She writes woman … Part 1

Hauwa Ojeifo

What can one girl do in a country of 180 million people? I wasn’t sure what time it was, when the phone rang, but I jumped up. Work has started, I thought. I cleared my throat and picked the phone. It was 1:18am. Just last night, in a post on my organisation’s Instagram page (She Writes Woman), I shared a number for all to call if they felt suicidal or just needed to talk.

In what was an uncertain ‘just do it’ moment, over 15 people reposted that night. This was it. I was really doing what no one had thought to do.

I could tell that she had been crying when I heard her squeal, “Hello.”

She went on to say that she got the number from Instagram.

“Is this She Writes… She Writes…?”

“She Writes Woman, yes,” I started softly.

“What’s the matter? Talk to me.” I continued.

My voice was clear as day. You’d never guess that I had just woken up from sweet sleep.

It’s what I’ve done for two years now writing this piece. Staying up, or at least putting my sleep second to the needs of the people who desperately need to talk – people who feel that life is being sucked out of them. People – men and women – who have been dealt the mighty unprecedented blow of ill mental health through depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, etc, and are desperately running out of options.

I empathise first because I’m a human being. But also because I’ve been that person.
Up at night not being able to fall asleep. Weeping and shouting quietly because my chest cannot contain the self-hate, self-blame and resentment buried within me. Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness would envelope me, for reasons I couldn’t pin point.

Who could I call at that time of the night? How do I get someone to truly connect with me without having to explain myself?

Just like my callers, as the night became still and quiet, all the voices inside my head grew louder and angrier.

“Please help me, I just tried to kill myself,” another said.

I fought back the tears in my eyes. I swallowed hard. In this line of work, you need to keep it together. It’s all good to empathise, but composure is equally important. In these moments, you are literally holding your caller’s life in your hands. Your next words are critical. Not just what you say, but how you say it. Your caller is hypersensitive to your tone of voice, and the words you seem not to say. Yes.

Barely five months before then, I had my near suicide attempt. And here I was re-triggering myself with every call.

“Do not try this at home,” my psychiatrist had made herself very clear when she said, “Take your sleep very seriously.”

You see, following (what I now know as) years of extreme mood cycles between mania and major depression and multiple traumatic life events, I was diagnosed with bipolar two and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just the other day.

I had barely found my footing with the horrible side effects of antidepressants and mood stabilisers – shocking weight gain especially around my stomach, drowsiness that no amount of sleep could wear off and more. Quite honestly, I still had suicidal thoughts whispering somewhere in my head.

I don’t know who sent me to take this on. And yet, I couldn’t help myself. I felt called to do it.

When I had finally released the news of my critical mental health to my family two months before starting my organisation – She Writes Woman – I had dropped a bomb on my family. Even though I was scared, I expected love to be reciprocated.

Besides love, it was largely confusion. Like many other Nigerians, educated or otherwise, orientation has done nothing to prepare us for a mental breakdown.

So from graduating top of my class, double masters’ degree from a prestigious University in England to landing a dream job, it just didn’t quite add up for anyone. So of course, how could they understand?

They were supportive the best way they knew. But what I needed was more, understanding.

She Writes Woman was my attempt to build a tribe of women who would complete my sentences, hearts singing “me too” and I could sit without saying a word, and yet feel the release. I needed to be free to just BE – suicide attempt and all.

I remember getting off an hour, 23 minutes phone call, talking a 17 year old out of taking her life.

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