On April 14, 2020, Dr Phionah Atuhebwe, 37, a Ugandan doctor working with World Health Organization (WHO) Africa Regional Office in Congo Brazzaville, tested positive for Covid-19.
In various social media videos, she chronicled her triumph in a German hospital against a disease that has killed close to 800,000 people globally in seven months; she describes hearing patients groaning and screaming in pain and how it was “one of toughest moments of my life”.
Dr Atuhebwe in her latest social media post at the weekend, chronicles her mental health struggle as one of the aftereffects of Covid-19, in response to reports of a Ugandan man who committed suicide:
So, after a painful two months of my Covid-19 journey, I return to my family, the point where everybody knew would be the most exciting day of my/our lives. However, this was far from the truth. I returned with feelings of emptiness, pain, numbness...
My family is my whole life – we are very closely knit and harbour extraordinary love, care and understanding between us. However, seeing my husband and children after 4.5 months was as good as seeing any other stranger in a bank queue or supermarket. I had no pinch of happiness.
Because my family had been through their own agony while I was away, I chose to protect them from the pain and baggage. I was withdrawn; I did not want to talk, but simply had to because these are my people and I did not want them to know that anything was amiss.
My two sisters came to see me and I wondered why on earth they would not just mind their business and look after their children and leave me alone. These girls, Reen Kem and Grace Ninsiima came with their children, and me, the favourite Auntie who is always carrying and kissing the babies and turning them upside down…could hardly hug them.
I remember leaving my sisters in the living room and going up to my bedroom, lying on my bed for a few minutes, then getting into the bathroom and picking my makeup kit and starting to apply makeup all in the name of them getting bored and leaving.
Seeing friends was out of question. Judith Sheenah was the first friend to reach out, wanting to see me and I did everything to ensure she did not. Another close friend Agatha Ayebazibwe after consultation about my availability hosted a few close and caring friends at her home. They know me for storytelling and humour and they looked forward. I was no longer the storyteller. I almost cancelled it because I still wanted my space, but decided to give strict conditions to them about my attendance: WE ARE NOT DISCUSSING MY COVID-19 STORY.
A week into my return home, my life simply got from bad to worse (inside). My ever-loving husband would just sit by my side on the bed and look at his one time chatterbox whom he always had to beg to stop her stories and allow him to sleep a bit, now with very few calculated words; the kind of, "do you want to go and eat?" Just because I wanted him out of the room. He would give me very tight passionate hugs, tell me the usual "I love you, I missed you so much, I am glad to have you back. We shall go through this, it is a matter of time".
These words alone would make me feel like running mad wondering, can't he find more sensible words to say like, ‘let me leave you to sleep’? I did not want any love or affection or attention from anyone.
"We shall go through this?" Did he even have an idea what I was going through? I hid all my pain and tears from him; I knew he would feel 10 times what I felt.
I knew something was terribly wrong with me. I wasn't the Phionah I knew and the feelings of emptiness, fear, anxiety, lack of sleep or too much sleep, etc were very, very bad.
No one, and I repeat, no one can understand these feelings and never judge anyone's actions during depression. I preferred to go back to ICU for 10 years than feel this way even for a minute.
I decided to seek professional help, sought an appointment, drove myself to see a psychiatrist without my husband's knowledge. During my 1.5 hours of narrating my story to the psychiatrist through sobs, she asked, "Are you sad?"
I said "No, but I am not happy."
In the end she asked, "Do you know what sadness means?"
That is when I paused for a moment and realized, probably I don't. Then she was like, "What you are describing to me, what you are manifesting are all what describes sadness. Look at you, you are crying. You have only known joy and happiness in your life, that is why you can't tell what sadness is."
We discussed as colleagues and that is when I was slapped with a diagnosis of "severe depression".
At this moment, even if I had been given a diagnosis of breast, cervical, stomach, colon and brain cancer combined, I would have believed because what I felt was the worst anyone can ever feel in this world.
She asked if "I had started getting suicidal thoughts"...
