He is 20 years old and there is death in him. He feels it summoning him. Egging him on. Seducing him. In case you are wondering what that feels like; “it feels like dying is the only way,” he tells me. I’m sitting in a sinking camp chair in Naivasha, early morning, the sun has just risen over the scrawny acacia trees, now choked by water that’s moved too far inland. The lake is grey and so flat you can press your shirt on it. Tamms is sitting across from me, cloaked in her usual mystery of silence, the charred remains of last evening’s campfire still smouldering, refusing to die. The sweet smell of wood smoke hangs in the air. She’s pretending not to be listening in on my phone conversation with this boy who wants to die.
I ask him whose dog that is, that’s yelping incessantly in the background.
“My sister’s dog.” He says.
“How old is your sister?”
“It sounds like one of those small fluffy things that people carry in their cars, furry heads sticking out the window.”
He chuckles. “ Yeah. And they don’t do anything; they don’t bite, or chase away thieves.”
“And you have to take them to the doctor for their temperature to be taken. Or if they are unhappy.”
“Yes, and their food is expensive. They don’t eat just anything. It might upset their stomach.”
“Sounds like a good gig to be a dog in 2020.”
“I don’t think so,” he remarks, “because they have to die after…what’s the lifespan of a dog, 7 years?”
“Then the idiom, to lead a dog’s life comes to mind?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t want to come back as a dog.”
It’s amazing how at only 20 years old he seems ready to go, I muse. He never wants to see the sun rise. He never wants to take his children camping and hear one of them ask in the tent; is there WiFi in here? He never wants to know what its like to buy your first car and want to spend the rest of your life in that car. He never wants to slowly discover the man he is, the good and the ugly parts, the parts that he doesn’t understand and those that unravel slowly. He wants to die. End it. And it’s amazing that he’s having this conversation with me – a stranger – in the morning, as his parents wake up in their household, completely unaware that he feels this way, that he nurses occasional hopelessness, desperation and pain.
It started with sleeplessness. No, it started with drugs and alcohol. Copious amounts of it. There is a place in Karen called Bogani where every Wednesday a bunch of university students would congregate for a soiree. “I was drinking a lot late last year – just everything; brandy, gin, vodka, anything. And smoking a lot of weed. In the morning, I’d blend my coffee and put some brandy in it and carry it to school, where I’d sip it slowly, to maintain that highness. Then I got depressed but of course I didn’t know I was depressed. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get out of bed. I’m not the kind of person who gets sad. I’m hyper and talkative, but I didn’t want to see people, or talk to my friends on the phone. For three days I was inside my bedsitter. It’s in the forest, do you know Oloolua forest?”
“Everybody knows it. I live off campus – my apartment is at the edge of it – a bedsitter with a very big bed in it. So anyway, I was just sad. Very sad. And miserable. For three days in a row, I’d just get out of bed to sip milk and sleep. By this time I wasn’t drinking or smoking. I’d just lie in bed looking at the ceiling, not moving, not showering, just feeling like there was nothing left. It’s a strange feeling, depression. You know this is not you, this is not what I do. I just lost any will to do the things that I loved – hanging out, working out, riding a bicycle. I locked out friends I’d known for years – Kiiru, Duncan, you know people that were my closest friends. Funny thing is that what got me out of bed eventually was a cat.”
“You live with a cat?”
He laughs. “No, a Continuous Assessment Test.”
I’m deflated, deeply disappointed. Can you imagine the story; a depressed boy saved by a feline? I’d not even want to hear the rest of his story. I’d be happier to interview that cat, instead. Over milk, preferably. If they are buying.
He woke up at 5am and walked to campus. There was nobody, just guards. He wandered around university, staring at buildings, noticing for the first time the chipping paint on buildings, windows with cracked panes, trees that he’d never noticed, parts of pavement that were chipped. He then decided to walk to Karen hospital. It’s not a close distance. He trudged on as if he wasn’t keen to arrive. “I found some weed and a matchbox in my pocket.” He says. “I threw them out. I was tired. I was very tired. Of not sleeping and of being sad. Being sad can drain you. It’s the monkey on your back. I was walking and trying not to cry. Halfway to Karen hospital, I got weak and tired so I took a bus.”
My son – Kim – comes and asks me in a near whisper. “Are you talking to mom?”
I tell the guy to hold on a second and I tell my son I’m not. What is it with these damned boys and their mothers? We are out here in the beautiful wild, by the enchanting lake and all he wants is to talk to his mother? Jesus.
“Can you call her?” I can smell smoke from last night on his hair. He smells delicious.
“After I’m done.” I tell him.
“After how many minutes?”
“Forty five.” I say.
“That’s long. Can you call her after twenty minutes?”
“Okay.” He goes off to watch Jonah, my friend, light up a jiko.
