There are lights at the end of this dark tunnel

2010-01-14 00:00

THE traffic lights at the intersection of West and Boom streets seemed to be forever stuck on stop. Blazing ­Liquidambar trees mirrored perfectly on my farm bakkie’s bonnet. Mid- morning traffic was likewise pedestrian, just “going nowhere slowly”, a trickle of blurred legs crossing the ­zebra, kicking up little puffs of ­autumn’s dusty leftovers.

When the lights turned green, I should have driven off without a second thought to complete my errands in Pietermaritzburg. Right, right, into Victoria Road, to the NCD and then McBean’s to collect repaired fire- fighting equipment and finally new overalls from Protecto-Wear. I would then have finished off with a cup of coffee with a good friend at Hayfields before returning to my ripening sugar cane fields and silver-trunked gum plantations in Eston, not too much to do. A perfect KwaZulu-Natal day for a farmer.

At that moment I was meant to be a normal man, waiting for a green light, full of life. My dear wife and three awesome sons at home, a steady job which filled my days with endless pleasures. Oh we did have hardships, for if we dig deep enough it seems we all do have them deep down in one form or another, predominantly ­financial, but they seldom showed. There was always just enough to see us through each month and then ­always the Sharks game on Saturday. On Sunday, a braai with neighbours and some bass fishing in a beautiful dam before going off to burn cane against the burnished backdrop of our setting African sun.

Later, when the last flames had been doused, I would perhaps stop on the district road to watch a reedbuck, or even that old grey bushbuck emerging from the shadows, slowly walking past into the last evening dusk. A while later I would return home to a hot bath, a family supper and Carte Blanche, perhaps if not too tired, the 8 pm movie and bed. Oh yes, I was a normal happy farmer. Or was I? For this was not to be a normal day, and perhaps none ever would be for me again.

All I recall was my “life” coming to a complete and utter halt at those West and Boom street traffic lights. The world swam in front of my eyes, time and space turned matt black, nothing made sense. I was empty when I should have been filled with life. I sat in a trance, and from very deep down I heard a gut-wrenching sob erupting, which gripped me in spasms. I just sat there, in my truck, crying like a baby, estranged and very alone.

How long did I hold up the traffic? All I can remember is a shouting form knocking on the window, I don’t know, perhaps even cursing me. It seemed very far away. Slowly through the fog of my emotion, I saw cars and lorries detouring around me, hooting. A ­staring crowd gathered. I seem to ­recall emerging from that strange scary state with some kind man ­calming me down, asking if he could even drive me to some doctor’s rooms, if I knew who he was. I had little idea who I was. It was terrifying. Sheer ­utter hell. It was as if I had drowned. You do not know if you do not know.

Driving slowly to the doctor, ­blubbing my heart out. What on Earth was happening to me? Entering those waiting rooms a little while ­later, after what seemed an eternity, I simply stammered to the receptionist that I needed to see “Doc”. It all becomes hazy from then on. In that moment when I sat down in those waiting rooms, the pieces of this ­jigsaw puzzle that is me began a long journey of healing.

My gentle and kind doctor obviously knew something presenting in my state and condition that I did not. He guided me quietly with friendly care and understanding towards a good night’s rest, perhaps several, in ­hospital. I have no recollection how long I was there. I don’t remember who visited, but it felt good … ­sometimes. Just lying there, waiting for something. I didn’t care about my life, about my family, my job, my ­condition, about anything. But slowly, over time, I seemed to realise with ­increasing anxiety that something ­really significant had happened. And I thought … “So what!” That’s just how it is, this condition “they” named depression.

During the next few weeks, into the deepening midlands winter, cold fronts swept up from the deep Antarctic. Golden Liquidambar leaves in Boom Street turned rusty then crispy brown, reflecting the mood of my soul. Have you ever had a rusty, crispy soul? Soon the first snows of June blanketed the Drakensberg, followed by quicksilver frosts along the banks of the Duzi. Drugs coursed through my mind, altering my state from this to that, from sad to happy, from ­anxiety towards faith. I so wanted to be ­better, to get better, but it was so ­hellish hard.

Spring arrived at last, in a rush of peach blossom flushed with new green grass on the Eston School sports fields after the devastating runaway fires fanned by August winds. Boys’ rugby became hockey then swimming. The days grew warm enough to take our bass rods to the nearby dam once again. A pattern emerged through good therapy, that my life was seasonal too, my moods swinging and mirroring the inexor­able sway from those short days of ­winter into the balmy long summer holidays.

Well that summer of 1998, I ­managed the conversion of new land which as if by magic became newly planted cane fields. Life appeared to have purpose and reward just like my cane fields; well tended, fertilised and loved, but eventually the long days of autumn returned, and with them my increasingly melancholy mood. I crashed … overdosed on the very drugs which had been so effective in stabilising me. What a tragedy.

What a tragedy to have my wife and sons come home to find me “dead” on the lounge floor. Every breath of hope, all the effort, everything completely stuffed up. So it was back to the ­beginning. I spare the details of this return into depression, they are just too much and are so personal. But one ­incident will remain with me forever.

When recovering in hospital, I ­really did battle to sleep. So much was going on in my mind that I would sit up all night drawing and writing, then pass out at dawn. That night, at about three in the morning, I had a mysterious visitor. She came in quietly, and we spoke for long and long … after which she gave me a poem written by a pupil at one of our schools in ­Maritzburg. Oh how I wish I had that poem now, because it was for a time so ­deeply meaningful and filled me with hope.

The following morning, I asked the nursing staff who my visitor was. I ­described her as tall and blonde, graceful and serene. I looked for that poem to show them but there was no poetry to be found. Furthermore, no one knew who she was. An angel? Wherever you are, you know that you helped my return to normality and thank you. Have any of you had a ­similar experience here in Maritzburg?

Well, under the consummate care and compassion of my family, doctors, friends and colleagues, and my angel for certain, I became one of the “lucky ones”.

During these past few years my work has taken me deep into the­ ­jungles of Guyana, perhaps some of the most spellbinding pristine forests of the outer Amazon. To Liberia, where I experienced first-hand the tragedy of conflict’s aftermath, and then into the wilds of the Southern Highlands of Tanzania overlooking Malawi, ­followed by Kenya, back to my place of birth, a supremely spiritual homecoming after 50-odd years, and the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Eleven years have passed my dear family by. Seasons with challenges, change and growth, in Maritzburg and abroad. Mostly though I want to share this with you.

Be aware of depression during these especially tough and testing times, watch for any signs in your loved ones, family and friends, your colleagues at work, especially those out of work. Find out about this very real malady and seek professional help and guidance. There should be no stigmas attached. With my story, I hope to return my good fortune ­perhaps helping someone in our community with the assurance that ­depression can be managed.

While writing this at 3.42 am, a cold front rushes in, peach blossoms line the district roads while the first leaf buds have sprung up on our Liquid­ambar trees. The traffic lights on the corner of Which? and Which? streets aren’t working at all today! Unemployed like me. I’m being careful. There are lights at the end of this dark tunnel.

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