Not Where I’m Supposed to Be: Depression and Turning 38

I don’t get sick often. A week ago I was in the hospital for four days.  And this wasn’t like getting sick with the flu or something. I had severe kidney distress. This was not particularly new because I’ve always had kidney stones. Since I was 16, really. What was new with this trip was the fact that a few more hours and I would have probably ruined my right kidney and needed dialysis.

My first semester in boarding school I had exeat for a day out with my aunt who was an amazing chef. Given the D-H food we were fed, I was ecstatic to be eating out that day. However after dinner I found myself doubled over on the floor crying. We thought it was gas or my ulcer but when it didn’t subside with an antacid, we went to the hospital. 16 year old Black girls apparently spell “pregnant” so I was quizzed and coerced with hopes of a confession. It was so humiliating, all the while I was squirming and moaning in pain. When the nurse finally gave up her inquisition, she gave me a double dose of Paracetamol and I laid down on a grimy hospital bed. I don’t recall how the rest of that interaction went; I just remember that I walked away thinking I needed to not get that pain again unless there was a baby following it. The world is so twisted!

So fast forward some 20 years I was back in the ER with pain worse than I had ever experienced in those 20 years since my first episode. After consulting the CT Scan, the urologist said the right kidney was almost twice the size of the left. I had to have surgery to remove the blockage that was causing the urine to back up and remain in my kidney, thus causing it to swell up. By Saturday morning I could have sworn it was going to burst out of my side. Thanks to the miracle of science I now have a stent in my right kidney that will be removed in a week, helping to make sure everything is properly drained. I don’t know what the prognosis is post the removal of the stent but I am hoping there has been no permanent damage. Sad thing is, the first ER I went to did an ultrasound of my kidney but sent me home with pain meds instead if admitting me. I am glad I trusted my instincts and returned to another ER for a second opinion. In the process of so many imaging tests, I was also told I have a congenital disease call Medullary Sponge Kidney disease. Doctor said: “welcome to a lifetime of kidney stones!” Wish I had the conviction to say: “aint nodody got time for that!” Oh well!

My girlfriend and my mother both swooped in to take care of me and have spoiled me to no end. I am grateful for these two women as well as all the coworkers and neighbor who totally outdid themselves by either driving me to the ER or sitting with me hours on end through the drudgery that is the hospital. I think I just never imagined that people would be so willing to give up their day to take care of me.

The reason I wanted to blog today really has more to do with my mental state post all this. I have been depressed from about 24 hours after surgery until now. That’s a whole week! I’ve had moments of brightness or moments when I’ve managed to rise above it and make a plan for how to proceed with my life, but for the most part, I’ve been super low and have lost my raison d’etre if you will. It begun on Monday morning when after 36 hours post surgery, I felt worse than when I first went in. After mom dropped off my breakfast, I stifled tears and ate. It hurt to even chew. When she picked up my tray, I pretended to asleep so she wouldn’t check on me right away. When she was gone, I balled my eyes out like I hadn’t done in a long while. I didn’t expect to be here at 38.

Let me explain…I’m turning 38 in less than 24 hours; 20 years ago when I was envisioning my future in the U.S. this hopeless, helpless person was certainly not in the picture.

While I was crying I totally understood that no one plans to be “barely covering your bills” and be met with a random hospitalization and surgery that is definitely going to impact that goal of “barely covering your bills.” I also understood that no condition was permanent and this too would pass as had other unpleasant experiences before this one. I also understood that I was darn lucky and blessed to be living in a country where healthcare though at a premium, affords me the best they have available. No waiting a week for that CT Scan or greasing some technician’s palms to get in maybe a day or two ahead of the other waiting patients, all the while praying electricity was turned on that day. I was fully aware that I was still employed and my job was protected under FMLA so long as I did all the necessary paperwork.

All these rational truths be damned I began balling on Monday and have only stopped for brief moments since. I think a big part of it is medication and its interactions with my brain chemistry. The other major part is the fact that I could perhaps be bordering on a life crisis of some kind. Yes, given my already struggling brain chemistry, situations like these get so magnified that getting out of bed seems not to be worth it because after all, why bother if you are going to die before the night is over?! So peeling aside the fog of the brain chemistry imbalance for a moment, let me return to the idea of a life crisis.

I have three Masters’ degrees and owe a ton of money to the government as a result.  I am in a job that pays annually, a fifth of what I owe the government. I am in an underappreciated and underpaid field of residence life. I am not even using any of my Masters’ degrees. Sick time and health accommodations in a position like mine are nebulous and undefined and this means it’s subject to interpretation and relies on the kindness of coworkers.

