Thursday, July 25, 2024

NKONDO YAMU BONGO: The Battle of the Extremes and the Stigma Associated with Mental Health-Part 1


Men’s mental health is underrated and overlooked, most think they are strong but they are not.
This personal account highlights the author’s struggles with mental health, depression, and anxiety, which were exacerbated by various factors such as financial challenges, unemployment, toxic relationships, and a lack of support. The author shares their experiences, including hospital visits and counseling sessions, to raise awareness and encourage others to prioritize their mental well-being. The article emphasizes the importance of seeking help, breaking the stigma surrounding mental health, and fostering a supportive environment for healing and growth.

“When God wants to punish a dog, he removes its sense of smell; when he wants to punish a human, he removes their sense of shame.”

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges are more prevalent now than ever before. Today, I want to share my experience as a mental health patient to raise awareness and help others avoid finding themselves in a similar situation. Life has thrown challenges at me like a baseball, and the devil has been hitting home runs. But, like the scene in the story of Jesus when the ship was under the storm, all the disciples needed to do was shake Jesus up for him to calm the storm. My recollection of events and clarity is a manifestation that resilience through the right mindset can deal with depression and anxiety even under the greatest opposition.

Understanding Mental Health

The brain is the most vital organ in the human body. It must be taken care of just like you must take care of your body. Just like you must brush your teeth, it’s important that your brain is placed in a supportive environment rather than one which keeps it under unnecessary stress for prolonged periods of time. We must feed the mind with affirming thoughts and read that which we want to be our output. Just like in boxing, where you must protect yourself at all times, it’s crucial to be vigilant about toxic relationships and behaviors, both from yourself and your environment. Yes, I am a mental health patient. I have been to Ndola Psychiatric Hospital and Chainama Hills Hospital since 2020. But how did I get here?

The Roots of My Depression

I attribute my depressive state to several factors: extended financial challenges, unemployment, toxic marital and family relationships, and a lack of a support system.

In 2019, I was employed as the manager for Kawambwa District Cooperative Union under the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Initially, it seemed like a great opportunity for professional growth. However, things quickly turned negative. After the first two months of receiving my salary (June and July), the funding stopped, and we were not paid from August to December 2019. I had to borrow money from loan sharks to survive, taking a loan of 5,000 kwacha at a 50% monthly interest rate. My salary was only 6,000 kwacha. Despite not having funding, I mobilized the cooperatives to supply 90 tonnes of maize to a milling company in Kapiri District called Kamunda Milling. Unfortunately, the said milling company did not pay in accordance with the time in the contract and delayed, but suffice to say, 270,000 kwacha was deposited into the account of Kawambwa District Cooperative Union. Unfortunately for me, my contract of employment stated that my salary should not come from the transaction account of the union. It was strictly for the cooperatives; commingling of funds was not permissible as a separate account for salaries and statutory fees had been opened. The project was meant to improve the operations of the cooperative union and not disturb its financial situation in any way. This was cast in black and white, and as such, the cooperative officials were tied. By December 2019, the funding for salaries had not come, I was drowning in debt, and with no funding in sight, I resigned.

The Lack of Support

As a man, I needed to be the leader and provider for my immediate and extended family. However, under the circumstances, this obligation was far-fetched for that moment.

Unfortunately, my spouse was not supportive. She declared that all her finances were directed towards her training in China by her employers—a trip marred by unfortunate events and postures that do not respect the institute of marriage. I had to navigate the tough terrain of debt and survival in Kawambwa alone. At one point, I stayed in a village. In January 2020, after handing over my responsibilities, I returned to my wife’s house to restart my life.

The First Homerun

Upon reaching Ndola, I found that my spouse had gone for military training, and command had appointed her friend to stay as a caretaker. I was expected to live with her friend. I objected to this unreasonable arrangement and politely asked her to leave on principle.

Meanwhile, my son had been moving from Kabwe to Solwezi without my consultation, and my family on the other side failed to communicate. He had to stay with my sister-in-law, and I had no problem with that as it was the best decision at that moment. I had hit rock bottom and needed a plan. I decided to look within and formulate a more stable and reliable source of income. While confined in KSQ3 Kansenshi Prison camp, time was of the essence. I was failing in my role as a father. I came up with the idea of F(A+C+T+A+R) based on my strengths in forestry. I wrote project proposals targeting the Citizens Economic Empowerment Funds under the Industrial Yards, but that proposal, though approved, did not go through to this day. I also did research to find a solution for wooden utility pole maintenance and submitted it to ZAFFICO, ZESCO, REA, the Ministry of Energy, and ZICTA, as optic fiber is mounted on wooden utility poles, but that did not work out. Despite the dark and foodless environment, my veterinary colleagues in Ndola visited me, offering support and noticing the deteriorating state of my health. They pointed out that my spouse should be supportive, but she wasn’t. She claimed her salary was directed towards military training again, so she had no means of providing support.

