This story was first published in the book ‘The Different Shades of a Feminine Mind’.
You can download your copy of the book via https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzuIDV337byBLS1FMHJMTW9velU/view?usp=drivesdk
At times, I still get embarrassed when I say it out loud. There are days when I feel like I’m lying even though the reality I live tells me otherwise. I am a young African woman who suffers from bipolar disorder. I feel like an abomination in a society that believes that black people do not suffer from mental illness.
I felt the emptiness at a very young age. As a child that never knew her father I always thought the void was because of his absence. It was as though a piece of my soul was missing. I would nag my mother to let me call him. There were days I would attempt to run away, my three-year-old self not aware of the fact that one could not walk to America.
The feeling of emptiness got worse when I began living with my uncle. My mom had accepted a job in a smaller town and I was left in the city to get a “better” education. The psychologist kept asking but I can’t seem to pinpoint what exactly made the void grow into a full blown mental illness. I remember getting more reserved. I started staying home while my friends played outdoors. I had convinced myself that if I hated what I saw in the mirror, then everyone else did. It was as if they could see my weakness and were free to judge me. The only thing I could do while hiding was to develop habits that made me relax. I began obsessively cleaning; everything had to be in place and in even numbers if possible. If I couldn’t control the world around me, I would control my immediate surroundings!
The repetition, the constant checking and double checking, the growing insecurities about who I was, all began affecting my work. I went from being an A student to one that could barely get a C. I moved from the front of the class to a corner in the back, hoping that no one could see me. Perhaps this was the reason I became an easy target for bullies. I was taunted and teased for being too tall, too dark, too quiet, and too uncool. As the bullying intensified, I stopped crying and began to internalize. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. My mom was in a town far away and my sister in boarding school. I was a 6th grade student that didn’t have any friends except the suicidal thoughts that visited every day.
The crying only started in high school. Every day during Biology class I would sit in the bathroom and cry. With every tear, the darkness seemed to gain more life, growing bigger and faster. I cried because although I was a top student, I still was seen as uncool. I cried because while my friends were seen as beautiful and began dating, I was still viewed as somewhat of a weirdo. I cried because I could not tell any of my friends that on some days we didn’t have water and food at home or that I wore an old and dirty uniform because my uncle didn’t see the importance of looking presentable at school. But most importantly I cried because I was broken inside and no one could fix me. While many teens were preoccupied with parties and relationships, I hid in my room trying my best not to slit my wrists or drink the entire bottle of Panados.
Weird enough, pills have always been my tool of choice. The first time I tried to kill myself, I bought myself a bottle of painkillers and a box of sleeping pills. My mind felt like a dimly lit maze. I could not find my way out nor could I find a reason to keep going; to keep looking for a place of refuge where I could not find rest. That day I skipped lectures and lay in bed all day, hoping that someone would notice my absence and save me from myself. Like every day, no one came. No one realized that I needed help. No one seemed to perceive me as important. I took all the pills and lay there waiting for death to come. I waited, but it seemed like even death didn’t want to be in my presence. My body was aching, left exhausted from the trips to bathroom and my inability to keep food down.
I remember my first attempt at killing myself because it plunged me further into the abyss. I began skipping lectures and slept all day. I didn’t see the need for anything and anyone. The thing about depression is that it’s very selfish; it wants you all to itself. There is no room for friendships let alone studying to get a degree. It puts you in an invisible prison where you are in constant agony but unable to articulate it. And when you can finally admit to those around you that you are in a lot of pain, they dismiss it since it has no physical manifestation. They confuse the depression that is slowly choking life out of you with mere sadness.
Even with the dark cloud of depression following my every move, I still managed to get my degree which was a blessing because I was contracted to work in an audit firm after graduation. In the beginning, the thought of working made me excited. An elaborate reality had been set out in my mind: leaving school meant leaving depression. This was true at first. I managed to wake up every morning and go to work. I even managed to make a few friends. Everything seemed perfect until I began to unravel. Soon going to work felt like a chore. All I wanted to do was cry and sleep; and this is what I did. I began to miss work regularly and began running behind with deadlines. My mental health was aggravated by the fact that I worked under a partner that seemed to enjoy screaming at people.
