Written & lived by Thembile Gola
When we’re born we bring so much joy, happiness, excitement to the people around us, a heart-warming time, untouched by life, pure and innocent. Then life starts to happen, and quickly. I can remember being in sixth grade and not understanding why I felt like crying. Is it normal to cry? Do people cry? What will they think of me crying? Why can’t I stop this? I also did not understand why I felt warm and fuzzy and smiled uncontrollably sometimes but other times I was down and not an ice-cream or call from a friend could bring back that smile. Being an African child, I don’t remember talking about feelings at home, or hearing that my birth brough people joy, I only know that now because I’ve seen it in others.
Nobody talked about the ups and downs of emotions. Nobody warned me that it happens. Nobody told me that all of it is temporary and that it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be ecstatic but know it won’t last forever so I shouldn’t try cling to it. Nobody told me that I’m not odd for having salty water coming from my eyes. Nobody said that all of this happens and it is just what makes us human. According to me, emotions did not exist outside of what I saw on television. As cliché as it sounds, this was a real thing. Thembi had no clue.
Fast forward to Uni, a quick summary; ‘the worst period of my life’, the end. Everything around me was toxic and I was okay with it. Not because I wanted to be but because I did not see the need to choose or feel that I needed something better for myself. I was drowning in destructive emotions and unhealthy situations. I knew that I was unhappy, but again what did happiness look like? What exactly am I choosing happiness over? I was just moving with life, wasn’t I? It took breaking down to my knees, and more unexplainable tears, to know that I was dying inside, slowly and surely. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The words were almost cliché for me as I was once again conducting my own funeral with my pillow bearing witness in attendance. Tears! Again! Why are you here! And then they’re just gone. Just like that. Like it never happened?
I almost felt mad at myself every time I broke down like that. Why did I do it? Did it help? “You’re too sensitive for nothing,” I castigated myself. Like I said, as a typical African child, we did not discuss emotions in our household. Silence, brush offs, minimization is the recurring trend. I did not know, that for me, this silence was pushing me towards the edge. The balloon popped from nowhere and for a period I could not recognize myself. Confused by my own feelings and emotions, literally because I knew no better.
In my own searching silence, I finally got the resolve to do better by myself, motivated by hunger for change; simple put, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired . My google search history was automated at this point by phrases like “signs of depression,” “what is an emotional breakdown,” “unhappiness”. That’s when I noticed in all my reading that I wasn’t the only one that felt feelings so intense and unexplainable that they could eat a person alive inside. People do cry sometimes, and it’s okay; this was mind boggling for me, it was okay to cry and not know what to feel!
I did not know that the next and only other time I would share this experience was in the same Uni that constituted the worst period of my life, on World Mental Health Day as a representative of the Friendship Bench; yes, it does sounds like another cliché. Professor Dixon Chibanda, persuasive as he is, squeezed it out of me; Thembi, stand as keynote speaker, with a speech, read it in public, in a place with a history of struggle. What a nerve wracking experience, to say the least! However, it was a beautiful speech, and it was clearly meant to be part of my path to heal the past. Lecturers that never looked my way shook my hand on that day, happiness was the feeling, happiness was warm, and vulnerability was not something to fear.
Emotions are a natural part of our biology. The brain has a specific section dedicated to the triggering and regulation of our emotions. It really is natural. I know that now! The problem is that there is not enough conversation about it especially within the family context. As we grow we need guidance in knowing the difference between emotions and healthy and unhealthy expression of emotions, as well as the consequences of trying to silence them and stuff them down. Ignoring the topic does not mean it does not exist. As peers we need to constantly check on each other, educate each other on the different things we face. There’s nothing worse than feeling alone.
We live in a very informative time. The advent of technology has made information available everywhere, almost at an overload if we aren’t careful. So ask Dr Google, check sites with credibility and read a few, don’t cherry pick what suits you, note the overview and patterns that emerge. And if you are looking for help know that reading alone won’t get you help but with some action you will heal where you need to heal.
Knowledge is power; another cliché but it’s true. It saved me.
Another thing to note is that the clichés are true, you may have gathered that by now. Sometimes it actually is just that simple!
(Twitter: @phenomenalladyT ; Instagram: @thembie_r )
Thembi is now a trained Friendship Bench peer counsellor, if you can relate to what she has spoken of here, know you aren’t alone and reach out for help.