I was a freelance props guy in television commercials. Not a very good one. A hardworking one. I was a nice guy. A very good one. One film director once quipped on set,”Chris you work really hard. You are stupid but you work really hard.” Obviously, that left me really confused. Should I relish the compliment as I processed the seeming insult?
We had parted ways with my then boss and I independently sought work from some of the companies with whom we’d previously worked. This was in early recovery – in 1999 -a truly fascinating time. So fascinating that when I think about it now, how I survived that era of navigating early recovery baffles me. Life felt like a rudderlessness ship in the unchartered territory of a sober adult life.
This one time Ginger Ink called me to work on a commercial; a beer TV commercial. I was dreading the experience. I needed the money. But the last commercial my crew and I had worked on was such a terrible experience. We had kept on second guessing ourselves through every scene, working with a seriously underestimated unrealistic props budget, and we had consistently pulled in 20 hour days over two weeks.
I could see this next shoot going the same way. Or worse. And that would kill me. Worse, I could drink again. And then die. It was a beer commercial after all and my department was in charge of the entire product. I woke early one morning, wrote a letter to Ginger, indicating I why I couldn’t work on the production. I was too scared to have a face to face meeting with her so I left the letter with the security guard at the gate and left.
She called me in to talk about what was going on. In a conversation in the kitchen, I told Ginger I was having it rough. I was not going to work on the production.
“Why? Are you working on something else?”
“Do we pay too low?”
I was letting her do the work. I didn’t know how to say what I didn’t know how to say yet I needed to say.
“Chris, what is really, really, going on over there with you?”
I eventually did communicate that I was petrified at working on the upcoming television commercial.
I think Ginger figured out that I was not in a good place, so she made the weirdest of offers: she asked me to come into the office every day of the production and sit in the garden and do nothing else but show up. She would ensure I got something to eat and some bus fare.
I ended up working on the production. And got me some money to pay off some of my debts, rent arrears and have me some regular meals.
A year later, I was admitted at Chiromo Lane Medical Centre with severe depression and deeply suicidal. During my stay there, I got medication and the obligatory counselling sessions. I also underwent electroconvulsive therapy; a procedure, done under general anaesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. After 10 days in hospital, with a severe memory loss as a side effect of the ECT, I was discharged and put on medical treatment that lasted another 6 years or so. In that time, I also sought counseling from various therapists and read up on anything that I could find about depression.
I realised that what Ginger did in that kitchen was a huge gesture that possibly saved my life.
Let’s face it, listening to a depressed person can be draining and exhausting. It is potentially depressing; the self-pity, the excuses, the rationalization, the victimhood, the negativity about everything. If you do not know how depression manifests itself, it is difficult, nay impossible, to believe that depression is NOT a self-inflicted choice one makes. All the signs of bad choices are there. What with the procrastination and broken promises? Or the underwhelming attempts to get out of it? The poor me, poor me attitude? Or the binges in alcohol, sex and unhealthy relationships? Or just silence, prolonged silence? Or, finally, with finality, suicide?
This past week, I lost someone to suicide. I am grieving because it seems so, so needless. A man, an artist and very possibly depressed. We’ll never know. When I hear how his body was found, I understand the possible why of it. There are several possible whys that are playing in my head right now as I think about what triggered the carbon monoxide poison route that he chose to go. Few belongings; sparse furnishings with no food in the house. All signs of a struggling artist who depended on his art for a living. And could not, resulting in his death. Oh, the irony!
I am saddened because of the inevitable hush that now abounds and other theories of the cause of his death that are now prevailing amongst the relatives. There is even one theory that he taped up all the windows and door spaces, lit the jiko in the bedroom because he was feeling cold. We will believe anything except that it was suicide. And we will not talk ill of the dead. We are Africans.
Thing is, I understand that reconciling oneself to any loss is often awkward, difficult and personal. With suicide, it is worse.
A few years ago, I asked a student at a local university who was doing a class project on alcoholism and recovery, to let me share my story as the class project. During the Q & A session, one student wondered why there was laughter in what was a rather tragic story. My host, it being her class project, responded that it was the individual’s honourable way of dealing with the impact of my story. They were not laughing at me, or at themselves. They were laughing in place of crying; in place of losing hope.
Similarly, I understand the current reactions to all who are dealing with this close person’s death.
”He should have said. Perhaps we would have helped.”
“We all have problems. We are still here, aren’t we?”
“Why couldn’t he just man up?”
“Suicide is cowardly.”
In the meantime, I will not blame you for not understanding depression or the depressive. Depression is complicated, it is complex. All I ask is that you own the pain you feel. Own it! Then you will be confronted with the real choice, to blame the man in the coffin or stop the next one from getting there before their due date.
Me, I am tired of the needlessness of truly avoidable deaths.