At Karen hospital he asked if he could see a psychiatrist. He was referred upstairs – third floor, I think – and was booked into the next appointment the following Wednesday at 2pm. “The PA to the psychiatrist had dreadlocks, interesting lady. She fascinated me. I don’t know why.” He chuckles. He went and did his CAT, then went to his parent’s house.
“Did your parents notice that you were off?”
“No. I’m an extrovert. We hide behind our cheerfulness and talkativeness. People tend to believe we are okay. They never suspect that we could be unhappy or suicidal and then boom.”
On Wednesday he was seated in the psychiatrist’s office, in a surprisingly cheerful and well lit room. Seated before him was a calm and motherly psychiatrist. She had an interesting touchscreen Lenovo laptop into which she typed notes as he spoke. It made him uncomfortable, opening up to this lady about his life which was now polluted with many negative things; drink, drugs, darkness, hopelessness, fear and sadness. “It was like she was peeking into my soul.” He says. He told her about his inability to sleep. ‘I’d sleep for only ten minutes, or an hour at the very maximum. The rest of the time I’d be wide awake, listening to the sound of the night in the nearby forest. In the short period I’d be asleep, I’d occasionally have nightmares that I was dead. Or that I was trapped in a coma. I could clearly see and feel what was happening to me, but I was immobilized, unable to move a muscle.And then I would go limp and die. It was terrifying.”
“What did you tell her you are scared of?” I ask.
“The unknown. Spirits.” He says.
She referred him to a psychologist for a written test. He was also asked to draw things with crayons. “They asked me to draw all these weird things.” He says. “Like drawing what I feel and colour code my friends and the animal that best describes me and the animal that best describes my career and love life. It was odd, but there seemed to be an angle to it, a madness to it. The form also required me to answer lots of questions about alcohol; if I’ve ever drank and driven, or reached for alcohol first thing in the morning, or skipped school because I had been drinking.”
The test, he says revealed that he was a total empath. “I feel the pain of other people and it affects me badly.”
His two closest friends both have family issues. One- who we shall call Linda – is from a violent and dysfunctional home. “Her parents beat her. Her father likes to beat her and taunt her ‘you look like your mother.’ She knows that both parents cheat on each other and then blame their children for their infidelities.” He says. “The other close friend is a hyper psychopath. She’s manipulative and self destructive. If she gets attracted to someone who doesn’t like her back, she will sleep with all his friends to get back at him. She’s from a divorced family as well and her parents refuse to send her upkeep money.”
He was diagnosed with ADHD and Bipolar Disorder. “But every human being has some sort of disorder,” he told his therapist. “Yeah, maybe” the therapist said, “but the reason why you are here is because you feel this is a big problem, no?”
Late last year he started taking prescription drugs. He felt better. He was happier. He slept for hours. He would sit outside in the sun and feel happiness on his skin. He started dating Linda. They had been friends for so long, and he had had a secret crush on her for a while so it felt right. “She’s beautiful and smart, really smart. I have never found anyone who is more open-minded and willing to learn about almost anything. She fights for people. She’s a feminist, but not the crazy bra-burning type. She’s the amazing type.”
In February of this year, just as Coronavirus was about to put the kibosh on everything, they had a massive fight. It was over something so trivial he doesn’t remember it. But he recalls the shouting on the phone. And someone saying, “fine!” Later, he thought about it and decided to eat humble pie and apologise, only she was still on the warpath. She told him to take that apology and stuff it where the sun don’t shine. She said his apology didn’t mean shit. He got mad. He went for her jugular, a place he knew would hurt her the most. “I told her that she brandishes her depression and family issues like a badge of honor. I said, ‘you are a strong person, yet you harp on this shit about how terrible your family is, ..Just some mean hurtful things about her mental health and her family that she had told me in confidence.” She was furious. She said, “this is over, fuck you!” He said, “fine, fuck you too!”
He went to his bedsitter at the edge of the forest. He was feeling sad, plunging into unchartered depths of depression. It was like being sucked down a thick dark pipe. He cried quite a bit. He took the rest of his prescription drugs – Quetiapine – and dropped all 25 tablets into a cup of coffee. Then he added lots of sugar, to taste, because nobody wants to die with a bad taste in their mouth. He gulped it all down. He then texted Linda; I loved you too much. He got into bed, dressed in the clothes he knew they would find him dead in. He cuddled his pillow. Then he waited for death. He listened for it as if waiting for the low rumbling sound of a train approaching the station.
I ask him what occupied his thoughts as he lay there, waiting for death. Did he think of his parents, his siblings?
“You read how in your final moments your whole life flashes before your eyes. It doesn’t.” He laughs. “I was just broken and sad. I was crying. I didn’t think of my parents or siblings, I know it’s horrible to say, but I didn’t.”
“Death, then sounds so unremarkable.” I say.
“It is. You slowly drift into unconsciousness. A part of me was happy that this was the end.” He pauses. “In fact, it was boring. Dying is boring.”