One of my veterinary colleagues observed the toxic environment I was living in and offered to take me to Lusaka to stay with my parents. However, my parents castigated me and told me not to run away from my home. Out of respect, I returned to the toxic environment.

The Second Homerun

While my spouse was training in Kabwe, it was time for her cohort to travel to Western Province. She found time to visit Ndola, arriving with a laptop bag. Her attitude was dismissive, and she exhibited a fake military bravado. I kept my composure and continued writing my articles in hopes that the storm would settle down.

The next morning, I had a client meeting for a forestry project. I decided to use her laptop bag to look organized. To my surprise, I found contraceptives inside the bag. This discovery was profoundly depressing, confirming the rumors I had heard from neighbors. I abandoned the client engagement, feeling utterly hopeless. For the first time, I felt so low and exhausted. My spouse left the next day, unconcerned. This marked the beginning of dark days and bright nights, where I slept during the day and worried through the night.

This is the first time I started experiencing the battle of the extremes, the extreme high as in feeling happy and extreme low when I looked at my situation. Trying to find equilibrium was a challenge.

The Third Homerun

Financially, I was struggling until the Zambia Correctional Service pass-out was held somewhere around June 2020. I was not invited, and I felt embarrassed when I heard about it from neighbors. My family advised me to stay put, but navigating Ndola without money was incredibly tough. My mental health deteriorated further, and I began experiencing memory losses, staying awake for up to four days at a time. To cope, I started writing everything in my journal so that when I eventually fell asleep due to medication, I wouldn’t lose my train of thought. I visited the mental hospital, and the counselor at Ndola Psychiatric Hospital looked at my situation through my journal. She said, “I see you have strength in writing, why don’t you focus on writing articles in forestry. Keep your mind busy. Instead of dwelling on all these negatives, why don’t you write an article in forestry, identify a problem, and offer solutions? Do something that makes you feel accomplished.” She challenged me to bring her an article at the next counseling session, which we could review together.

One Saturday, I was invited by my friend to watch a football game at the Indeni Sports Complex between ZESCO and another forgettable team (one ZEGA). My nephew, Mwila Phiri, was playing for ZESCO, and I wanted to watch him live. We sat in the terraces. That’s when I noticed the wooden terraces were defective. I took pictures (extremely happy) and jotted down some notes on my phone. ZESCO won. When I reached home, I found my spouse in the garden on the phone. I arrived and sat in the living room. All I could do was lift my lion cub (Gonjetsani-Mwana wa Nkalamu) and kiss him. “No sweets and no biscuits for now,” I said in my heart. As I watched TV, my spouse came into the house from the garden, still on the phone. After 29 minutes, she was still on the phone, and I noticed the conversation was with a man. I retired to our bedroom to avoid the irritating behavior and potential conflict. I sat on the bed and felt sad (extreme low). I started brainstorming ways to remedy the situation, and before I knew it, the Roman Catholic bell rang. It was 6 PM, and my daily routine of escaping home had to begin to head to the library. At one point, the librarians noticed that I used to sleep a lot in the library. I explained that I found the place peaceful. I also told them I took medication to help me sleep and showed them the amitriptyline. The effect of that medication is dizziness.

Anyway, I took action regarding the hazard the defective wooden terraces posed to the fans and wrote to the Ndola City Council and the Engineering Institute of Zambia. As a result, they removed the defective terraces and opted for better and safer options. We celebrated this achievement – it was a goal for both me and the psychiatric counselor.

The Fourth Homerun

When my spouse returned, she treated me with a military attitude, often calling me a civilian to imply I was less of a man than those in uniform. She would allow phone calls at odd hours, and sometimes men in uniform would visit, and she would cook for them but not for me. This was a harsh reality for me. At the time, COVID-19 was at its peak, and it worsened my depressive state. I had to drag myself to the hospital for help.

Given these circumstances, finding a job was impossible. I had no financial support, and my spouse was untouchable, keeping herself isolated from me. I was essentially hopeless. To reduce stress, I started leaving KSQ3 Kansenshi Prison early in the morning to go to the council library in Ndola town, returning only around 8 PM.

