Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here.
This week’s #ZikokoWhatSheSaid subject is a 68-year-old Nigerian woman with a thyroid disorder that imitates clinical depression. She tells us how her health struggles have given her a strangely positive outlook on life after a decade of numbness.
When did you realise you had a thyroid disorder?
After I had my last born in 1992. I was 37, and my neck just started swelling. After some weeks, it was worryingly large. I wasn’t in pain, but I was always coughing and short of breath. When I went to the hospital, they said I had goitre, that my thyroid was inflamed, and it was because I was deficient in iodine.
I was so scared because my loving sister had passed away because of throat cancer in 1990. But thank God, mine was nothing cancerous. I did surgery, and it was gone.
This feels like one of those movies where…
Yes, it came back. About a month later, I started having muscle and joint pain and was constantly tired. So I returned to my doctor, who referred me to a colleague in England.
I travelled, did several tests and waited another two months before being diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
What did this mean?
It meant my thyroid wasn’t producing enough hormones for my body, so I had to start taking hormone replacement tablets every day. It also meant everything became worse.
Because of the drugs?
No. After having my last child, Fola, I went into what we all thought was postpartum depression. I had no motivation to do anything at all. I couldn’t return to work. I didn’t even want to breastfeed him. In fact, I had this irrational phobia for breastfeeding, so he had to grow up on formula. Luckily for us, my sister-in-law had a child shortly after, so she would breastfeed him for me when she was around.
I was numb, physically cold, my skin was so dry, like it was harmattan when it wasn’t, and I simply didn’t want to do anything. I was religious before, but after Fola, I no longer wanted to pray or read the Bible. I wanted to stay in bed and be left completely alone without having to think about anything or anyone. The worst sound to me at that time was my baby’s crying. I couldn’t stand it.
And it wasn’t postpartum?
It wasn’t. After the neck surgery, I felt a bit better. At least, I could relate with people and carry Fola, but I didn’t return to being happy. It’s a tiny blur in the past now, but I remember being such a friendly, lighthearted person.
Once the body pain and tiredness started, I went into a deeper depression. I’d walk around the house slowly because I didn’t want to do even the littlest things — moving from one room to another. I was gaining weight, constantly constipated, constantly having muscle cramps and joint pains. My period was haywire, and I no longer wanted sex. My husband was so frustrated by the whole thing, but bless him, he tried his hardest not to show it.
We never knew that I was suffering from a medical condition where my brain was triggering sadness because I didn’t have enough of one hormone.
Damn. I’m so sorry. What was life like after the diagnosis?
I didn’t notice any improvements even after several months of taking the hormone replacement drugs. So I was in and out of the hospital, sometimes even having to take trips back to England, for more and more blood tests until the correct dose was found.
I felt like a lab rat, constantly being poked and experimented on. I slept in and out of different hospitals and labs between ‘93 and ‘94. All the specialists in LUTH and UI knew my husband and me very well. They’d even make social calls to our home. Meanwhile, I just felt dead inside.
Even after you got the correct dose?
Yes. The physical side got better. My skin and period pattern normalised. But for the next decade, I struggled with the motivation to do anything at all. I was either sleeping all the time or suffering from insomnia. I couldn’t even cry anymore. I was just numb, blank, like an empty barrel.
And this went on for ten years?
Or more. I missed my children growing up, my career never recovered after I lost my job in ‘93, and I couldn’t sustain a business.
In 1995, I travelled to stay with my eldest sister for some time in Akure. It was supposed to be for a few weeks because my husband wanted me to have a change of scenery, and I myself was feeling so guilty and worthless watching him carry all the weight at home, paying for everything and raising our five children. I ended up staying in Akure for close to a year.
I just couldn’t go back. It was a huge mental battle where I felt like I was being swallowed up and drowned out by the depression. And I could tell my sister and her family felt sorry for me. That was when I started cutting myself with knife and razors. I’d feel like I was drifting, disappearing, so I’d lock myself in my room and cut my lower arm and thighs out of desperation.
I remember the first time I did this was the first time I smiled in a long time. It was like the devil was using me. I was always scared right after I cleaned the self-inflicted wounds with spirit and plastered them up.
What made you think about cutting yourself?
My God, I don’t know. It must’ve been out of desperation. I might’ve been somewhat suicidal. I think I was. It’s hard now to figure out my motives and the things I did during that long foggy period. I wasn’t myself.
What made you eventually return home?
My husband persuaded me to come back, saying that my children needed their mother. I remember both our families begging me like I was this wicked person who didn’t want to be with her family. Not knowing I was struggling with myself. I allowed them to take me, and I returned to moping around in our house for another several years. I was like a ghost.
Did you stop cutting yourself?
I’ve heard now that people get addicted to cutting. But I bless God I never got to that stage. It was shame that made me stop because when I returned to my husband’s house, he never let me leave his sight. I couldn’t imagine him finding out I was doing something like that, so I gave it up. Even when he found the healed and unhealed cuts I gave myself in Akure, I lied that they happened naturally due to my condition. He just shook his head and let it go.
What changed after a decade?
In 2000, a friend of mine who relocated to the US in the 80s invited me to visit with her in Houston, Texas, for a month. I think she and my husband had spoken to each other because I’d cut off ties with most of my friends since the whole thing started. She took me from therapist to therapist until one day, we went to see this woman who was a hypnotist.
Weren’t you scared to see a hypnotist?
I was nothing. I don’t think I even thought about it. I just let my friend take me anywhere, all the while wishing I could just be allowed to stay in one place and be. Surprisingly, this session was the first treatment to give me some long-lasting relief.
She didn’t ask me questions or proffer much advice because my depression was linked to a medical condition that would never disappear. That’s what made it so hard to manage. There was no talking through it, figuring out triggers, or getting closure; just my body’s inadequacy.
So how exactly did the hypnotherapy go?
Unfortunately, I don’t remember a thing beyond going there, meeting the kind black woman and leaving much lighter.
I see. And what changed exactly?
Alone in my room that night, my mind was blank in a new way. It was like I was open to new revelations. I realised my condition could be a blessing rather than a curse if I just opened my mind to see it that way. Because I no longer wanted to do anything, my condition indirectly freed me from the pressures of constantly chasing the vanities of life. Nothing really matters in life except what we make of it.
I’m not saying people should want to be depressed, but it’s happened to me. What can I make out of it?
What have you made out of it?
I’ve achieved contentment. It stopped being important for me to compete with everyone else over every single thing. My body has forced me to focus on taking one step, one day at a time. I never want to go back to that stage of giving myself wounds to feel alive or insulting myself in my mind because I feel guilty over something God thought to give me naturally.
And work? Were you ever able to go back?
Not really. After so many years at home, my husband opened a supermarket for me to manage in 2001. It was about a year after the hypnotherapy — I did two sessions of that before returning to Nigeria.
I’ve run the stores successfully for 21 years and expanded to three other locations on the mainland and one on the island. My eldest handles most of the operations now. God has been faithful.
It’s been 31 years since your first surgery. Are you still depressed?
I don’t even know anymore. I now take SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), so I’m very restless these days. I want to take walks, see my grandchildren and attend Sunday service, but I’ve also been having short-term memory loss and finding it hard to concentrate on things.
At the end of the day, I don’t remember to care or be sad about these things. I’m content and ready for whatever life brings.