PHOBIA FOR PEOPLE LIVING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS.
I read with keen interest your battles with 'mental illness’ and I truly admire your courage at enlightening our society on the need to end the stigma associated with people going through such health challenges. However, I am of the view that every single individual on earth suffers from one mental illness or the other, many not yet analyzed by science.
In Nigeria, our environment, experiences and situations have a way of exposing peoples varied degree of mental illness; an example will be at a typical bad-traffic day in Lagos. What makes us ‘normal’ humans is our ability to suppress our excesses physically; spiritually and emotionally. Many of us fail at this periodically but quickly stabilize. Truth is, whenever we find ourselves unable to ‘stabilize’, thereby constituting a threat to ourselves and others, then we must seek professional (or spiritual) help.
In your write-up, this phrase particularly caught my attention:
"Nigeria needs to get to a point where mental illness is not a stigma; it starts with the individual. Be more observant; be more accommodating of the “different” people. Love them a little bit more. Reach out to that person you suspect might be living with a mental illness."
I don't agree with the latter part of that phrase and I’ll to share my own personal experience with someone suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder-or something close to that.
***this story long o***
In 2007, I was a banker working with a new generation bank located on Ozumba Mbadiwe, Victoria island-and life was sweet. Except that back then we had serious car parking constraints, and if you didn’t drive to work early, you’d be doomed to embark on the mad hunt for parking spaces. I luckily found a parking space at a street-close not too far from my office. I made friends with some 'abokis' based there and they gave me permanent parking access, not for free though. The distance from my parking space to the office was about 400 meters long but there was a shortcut through the canal that reduced my distance to about 150 meters walk.
This canal was an eyesore; the stench emanating from it was out of this world. Sometimes you walk through the canal and inside it you’d see all sorts-animal carcass, human waste, contaminated water-you name it. Most people preferred taking the long route.
One faithful morning, while parking my car, I bumped into this refuse scavenger guy, you know, those guys that pick plastic bottles and other metal objects from refuse dumps. There was a small refuse dump on that close and so almost every morning, i’d bump into him doing his thing. On this particular day, he greeted me and offered to wash my car. I was surprised, not at his offer but because he spoke very good English. We got talking and from that point on, we became friends. I’ll give his name as Okara (not real name).
As days went by, I got to know more about Okara-his family was based in Jos, he was a graduate from University of Maiduguri, completed his NYSC and came to Lagos to 'hustle'. He knew nobody in Lagos, stumbled on the ‘recycling’ business and found it very rewarding. And truly it was, because this Okara guy owned an account with my bank and everyday he would diligently deposit between N1,000 to N5,000.
Okara was a strange fellow, he was always depressed, he passionately attacked the ‘evils in Nigeria’, contemplated suicide, and hated corrupt Nigerian 'big men' and politicians with a passion. He also hated his own family. Almost every evening after the close of work, Okara and I would sit down and 'gist' by my car. Sometimes we'd drink, buy cigarettes-you know, ‘guy-man’ things.
I knew Okara had depression issues, and I, ‘good citizen’ Stanley felt that by showing some love and understanding, just maybe that would help him succeed. For a while it did, but this guys’ mood swings were unbelievable. He had very few friends on that street/close but everyone knew him. Sometimes, they’d call me aside and say, “how fine man like you dey follow dis kain person talk?”
Okara and I remained friends for many months, I talked him into cleaning himself up, getting a descent job and even a girlfriend***u know nah***
To my utmost surprise, one morning, after fulfilling my car parking routine; I saw Okara, clean-shaven, putting on a well tailored suit. Yep, I was amazed. He handed over a copy of his CV to me and told me that he was going job hunting. At that point, I felt like a proud father. I took his CV and promised to also submit it to my bank.
For many days, Okara maintained this clean image until one day I saw him back to his dirty self-his countenance changed. I asked him “bros how far?” and the mother of all rants commenced ranging from how terrible Nigeria is, to his inability to get jobs because of tribalism, down to MY insensitive nature.
Yes, Okara turned on me and accused me of being one of the people that 'spoilt' Nigeria. I think it was at that point that my eyes cleared and I realized that a mental patient was standing in front of me, but I chose not to panic or show any pity...I told him that all ‘manpikin’ get their own problems and he should go look for a solution that works for him. And I walked away. I normally paid Okara a weekly upfront amount to wash my car whenever he felt it was dirty, but that was just my own way of 'dashing’ him money. Sometime he washes, sometimes he doesn’t. This encounter happened on a Tuesday.
Next day, Wednesday morning, he refuses to greet me ***wetin consign me***we walked pass each other. Later that evening on my way home, he came over to me and showed me the money I gave him earlier to wash my car for the week saying, "I won't wash your car and I won’t return your money because I want it to hurt you." Well, I laughed and gave him the only reasonable answer I could think of, "ON TOP HOW MUCH?", and I drove away.
Next morning, Thursday; I drove to work, parked my car-no sign of Okara. I decided to take my shortcut to the office through the canal, with its very narrow walk path. Lo and behold, in the middle of the canal walk-way, I saw Okara walking towards me from the opposite direction (I knew I was in trouble), I smiled at him and tried to pass through ***for where?***. Okara attacked me-shoved me hard with his elbow trying to push me into the canal, I grabbed him tight and we both fell into the canal. Right there inside the canal, he pinned me down and dished out blows. I swallowed enough ‘gutter flavoured’ water that day-imagine, same canal that I dreaded just walking past due to the stench.
Last, last, I 'managed' to overpower him, a crowd emerged and my colleagues at the office came over with security personnel.
Here, I was in a mess, drenched in filth with my Italian suit destroyed for good, my two handsets destroyed.
Okara was locked up at the Bar Beach police station and I was contemplating whether or not to press charges. Back at the office, the only question I kept hearing was, "Wetin connect you and that mad man?" Terribly embarrassing; I got a three-day work leave to enable me treat myself.
Eventually, I was persuaded to drop all charges by a police women at the Bar beach station who told me that Okara had been crying profusely since he arrived the cell; telling anyone who cares to listen that he nearly murdered the only true friend he has ever had in Lagos. The police woman told me that she was used to ‘crazy’ characters like Okara and that they always end up killing those closest to them. I let Okara off the hook but he was made to sign the usual police undertaking not to come 100 meters near me or something like that.
This experience seriously traumatised me and from that day on, I hated anyone with any visible sign of mental illness-I no even wan know. If I met anyone and I noticed any sign of BPD similar to 'Okara's, I avoided such a person like a plague. As a matter of fact, my inability to accommodate anyone with mental illness became a mental illness on its own-and I’m still battling with that phobia. I guess this is why I decided to write this lengthy response to your post. #therapeutic
After many years of reflection, I’m beginning to think that perhaps Okara was right after all and I was indeed part of his problem. Instead of trying to ‘clean up’ Okara and make him 'civilized’, I should have encouraged him to seek professional help. But as a typical Nigerian, I still say to myself, na me born am? Make him family people worry jare.
I haven’t laid my eyes on Okara ever since, but last year during the fuel subsidy protests, I fell in love with a new talk radio station based in Lagos. I became an ardent listener until I noticed a certain familiar voice, a regular phone caller; this guy would call this radio station ALWAYS and rant his life out. He even caught the fascination of the radio stations’ OAPS. Yes, it was my good friend Okara, but he adopted the alias 'Obright'. I stopped listening to the station.