Anyway, that very afternoon, I went to Mbarara to spend a week with my mother who had gone through her own rough patch during my sickness. But basically this was a way to keep away from my Kampala friends and people in general. I did not want to see humans. I had spent a month in different quarantines with no human contact. I needed to learn how to live with them again.
My mother's home is quiet and peaceful. I drove myself with my children and arrived in Mbarara with no idea about where I even passed. I arrived home, saw my mother and her first words as she hugged me were: "Welcome back my child. God, thank you for bringing back my child to Uganda to her husband and children."
I have never broken down and wept like I did that moment while telling her, "Mum, I have been diagnosed with severe depression and started on medication". Meanwhile, a side effect of the medication is suicidal thoughts and tendencies...
My children were carrying bags from the car and I did not want them to see their tough mother crying. My mother was definitely heartbroken and I saw her wither like a dead plant, but she simply had to hold fort for me. From then, I did not want to talk to her because I knew I would just weep.
My mother was devastated; I am her most talkative and funny child. I always have hundreds of silly exaggerated stories, but this time, we could not even discuss my journey.
I had last cried as my late father's body was being lowered into his grave on October 4, 2005. Since then, I had only known laughter and joy and smiles and strength and love. Not because I don't face hard times, but because I choose not to let them tamper with my feelings. I prefer to support other people, friends and strangers overcome pain.
Anyway, my depression story is very long. My husband had to take leave from work and become a full time doctor, pharmacist, nurse, counsellor, exercise-mate, friend, prayer warrior; [he would] spend nights awake with me as I went in and out of panic attacks. He spent days and nights reading about depression and how to help a depressed spouse – God bless this man for me and give him a long healthy life.
On several occasions, I woke up to find this man in the middle of the night on his knees praying for my healing. By the way, seeing this, I felt nothing, then.
We had to undergo family therapy to help my children understand what was happening to the jolly and very playful and proggieful mother they have always known. They were taught how to help mummy get back on her feet – nothing beats family, I tell you.
I would have died from this depression without my husband and children and a few close friends that took time every day to check on me. The rest of the world moves on and people continue to fend for their families – which is fair, but family remains. Hold your family close.
The prayerful me could pray no more; I not only did not feel like it, but actually did not want to. However, I was determined to beat depression like I had beat COVID-19.
I needed someone who understood both medicine and God at a deep level to pray with me. I did not want anyone to tell me that these were my enemies at work, blah blah.
I chose to reach out to a friend, my former classmate, doctor and Pastor Timothy Nduhukire whom when I told that I was undergoing depression, almost collapsed saying it was impossible for Phionah to get depressed.
In his words: "If the Atuhebwe I know can get depressed, then the rest of the world would die if they went through what you went through".
We prayed daily on phone; he and his wife fasted and prayed and indeed God came through. Thank you Timo and Rachel Nduhukire. My psychiatrist friend, Dr James Okello became my pillar too during that tough period, doing long teleconferences with my family to help them/us understand depression and how to cope and that this was a passing storm.
A statement from him that stuck because he repeated it so many times was: "Phionah, I want you to listen to me very carefully. What you are going through is not abnormal. You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. You fought for too long and a normal system would finally give way; being human, your system has reacted the way any other system would".
I could write a whole month about this and that is why I have chosen to write my experience in a book – any time, it will be out. It was ready by end of June, but that was the peak of my depression. I could not bring myself to read a statement of the agony I had been through. Anyway, now a new chapter also needed to be added.
Mental health is real. [It] can happen to anybody; I am a very blessed person with a loving family, siblings, in-laws, friends from all walks of life. I don't lack, but here I was.
Arthur, rest in peace. May God your father who brought you to this planet receive your soul and judge you fairly. May your wife and children whose memories will forever be traumatised by this experience (society will also not spare them the judgement and painful talk) find strength in the memories they hold about you.
May they not slip into depression, because anyone is a candidate. No one is above it, just like death. Sorry for the long post and feel free to share it. Community sensitization is my job.