess family are known for our legs..

I remember the last time I saw her – Dec 26, 2005. I went to visit her with my sister and we sat, had a cup of tea and chatted for a while. She took my hands in hers and said .. G kai weruhire atia wathii ruraya – (G, you have got lighter-skinned since you went abroad) and I had to tell her that that is what winters do for your melanin – although in not so many words. Even at that age, you would never lack a topic to talk with her – she had grown a bit frail and didnt travel around anymore, but she still did all her work – which was both sad and surprising cos to me she is the epitome of strength and I couldnt imagine her giving in to someone else taking over what is essentially her only hold to her stubbornness.

And boy was she stubborn – and that has been directly cascaded down to my dad and I – no question about that. The stubbornness, the independence, the strength of mind and the ability to be self-sufficient while drawing people together is my legacy from my grandmother.

Sadly, that spirit to live on and that tower of strength, that fire and that determination, was extinguished last Saturday Morning – 25th November 2006.

Cucu:
I know God has given you a lot more time than most
I know you have lived your life to the full
Utilised most of that time and seen your family grow
You have lived to see your children, grandchildren
Great grandchildren – and in some cases, even a level lower
Granddad has been waiting for you for the last 28yrs
Some of your children are up there too – so you will be fine
We will miss you down here but I believe they and God need you more up there
I will hold Dad’s hand, and see that he gets thru this ok
You did your part, you lived a good life – now its time to rest.
Rest in Peace Cucu
Your legacy will live on through us
May God look after you till we meet again…
G xxx

Fact, Tears

Cell Hell

cell1

I just finished reading this book, and while this is not a critique on the book, it has a huge basis on what I need to get off my chest, and educate you lot. This book talks about a Pulse that is relayed through the mobile phone that makes everyone crazy – so crazy that all bets are off. What got me is the way the people behaved and it puts my mind back to what happened in one of my relationships a few years back.

That was when I met this really nice young man – u know the usual: guy meets girl, they spend a lot of time together and soon enough they are a couple. Nothing new in that and things were going great, I had no reason to worry or be cautious.

You see, the said young man was intelligent, no I mean genius level intelligent (who in your group of friends do you know that has Mr. Gates (he of MS) as a phone contact who they chat often and has personally recruited him to work in his company?), at the top of his career, absolutely gorgeous (6’4” of a man), down to earth and chivalrous to a T. He is one of those that wont let you cook two days in a row, carry a heavy object or open your own doors.

To cut a very long story to manageable readability, he was on one of his trips abroad and as usual we would spend hours on the phone in the evening – and emails and text msgs during the day – and this one time he tells me that he is tired and hasn’t been sleeping well, was stressed at his project coz he had to finish before the Christmas rush and all. I understood, and let him sleep.

The following day, he doesn’t call or text (or answer any emails) at all, and in the evening when I text him, he informs me that he cannot talk, he broke down at work and was told to go home cos he couldn’t handle it (in front of an International Bank’s board members) and that he needs to call his mother. I was concerned but let it lie. He was coming back the following day and we would sort it out then.

In the gym the following evening, he calls while I am getting changed after the shower. The gym is in the basement so the signal is going in and out, so I promise to call in half an hour after I get home. Great until I am getting through the door and he is on the phone, asking why I haven’t called him. I tell him to give me two seconds coz I am just getting home and guess what? He calls me on my landline to see if I am telling the truth. I answer the phone and then he goes ballistic on me.

Starts asking questions like why am I with him? Is it because of his money? which pissed me off because I could never date anyone for their money (If you know me then you know my answer to that question),ever. He asks if I want him so I can have British Citizenship and I laugh in his face, he had never asked my status and I had never volunteered that information, I didn’t see the point. He wants to know what I want with him cos apparently I could have any man in the world that I wanted, and I am like: What the hell do you want with me? You too could have any woman in the world.

After this unsettling conversation, he starts crying! I am flabbergasted. I mean this guy who is all together just starts bawling like someone stole his toy. I ask what is going on and he goes on about different aspects -the conversation is interjected with crying fits and laughing fits and coherent fits and absolutely out there stuff that I wouldn’t understand even if I was Einstein. After about two phone calls, I call my best friend P – my lifesaver, my mum, my confidante, my shrink. Just relaying three lines of what is going on she goes: He is having a mental breakdown!

What?

See, she is a psychiatric nurse, she deals with this kinda stuff all the time

Yes, I had got the bit where the man was behaving erratically, he was incoherent and his brain sequence was all over the place. He was paranoid, lucid, incoherent – the flags had gone from neutral to rainbow -take your pick – yes, I had thought he was having some sort of breakdown, maybe stress since his job was way stressful, but I hadn’t gone down that road.

Yes, the man is bipolar

Mental illness

I had noticed some untoward stuff about him which were cause for concern to me:

Hating white people:

Not a reason in itself but the dude is half white half South American black so couldn’t understand why he was all up in dissing white people any chance he could find.

Hating cops:

He would be so paranoid about cops that I thought it was unnecessary, and pointed it out, even though I have never been in any scrapes with authority I thought it was uncalled for to be so negative about them, citing that it was because he is black –even if they were stopping him for something as mundane as a broken tail-light.

