Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

The Magnificent Seven and one survivor

Apology: This is quite a long blog. Please bear with me.

There are seven facets to each person’s being for the duration he or she is on this planet and in this common dimension. These facets are in a constant state of flux and change; something like a lava lamp, except they’re all connected — think pizza cut into seven slices. The slices grow and shrink, exchange ingredients and get more and less tasty. But there remains one pizza cut into seven slices.

Stick with me, folks. It’ll get easier as we go along.

We are:

    Body

Atoms, amino acids, proteins, cells, complex organs all fitted together in one organism.

    Mind

Beyond the mere CNS, we are thoughts, consciousness, memories, learning, experiences, interpretations, originality, talent and creativity.

    Nature

Part of a much larger existence, sensing and interacting with a tangible, knowable environment that affects us and which we affect.

    Family

Originating from a traceable lineage in the past and driving into the future via connections and urges that still defy logical empirical compression or comprehension.

    Social

We actively seek the company of others like us, structure societies on commonalities and shared values, and try to destroy those we see as threats.

    Function

Call it work, job, career or calling — it is the thing we do with particular passion and from which we derive fulfilment and location.

    Spirit

It is the one aspect of our existence that distinguishes us (even Richard Dawkins, Friedrich Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell) from the rest of being; the indisputable fact that we have a drive to understand beyond that which we do understand and to ask why in addition to who, what, when, where and how. It is the Cartesian cogito ergo sum.

You may see this as simplistic, complicated, off the mark or blasphemous. That’s all cool by me. I have yet to come across a better way of relating to the world around me and of guiding me in keeping my balance. Whatever I have encountered, good and bad, mundane and extraordinary, chemical or metaphysical, has its place in one of the seven facets. Besides, seven works for me.

The thing about the seven facets is that they are connected, affect each other, cannot be separated or comfortably dissected, morph, become greater and lesser in significance and shift and exchange characteristics with the passage of time. And this is as it should be.

This is not any New Age thinking or postmodern-reconstructed CW orthodoxy, but neither is it the comfortable compartmentalism of what passes for modern scientific thinking exemplified by Dawkins, among others. It even pre-dates Steven Covey. It is not neo-this or quasi-that, nor does it even lay claim to any “school” or kind of thinking. It is what it is, for me, because it’s what’s stood the test of my time. If you like it, have some; there’s plenty to go around, so give it a whirl. It’s a no-obligation test drive. And if you don’t like it, leave it.

But the view of seven facets carries with it enormous responsibility: to maintain the balance at all times and under all circumstances.

Aah, there’s the rub. That’s the tough part. Maybe some of you are beginning to see little cracks. They’re OK; Leonard Cohen is right beyond right when he says: “There is a crack, a crack in every thing. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.”

Examine your life and you’ll see what I am driving at. Having said that, allow me to put my money where my mouth is and apply the seven-facets view to what I know best — my own experience of 2007.

It has been hell to keep the whole thing in balance this year, but looking at the seven, it has worked like this …

The old BODY, once worth Eastern Province gymnastic colours (you can’t really count first-team rugby, water polo, swimming and hockey at school because at Mafikeng High School when you got into matric you were automatically in the first team of whatever sport you played), is certainly not in that kind of shape any more. Buggered knees (part prangs at school, mostly gout now), eyes and liver see me not in the Energiser bunny’s league any more. But I’ll come back to this facet a little later.

The MIND is still pretty sharp and a rekindled love of reading has spurred me on to quite a diverse library. I’ve also discovered the miracle of the internet, P2P, ADSL (even if it is Telkom) and torrent downloads, so my music library has continued to grow past the 30 000-file mark, adding everything from ABBA to ZZ Top and including complete discographies of The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Cooder, Chieftains, Pogues, Seekers, Guthrie, Cohen, Cesaria Evora, The Band, Elmore Leonard, Di Meola, Buchanan, Presley, Cash, Young … you get the picture.

NATURE hasn’t been anywhere near where it should be, although a few birding outings, a gift of BBC’s The Planet series and a recent trip to old tribal roots in the Northern Cape helped restore the balance.

The FAMILY side has been particularly arduous, with my towering son, Justin and his gorgeous wife, Penny, now living in Washington, DC — thank God for Skype! — and my even bigger son, Chayse, at boarding school in Durban. My dad has retired from the ministry and lives with my stepmom in PE, as does my sister (who became a granny in September — that’s weird to contemplate) and her family. My boet is still as solid as a rock. But we’re spread all over and that makes keeping close ties tough.

On the SOCIAL side, my circle of close, loyal and important friends has shrunk quite a bit, mostly due to emigration. I’ve made some great new friends and numerous enemies, and grown my “circle of influence”. Ties with solid friends have grown stronger than I ever imagined.

The FUNCTION aspect of my pizza has been topsy-turvy. I have rediscovered old skills and learnt a whack of new ones. But my intolerance for low standards and the good-enough or passable business ethic coupled with dishonesty, duplicity, secretiveness and venom saw me lose my job — which has thrown a large bobbejaan-spanner in the works.

And finally the SPIRIT slice has reflected the overall turbulence and storms of 2007. But my little ship has emerged stronger, more profound, immensely personal and recharged with new vistas opening and new synergies blossoming.

