How Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals Helped Me Cope with my Depression and Suicidal Thoughts
Last year was hell. Unemployed, struggling to secure funds for my studies, enduring endless, unsolicited sermons from family members who cared more about my sexuality than they did about my challenges, I found myself sinking deep into depression. My social anxiety and panic attacks peaked. I struggled to leave my room even if it was to step into the bathroom. I couldn’t leave the house without my earphones, even if they were not working. Having something plugged to my ears served as a shield between my fear of being in a public space and me. To make matters worse, I found myself mutating into a raging bull. I was angry about all the pain I had endured in my past. I was angry about the present and how I felt like the universe was just not done dealing me a hard hand. I was angry about a future that looked so bleak. I. Was. Angry.
The previous year, I attempted to end my life twice because I simply wanted the pain to end. I was fifteen years old when I first attempted suicide. A few years later, I bumped into a magazine at my aunt’s place that claimed that folks who attempted suicide for the first time were highly likely to attempt it again. Apparently, if one could overcome the inborn will to live, it would not be as hard for them to decide to go through the same process again. At that time, I didn’t believe I would ever find myself in a situation where I would be feeling suicidal again. Not after some of the remarks made by relatives and friends concerning my failed attempt. The adults around me made it clear that, in my religious culture, suicide was not tolerated. The act of ending one’s own life was seen to be a selfish one because one was not being considerate of the pain those left behind would have to endure. In my case, I was also adding more grief to my widowed but now also late mother who was already burdened with running a household as an unemployed widow. Ending one’s own life was an option I couldn’t take because, as religion taught us, it was only God who could take that life since he was the one who gave it. My eldest brother even told me to pray for forgiveness since I had sinned. That was the first thing he said to me at my hospital bed.
Fast forward fifteen years later—I found myself questioning my seemingly superfluous existence. Every day seemed to present me with seemingly insurmountable, daily tests. Intimidated by these challenges, instead of trying to overcome them, I distracted myself from them. I read books. I watched movies. I listened to music. I masturbated a lot and watched a lot of porn. I flirted—and sexted—with various women just to while away the time. I drank. I smoked some weed. And one day blended into the next.
There were days when I felt very lethargic. On those days, I struggled to get out of bed and had to convince myself to do so. I had to force myself to eat, never mind the fact that, as an unemployed person, I couldn’t even afford to buy healthy food and had to eat sparingly and eat whatever was available. I wanted to die because I had had enough of the unrelenting pain. I also wanted a painless death, as if death is ever “painless.” When I could bring myself to do it, I Googled, “painless ways to die.” I did find it a bit ironic that after listing some of the ways to end one’s life, some of these sites would include a note at the end suggesting that one seek therapy if they were seriously considering suicide. It seemed physically painful and made me wish I would just sleep eternally.
As I sought ways to get through the obstacles called days, I began smoking cigarettes as my way of self-medicating. Soon, I became hooked and the number of cigarettes I smoked daily only seemed to be spiraling upward like the acrid smoke itself. There were times I would wake up as early as 4:00 am just to smoke. Smoking made me feel good, even if it was only for a short while. At the beginning of 2017, I started getting dizzy and nauseous each time I smoked. I didn’t understand this unexpected reaction. Strange enough, it was around the same time that a loved one, my biggest source of support, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Our relationship was immediately reconfigured because I had to give her some emotional space to fight this new battle. Besides getting sick from smoking, I now felt guilty about it. Hard as it was, I began to wean myself off nicotine even if my other psychological issues were resolved. I was still stuck in an emotional rut and my depression only seemed to worsen especially since the only person I relied on for emotional support was now sick. At some point, I seemed to be replacing smoking with drinking but, fortunately, that was only short-lived. I am only glad that I could still listen to the internal voice of reason. Cigarettes and alcohol are expensive. I was unemployed and had to make do with a very limited amount of money. Substance abuse posed a huge threat to my health. I had to stop. Fortunately, I did.
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It was during this time that I turned to writing to let out some iron-hot steam. On top of my long posts on Facebook, I resuscitated my blog—which I had ditched as life continued to suck the energy out of me—and I also decided to try my hand at freelance writing. I figured I could use my new-found passion to earn an income. I have not begun to make enough money to foot my bills, but writing has helped me find some meaning of a life that had lost its meaning. And as it is often said that writers read, I also made it a point to read a lot.
Over the festive period I was alone because sometimes, it’s best to stay away from folks who refuse to accept us as we are even if they are family. Reading and writing helped to distract me and quell the festive anxiety that kept creeping in. Reading about Audre Lorde’s journey with cancer was for me, the epiphany that changed the way I view my life.
After having accepted her diagnosis which was made in 1977, Audre made the decision to make being alive worthwhile even as she knew that her mortal days were numbered. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she was determined to experience her remaining days on earth to the fullest. She didn’t fight to stay alive. No, she made sure that the days she lived to see were a legacy. Without betraying herself into silence, she championed causes she believed in. She lived her truth and when she died in 1992, Audre “went out like a fucking meteor”, indeed.
That was the enlightenment I needed.
Like most people facing challenges and/or battling mental illnesses and through whatever means necessary, I have been trying to stay alive and get through the day, which is as unfulfilling as it is taxing. Because my goal was just to continue breathing, it stopped mattering to me what means I employed to achieve the goal. Sadly, that is inevitable when living in a society that frowns on suicide; we learn to do anything to keep us from doing that which continues to be stigmatized, which doesn’t help us feel any better, emotionally. As humans who are bound to die eventually—whenever and however—we fare better if we find or assign meaning to the finite days of our lives. Thanks to Audre, I know I need to make each moment I am alive significant. I am determined to love and live intensely and fearlessly because, as Audre said, betraying myself into silence will not protect me. I want to channel all the pent-up anger towards actions that speak towards my beliefs around social justice. I want to talk about my struggles. I want to advocate for the rights of LGBT+ folks in my country, Zimbabwe. I. Want. To. Speak. Hell, when death comes, which it will, I also want togo out like a fucking meteor, just like Audre.
I am currently focusing on my freelance writing now. I write my truth to power and I write my pain away. On 28 August 2017, I blogged about my social anxiety and my need for earphones. Ever since that day, I never felt the need for the earphones when going into public spaces. It feels as though my chains are being broken as I continue to write about my personal struggles. In addition to writing, I have also taken quite a strong liking to taking long walks in my neighborhood. I make sure to leave my phone at home because I want to be in the moment and connect with nature. The walks help me clear my head and the nature reminds me of my mentor who is resident in another country. For someone who stays alone, this reminder of loved ones makes me feel less lonely. I still have my highs and lows, but I am feeling and doing much better than I did last year.