Racism:

He of mixed race persuasion was always going on about all these ills being placed on black people. Although I agree to some extent, he was always going on about it, even when the contrary was the case. He made a point of making sure that everyone was clear on his blackness – and he would never entertain a thought of him being thought of as a mixed race person – he always maintained that his father was a black man in white skin.

Swearing:

I am not anti swearing – heck, I am known to use some of that language when necessary – but almost always not in spoken language. He was of the swearly persuasion, not always but it did irk me after a while that he would just go off on one when he saw something on tv that didn’t impress him, citing everything from race, injustice, slavery, you name it, if it had a black person on it, it was deemed necessary for some swear fit.

Now, that may sound like your average black man in the West, but this one was in all other aspects outstanding -disillusioned, yes, but mainly a guy who saw all points in all areas and dealt with them with a neutral outlook. So I was happy to let these little points lie.

Next day, the phone is ringing off the hook, if I refuse to answer the mobile, he calls the landline, and so on until I answered one – and this continued for so long that I had to leave the house, mobile phone switched off, and go for a very long walk. I had to think, more so I had to leave the incessant phone calls with the whole thing repeated over and over. It was like someone had deleted the hard drive in his brain and installed a loop that had to be replayed over and over again – with no human attachment to it.

At the end of that day I called his phone, when he didn’t call after I hadn’t heard from him again that day, and I was worried coz he lived alone and didn’t want him to harm himself or others, and I got his mum on the phone – she told me that he had been hospitalised – and gave me the address of the place where he was. Oh did I forget to mention, he lived outside London, about an hour and a half away from my place, so I couldn’t have up and gone over to see him.

I decided to go and see him in hospital, knowing full well that I wasn’t ready for what I would find. I called P and she told me that I shouldn’t go – she was worried dead about me, but I being the stubborn self that I am, was willing to take the risk, more so when my maternal instinct had switched over and wanted to take care of my man – who had invariably turned into the child that never was.

So the next day I go into the hospital – and man, did I get a shock of my life – it was like seeing a person you have never met – in one way he was the sweet man that I knew, with the said hard drive completely obliterated minus the core code – he could eat and drink and chat and recognise me – but on the other end it was like basic human traits were not there. It was like he was a new program on the same shell – a child in a man’s body. I was heartbroken. He worried about me getting home, was sweet about me getting him the necessary everyday basics like clothes and soap and moisturisers (he had told me on the phone that he hadn’t got any of those) and how I was gonna get home in the rain – but at the same time wasn’t conscious of his surroundings or why he was there in the first place.

Everybody in there was behaving like flock – walking around, disjointed like they were drunk, or just staring into space, some were lucid enough to read or watch tv – some just following the others around with blank looks on their faces. I couldn’t believe that he was here – heck I couldn’t believe that ‘I’ was here. What the hell happened?

In a couple of days, I went to see him with P – she agreed and insisted on accompanying me – and I was touched. She told me, repeatedly, that I should terminate the relationship – that my man would understand. I didn’t understand this – mainly because I am such a caring person that letting him get on with it on his own wasn’t an option, and also because I am not a quitter (wrongly so here) and wouldn’t just give up cos a hurdle just presented itself. That was the beginning of the end of the relationship. He later on told me when we had an argument that he couldn’t never forgive me for bringing my friend along to the hospital – he didn’t like anyone apart from family seeing him like that, and that because he had wanted to tell me before, he felt that I ‘stole’ his chance and he couldn’t explain when his brain was ‘fried’ – as he used to call it.

He stayed in hospital for 3 weeks, then a couple of weeks out and he was back to work. Apparently this has happened a few times since university and his employers and parents and friends are aware of it. He had spoken to his parents and was due to tell me about it when it happened. All I can say is, I wouldn’t have been prepared for it if I had had a briefing a year in advance. It was one of the most confusing and terrifying times I have had.

Our relationship did continue for a while (8 months from start to finish) but I have to say that for all those times after that episode, I was always on edge – I wanted to fall in love with him, but I couldn’t. He was for all intents and purposes the man any woman would want to be with, and any man would want to be, but there is one cell (read hell) that neither of those genders would want to be a part of. Within this time I had met (before and after) his friends and family – and the latter had already adopted me as the future daughter in law – he had told them that he intended to marry me. But I knew I would never go through with it because:

– Children whose either parent has mental illness has a 50% chance of having a breakdown themselves. Once you are born into that grouping, you just need a ‘trigger’ to fire it and away you go. However loving and caring I am I wouldn’t want my child going through what he did – I know it sounds bad, but would you?

– Stress – being married (and life in general) is very stressful – there will be arguments and stuff – children – what if he couldn’t handle the pressure and ‘snapped’ – would I be able to look after kids and handle that? I know that thinking about it stressed me even more.
– Family – this is what P told me about it that time. “Listen G, you might be accepting of his condition, but what do you think your mum would say to you?” – damn, that had me stressing a whole lot more!
– His attitude towards his illness was denial – he was on medication but he only took it sometimes – like for the first part of our relationship, I wasn’t aware that he was on daily medication even though sometimes we spent a whole weekend together – he always stated that he could manage it and he knew when he needed the medication and when not!

