Healing Through Storytelling: Maybe I Should Take My Own Advice?

Content warning: mention of suicide; self-harm; depression; sexual violence

Over the Christmas break, I watched a South African Netflix series, How to Ruin a Christmas Wedding. I grew up watching South African TV shows, so I recognized and felt immediately attached to a familiar maternal figure, Keketso Semoko (Aunty Moipane). In the last episode she says to her son, “There is no life in shame,” subtly encouraging him to embrace his sexual identity. “There is no life in shame,” I repeated these words quietly to myself after because I know this is true. I have struggled with shame all my life. When I was younger, I was ashamed that I didn’t have as much as my schoolmates when I attended a prestigious private school, I was ashamed that my clothes weren’t as trendy, I was ashamed that our house wasn’t as nicely furnished as my friends’ houses. I have an uncomfortable but long relationship with shame. Once, when I was laid off due to budget constraints, I told only a few friends. I was ashamed, although the job loss came as a result of something out of my control. For those who have known me the longest, maybe you know what has brought me the most shame. My body. I can’t look at my body for long in the mirror without being consumed by a deep loathing of this thing that keeps memory of the sexual abuse I have experienced. My body carries all my shame, and I have to carry my body everywhere I go.

On December 26, 2020, I hit my head my while tobogganing, and I suffered a terrible concussion. I didn’t play sports as a child so I’m unfamiliar with concussions, after a quick visit to the ER, the doctor told me to take it easy for a week. I underestimated the effect this brain trauma would have on my already chemically imbalanced brain. On New Years’ Eve, almost a week after hitting my head, I celebrated the end of 2020 with alcohol. A few hours after ringing in the New Year, I had a mental breakdown, I cried incessantly while referencing childhood trauma. Later that morning I tried to kill myself. I made a post on January 4th on Instagram letting you all know I had been in the hospital, it was for that reason. Although my suicide attempt was ultimately triggered by the combination of the brain trauma I had suffered and the alcohol I consumed that night, the emotional trauma and pre-existing mental illnesses set the stage for that day’s events well in advance.

Although I’ve suffered from depression for almost five years, during which I’ve experienced severe depressive episodes and suicidal ideation, I have never seriously contemplated taking my own life. I am ashamed of my depression and anxiety; I mention it in passing as a joke on dates and I sometimes play it off with a mention of Warsan Shire’s poem about “sad girls”,

“I’m not sad, but the boys who are looking for sad girls always find me. You want me to be a tragic backdrop so that you can appear to be illuminated, so that people can say ‘Wow, isn't he so terribly brave to love a girl who is so obviously sad?’ You think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star? I’ll swallow you whole.”- Warsan Shire

I’ve tried to reimagine myself as Warsan Shire but the truth is I am sad, and I think anyone who loves me is “terribly brave to love a girl who is so obviously sad.” When I was in high school, my first boyfriend told me I reminded him of Sylvia Plath. I’ve spent my life running from that “label” so I didn’t ask for help even when I needed it. I was ashamed. I am ashamed of the days I can’t get out of bed, but I have no excuse. I was diagnosed with depression after my mom died, knowing what I know now about depression, I think I have probably suffered from depression since I was an early teen. Grief has altered my perception of time, I don’t feel I have enough of it, and I feel like I am wasting most of it just trying to survive. I am constantly worrying if after all this surviving I will have some life left over to just live. Lupita Nyong’o wrote in her tribute to Chadwick Boseman, “Take your time, but don’t waste your time,” in regard to grief. I think about that statement often, when life happens to you, how much time should you take before moving on? I am always afraid I am wasting time, or that I don’t have enough time, or I have never had enough time. I was robbed of my childhood as a result of the sexual abuse I suffered. I spent my earliest years trying to make sense of this experience. I spent my teenage years deeply invested in religion, trying to atone for this sin. At one point, I strongly considered becoming a reverend, I hoped if I dedicated my life to God, he would forgive me for this horrible thing that I had allowed to happen to me. Those who knew me as a teenager remember me as a fervent preacher, I was desperately seeking forgiveness wherever it could be found, the people I led were merely casualties of a war I had been fighting since I was 8.

