I am so grateful for all the women who have been so forthcoming with their stories on surviving depression thus far. What is clear is that the issue of depression and anxiety in Zimbabwean society is very much a pandemic; one which many of us choose to turn a blind eye to out of lack of knowledge or sheer misunderstanding.
This week’s writer has chosen to remain anonymous as she shares her story. We hope that readers will be encouraged by noting that one can emerge a true victor from the perils of this condition through prayer, commitment to getting help and powering through until the healing process is complete.
I don’t remember at what point the light began to fade in my life.
As a young child I was happy, free-spirited and cheerful, even if I was always a little quiet. I had a classic, wholesome upbringing in what I now refer to as “the Old Zimbabwe”- an era where power cuts were few and far between and the Zimbabwe Dollar was still legal tender. I excelled in academics at both junior and high school, and was often rewarded on prize giving night. My circle of friends, although small, was tight-knit and forged on genuine friendships, most of which have lasted into my adulthood. My parents, both successful business leaders, raised my siblings and I in a loving, Christian home where our individuality was celebrated and nurtured. Looking at my idyllic childhood, there was no indication that I would one day face the demon known as depression.
Depression. For a long time, I couldn’t even name my affliction. All I knew is that at some point in the transition from childhood, to the angst-ridden teenage years and finally, to young adulthood, a palpable darkness descended over my life, transforming me from the carefree little girl of my youth to a withdrawn, painfully insecure young woman, battling to maintain a brave face even while the sickness in my soul threatened to overwhelm me. Although there was no specific event that I can point to that signalled this cataclysmic shift, in hindsight I believe the sudden death of one of my closest friends at the end of high school may have triggered my descent into depression. There were other factors that came into play though.
Throughout my high school years I always felt different from the other kids, like I didn’t quite fit in. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, I would try to make myself as small and unnoticeable as possible. So great was my fear of drawing attention to myself that I remember sitting in class, refusing to put my hand up when the teacher had asked a question, even while the right answer echoed in my mind. I also believed I was unattractive and untalented. My older sister was the beautiful, talented one. Not only was she popular, but she seemed to excel at just about anything she set out to do at school, whether it was sports, singing or acting. For a while, I tried to do all the activities that she did, thinking that if I could be as good as her, maybe I would be popular too. I had to abandon this course of action when it turned out I wasn’t nearly as good at any of these activities as she was. To exacerbate my shame, teachers and other adults who knew my sister assumed that I would naturally follow in her footsteps.
Random Adult – “Your sister has such a beautiful voice? Does it run in the family?”
Me- *Blank stare*.
To make up for my self-perceived inadequacies, I told myself I had to excel at the only thing I was good at – academics. And in this endeavour, I resolved to take no prisoners. Failure was not an option. I had to be perfect, hide behind a veneer of academic achievements and accolades or else everyone would see what I was so desperate to hide– that I was a nobody, a sham, good for nothing. It was this kind of negative self-talk that my inner voice fed to my soul, day in and day out, until I internalised this destructive dialogue and made it my truth.
To top it all off, I was highly secretive. I couldn’t share any of my true feelings with my loved ones because they would be disappointed in me. I was their bright little academic, the one who never got into any trouble. I couldn’t let anyone see how much I disliked myself and wished the ground would just open up and swallow me. So I resolved to keep my own counsel. No matter what was going on inside, my standard response to the question, “Are you okay” would be “I’m fine”, spoken with a bright smile, even if the smile didn’t quite reach my eyes.
By the time I enrolled at university, I had perfected the art of wearing a mask to hide how I was really feeling inside. This, together with the combination of my natural reserve, secretive nature and low self esteem created the ideal emotional environment for the seeds of depression to germinate and take root. On the surface, I had everything going for me. Not only had I had been accepted into one of the top universities in South Africa, I had been awarded a scholarship based on my “A” level results that would cover 50% of my tuition fees. My parents had never been more proud. As this was the first time I would be away from the comfort of my childhood home, it was agreed that my mother would fly with me to South Africa to help me to settle into my new life as a college student.