Along the way of these 20 years in the U.S., I’ve given up things like heterosexual marriage and children and the house with picket fence and I’ve been mostly ok with this. But somehow on Monday it seemed I had accomplished nothing and I had given up on all my goals. I didn’t have any left. Couldn’t make any cos it was too late. And I was going to die with no sort of legacy. No book. Nothing named in my honor. No money. A lot of debt. No career. To say I freaked out is an understatement. I lost it! I’ve been slowly crawling myself back off that proverbial ledge since Monday.

I refused to communicate with folks who called to check on me. In the beginning the breathing tube scars were my excuse, then I said it hurt to hold the phone long. On one such aversion stories (always communicated through texts) a friend asked if it was ok to stay “talking” via text. I guess it was. I was surprised that she would bother trying to communicate when I was in such a mood. Today I am grateful for her act of generosity. She asked me what was wrong. In a couple texts I got out that I was basically questioning my existence, realizing that if this illness had turned out to be fatal, I would be on my way to processing disability and along with it all my dreams. She coaxed me into envisioning a change.  After arriving on campus after surgery, I had suddenly felt old and the thought of running around dealing with one crisis after another seemed less appealing. I had hoped I was making a difference in their lives but over the last semester it had become increasingly difficult to get anyone to commit to attend a program or to work on putting one on. I couldn’t get my enthusiasm to rub off on them.

As I text chatted with her I knew I couldn’t afford to be on this path, especially not if I was going to be suffering kidney damage for it. In the matter of a half hour I had started to feel better. Yes a change was needed, but it could happen over the next few months. In the meantime I could re-commit myself to taking more care of myself and not letting the chaos consume me and cause my kidney to swell up. Life really was not over even though it felt like it was. She encouraged me to perhaps return to the book I’d put away in 2012 after the MFA, get a coach, and begin focusing on that instead. Focusing on changing the situation I find myself in the day before my 38th birthday, will become the prize I will keep my eyes on this semester.

So I am not where I had imagined I would be at 38, but I have come a long way from the African immigrant who arrived at Columbus International airport on Jan 10, 1996. A lot has changed in the years since I immigrated. I have accomplished a lot. The goal over the next four months is to hold on to the one thing that hasn’t changed: my resilience in the face of chaos and uncertainty, and in the process maintain functioning kidneys. 🙂

Depression, in fact, most mental dis-eases have the tendency to completely erode any sense of self, because it leaves you questioning your very existence. Reaching out to those who have the gift of re-focusing you is essential. I often get really frustrated with friends and family who think that Jesus is my ticket out of depression. I continue to learn that they mean no harm; it is just their only way of digesting my illness. “Ni nyinaa ka ho bi na oso.” As mom says, and I loosely translate: these folks plus my medical team plus friends who really get it plus my resilience all adds up to keeping me alive.  Most days I am grateful to be alive.

So depressed or not 38 looms in the turn of the clock’s hands. With the guidance of a couple long-time friends I plan on staying focused on the prize of changing my situation.

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6 comments

  1. I love your honesty and openness. You have already left an impact on a world of friends. Imagine what is in the future!

  2. Dear, dear Kuukua, I am sending you so much love. I am, as always, humbled by your ability to put words to what it is you’re going through. I hope everything goes smoothly with your physical recovery, both in short and long term. As for the more soul-searching woes you’ve written about so wrenchingly here, I wish I had something useful to say. I struggle too with questions about my legacy and whether I’m doing something meaningful with my life, and it’s just luck of the draw that my brain chemistry stays stable enough that even when I feel despair, there’s a certain baseline I don’t drop below. I can’t imagine how much more anguished you must feel in the midst of these questions — your posts give me some inkling but even so… I can’t know. I just send my love and good thoughts and wishes for hope and tools and guidance when you need them. No matter what else you may or may not have achieved, you touch a lot of lives and hearts, and so many of us value your existence here. I think a lot about the goodness and connection you’ve brought into my life. Big hugs and I’m thinking of you. ❤

    • Hi Gigi
      Thanks for reading. I can tell you that I am in a very different place than I was 5 months ago. I think 38 grew on me, plus a lot has happened in the 5 months since I wrote that has given me new perspectives. I wish you blessings and peace as you near your birthday. Do something fun alone or with friends to mark it!

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