My mother passed away suddenly a week before my 20th birthday, and I would spend the next 5 years grieving that loss. I am twenty-five now, at a crossroad, afraid of what terrible event will consume the next decade of my life. I am afraid of losing more time. I am afraid that if I do not unearth this trauma, and build the foundation anew, I will spend the rest of my life on unsteady ground waiting for things to fall apart.

I reference my trauma in poems, and I openly admit that I only address these painful experiences in poetry because I don’t have the courage to speak of them outside of euphemisms. I am much too scared and ashamed, but I know that there is no life in shame. I have a friend who always laughs that I make people cry and share their deepest and darkest secrets and traumas. I do it almost always unintentionally, but at the end I hope I am releasing them from the shame or loneliness of their experience. This has helped me heal in some ways, but I have failed to do for my myself what I have done for others.

To many people, Sue’s Stokvel is simply a book club i.e., Sue-Shane just really likes books and she wants you to read more books. Sue’s Stokvel is a deeply personal and spiritual project. It is through reading that I have been able to name my traumas. When I read, I am emboldened and less ashamed. In an interview with The Calgarian, Taylor Lambert asked me why I read, and I said something to the effect of, reading brings things that are not always in your line of sight into focus. I will never experience all the lives of all the people I meet, and yet through reading, their story comes into my focus. Reading to me is the ultimate act of empathy. I want more people to read so we can better care for each other. I hope if you read this, it brings people like me into focus. I wrote a letter to someone and I asked them, “What baggage are you carrying that you would like to finally leave behind?” I mention this because I constantly asked myself and others this in earnest in the last days of 2020, I wanted validation but mostly company because I was and I am still scared. I don’t know who I am outside of my trauma, I don’t know who I am if I am not ashamed. Shame is alienating, and incredibly lonely, although I still wish for company, if I let go of the shame maybe I won’t be lonely even when I am alone, that’s why I’ve decided to share my story now.

I couldn’t have imagined what would happen in the days following that written conversation. Without my permission, everything I had tried to hide came bubbling to the surface. In my native language there is a proverb, “Rinamanyanga hariputirwe,” directly translated, this proverb means, “that with horns cannot be wrapped or hidden successfully.” This proverb is mostly used in reference to secrets, and evil acts, but to me my trauma is something like a demon with horns. I cannot hide it, I no longer want to live in fear of it, or be ashamed of it. This is not the end of this story, but that is where I choose to end it today.

I want to thank my friends who loved and embraced me when I lived in fear of myself. Thank you for braving the darkness to bring me into the light. I am incredibly grateful to be alive today. I am grateful that I am still here to hear my best friends’ laughter even though we are worlds apart. I am grateful that when I reach out my hand, I am still surprised to feel the warmth of my niece’s small hand. I watched Maya Angelou’s master class last night, and she said, “Love liberates.” Your love has liberated me. When I think of my friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in months due to the pandemic, and how their love liberates me, sometimes I want to shout like Celie in The Color Purple, “I’m poor, Black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here! I'm here!” When I think of my friends, I feel like Celie yelling these words out before running to catch the car in those last moments of the movie. It also reminds me of a poem I penned a few weeks before my hospitalization, about my oldest friend, Noreen.

We grew up in the same neighbourhood,

My best friend and I

One day as I made my way to your house at very end of the road

One of my flip flops broke.

I was closer to you than I was to my house by then, so I gripped the centre with my long toes and made my way

That day you drove me back home

Being in this strange land

So close to you but so far from home, I often feel like I did that day

Things have come undone

And I was wondering if you could drive me home today?

Maybe this poem was a premonition. She and so many of my friends have brought me back to myself and brought me home. I am still taking it one day at time, healing takes time, some days are better than others, but I am so hopeful, and for that I can’t be thankful enough.

I’m looking forward to publishing my first collection of poetry and short stories this year.