The Distress Call

“Hello Douglas. Where are you?” this was an unusual question from Douglas.

Douglas has been my friend for over eleven years. When I first met him, we were on opposing teams in a soccer tournament in a certain Gavudia Primary School stadium in Sabatia constituency playing for a certain Musalia Mudavadi Cup. I was a defender for my team, then known as Hard Boys while he was a midfielder for his team, Nacet. Back in the day, a half of football ended when the referee decided to end it. There were no minutes. Some halves took 20 minutes and others took 65 minutes. During the early minutes of the second half, I got injured and was substituted. I elected to go and sit near our goalkeeper to chat with him as the game wore on. After all, he was my former classmate in primary school. Minutes later, I was distracted only for Nacet’s striker, Agesa (RIP) to hit a fierce shot that went off target and straight into my face. That was the first and last time I fainted in my life. When I regained my senses, an hour or so later, I was told that Douglas helped bring me back. That the game was abandoned and everyone ran because they thought I was dead. All of them, except Douglas.

“I am somewhere between Isinya and Kitengela. I have been cycling all day and I am heading home now,” I answered. This response was casual. Being a Saturday, I thought all Douglas wanted was to grab some tea or catch a game or play chess. How wrong could I have been?

“I want to talk to you bro. As soon as possible,” he said.

“Okay. I will call you immediately I get home. Hang in there.”

As I got back on my journey home, I could not help but wonder what prompted this call. Douglas’s voice grew louder, more persistent, and more insistent in my head. As soon as possible. As soon as possible. As soon… I wanted answers immediately but waiting was all I could do. Well, not all. I could also cycle faster and get home sooner.

“Can I ask you something Douglas?” He started as soon as I handed him a cup of tea. I did the listening as he did the talking. “Are there some people who are just born to be unhappy?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. His question may have been rhetoric but I felt my question was reasonable.

“Yesterday, I arrived home with enormous stress. I learnt that I will be jobless in a month because my company is resizing and I am one of the casualties. However, being the first born that I am, I soldiered on. I had hope that I would get a new job and everything would be okay. However, at this point in time, I needed support. I needed someone to talk to.”

He paused and looked up, perhaps hoping to find me browsing or watching the soccer match on the screen. However, I was all ears.

“I know what you are thinking,” he continued. “My wife. I told her about the whole story. I don’t even know what she thinks. My daughter will be sent for school fees soon, my rent will be due soon, my father relies on me, and many other things that have been overwhelming while I was employed. They will still be here while I am unemployed. Everyone looks at me and thinks I am managing well but I am not. I am messed up Douglas, I really am.”

I looked at my friend straight in the eye without showing any emotion. I wanted to tell him that he was not alone in this but it hardly sounded right in my own head. I wanted to tell him to calm down and take a rest. That sounded crazy as well. I wanted to ask him whether he would fancy the “work-from-home” ideas and self-employment but even that did not sound right. I sympathised with him from within but my face showed no emotion.

“No. You are not messed up Douglas,” I said at last, feeling stupid immediately after saying it.

“You really believe that?” he asked.

On a normal day, the answer to this question would be a no-brainer. Of course I believe in it, I would say. I would then accompany it with a long speech full of motivation and reasons why my friend should see the good side of this bad situation. However, it was not a normal day and I did not think Douglas was done.

“You know what is worse, Idiot?” he continued. “This is not an isolated situation. For the past two years, my life has been moving in reverse gear. I have stagnated at work. I cannot seem to get a promotion, training, pay rise, or even a new sitting station. I started my Masters degree and then stopped because I could not afford it. I started a business and it failed because I could not put in the time it needed. Worst of all, my family has been drifting further and further away from me. All over a sudden, they are all too busy for me. They no longer visit and when I visit, they no longer seem interested. My friends. Do I still have any friends? Okay, those I call friends. I can no longer ask for help from most of them. No one supports me. Everyone who claims to is only pretending.”

Douglas paused and took a few gulps of tea. He seemed deep in thoughts but unable to think. I could not help but relate to his story. I have heard so many of these stories that whenever I hear one, I think it is a past one being replayed. I wondered what the statistics would be if an honest survey of stress levels was carried out among my peers. Would the rate of stress be closer to zero or a hundred percent?

“Look here buddy. I hope I am not boring you but I did not know anyone else I could talk to.”

“No no no,” I interjected. “You are not boring me. You are speaking my language more than you may realize it. You are not alone,” I said. I felt disappointed in myself for saying this. It sounded wrong to say such at this point in time.

“Are we ever supposed to be understood?”

This question caught me unawares. For the first time in this conversation, I did not understand what Douglas was asking me. I did not understand what “we” meant just as I did not know what he wanted whom to understand. For the first time in the conversation, my face betrayed my emotion. Such had been my expression that he must have thought I was disinterested. At the moment I wanted to ask for clarification, the question replayed itself in my head louder and clearer. Really?-I thought. I could not help but wonder how many people asked themselves this question on a minute by minute basis. It must feel absurd to be in a bubble where you are a certain anomaly.

“Yes. There is someone who understands everyone,” I answered.

There was a long silence that left me thinking about how heard people like Douglas are. I wondered whether there were hundreds if not thousands that live in “silent depression” in Kenya. My thoughts wandered to the rising cases of “crimes of passion” of “murders-for-love” as people call them. I wondered how many of those may be results of silent depression. Then I wondered how many people believe they live for others. I wondered how many people thought their only purpose in life was making others happy at whatever cost.

“Would you like to play chess?” I asked, offering a distraction. It did not seem to work as there was some more silent before Douglas stood up to pick the chess board.

“Some of us have to be stressed for others to be happy, right?”

It was rhetoric, but a question either way.

“No. I don’t think so,” I responded.

As we played, I wondered about other people. How often do we listen to those who are suffering from different situations? How supportive are you? Do you think he or she is depressed?