For 31-year-old Nyaruai Gitonga, mental illness has been part and parcel of her life.She has been bipolar since childhood. She suffered bouts of depression in her teens. In 2009, Nyaruai Gitonga was involved in a freak road accident along Mombasa Road that claimed the life of her friend. Initially presumed dead, Nyaruai was taken to the morgue alongside her friend. However, a cough in the morgue saved her from the world of the dead to that of the living. She was hospitalized for three months, spending a month in the intensive care unit (ICU), in a comma. She was paralyzed from the neck down. The incident impacted her life in fundamental ways. Nyaruai, who is a brand manager and entrepreneur, shares her incredible story of resilience, her triumphant recovery journey and as a passionate mental health advocate.
You shared an interesting post on your LinkedIn page on 3rd August 2020. What triggered this post?
It’s funny actually, it was a beautiful Sunday the day before the post and I thought to myself ‘I’d like to go for an afternoon run’ and I did it. Doesn’t sound like much without perspective, I found myself thinking back to the 5 year period after the my accident that left me paralyzed from the neck down, which was an extremely difficult time physically especially for me when I couldn’t just dash out for an afternoon run.
Unbeknown to me at the time my mental health was deteriorating as well and I held on to my sanity with everything I had. Doing everyday things have always required an excess amount of energy and focus, but on this Sunday afternoon it took little to no effort to go for a run.
The original post was on Instagram on Sunday and on Monday I decided to share it on LinkedIn, a business platform, I recalled how over the years my mental illness has negatively affected my career, quitting well-paying jobs with great bosses for no other reason than I could not get out of bed and go to work one more time.
Now that I’m running a successful business with everyone I come into contact to including business partners aware of my mental illness and it changed nothing, I wanted to break the stigma that a professional can suffer from a mental illness and still be successful without hiding their illness. Like any other physical illness, you can manage your mental illness and live a successful meaningful life.
What happened on the fateful day?
I was managing a popular bar in Westlands at the time. The details have become foggy over the years but the long and short of it is I was with a friend in their car maybe going to a new spot, not sure, but we never made it to the destination and sadly my friend didn’t survive.
How did this experience impact your life and mental health?
Interesting choice of word ‘life’…I have thought of being dead for as long as I remember and the older I got the thoughts transitioned into desire. I wanted to be dead.
After my 20th birthday I knew in my heart I knew I would not see my 21st first birthday and five months later, I had the car accident. My thoughts when I woke up in the hospital were that ‘I was so close, so close’ and felt disappointed. The fact that my friend did not survive but I, the person who had always wished to be dead did, it still bothers me from time to time.
To put it simply I have never cared to be alive but now that I have been able to put a name to what ails me and gotten treatment I find that I don’t hate being alive anymore.
I’m early into my recovery journey but what I have experienced, felt and lived thus far has me excited for the future.
What was the reaction from your family, friends and those close to you?
Family was/is convinced that this is all an elaborate lie and con this in the backdrop of me not leaving my room for four months, not leaving the house for eight months. My bank accounts were deactivated. My phone was off for eight months and my service provider even deactivated my line. I talked to no one. Not friends or family. I was having crying fits. I gained weight, had dark circles, lost friends, wasn’t working, wasn’t going to school wasn’t doing much of anything. I had no history of lying, pretending or running cons but despite my very evident mental and physical deterioration they ensured everyone thought negatively of me ensuring that I did not receive help. And it worked.
At what point did you feel that what you were going through needed medical attention?
I knew I needed help when breathing and being alive was a torturous experience.
You were diagnosed with severe depression and bipolar. What was your immediate reaction? How about those close to you?
I had an inclination to the depression but what I had never imagined in my wildest dreams was being told I was bipolar. So I asked my doctor what bipolar was and once she explained it and suddenly my entire life made sense for the very first time. That was the first time I felt a little flutter of hope that things could actually get better for me.
As for family they thought I made the entire diagnosis up and said that I simply went to the doctor to whine because everyone has problems to get a desired diagnosis.
You have made reference to some ‘con’ business you were being unfairly accused of. What was this all about?
