Winny shared a photo of her and her Dad taking a walk to celebrate World Mental Health Day. She said she vowed to celebrate with him, even if it meant ‘kuokota makaratasi pamoja.’ I love such people, such stories. We had a zoom interview for me to get her story, but the network was so bad; it sounded like the radio chewing the tape back in 1990. So I sent her questions and requested that she writes something.
The interview came back in sheng and with 17 emojis. This is my attempt to decode millennial speak.
Everyone knew a mad man in the village; for Winny, this man was her Dad.
One day, I came home from a school trip and went to look for my mom; I had bought her some yogurt as a gift. She was away at a neighbor, sharing the latest breaking news in the village. After a few words, she told me, ‘dad nacungire kiariki.’ That was the code word for, “He’s lost it again.” This is my earliest memory of my Dad’s illness.
Six years before my birth in 1996, Dad had had his first mental breakdown break down and manic episode. He’d get better for about five years and then relapse. Before I grew up and was old enough to chew maize and be beaten for my own mistakes, my Dad had already earned himself the title of ‘the village mad man.’
My Dad was a soldier. He served in the army long before I was born. His maniac episodes would start funny; he’d be walking, then he’d start jumping after every few steps. That was the sign that the clouds were gathering and it’d soon start raining madness in our house. My mom knew when the jumping started, he was on the slippery slope to a full-blown mental breakdown. This was also where the phrase ‘nacungire kiariki’ came from – he’d say that every time he jumped.
His madness was seasonal; he’d go raving mad for several weeks on a stretch and then he’d get better. My young mind had not fully grasped the extent or even the implications of his ‘sickness.’ I just knew my Dad was unwell, and when his sickness came, he was just not the same person.
Once the jumping started, he’d progress to carrying his shoes in his hand. Then he’d start wearing torn clothes or walking naked altogether. He would suddenly break into fits of uncontrollable laughter. They’d then alternate with violent episodes where he’d be banging doors and bullying people, pushing them around and taunting them. He’d have an obsession with a loose thread on a sweater; it didn’t matter who was wearing – he’d walk up to them and snap it.
Despite all this, he didn’t want to be called a sick man; to him, he wasn’t sick; it’s the rest of us that were mad. Mom always dragged him to the hospital; he’d be sedated and given drugs to calm his demons down. He was diagnosed with psychosis.
Living with a dad who was not in control of his mind broke me, but it also melted my heart. I craved some normalcy, some reprieve from being the daughter of the village mad man. My life got stuck to the periods when he was well, I’d not want to let go of those, and they pushed me through the months when he was walking in the village, collecting papers and laughing like a mad man – pun intended.
Sickness and poverty are fraternal twins, mots people are just one illness away from destitution. We were no exception. Before he got sick, he was very hardworking – we were among the kids that could afford bread and Blueband in the ’90s. And then, we metamorphosed into this poor family that could barely afford food. Things went south so fast, forcing my mom to break her back under menial jobs to keep the family feeding. She and my granny became the pillars that held the family together.
I mostly slept at my grandmother’s house. Dad would come in the middle of the night and start banging the door, demanding to be let in to light a cigarette. I would be both aghast and irate, but my granny would hold me close and talk to me.
“Juju (Meru for ‘grandchild’ or ‘grandmother’ or grandfather — I know, very confusing), I don’t tire waking up to open the door. This is my son, and no matter how he is, I can’t throw him away like he’s useless. One day, he’ll knock, and I’ll not be here. As long as I’m alive, I’ll always open the door for him.”
My granny and Mum taught me to love my Dad at his most unlovable state. Mom didn’t tire of buying him clothes when he discarded his and walked in his birthday suit. I was still confused by all this; I didn’t know how to think or behave.
One day, as we took him to the hospital, he paused and went back to pick a piece of paper. People were staring at us. I stood and waited for him as he retraced his steps to rid the world of papers. That day, something broke in me. I was no longer ashamed. I realized that I made peace with having a crazy dad.
He stormed into the church several times when the sermon was going on, and all the faithful would turn to us to see our reactions. We kept our faces blank, and I praised God for giving me a dad – even a crazy one. Some people aren’t so lucky. He’d show up at school, and all the kids would run away screaming. I would run towards him, calling him ‘Baba.’ I never wanted him to feel unwanted or unloved.
When I was joining my secondary school, he got sick and wouldn’t get better like he used to. The craziness became a permanent part of him. I was terrified beyond comprehension. I imagined that he’d walk at night and get lost and never come back home. I had nightmares of him being attacked by people who may think he was a thief. Or he’d overdose on some of his medication. Supposing he felt dejected and unloved, and he committed suicide? I was a tortured soul.
I was afraid and sad. I used to be hopeful when he used to get better for a while. Now, he wasn’t getting better at all. When he was away at night, I missed his banging on doors. They used to irritate me, but at least I knew he was here. Strangely, we still felt safer when he was home at night like he was still the man of the house.
He still is the man of the house. A few weeks ago, he got a really bad attack and was hospitalized for three weeks. I was with him through it until he got out. He still needs my love even when he’s out of his mind. I swore to hold his hand till his last breath or mine; to love, care, and protect this champ forever; to never be ashamed of him. My Dad’s experience taught me to love and appreciate everyone, not judge anyone by their looks or conditions.
Because, despite it all, he still is my father.
I have a feeling that this man could have been suffering from PTSD from the army, but most of these conditions go undiagnosed. If your loved one is battling a mental condition, get them help. And love them a little deeper.
Do you have a personal encouraging story you’d want to be featured here? Email your story idea of not more than 100 words to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise you, everything is a story. (Unless you hate avocados, I don’t negotiate with terrorists 😉 )