Within this time frame I found myself analysing all the people that I met, friends and colleagues – and I made myself study all there is to learn about mental illness. I am surprised that it can happen to anyone and everyone – that we walk around pretending to be all high and mighty and especially Africans we consider people with mental illness as outcasts. Now I understand his apprehension with society, authority and race – and more so with the mental health issue – in hindsight – his parents would call the police on him and they would forcibly imprison him and take him away when he was unwell. Sometimes even administering electric shock treatment on him – I remember vividly when he was telling me this, he was crying.

I now know that mental illness is hereditary (mainly) and is wont to manifest itself at the onset of teenagehood, or when you are faced with extreme stress. More or less, I have now got the pointers to extreme stress or mental instability in people and I find that when people use the term ‘mad’ I kinda cringe inside cos I have seen the inside (albeit on the outside) of that side, and know that you shouldn’t take that lightly.

What is the lesson today, guys?

– It is very easy to dismiss ‘mad’ people – we all know the stigma that is associated with Mathare Hospital. I know the level of care attached to patients in Kenya and the UK are totally different, but damn, when people go to Mathare, I don’t think they ever come out.
– Mentally ill people can and do live lives to the fullest – my ex has a great career at the top of the ladder in IT, he owns a big house, a nice car, he can afford to do anything financially he wants – he has good friends, and although maintaining a relationship with a woman has been a problem, I don’t see why he cant live to have his own family who he loves and takes care of (I know this coz he is the most caring person you could ever meet)
– Just because someone looks and behaves like a ‘normal’ person, doesn’t mean their faculties upstairs are intact – watch out for extreme behaviour and be careful – not all mentally ill people are violent – he wasn’t – but at the same time, who knows what code in the head is left intact – violence is a basic human instinct you know?
– Being mentally ill doesn’t make you subhuman – and it hurts me that people just walk around stigmatising the mentally ill just because you ‘know’ that it isn’t normal – learn again and be kind to all. Everyone deserves to love and to be loved, irrespective of their mental state. Oh, and unless the case is extreme, they dont have a breakdown every other week, they might just have one in a lifetime if it is treated and they take care of themselves
– This issue gave me new insights into my tolerance levels – before then I had never dealt or even thought about mental illness, it was like something out there that doesn’t affect me or mine – and when this happened, I did not have a clue one way or the other how I was gonna react – but I went with my gut instinct and although it was as good as wading in the sea, I realised that I gave it a chance and I didn’t throw in the towel at that first hurdle.

The society doesnt make it easier either – it is bad enough to be black in the West, without a tag being placed on you as well for having a mental illness -however often it manifests itself. My ex was told at a very early age by his teachers that he would never amount to much, and now that he has a mental disorder, the society would say that he is a menace to society and no good for anything. We have all seen on TV how a mental patient who has escaped hospital or been released goes on to commit murder or assault – and that mental image is saved for anybody who is black and has the illness. We also know from statistics that mental health patients of black and other ethnic minorities do not get the care they need as opposed to their white counterparts. And you wonder why, when follow-ups arent done properly, the same patients goes and harm themselves or others. It is a pity. Every one of them deserves and should be given a support network of both the health professionals, their family and friends. Shame that most of us are all willing to run away at the first instance of danger – employing all labels to justify our disassociation and wariness of these patients.

I have learnt a lot about mental illness – especially that time when he was in hospital – I joined forums on the internet, read books and trawled the net to find all the information I could – I even knew about medication, side effects, lifestyle – I learnt as much as I could – and also spoke to my friend P who gave me all the information that I needed – both from a professional and personal point of view.

Also, our cultural norms prevent us from admitting to having this problem in our families -no one wants to be known for having a ‘mad’ person in their family, or they will be shunned but their friends or the society… I know this is bad and probably if I was on the other side of the fence I would behave the same -please people, I cant reiterate this enough, hiding behind a wall and hoping that the problem will go away does not help you or the person that you are ‘protecting’ -it only does damage in the short and long term. It is not a curse, an embarrassment, an abomination or any of that – it is just an illness that is not life-threatening, and it doesnt affect the quality of life if it is treated early and medical information and advice sort and executely appropriately.

I have written about my last encounter with mental illness herewhere my friend was suffering from clinical depression (thanksKenyanGal for reminding me about how even clinical depression is a cause for shame) and I hope that I will have changed a mind or two, or at least raised awareness to someone about this plight that is eating away in our lives that we hope and attempt to brush under the carpet, but trust me, it wont go away.

Think about this: When you have to sign papers for yourself or someone else, and there is a line that you have to declare that you are of sound mind, and you tick it without even thinking about it, do you know there are people just like you who cannot declare that? Can you tell? Enjoy the fact that you are of sound mind, and appreciate the fact that a select few arent.

In conclusion – judge not, lest you be judged. But, on a more sober note, if you know someone whose family has a history of mental illness, please please be gentle with them, but better still let them know that alcohol, and especially recreational drugs of any kind (especially cannabis) will not do them any favours in the long-term.