At some point, I noticed my spouse was pregnant. She informed me via text, and I was shocked, given our strained relationship and her interactions with other men. Disrespect peaked when an officer called her at an inappropriate time, asking about his baby. I had had enough. On April 28, 2021, I was arrested at Kansenshi Police Station for Gender Based violence. The other man in the conflict went Scott free till this day. I hope authorities look at such situations and adress this Room 18 scenario so that all parties are punished equally. Throughout her pregnancy, my spouse never involved me in antenatal visits, preferring to have other officers accompany her instead. To this day, I deny the pregnancy, as her actions and behavior do not align with the truth.

The Fifth Homerun

Since my last employment in Kawambwa had not paid me my dues as of July 2020, loan sharks began threatening my life and that of my family. These threats in Kawambwa are not just words; they can be acted upon. I pleaded with the director of cooperatives, Mr. Mungalaba, for help, and eventually, the payment came through. However, my debt had accumulated significantly. I called a meeting with the loan sharks, paid them proportionately, and asked for debt cancellation, as I was no longer working. They agreed, but the stress from my spouse’s behavior persisted.

The Sixth Homerun

I discovered my spouse was pregnant through a text message. Given our strained relationship and her inappropriate behavior, I was shocked and dismayed. Her lack of communication and emotional distance continued throughout her pregnancy. She preferred communicating with others over me, further isolating me emotionally. This caused a rift at home and added stress to my life.

The Seventh Homerun

Throughout our marriage, my spouse’s infidelity and inappropriate behavior were constant issues. I intervened in multiple situations involving her relationships with other officers, which often led to conflicts. The strain on our relationship was immense. At one point, there was a rumor that my spouse was confronted by a warder over an officer in charge with whom she was allegedly having an affair. I can verify this allegation. In fact, in 2018, I was informed that the man had visited our house at night. I started from Lusaka to confirm, but unfortunately, I had an accident. That same week, Carristo Chitamfya lost his son.

The Eighth Homerun

A week before August 2021, my spouse started packing my bags and throwing them into the passage. When I confronted her, she replied cryptically. I left the house, walking toward town, but my uncle Salama called me, questioning our living situation as she had called him, accusing me of all sorts of things. This was depressing. I explained the turmoil caused by my spouse’s actions, and he sympathized. Throughout my stay in Ndola, I faced unjust accusations and trials by my spouse, but she could not resolve the issues. The intrusion of men and disrespecting boundaries were seen as my fault, but I hold to the standard that a man should respect another man’s house, whether it’s a hut, one-room, two-room, or mansion. Anyway, upon returning home, I questioned the motive of calling my relatives to tarnish my name. She ran outside, and a few minutes later, her elder brother arrived, accusing me of mistreating her and suggesting I leave. Frustrated with biased family discussions, I called a neighbor, Bashi Papa, to witness the situation. However, he refused, stating it was a family matter. Her brother declared that our wife’s family didn’t want me there. I respected their decision and left on August 9, 2021, with only my laptop bag.

As of July 3, 2024, I have never been contacted by the family, and the child I recognize has been kept away from me.

This weighs heavily on me. I have tried to maintain my composure, but I have been alerted that there has been a smear campaign to tarnish my name, potentially to justify certain people’s desires.

Indeed, I am a mental patient – I mean, I am supposed to be. The things that have been happening to me are not normal; I am supposed to be disturbed. Pretending to be normal when faced with such immense challenges is not correct but a fallacy.

I am proud to go for mental health check-ups – 95% of my visits are for counseling. I am not the type who would consider suicide. I have goals, dreams, and a future. I am not a tree. I am a man; I can change direction.

My journey with mental health challenges, exacerbated by toxic relationships and financial struggles, unemployment, highlights the importance of awareness and support. It’s crucial to recognize the signs of mental health issues early and seek help. Breaking the stigma around mental health is essential for creating a supportive environment where individuals can heal and thrive. By sharing my story, I hope to encourage others to prioritize their mental well-being and seek help when needed. Remember, you are not alone, and seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Over the past three years, I have been to the mental hospital, mostly for counseling. I have met teachers, police officers, and even housewives in our support groups. Unfortunately, I have witnessed four cases of suicide: two from colleagues we met at Chainama, one from Chelstone Bazaar this year, and most recently, a colleague from ZAMRA, Steve. Steve was a support system for me while in Ndola, providing emotional, financial, and companionship support. I was thus surprised and saddened to learn that Steve is no longer with us due to suicide.

My philosophy is that mental health can affect any one of us. We all have different breaking points; what might be manageable for you could be overwhelming for me, and vice versa. Regardless, the bottom line is: don’t give up.

In fact, between a problem and me, the problem should be resolved, not me – I will go to Chainama or any psychiatric hospital as many times as necessary to save myself and resolve the issues.

Go ahead call me mad, but am not nima pressure chabe.


Chaliafya Katungula
#inspired by real life events # living testimony

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