Saturday July 19 2014

A 29-year-old woman’s struggle to overcome clinical depression

It took Sharon years to realise that what was

It took Sharon years to realise that what was afflicting her in form of inexplainable physical pain was depression. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa. 

By Olive Eyotaru

Being depressed was something that had never crossed 29-year-old Sharon Omurungi’s mind. Like some of us, Omurungi had heard and read about depression, seen depressed people in movies, and even interacted with some.

But she had never associated herself with it or cared about details like the warning signs. She was after all, known among her peers for her jolly character.

The media, where she had worked for one year as a reporter, did not give much allowance for the luxury of relaxation given the pressure that comes with meeting deadlines.

From generating story ideas to running up and down looking for sources to interview for those stories, and always dealing with pressure from the editors, the newsroom can be a stressful environment.

However, this was a routine she had grown accustomed to in the year she had been at the job. With the burn out becoming a daily routine, she figured it was the usual stress.

“Sometimes I would have a little headache here; then backache and tiredness. But I did not pay much attention, thinking it was the usual work fatigue,” Sharon says.

But in 2009, Sharon’s performance at work started declining. Beating her deadlines became a problem, prompting several warnings and scolding from her supervisors. Her impromptu mood swings did not help the situation either. Her colleagues complained endlessly about her attitude but it did not bother her.

“I did not want to do anything, both at work and home. I would even fail to write a short story. I would want to do things but I did not have the will. Even the deadlines I would set would go by without me noticing. If someone spoke to me in a way that I did not like, I would bark at them. I really did not care then,” Sharon recalled.

On other days, she was okay and would execute her duties diligently. But other days were tough-and these became consistent for the next one and a half years.

Dark days
Sharon’s moment of truth came in 2011 when she started getting suicidal thoughts. Death is one subject that most people do not wish to discuss yet it started to appeal to Omurungi.
“Killing myself was not about pressure. I just wanted to see, if I died for a while, what people would think about me. Secondly, I wanted to see where my mother, who passed away 13 years ago is and if I could meet her,” she reveals, her gaze drifting into space.

To make matters worse, she had envisioned how she would quicken her death. “I knew I could not kill myself by taking pills. In my head, I thought of being knocked by a motorcycle or throwing myself in the way of a car. It was just crazy,” she recalled.
These developments prompted her to rush to a counsellor to explain her condition. However, he brushed it off and told her to instead take it easy at work.

Omurungi continued to attend counselling classes but her condition would improve on some days, and then relapse on others.

“There were weeks when I would perform exceptionally at work, then just do the reverse after. I would not write any good article but I just did not have the strength to make it better. It was frustrating that I did not know what was happening to me,” she said.

During that time, Sharon used to feel pain in her right leg, something she says started about in 2004 while in high school. She decided to visit an orthopaedist. Scans were made but all the doctors she visited told her the leg was fine. Her other body organs were checked and they were all functioning well.

Effects of depression
Over time, more symptoms of depression set in. Omurungi developed insomnia. She would feel sleepy during the day, dozing off sometimes at work.

“One time, I visited a salon to do my hair. But I slept off while I was in the hair dryer, which was very hot. My hairdresser is the one who woke me up,” Sharon recalled.

The headaches became worse and she started drifting away from herself, work and friends, even while still receiving counselling. To her, the sessions were actually not bearing any fruit due to lack of change in her condition.

Meanwhile, back at home, her family was green about what she was going through because she had not told them.

Loss of job
After seeing no change in her performance, her employers eventually fired her in October 2012. But surprisingly, what should have been a huge blow did not move her at all.

“I knew why I had lost the job but deep inside, I did not care much. Of course, I was scared to tell my family but I eventually did, without giving reasons why. I decided to give myself time to rest”.

After a month, she got another job with a newspaper in Rwanda. However, when she thought things would get better, Omurungi slumped deep into depression. Even though she tried to push herself at work, it wasn’t changing.

“I needed good feeding but there was no variety of food. I would also struggle to get out of bed. Sometimes, I would wake up with a headache. I would break into a sweat suddenly and lose energy.

I would also fail to breath when I sat in cars. Yet still, my right leg would hurt,” Sharon recalled.
This frustration would make her cry every day that a few months into work, she decided to quit her job and return to Uganda for treatment.

“I figured that my life was not worth working. My resolve was that I would go back home, rest for a month and then return,” she added.

On return, the pain in her right leg spread to the other leg and hands. She started failing to carry out some menial tasks like combing her hair and brushing her teeth. With her condition getting worse, she visited her doctor again and more medical tests on the heart, lungs and kidneys ran to check what the cause was.

Given the symptoms that manifested in her condition, the doctor gave her some leads. She was told that it could be either depression or her immune system could be fighting itself. She was then put on anti-depressants to help reorganise her body.

But even with medication, the suicidal thoughts remained. It was when she told her doctor about them that he decided to refer her to a psychiatrist.

“Every time I would see a sharp object, I would want to slit my wrists. But it was not a daily thing. If I had not been on medication-anti depressants- I believe I might have done it,” she bemoans.

Life on anti-depressants
Omurungi has since then been on anti-depressants daily to suppress the disorder under strict medical guidance. Though her family worries that she could get addicted to the drugs, she has to because on occasions when she missed taking medication, it did not bear good results.

