I have an invisible health condition that is not often talked about.
This is the first time I am describing my problem, which is deeply personal and has remained hidden from many of my friends and colleagues for years.
But the truth is, for most of my life I didn’t know I had the condition or what it was called.
I now recognize that after experiencing the genocide as a child growing up in Rwanda and other troubling events, I have post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.
It triggers panic attacks that can come at any time and leave me tiring to breathe. I’m usually covered in a thin layer of cold sweat as they subside as I struggle to get back to my “normal” self.
Looking back, I was your normal happy child, growing up in the 1980s initially in a small but supportive family in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Essentially, it was me, my mom and my little brother Junior.
But this little angel wouldn’t live long enough to see his first birthday and his death, when I was about two, from a severe cough, would be my first real feeling of loss.
I couldn’t understand the emptiness I felt, because I too was a child, but over time I came to see this as the possible beginning of my journey, the genesis of my PTSD.
The second heartbreaking event occurred when I lost my mother to illness two months before I turned 10.
I still remember sleeping with her in the hospital, wanting to be close to her because I loved the way she smelled of sunshine. But when I touched her skin it was very dry. It was as if there was nothing left of her as she had lost so much weight.
After his death, my world as I had known it up to that point was over, but I didn’t grieve because I just had to get on with things. I moved in with my aunt – who I now call my mother – and five cousins, all very supportive.
Then, in April 1994, when I was 12, my life was completely turned upside down by the genocide.
In just 100 days, 800,000 people would be killed by ethnic Hutu extremists who targeted members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as their political opponents, regardless of their ethnic origin.
With the sound of gunshots we fled from Kigali to Gisenyi, a city near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the violence followed us and as we traveled around the area around Gisenyi we were often stopped at checkpoints by militia fighters. They once grabbed my little sister Nelly, but my mom somehow convinced them not to kill her.
It was a scary moment, when I realized that these people – who looked drunk and out of their minds – could do anything with it.
Some were quite young, but they had machetes, they had wooden clubs and some of them had blood on them.
This is something that will stay with me forever.
More on the genocide in Rwanda
We then crossed the border and became refugees in the Congolese city of Goma. I witnessed more deaths there as people died of cholera and dysentery and bodies piled up on the side of the road.
All this time and then our move to Kenya and finally, when I was 16, in Norway, where we were resettled, I was in survival mode.
This is a psychological state that allows people to cope with stress, but if you live with it for too long it can be harmful.
However, once in Norway, when I started feeling more relaxed, panic attacks started and a psychologist found that I was suffering from PTSD.
I’m obviously not alone.
More than one in five people who have experienced war in the past decade are believed to have some type of mental health condition, including PTSD, according to the World Health Organization.
And the condition can be the result of many different types of traumatic events.
According to the Public Library of Science medical journal, people living in sub-Saharan Africa are disproportionately exposed to trauma and may be at increased risk for PTSD.
But in many countries, mental health care and assistance is often poor or very limited.
Take Sierra Leone, for example, which has gone through so many things: a decade-long civil war, natural disasters that killed hundreds of people, and an Ebola outbreak in 2015 that killed nearly 4,000 people.
WHO estimates that 10% of the country’s seven million people suffer from mental health problems but only a small percentage are able to access mental health services.
“[When the war ended] There has been a lot of talk about reconciliation and peace building, ”said Dr Rebecca Esliker, a clinical psychologist at Makeni University in the country’s northern province.
“But we didn’t address the mental states that many people had, the traumatic events that people went through, and those atrocities that people went through, and what remains in their minds.”
Speaking on the BBC podcast The Comb, Dr Esliker added that shortly after the war, NGOs and other international organizations went to Sierra Leone and took two or three weeks of what she calls “crash courses” to train. people in counseling.
He argued that this would not be enough to help the citizens of Sierra Leone deal with the trauma they suffered and, as a result, the country continues to bear the consequences of all untreated trauma, even today.
“We are seeing people who are trying to cope, especially those who were young during the war. We are seeing many people who are dealing with severe mental disorders, which sometimes lead to a lot of assaults, fighting and domestic violence.”
When I hear this, I feel lucky.
I have not shown symptoms in the manner described by Dr. Esliker, but I know many.
I am also one of the lucky ones to have lived in countries where mental health care can be easily accessed and sometimes doesn’t cost much.
But even in most developed countries, a widespread stigma on mental health conditions remains.
In a 2015 study in the UK, nearly nine out of 10 people with mental health problems said that the stigma they endured had a negative impact on their lives.
This often leads people living with mental illness to avoid seeking the help they need. We simply need to stop calling people with mental health problems “crazy”.
It has taken me over 30 years to openly and loudly say that I have PTSD, and if I hadn’t told you, you wouldn’t have known.
It is important to talk about these things honestly and without feeling ashamed. Then perhaps more people will seek the help they need.