The price we pay for stress

I’ve never understood why so many seemingly composed white people I know take anti-depressants and see therapists.

I used to judge them because I thought their lives were easy compared with those of black people. In my distant and one-dimensional vision of them I used to think they had it all — smooth hair, nice clothes, stable incomes and fancy food and they could afford to go on holiday.

Recently, I sat one of my friends down and asked her why she sees a therapist — she is one of the most stable and secure people I know. We all have our fair share of problems but I couldn’t understand why she had to pay for hers to be sorted out.

She responded with a perplexed grin on her face that suggested I shouldn’t dare ask the question but she answered simply: “It’s not because I think my problems can’t be solved; I view my therapist as a sounding board to my life.” She then took a sip of wine, as did I, her expression one of subtle pride that she had been able to answer the question with succinct satisfaction.

Not even a month later, I was high on a cocktail of tranquillisers that another anti-depressant, pill-popping friend of mine had given me after I almost collapsed in a well of tearful anxiety about my work-related stress, which to a distant observer may appear trivial if not undetectable.

The next morning I was at my neighbourhood coffee shop working on a story when I was approached by a woman who, I knew, just by the tilt of her neck and the droop in her eyes, was going to ask for help. I had a set of bold Skull Candy headphones on, which are usually sufficient to deter unwanted interruption by strangers.

She pulled out a chair and sat down. I took off my earphones and greeted her in isiXhosa. She folded her hands and exposed a dull ring on her finger. “My child, how are you?’ she said in a isiZulu accent that belonged to a Xhosa person who has spent too much time in Jo’burg. “I’m fine, mama. How are you?” I responded. She was out of place amid the Mac Book Pro’s, R16 cappuccinos, Scrabble boards and indy art.

She said she came from somewhere on the Vaal; she was a domestic and had reported for work but her mlungu was not answering the door or his phone. She had spent all her money travelling to Jo’burg and the mlungu was meant to pay her after work. It didn’t get to the point where she asked me for money. I took out R35 from my wallet, handed it to her and we eased into a conversation about where we came from.

After she left, the lump that lives in my throat resumed its position and I thought about how different and similar we are. Hers may be worn on her sleeves but just because I silence my stress with designer headgear doesn’t make it more bearable. Suddenly, I could relate to those who pay much more than R35 for their problems to be shared.

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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