My failing health was attributed to stress until I came close to succeeding in my suicide attempt. I remember coming from a client in Windhoek’s Industrial Area. I had already been in a terrible space and a conversation with a loved one pushed me over the edge. It was the feeling of being unloved that I couldn’t stand. I got home and locked myself in the toilet where I cried for a long while. It started off as a need to sleep; I wanted to sleep to escape the pain. I wanted to sleep to forget the gaping hole that exists in my soul. In my wanting to sleep, I reached for my sleeping pills. Initially I wanted to take one pill, however I ended up finishing the entire box. Within five minutes I could feel myself grow sleepy. As my body got heavier, I lay on my bed almost excited at the thought that I will never wake up again.
The next thing I remember is my mom telling someone to help her carry me to the bath tub. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness, not entirely sure if I was dreaming or if this is what death looked like. To this day, I am still unsure why my mom didn’t call the ambulance or take me to the hospital. Perhaps she was ashamed of the fact that her daughter, who everyone thought was perfect, tried to kill herself. Perhaps whatever she did in the bath tub was enough for her to believe I wouldn’t die. Or maybe she took me to the hospital and I couldn’t remember. When I finally became fully conscious, I was in my bed. All my mother asked was, “Why did you do it?” How do you begin explaining to your mother that you prefer death over life? How does one articulate the emptiness and torment that is experienced daily? It’s like hell is resident in one’s mind.
An urgent appointment was made with a physiologist. It is not normal to want to die all the time or at least that is what I was told. However, when I wasn’t swimming in sorrow, I was plotting and planning how could hide from the world or how to die. The psychologist quickly referred me to a psychiatrist because it seemed as though talking through the darkness was not enough. I remember my first visit with the psychiatrist because it made me nervous. The reason for me seeing her was never explained to me; so, I sat on her couch waiting to be interrogated. Instead of interrogating me, she allowed me to talk openly; freely. For the first time, someone wanted to hear what was causing my pain without any judgment.
The visit to the psychiatrist meant I was going back on medication. I say going back because in my honour’s year at varsity I was diagnosed with severe depression and immediately put on antidepressants. I despised it. It was like living in a fog; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. My brain was moving in slow motion and my body still couldn’t catch up. Everyone around me thought I was fine, but I was far from it. So, when the psychiatrist placed me back on medication, I waited for the fog to roll in.
But it didn’t!
For the first time in a long time my mind felt clear. I felt a peace I had never experienced before. In that moment, I caught a glimpse of what “normal” felt like. The will and the ability to hang out with friends was suddenly there. It was amazing and I loved every minute of it. It was as though I was on a high. If this is what everyone felt like every day, why was the world such a horrid place?
The moment I thought my life was perfect, I began gaining weight. At first it was around my waist and I could hide it from the world. However, I couldn’t fit in any of my clothes. Instead of being happy and excited, I became self-conscious. The girl that looked back at me in the mirror was both lost and afraid. I started staying away from any and all social occasions because I never felt comfortable. I never felt good, sexy enough, and even smart enough. My self-worth evaporated and I was left scared of my own reflection. My mental illness began to spiral out of control. I no longer wanted to go out or be seen by anyone I didn’t live with. The one thing they never prepare you for is the side effects of medication. They don’t tell you about the insomnia or dizziness, let alone the excessive weight gain. It’s the type of weight that does not seem to go away regardless of how much one exercises. I had to go back to my psychiatrist and beg for new medication that won’t make me feel like a whale.
I felt like a guinea pig as we experimented with medication and dosage. I remember going to pharmacies only to find out that the medication or the dosage of medication that I needed was not stocked in Namibia. There were days when I would cry out of fear and sometimes out of pain; scared that my entire 20’s would involve moving between various treatments in order to stabilize my moods. In that time, I realized I will forever be different from those without mental illness. My moods were a continuous roller-coaster, my medication acting as a safety belt to keep me from falling. As I write to you today, my dosage has increased twice in the last six months. I’m more stable than I was three years ago, but I still slip into that place from time to time. My mind continues to be my enemy as it drags the past into my present and future.