While in the depths of my illness, I found the strength to write a book on my experience to help the countless people in similar situations. It’s a 90page script if I remember correctly. I called local publishers but they were all busy with what was to be the new curriculum so I looked for an international publishing house and found one.
I sent my badly written script to Eliezer Tristian Publishing (ETP) in the US and got a response. They liked the core content for the book but it needed to be edited and instead of paying an editor I opted for a course, which was going to cost $3,000 with them.
During this period of my mental decline, I hadn’t worked for over a year. I had no money and when I spoke out publicly asking for help I was summarily cut off. I borrowed money from a friend to survive. I survived on credit extensions from my hairdresser when I was looking for the job and the first month working before getting my first paycheck. I needed supplements and medications to manage my physical and mental symptoms. Thankfully, I found a pharmacist (stranger) to extend me lines of credit at the time, and she is still my pharmacist for two years on. Strangers, my sister and long lost friends were very extremely kind and gracious to me there is always a silver lining in terrible times so I’m grateful for them.
Given that I was flat broke, I decided to set up an online fundraiser to get the money for the course at ETP. But when it was up, my family responded swiftly by claiming there was never a script. This was despite me sharing documents with the online platform for them to approve my fundraising, tagging the publishers on the post and them liking it.
It was outrageous that I could connive with an international publishing house run by a New York best-seller author, in a six-month con game totaling $3,000, which I could have earned in three months in my different jobs and hustles. All this while I had never taken a bank loan. I have borrowed once from one of the mobile money services, and from an auntie in my entire life, only to be accused of not only trying to con family, but friends and the public as well.
What was your experience during this period you were battling mental illness?
It was an incredibly lonely experience since my family had gone out of their way to make sure everyone thought that I was only looking for attention, which makes no sense. I’ve always gotten attention because of my competitive nature which pushes me to win I win in academics, work, fitness and anything I put my mind to.
I have been an honour student all my life, started working at the age of 17. I’m always in the top 10 per cent in my endeavors, a social butterfly. I was paralyzed neck down and recovered without the aid of physical therapy. I couldn’t read or write and had 50 per cent brain damage after the accident when I joined university just six months after the accident and graduated with 2nd class honours. I’m not tooting my own horn but perspective is key.
Because this illness is so personal when people lack the support from those close to them it makes it difficult for the outer circle to intervene or help which is understandable.
How did your manage your situation? What sort of medical care did you get?
After the diagnosis I was given one month by the family to find a job to pay for the treatment of my ‘pretended’ illness with over one year gap in my CV. After being unemployed for nearly two years, I got a job in less than a month and got on with my recovery.
When I was diagnosed, I was meant to get on medication because of how sever the illness was at the time but my therapist Dr.Judith Osok decided to see if there would be any improvement with therapy first before getting me on medication. I went for regular therapy sessions for over a year and I used supplements to manage the physical manifestations of the chemical imbalance. I started getting better day by day to the point I am at now.
How has your recovery journey has been?
My journey has been nothing if not interesting. There are bad aspects of mental illness but there are also positive aspects. There are things I can do that my mind allows me to do that many can’t. So I am happy managing my illness but I no longer look at it as the enemy.
What would you say is the role of the society in managing mental illnesses?
I’m not sure how to answer this because society let me down in my darkest moment which has allowed me to embrace my ‘lone wolf’ personality which is working great for me but I know it doesn’t work for everyone.
What I can say is that mental illness is a chronic illness, meaning it has no cure and if you cannot say or do something to a person with a physical illness such as cancer, organ failure and other chronic illnesses, then you cannot do or say the same to a person suffering a mental illness.
When people reach out, society turns on them then when the illness wins and takes their life, they speak so nobly of the deceased. There is no one in this world who has a mental illness who gets to leave this world at their convenience. This monster will hold on to you till it has drained all the life, happiness, sanity and humanity out of you, leaving only a shell behind. Only then will it let you go. If it was that easy, I would have left this world before my 18th birthday because I had had enough I was all drained out.
So before you look down at or poorly of an individual with mental illness just know that it affects one in every four people and its closer to you than you think.
From your experience, would you say the country is well prepared to manage mental illnesses?
