The author of this article is a Kenyan advocate who works in a grassroots role in a rural community about five hours from Nairobi. She talks about how her work in criminal justice haunts her nights and has taken its toll on her mental health.
It’s a Sunday afternoon as I write this. I have been procrastinating for a whole week now but I remember that I promised to at least do one thing on my to-do list today. Every day I strive to at least get something done. The bigger tasks are more daunting, I am not sure I can do them. And then one day I wake up and do it! That thing that I have been telling myself I will do, ends up getting done and it turns out, it’s not as bad as I thought. I was not always like this. I was always the go-getter, the one who got stuff done. I was the one who was not scared of reaching for the stars. Now, I am not sure what I am reaching for.
The reality is that I can feel that I am not in a good place. Again, I was not always like this. I was always headstrong and ‘put together’. Criminal law has a way of draining your very soul; everyone becomes a criminal in your eyes. It is rewarding but the rewards come with a lot of sweat and sleepless nights. Every day I get to deal with people’s problems.
The first sexual assault case I handled was in 2015; it involved a 50-year-old lady who was HIV positive. I went home and cried in the shower for a whole hour. Too scared to sleep in my house, I went to a friend’s. That case broke a part of me that I have never been able to recover. Over time, numerous cases have left me broken and the situation gets worse with each passing day.
Before the Covid pandemic put us all in lockdown, I chose to seek professional help. I was not sure what I wanted out of it but I knew I needed help. Why? Because as much as I love what I do and enjoy it, I needed to talk to someone. Talk about everything and nothing. Talk about how my work is affecting my personal life. How do I separate the two? How do I deal with the losses? How do I know that I have helped my clients? How do I stop the images of my victims coming to me? Over the years, my irritability has heightened, I get panic attacks over the smallest of things. I chose help because I needed to serve my clients well; they deserve justice. How can I assure them of impartiality if I am not okay?
I never thought I would ever categorise myself as among the people who have mental health issues. That title was always left for ‘those people’. I am still not sure if I am one of ‘those people’. All I know is that as the days go by, I have to work harder to stay afloat; it is not sustainable. The panic attacks have increased and I am not able to handle stress well. With no debrief available at my workplace, I chose to seek help on a personal level.
Back in 2015, after a long day in court, I expressed to a friend that I was struggling to handle the cases brought to my desk. She suggested exercise as a form of release. I tried several things and finally settled on yoga. Why Yoga? Because I can do it anywhere! All I need is my mat. When I am in a stressful work environment, I take a deep breath and stretch out my hands. I instantly feel better. Yoga helps me stay centred. I am not as consistent as I was two years ago but I do my best. For the 30 minutes to one hour I am in a yoga practice, I forget all my stresses. It helps me stay calm, think things through, worry less, sleep better, breathe and relax. Best part? I am physically fitter and perform better. I am hoping that I can become a certified yoga instructor so I can help my colleagues.
I am doing my best to stay afloat. I recognise that I have a problem and I am on a journey to find a solution.
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