“I want people to acknowledge that mental illness is real. It’s not laziness or a lack of willpower.”

Kateko talks about her experiences dealing with anxiety throughout her life and the impact of loss and trauma on her mental health.

30th November 2022, 12.48pm | Written by: Kateko

I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was always a high achiever expected to do well. I also became very self-aware of my identity and was in a constant culture of finding where I belonged. I was born in Zimbabwe and came to the UK when I was 4, first residing in Birmingham then Devon. At age 10, I moved back to Zimbabwe and I found it hard to fit. Friendships were tricky as I didn’t know exactly who I was or where I fit in.

 At age 13, my family was met with grief when my little brother died in a car accident. When he passed away, I really struggled – I thought I was responsible for his death, and didn’t know how to process the grief. It was especially difficult to see my mother try to process it and to make it easier for her, I embodied being the ‘perfect child’. I suppose it was a way of compensating and dealing with the pain of a loss. Only this would have repercussions later in life.

 I returned to the UK for university and very quickly, I was self-aware of my identity yet again: I was the only Black person in class, studying in a male-dominated subject (engineering). Being Black and female came with pressure to not let the group I was representing down; but not only that, I didn’t want to let the class down for fear that they’ll think I don’t belong. In truth, I found it difficult, but I got through it anyway and graduated.

 I faced my troubles head-on when I started seeking therapy. It was only after losing my father and breaking down that I asked for support. I discussed the trauma of losing my little brother with my therapist which really helped process what I’ve been through. Before then, I never said it out loud to anyone. Furthermore, I didn’t learn to drive until late into adulthood and having therapy alongside the driving lessons helped combat my fear of driving which I associated with danger. Gradually, I viewed driving in a more positive light. I find loss of control very frightening but through reframing my thinking and breaking down my fear, I came to the conclusion that I can’t control what other people think. Similarly, I can’t control how other people drive. But I could control my thoughts and actions, and in the end being able to drive felt really empowering.

 In my culture, mental health is seen as an excuse, as being ‘lazy’. Thankfully, I did enough therapy to know this isn’t the case. Even if they didn’t understand, it didn’t take away the validity of what I was feeling.

My mother comes from a generation where you get on with things. She would say, “Life is hard, you get on with it”, and so when I quit my job of 8 years in Nigeria due to the bullying culture where I also became a target, she didn’t really understand. We’re really close but with mental health, she didn’t understand to what extent it affected me. Rather, she saw it as a case where you can’t just quit because you’re unhappy. After that, I took a year off to focus on me. Slowly over time, I opened up to my husband and best friend, both of whom were supportive and understood me better.

I want people to acknowledge that mental illness is real. It’s not laziness or a lack of willpower.

I want people to acknowledge that mental illness is real. It’s not laziness or a lack of willpower. I want people to accept this, rather than believing that they are a personal failure. If I had known this before, I could have coped better but there was no one around me to say that to me. Being a parent now, my children inspire me and are a big motivator to talk about my mental health, and I want parents to give children the opportunity to speak if they are struggling. Your mental health doesn’t only affect you. All it takes is someone to start the conversation.

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