I personally used the suicide hotline and was very surprised that it works but the fact that I had to look for the information and did not really have an idea on where to get help I don’t think the country is prepared.
We don’t have adequate resources with less than 2,000 experts in the country, the lack of sensitization in communities, lack of resources to institutions in the mental health sector, we have a long way to go.
Recently, a Task Force appointed by the Government to advise on management of mental illnesses recommended that mental illness should be declared a National Emergency of epidemic proportions. Do you think this will lead to better management of the problem in the country?
I don’t only think it will lead to better management of the problem in the country. I know for a fact it will. The first public debate on mental health was held in the first quarter in 2019 just after I had received my diagnosis. I attended the meeting in a packed conference room of doctors, government officials, and industry players and shared my story.
I was able to show that the people who are a threat to an individual with mental illness are the people closest to them family, spouses, co-workers, friends and relatives. They are the ones that can do the most harm and shared some practices in European countries like Belgium that allow an individual to appoint a ‘supporter’ who can be a lawyer, friend, doctor anyone who you know has your best interest at heart to act on your behalf in the event you cannot.
I personally will protect myself moving forward, moreover all the issues I raised were added to the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill 2018, which protects individuals from not only state but family as well. I was impressed that the amended bill had incorporated my comments. This is an achievement for me.
I attended the second public debate session and I am now pushing for the information regulation on public platforms on mental health, mental illness and treatment, among other issues of concern. I have seen individuals, professionals and even doctors sharing misinformation on the issue. When I was writing my ‘‘supposedly fictitious book’’ I did extensive research on mental health and illness. Well, this has made me very well informed and maybe this was the whole point of writing the book…
Reports show that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental illness in the country, specifically depression and anxiety. What tell tale signs should one watch out for and seek immediate medical attention?
This is a stressful time for everyone and for some this could trigger or exacerbate a mental illness a few things you can watch out for when out of the normal range of the individual;
- Isolation-someone pulling away from their circle
- Loss of interest in things they once enjoyed
- Over eating or undereating
- Over sleeping or having insomnia
- Decline of personal and surrounding hygiene
If you have recurring suicidal ideations seek help immediately. If you the suicidal ideations progress to plans call a suicide hotline.
What lessons have you learnt in your battle with mental illness?
I have learnt that I can make a real difference in how mental health and mental illness is treated and looked at in this country and I will use my voice and story to advocate for those who can’t.
When everyone you know turns his or her back on you, press on. As long as your mind, body and soul are healthy, you will survive and thrive.
I used to be wary of strangers but I have learnt it’s the people closest to you who can hurt you the most.
You are now a champion for mental health. What are you doing about it?
I speak out at all opportunities and I have just started a 10 week course on becoming a Mental Health Champion which is run by Dr. Margaret Kagwe, a mental health specialist.
I educated everyone in my sphere who I meet and regularly share my story on public platforms.
I have put the infamous ‘‘book’’ on the back burner for now. I feel people are watching my story to see what that girl who was crying on a Facebook video post saying she was going to kill herself can accomplish now that she has gotten treatment. I will rewrite the script without an editor now that my mind is healing and make a point that millions of Kenyans in the same position need to make.
What’s your message to anyone grappling with mental illness at this time?
I would say that as long as you’re doing the best you can in the moment, then it’s enough and there is treatment and resources available to you that can better any situation you maybe in.
When seeking help, reach out to a qualified counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist and have a professional guide you.While support is good, the lack of it cannot and should not hinder your recovery. Just as you can break a bone, whether people support you or not, you will heal, as long as you get treatment.
PS: The World Health Organization (WHO) says that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. The WHO cites stigma, discrimination and neglect as preventing care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders. ‘‘Where there is neglect, there is little or no understanding. Where there is no understanding, there is neglect,’’ says WHO.
In Kenya, it is estimated that one in every 10 people suffer from a common mental disorder. The number increases to one in every four people among patients attending routine outpatient services. The Mental Health Amendment Bill (2018) is still pending before the Senate. It is billed to provide a framework for promotion of mental well-being of all persons, including reducing the incidences of mental illnesses. It also seeks to reduce the impact of mental illnesses including effects of stigma on individuals, family and the community.
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