“The last time I did not take the drugs, I got this sudden anger that I wanted to bang my head so hard on a wall or the door. I once banged the table in anger but it scared me so much. But I later learnt to control myself,” Sharon said.

The drugs have also brought on its side effects. There are days she would get hallucinations and hear voices around her.
“I would hear people having conversations or someone calling me. Every night, I would hear a mother and daughter conversing yet there was no one nearby. I was given other anti-depressants and this stopped. But recently, I have started seeing rats and cats running around me yet they are not even there,” Sharon said.

She has also learnt not to get into situations that make her angry or push her to the edge. Her monthly sessions with the psychiatrist have also been instrumental in keeping her progress in check.

Social life changes
Due to her depression, Omurungi’s life has changed. She has cut back on social gatherings and prefers keeping to herself.

“I do not like being around so many people because I get bored after a short period. I can sit and talk to very close friends but not for long so most times, I would rather be alone,” she said. Also, most of her friends did not consider her condition serious and would brush it off as a mere mood swing. She believes having a support system from family and friends could help to deflect depression.

“I had suffered a lot and did not want to tell people. When I told some that I have depression and they would say, ‘Why don’t you snap out of it?’ It really hurt because this is an unexplainable condition that I also did not want or understand,” she recounts.

For all that she has gone through, Omurungi says she believes that if she had addressed the first symptom of sudden mood swings and unexplained physical pain, she would not be in the situation she is currently in. But she prays that other people can learn from her experience and not take the symptoms lightly because.

“If you notice a sudden change in yours or some one else’s usual behavior, please find out why that is so. We take these things for granted, yet, it could be a symptom of depression. What people like me need is someone who understands my situation and does not judge me. This disease is a reality.”

She suspects she might not have gotten over her mother’s death, which could have been the main trigger for depression.

“When my mother died, it was a big blow for me. She was my best friend and I do not understand how my sickness is linked to her death. But it has been the only explanation because honestly, it affected my whole life. That is why it is important for family to be there during such times.”

At the moment, |the 29-year-old believes she is on the path to recovery. Having gotten a new job, she says she has more zeal and energy to execute her duties.

To her, waking up every morning to go to work is an achievement of sorts and it keeps her busy, away from negative thoughts that in the past dragged her down the path of hell.

But most of all, her prayer is that the world recognises that depression is like a cancer which, if not addressed fast, could eat up more people.

What is depression?

Depression is a state of low mood and aversion that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, feelings and sense of well-being. Depressed people can feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, irritable, hurt or restless.

They may also lose interest in activities that were once pleasurable, experience loss of appetite or overeating, have problems concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions. Some have insomnia, sleep excessively, are fatigued and lose energy.

The dire effects include contemplating, attempting or committing suicide.

A psychiatrist’s Expert view
According to Dr Julius Muron, a consultant psychiatrist at Butabika National Referral Hospital, clinical depression, in simple terms, is a mental disorder and state in which someone has a persistently low mood characterised by excess sadness or loss of usual happiness. It mainly occurs among persons of more than 10 years of age.
“Depression makes a person stop doing the things that used to make them happy. It takes a minimum of two weeks for someone to be declared depressed,” Dr Muron explains.

Dr Muron says depression can be triggered off in people by the loss of a loved one, onset of a chronic medical condition, traumatic accident, retirement from a job, failed relationships or other such conflicts. Also, women who have just given birth may suffer from post-partum depression due to the new stresses of parenthood.

Dr Muron explains that symptoms of depression are manifested according to different levels of severity.

Mild depression presents as chronic pain, like a headache, which interferes with one’s productivity but without necessarily disrupting their daily life.

Moderate depression comes with difficulty in getting along with other people such as a mother getting irritable and violent towards her children. In office, one may fail to hit their targets due to lack of concentration. Also, personal care may become a challenge.

Severe depression presents with suicidal thoughts and attempts, strange sensations including hearing voices and seeing imaginary people and animals. It also tend to cause strong sense of smell, particularly of rotten stuff.

Some patients sit still in a stupor, unaware of what is happening around them. Others are unable to control passing of urine and stool. In most cases, they require immediate admission to hospital for treatment.

Other symptoms that cut across all levels of depression include insomnia, loss of appetite, general body weakness, poor concentration, memory loss, feelings of uselessness, and lack of interest in sex.

Dr Muron says depression can be diagnosed through an evaluation examination at a health centre. Mild depression is normally treated through counselling and training one to activate their social life.

For moderate and severe depression, a person requires counselling and medication, usually with anti-depressants. The psychiatrist dispels myths that anti-depressants are addictive, explaining that the drugs are prescribed for a period of between six and 12 months.

“After this period, we discontinue medication. There are just very few people who have had a recurrent lapse whom we keep on medication for more than 12 months.
Untreated depression is most likely to reoccur, but this is not immediate, even if one misses taking a dosage for a day,“ Dr Muron says.

Dr Muron says depression is very common in Uganda, with about six to 35 per cent of cases affected by the disorder, especially in post-conflict areas, among people diagnosed with HIV/Aids, and children between the ages of 10-17 years. He advises that mothers are assessed if they show signs of post-partum depression. Also, a support system of family and friends is important in reducing the effects of depression.

For workplaces, the presence of an in-house counsellor can also help to ward off depression.