When he came to – a day later- he was in a hospital bed. It was a Saturday evening. He remembers. He didn’t know that his girlfriend – or ex- had freaked out upon reading the message and gone to his house at night. He didn’t know that she had knocked and knocked on his door then went to the back door and saw him lying in bed, non responsive, a pillow hugged to his chest. Together with his neighbour, she had removed a window pane and accessed the house.
“Were you happy or disappointed you were alive when you woke up in the hospital?” I ask him. “I was confused.” He says. “There was pain in my arm, from the IV line they had inserted for meds. I don’t recall my state of mind, but I was glad to see my girlfriend. She was holding my hand. Nobody wants to die alone.”
The only reason his parents knew was because his medical card was declined at the hospital and she had to call them. His parents were quite worried. He told them that he must have eaten some bad food. His father said he must have been drugged. “My father is a pastor. Most of my family members are deeply involved in church. He was there with a legion of pastors. He told me that the previous week he had kept running into a bible verse – Deuteronomy 33:6, Let Reuben live and not die, nor his people be few. He thought this was some sort of prophecy as something was happening to my big bro who is away. When he came to the hospital he said that it was actually me that the verse was referring to.”They prayed and talked about how easy it is to be drugged. “They were making up these stories for themselves, I let them believe what they wanted to believe. Besides, I couldn’t tell them that I had tried to commit suicide and that I sucked at that. I also couldn’t tell them that the girl who had saved my life, the one who had called them was my girlfriend. It would have been sacrilegious for them to imagine I was having sex.”
His therapist visited him. She sat at the edge of his bed looking disappointed in him. “Why did you try doing it? Why?” She asked him. He cried a lot. He was ashamed that he had tried and also ashamed that he had failed. She insisted that he had to tell his parents the truth or she would. “What about patient doctor confidentiality?” He asked her. She said that their agreement was that if he ever did anything to hurt himself or others around him she would have to tell his next of kin. He begged her not to tell them. He couldn’t bear the thought of his parents knowing that he had tried to kill himself. Eventually she convinced him to tell them.
The next day his parents came to see him with a close relative. He looked at the relative as he said, ‘I wasn’t drugged. I tried to kill myself. I took pills. I have ADHD and Bipolar Disorder.” He couldn’t look them in the face. They stared at him. His father couldn’t speak. He was speechless. They freaked out. One of them asked, “have we been bad parents?” And he broke down.
His mom has a Masters in psychology. “She can read a room better and faster than my dad,” he says. She asked him for a word and they left the room to confer in whispers in the corridor. He cried in bed. He was in hospital for a total of seven days. He was discharged and started taking his prescribed drugs and tried to stay alive and sane. Between the time he was discharged and now, death has stalked him in one form or another. First, Linda’s best friend committed suicide. Then Linda tried killing herself twice. “She seems to want to go because her family is very abusive. Her father beats her up frequently and her mother encourages it. To be honest it’s quite messed up, at least I have stability at home.”
He feels he’s stable now, mentally. Staying at home during this COVID season has given him some form of stability. “I still think of killing myself, though. A lot. ” He says before adding. “But it’s passive thoughts, not active ones.”
“Why do you want to go?”
“It’s not exciting to stay. My leaving isn’t going to make a big difference. I’m mostly upset at life. I mean, life really doesn’t make sense if you think about it. It doesn’t make sense how you meet the woman you marry. Does it make sense to you why your children weren’t born with albinism or born disabled while someone else’s children were born that way? What makes you special? Life is so random and it’s disconcerting. It’s not your choice to be alive. I tried to take my life but I lived yet Linda’s pal tried and she succeeded. You can walk out of your door and get hit by a bus and die. Someone else might not die, maybe they will break a spine and become confined to a wheelchair. I can’t share all these thoughts with my parents because we don’t share the same ideologies, besides it will break them.”
“If you were to live, what would you want to live for?”
“To travel the world, maybe one day write a book. My own story. If I’m to live I’d like to have sex in weird places. I don’t know if you should write that one down. Do you know the story of the man who wanted to commit suicide but first he went to Havana to have fun for the last time? He went to casinos, gambled, did cocaine and had sex with beautiful women – you know, everything that society frowns upon. The next day he decided he didn’t want to die after all. Engaging in those vices, he realised, made him very happy. It made living worthwhile.”
There must be a point there to illustrate that story. The other point is, at this point, as you read this on 8th September 2020, he wants to live. He’s at home, with his parents and siblings and the barking dog that probably has life insurance and is allergic to nuts. He’s safe. There is love all around him. But sometimes, death creeps into his thoughts, as it has since the day he tried killing himself. He thinks of it, passively, he says, with restrained romanticism.
* * *
Registration for the September Creative Writing Masterclass is open, the class will run from 28th September to 2nd October 2020. This is sponsored by Safaricom but it’s not ati free. There is some little cost. To register please email [email protected], registration closes on 25th September 2020.