My biggest trigger is past relationships. They say the broken find each other. It’s almost as though one has an antenna that sends out signals of low self-esteem, no self-worth, does not expect to be loved wholly and truly. While my friends were asked out by several people in school, I always seemed invisible. I guess I chose to settle for anything rather than being alone. My first relationship was an abusive one, but I never wanted to admit it. There were signs from the beginning; he drank too much, he treated my body as an object and felt like he could have me and several other women. The first time he hit me, he was drunk. He kept forcing me to have a drink even when he knew I hated alcohol. For a moment after he hit me, I thought I was imagining things. And just as I was about to convince myself that he didn’t mean it, he held my face and said “next time I’ll hit you harder”. He smiled and walked out the door. I couldn’t leave. Leaving him meant leaving the only guy who ever-showed interest in me. I doubt would have left him had he not ignored me while continuing his cheating ways. Going to university was also a push in the right direction as it put distance between us.
The thing about running away from a problem is that it only gets bigger. So, hiding the shame of being in an abusive relationship simply fed my depression. It solidified the notion that I was worthless and deserving of nothing good. Perhaps I hid it well, because no one seemed to notice I was in pain. On the days when I had to be in public, I used to wear a smile in hopes that no one would notice my scars. But like I said before, pain recognizes pain, and you attract those that will only feed your pain and misery.
The next relationship I was in was more like a telenovela. From the moment, I met him I knew something was wrong, but I still said yes to being in a relationship with him. I ran from a physical abusive relationship into an emotionally abusive one. I did not realize just how manipulative he was until I was out. I remember the time he put me on a diet. All I could have was tea, apples and a handful of laxatives. In my head, I thought if I lost weight, he would love me more. He would spend hours telling me how beautiful and sexy my cousin was because she had the body of a model. He wanted me to be her and I never had courage to say no. I turned a blind eye to all the flirting he did with other women. I would listen and accept the flimsy excuses he gave me whenever I found inappropriate pictures on his phone that other women had sent him. I tolerated the verbal abuse and told myself he still loved me. Until one day I log onto Facebook and find out he was engaged to a woman he always claimed was his best friend. I will be honest and say that him marrying someone else broke me, especially since he had made me believe I would be his wife. In the aftermath of this discovery, I attempted suicide several times.
Should I be ashamed for wanting to die?
What people don’t understand is that I was not heartbroken because of his betrayal. I was heartbroken because it reiterated what I have always believed of myself; I am ugly and unwanted and my true self can never be loved by anyone. The thing about depression is that it takes any bit of negativity it finds and plunges you further into isolation. No number of antidepressants could save me from the darkness that crept up on me and enveloped my life. I hated the numbness that came with depression. I was desperate to feel something, anything. The numbing feeling always made me feel like I had nothing to live for. So, I began doing things in order to feel again. I’m ashamed to say that I started undertaking reckless sexual behaviour in order to feel wanted; to feel needed. I chose to be with someone that had a girlfriend and a child because even when I found out he was in a stable relationship, I refused to leave him. I refused to believe that yet again I was being used and being regarded as trash. I shied away from the idea that I had become a prostitute, but instead of cash I was receiving false love and affection.
The literature always tells you how reckless people with bipolar disorder can be. However, they don’t tell you the toll that it takes on one’s physical and mental state. They don’t explain to you that the drinking, the drugs, the sex, or whatever vice one settles for will not change how you feel about yourself. They do not tell you that those with bipolar disorder always dance with the thought of death, hoping that those around them will notice and offer some help. As I write this I am in my first healthy relationship. I am with someone that understands my illness and the baggage that comes with it. It is not easy on him because I have become so accustomed to pain. I have become used to people using me and abusing me in various ways that it is still a challenge to respond to love. At times, I am unsure on how to react to his supportive nature. Days come when I try and push him away because I feel he is too good for me. However, his presence in my life has taught me several things: I am stronger than I give myself credit for, my past mistakes do not define me, I am not an illness, and, I, like everyone in this world, am deserving of unconditional love.
I realized that in order for me to survive the ups and downs of my illness, I would need to let people that love me provide me with support. Support in the way of someone to talk to when I’m down, or a hug when I’m crying.
I’m a black woman with bipolar disorder and many people don’t believe it. Many people think I’m either a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or simply one that is desperate for attention. I’m an African woman with a mental illness and my culture says I should seek a traditional healer instead of going to the doctor. Some think I am cursed, while others think I have denied my calling as healer. I’m a young woman who battles every day with my mind in hopes to live another day.