Thus, all in all, you would be forgiven for thinking everything is nxa! It nearly wasn’t. Suicide is the ultimate manifestation that the whole — comprising all seven facets — is way out of kilter and on the verge of totally destroying itself on the rocks of hopelessness.

I survived my second suicide attempt this year.

You see, I have an illness called major depressive disorder (MDD). It is a bodily thing caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. This chemical imbalance screws about with the electro-chemical signals that flash through our brains all the time. My signals get scrambled and I am frequently physically unable to function normally. This bodily illness is no different from high blood pressure, high uric acid levels, epilepsy or diabetes.

I take medication for it and will do so for the rest of my life (which is a bugger when you cannot get medical aid without impenetrable force-fields of caveats). The medication helps me maintain what the rest of you call “normality”. But I have to guard against dropping the ball. I am more vulnerable to stress than most and the normal biorhythms we all experience can be deadly for me. Mine is not the blues or even the periodic bouts of temporary depression most people go through. That’s why the score of my life is written in the scars upon my arm.

I am also a proudly recovering alcoholic, dry for seven years (coincidentally). I don’t smoke, exercise moderately, eat badly (but chocolate and ice cream are good for depression, believe me!) and sleep well. I have a fabulous relationship with God and am learning not to take myself quite so seriously.

Why am I telling you all this? Because September and October last year were rough, rougher than a sewer rat’s scrotum, rougher than the perfect storm — you get the idea. And it involved the whole pizza falling out of balance.

And to survive the storm and restore the balance demanded superhuman effort on the part of all the seven facets. The trigger (as psychiatrists call the all-important event that sends the carefully built but delicate Jenga tower toppling) was nothing more than an email. But it was an insensitive, ill-considered and totally unprofessional email sent to me by the HR department at Sowetan. I must say immediately that it was not the reason for the chain of events that led to my dismissal, but it was undoubtedly symptomatic of the pervading malaise, the lack of ethical standards, the casual lip-service paid to staff welfare and cavalier fuck-’em-all attitude towards professional conduct.

I called for help as the tower began wobbling. I called the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and, realising the gravity of the crisis, they sent an ambulance.

But faced with aggro medical aids, I ended up in the chamber of horrors called the Helen Joseph Hospital — it’s where they filmed all the Saw movies. It’s also where they take what Ray Hartley calls “nutters”, mental cases, head jobs, loonies, whackos, suicides … call us what you will — we’re used to stigma. It should be renamed Hell and Joseph.

After the R1 000 trip from Roodepoort to Westdene by Netcare ambulance, I sat crammed into a corner in an overcrowded ER for nearly three hours with my arm wrapped in a blood-soaked copy of Beeld (it was all I could find), while nurses fart-arsed around cramming stretchers and wheelchairs into a space that could — maybe — accommodate two beds. We were 11. Used needles, scalpels and vials lay all over the place. I couldn’t move the chair because one wheel was stuck in a puddle of congealed blood.

Hours later a psychiatrist came to see me. She insisted I get stitched up while the nurses bitched in Sesotho. The psychiatrist was excellent — wish I’d thought to take her name. The so-called “hospital” was hell. Try to avoid it all costs because if you’re OK when you go in, you’ll be damned lucky not to come out in a body bag. Most of the events blur into flashes of blood, needles, newspaper, pain, passing out under a tree, pain and my friend, Lynne, who holds a PhD in compassion, coming to fetch me some time during the night.

It took three weeks to regain normalcy. Body, mind, nature, spirit, friends and family worked incredibly well to help me through. My employers did the usual — sweet bugger all — but I took all the sick leave I needed.

I am incredibly lucky to have survived.

I have no idea how it came about. After the initial trauma of Hell and Joseph, I fought against being admitted, and when you’re poor and potty there’s not much welcome in South Africa.

That probably explains why South Africa has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Check the time right now; within the next hour someone will take their own life. And it is getting worse than when Professor Lourens Schlebusch, of Nelson Mandela Medical School in Durban and arguably the foremost authority in the world on suicide, wrote Suicidal Behaviour in South Africa in 2005: probably about 9 000 people before the end of the year. More women will try to kill themselves, more men will succeed.

The teen suicide rate is rocketing, fuelled by HIV, joblessness, hopelessness, dysfunctional families and out-of-control violence. The problem is gigantic in the cities. Imagine what it’s like in the platteland. There’s a town in the Northern Cape called Kenhardt that has its own “hanging tree” in the middle of the main dusty street. At last count it had claimed eight lives.

Very few employers admit mental illness is a problem. Fewer take any meaningful steps to help with staff like me. High-risk jobs are police, emergency services, the defence force, nurses and journalists. They’re also the worst at dealing with the problem. Of course, the worst of all are the government and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (who clearly has problems herself), her cronies and their vapid lip-service — the usual museum of pretty charters and barrage of prestidigitation and equivocation.

But out of all of the suffering and dithering, the importance of balance in the seven facets is undeniable. That and proper professional diagnosis. Thanks for reading this far — it was long, hey? Sorry about that, but I needed to get it off my chest, and to tell you about the magnificent seven and the importance of balance. Email me if you want some help in getting the balance right.