Upon our arrival on campus, I was informed by student housing that despite my accommodation having been fully paid for and confirmed, the student accommodation was “overbooked” and I would be placed in “transit” accommodation whilst waiting for a space to open up. I was unperturbed by this news for the first week because my mother insisted that I stay with her at the pretty little guest lodge she was staying. This meant that not only did I get to spend the day shopping at Woolies and exploring the sights in Cape Town with my mum, I was also not subjected to the underwhelming food the rest of the students were eating at the student residence. It was only after my mother waved her goodbyes at the end of that first week that reality sank in. I was placed in an all-female transit residence which housed predominantly Black South Africans. For the first time in my 18 years of existence, I was alone in a foreign country, living in a room the size of a matchbox, together with another South African girl. All around me were people speaking a variety of South African languages which I could neither understand nor participate in. My loneliness was exacerbated by the fact that my roommate barely acknowledged my existence, insisting on speaking exclusively in Xhosa with her many friends who flitted in and out of our room on a daily basis. My shy nature prevented me from approaching any of the girls and attempting to strike up a conversation.
By the second week of orientation (“O-Week”), I had been allocated a place in one of the all-female student residences. This however, did little to alleviate my situation. The culture shock, language barrier and unfamiliar environment was overwhelming for me and I withdrew further and further into myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds of depression had already taken root in my mind, feeding my conscience with negativity and self-doubt. Stepping into the dining room in res for the first time, I had the unshakeable sense that the other girls were staring at me and laughing behind my back. This made me afraid to approach any of them, for fear of confirming what I had already internalised. So I would creep into the dining room, find an inconspicuous table to sit down and wolf down my meal in silence, before fleeing back to the sanctuary of my room.
In spite of my myself, I did manage to make one friend during O-Week, a gregarious, fun-loving girl named Rumbidzai. Though our personalities were polar opposites, we clicked somehow and were soon inseparable. As we were both studying the same degree, we attended most of the same classes. Like me, Rumbidzai was a natural achiever and had the same work ethic and drive to succeed as I did. In many ways, she was the perfect foil to my character. In Rumbi’s larger-than-life shadow, my unsociable traits became less noticeable, invisible even. She was everything that I was not. She could walk up and talk to that group of cute boys we had both been eyeing or organise a surprise birthday party for a friend. We became notorious on campus as the good-time girls. We thought nothing of going out clubbing from Thursday through to Sunday, even if we had an assignment due on Monday (which we both knew would be handed in on time, albeit after pulling an all-nighter). We would go out to bars, have drinks and play pool with guys. For a while, things seemed to improve in my life. For the first time, I had attention from the opposite sex. The first time a guy told me I was beautiful, I thought he was mocking me, so well had I internalised the image of myself as the ugly duckling. I didn’t know how to handle this seemingly alien attention from guys and drifted from one relationship to the next, never quite experiencing the happiness that other girls seemed to bask in with their boyfriends.
My new-found social life was however, a flimsy band-aid covering a festering wound. No amount of parties or romantic relationships could get rid of the feeling of utter worthlessness that I hid inside. That’s the thing about depression. Sometimes it can hide in plain sight. People assume that you can always tell when someone is depressed, that something in their facial expressions or body language will act as a cue to their inner pain. While this is true of depression in its worst stage, it is not necessarily obvious in the beginning. To those on the outside, I looked like every other fresher on campus. What they didn’t see were the days I would spend hours in my room with the curtains closed, sobbing under my duvet. Or the fact that I was bulimic, consuming mountains of junk food, only to force myself to bring it up again. Or that I was obsessed with losing weight, spending hours in the gym and counting every calorie, despite the fact that I was naturally slim. Or the fact that I couldn’t bear to leave my room without makeup on because I was convinced I looked hideous without it. I managed to hide all of this from the prying eyes of the outside world by keeping a big smile on my face, by going out every weekend, by maintaining good grades. Even at the height of my depression, I was still achieving some of the highest marks in my class and never once failed a subject.
On the inside however, I was dying. The more my outside life shouted success and confidence, the more I felt like a fraud internally. Without Rumbi to keep me company (she lived in a different residence from me), I began to take food from the dining room in a lunchbox to eat alone in my room, spending more and more time in solitude. Apart from Rumbi and whatever guy happened to be wooing me at the moment, I had no real friends. It’s hard to determine what came first. Was I depressed because I was lonely, or was I lonely because my depression made me moody and unapproachable? As one (honest) girl told me, other girls tended to avoid me because they interpreted my solitude as arrogance. I became increasingly isolated.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be depressed unless you’ve experienced it. The best way I can describe it is this – it feels like all the joy and happiness has been sucked out of your life and all that remains is darkness. Negativity. Like a festering black hole in the pit of your stomach that never quite goes away. Even whilst you are laughing and making jokes. It obliterates your hopes and dreams. For a while, you learn to live with this inner hopelessness and despair until it becomes knit into the very fabric of your soul – As familiar as the face of an old friend. And finally, when the darkness starts to overpower you – you start to look for a way out.
 Name changed