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Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe: How I beat depression, following my infection with COVID-19

So, after a painful 2 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.


Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe explains  How she beat depression, following her infection with COVID-19

Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe explains How she beat depression during Covid-19 journey  following her infection with COVID-19

I neither knew Arthur (RIP) nor do I know his beautiful wife Sandra. However, the many comments I have read all over social media about how such a supposed to be jolly guy as portrayed by his wife and friends could commit suicide was a barbaric act, blah blah… leaves me in pain and I wish to share my own depression story

So, after a painful 2 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 very far from the truth. I returned with feelings of emptiness, pain, numbed feelings for anything and anyone around me. My family is my whole life – we are very very closely knit and harbor extraordinary love, care and understanding between us. However, seeing my husband and children after a whole 4.5 months was as good as seeing any other stranger in a bank queue or supermarket. I had no pinch of happiness in my life, my heart, my body.

Because my family had been through their own agony while I was away, I CHOSE to protect them from the pain and baggage I harbored inside me. I was withdrawn, I completely did not want to talk but simply had to because these are my people and I did not want them to know that anything was amiss.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 2 sisters came a few days later 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 favorite Auntie who is always carrying and kissing the babies and turning them upside down, making them giggle and lol, 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 make up kit and starting to apply make up all in the name of them getting bored and leaving – but hey, they didn’t but thank God for curfew… they had to.

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 just a few other close and caring friends at her home and I definitely knew what this was all about. They know me for story telling and humour and they looked forward. I was no longer the story teller. I almost cancelled it because I still wanted my space but decided to give strict conditions to them about my attendance and this was the fact that WE ARE NOT DISCUSSING MY COVID-19 STORY.

A week into my return to my home, my life simply got from bad to worse (the inside). My ever loving husband would just sit by my side on the bed and look at his one time chatter box 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… of all the words in this world, 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?” In my mind, “Does he even have an idea what I am 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 very very very very very bad. No one and i repeat, no one can understand these feelings and NEVER 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.

Testimony by Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe: How I beat depression, following my infection with COVID-19

Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe explains her Covid-19 journey

I decided to seek professional help, sought an appointment, drove myself and went to see a psychiatrist without my husband’s knowledge. During my 1.5hours 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 realised.. 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 in the face 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”… do you see where this is going???????

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. Anyway, 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.

Dr Phionah returns to normal life after harrowing Covid-19 journey

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 lol… meaning, tihiine hokuhonera anyway.

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 spent only 3 days because I got tired of seeing my mother sit in a corner and just watch me in silence, try to get me to eat, asking if I was fine or wanted anything. I did not 2ant any questions in my life. I only gave orders to her “mun, don’t wake me up even if it gets to 1pm, Don’t force me to eat, I am an adult, if I want to, I will eat, etc”

Oh and I went to see my father-in-law who loves me very much and had prepared a mini Christmas-like welcome for me to his home in Bushenyi. I have never seen an old man in so much pain like I saw on his face the moment he set his eyes on me. I was a mess.

I had last cried as my late father’s body was being lowered in his grave on Oct 4th 2005!!! Since then, I had only known laughter and joy and smiles and strength and love, and parties and holidays, name it!! Not because I don’t face hard times but because I choose not to let them tamper with my feelings and being. I prefer to support other people, friends and strangers alike overcome pain.

Anyway, my Covid-19 journey and depression story are very long. My husband had to take leave from work and become a full time doctor, pharmacist, nurse, counsellor, exercise-mate, friend, prayer warrior, 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 everyday 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, any way, I not only did not feel like but actually did not want to. However, being me, I was determined to beat depression like I had beaten COVID-19 harrowing journey. 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 is 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, him and his wife fasted and prayed and indeed God came through. Thank you Timo and Rachel Nduhukire.

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My psychiatrist friend, Dr. James Okello became my pillar too during that tough Covid-19 journey, 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 buuuutttttttt 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.

Enough for the day….. Mental health is real!!!!! 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.

In conclusion, Arthur, RIP. 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!! Noone is above it just like death.
Rest in peace dear one.

Mukama akuume dear friends.
Sorry for the long post and feel free to share it.
Community sensitization is my job.

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