By the grace of you

Since meeting in high school 12 years ago, Puleng and I have seen each other through heartbreaks, loss, brokeness and pretty much every horrid and glorious thing imaginable.

Over the years, we both fell into depressive episodes, were admitted to hospital and treated for depression and anxiety. We talk and write for survival, because we are gifts
unto each other. Negotiating, reflecting, teaching and becoming, but most importantly, staying alive by the grace of our friendship and ancestors.

We’d like to dedicate this conversation to our friends and family who support our breaths, who fight their own battles of the mind and to Naledi, who took her own life last week.

Vuyiswa: So maybe a good place to start is the first time you thought or felt you were depressed?

Puleng: I didn’t know I was depressed at all. I had never thought I was depressed until I was told I was depressed. I didn’t have the language for it. I didn’t know what it was.
The first time I heard about depression was in grade 10 through a friend and even then I didn’t have the empathy …

V: Or understanding …

P: Yeah … that she needed. Now, in hindsight, I’d say I wasn’t really empathetic. It took me going through it to get it.

When I found out I was depressed I felt heartbroken and irreparable — like nothing could fix me or the state that I was in, and it showed in everything: in my weight loss and how I was neglecting the things that I loved to do.

One Friday after college, I decided to go see my gran. I didn’t get out of bed the next day and she came to ask me if I was okay. I just broke down in tears. She called my mom and we went to the hospital, and the doctor was like: “There’s nothing physically wrong with this person. She’s depressed.”

And that was that.

V: Knowing what I know now, I’d say I’ve been depressed since I was in grade six, although my first diagnosis was in 2010, after I failed matric — which I failed ’cause I was depressed, lol.

And now, after numerous episodes and breakdowns, the trick lies in awareness — of myself and of the world that I live in.

Depression’s made me an empathetic person and, in a way, I see it in everyone. I don’t know how you can live in this world — especially as a black woman — and not be mentally ill because capitalism breeds depression, racism breeds depression, the world we live in as it operates breeds depression. The sooner we learn that, the sooner we can understand depression and start to heal.

I mean, my mom is depressed, but she can’t recognise it — never mind admit it. The terminology and exclusivity of where and when depression is discussed also leads to the lack of understanding and stigma. We need new terms in our own languages for what mental illnesses are.

P: In understanding my depression, so much of it was influenced by the outside world. I couldn’t term it for myself because, sure, I can be depressed and you can be depressed, but our trauma and triggers aren’t the same.

For me, it’s about taking care of yourself and learning to define things yourself. The time when I was first diagnosed with depression in 2010 and what I know now, seven years later, are different. I’ve learned to look at my depression and understand what it is.

The thing about it is that depression can be isolating, but it kinda forces you to be in touch with yourself. You need to listen to your body, listen to your heart, be in tune with who you are. Pay attention.

V: Yep, because for me I can’t separate depression from a healthy intuition — from a healthy understanding and listening of things beyond you.

Because, the red flags and signs come in many ways. For black folk, stress is a euphemism for depression, so is high blood pressure. Nobody wants to call it depression, but that’s what it is.

We’ve both found that ho pahla and connecting le badimo ba rona has helped with our illness. For Puleng, when she has not been home in the Free State for a while, or has not been talking to her ancestors, a relapse is imminent.

V: I believe my depression is not just about me. I feel like my heart and soul don’t ache just for me.

Even through a Western lens, epigenetics says that the power of genetics is not just physical attributes, but also the inheritance of personality traits and experiences.

And if we think about the history of black people throughout time, I’d say depression is hereditary. We’ve inherited our parents’, grandparents’ and whole bloodline’s trauma. So in our treatment of mental illnesses, we need holistic approaches.

Also, if black people, who are inherently about botho and its encompassing principles of equality and a collective state of being, if you take those people and you put them in a capitalist system you …

P: … eradicate their humanity.

V: You fuck them up completely. I mean capitalism, and debt as a result of that system … How many of our parents are, in their minds and spirits, not well because they owe furniture shops and retailers money?

P: Uh-huh.

V: Mess. You also went through pre-natal depression.

P: Well, I don’t know if mine was prenatal because I was depressed and on treatment when I fell pregnant.

I went to my GP and he just took me off my depression meds without a proper evaluation or even asking me how I felt. Three months in, I was like, “What is going on?!”

I was as sick as a dog. I was sad.

V: Do you think there were triggers?

P: Work, financial security. I had just started my job and I wanted to prove that I was capable, that I could do this. I was finally getting the salary I deserved and I wanted to show up, to be good at my job, and to help my mom.

But I was falling apart. And that’s the thing about depression. I had a supportive boyfriend, my mother was excited, but I was still depressed.

What I’m trying to say is, people think depression is situational and, sure, harsh conditions make you prone to it, but this is what we just keep missing. Naledi committed suicide, she was beautiful and smart. She had all the things people think make for a happy life, but she couldn’t stay alive.

I was talking to my mom about Naledi’s funeral and she was telling me how suicide hurts them as parents because ba e kgantsa ka rona as their children, they take pride in
us. I was telling her, “Then tell your children.”

Naledi died without knowing how her mother felt about her. With our parents, there’s so much pressure to progress materialistically. Can’t you be proud of the friends I have or the person I am?

Parents need to speak to their kids. They need to be available for their kids to talk to — both as a parent and as a friend.

Everyone is yearning to be free, to be themselves and the more you deny yourself that journey, the more you are going to go out of your mind.

So stop resisting yourself!

There is this fear that’s been instilled in us. I don’t know how we can teach people — yona leyo, leyo ndlela — that no one has taken, ihambe, connect with your journey and stop trying to be like Thandi and Thabo. That’s where the depression comes in, when you try to find alternatives ways of …

V&P: Beeeeeeeing!

P: As a parent, I’m also learning to humble myself, to deliberately create a space of transparency and trust with my child. This is our chance to fix this, with our kids.

V: It’s about listening to yourself, to all of the other things that exist outside of yourself — your gut, badimo ba heno, Modimo.

Those have been a source of strength for me, knowing and trusting that my ancestors have my back, that there is more than me.

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