Exclusive: Vuyelwa's breakdown

By admin
02 September 2010

Vuyelwa Booi, 7de Laan’s cheerful Alyce, talks openly about her lifelong struggle with depression…

By Marie Opperman

In the hit soapie 7de Laan which has made her a household name Vuyelwa Booi’s character, Alyce Morapedi, always wears a smile. She’s the bright and bubbly optimist who’s always ready to crack a joke or pop over for a chat and she’s constantly on the lookout for that special someone to slip a wedding ring on her finger. It seems impossible to believe depression has dogged this actress for years.When the cameras stop rolling and the lights fade Vuyelwa often feels her reality is an all-consuming deep and dark pit. Today for the first time she talks openly about her recent breakdown and her struggle with depression and anxiety. She admits she has been concealing this condition for far too long.

“I often sit in my office and just cry,” the 28-year-old actress confesses. “Then, when I have to be on set, I wipe away the tears, put on my make-up, go in front of the cameras and do all those silly things Alyce does. No one knows the real Vuyelwa or how she feels.”

Today has been a good day. “I’d give it six out of 10,” she says. “But last night there seemed not even a flicker of hope in the darkness. I cried and cried. At least I’ve learnt to ask for help when this happens. I called a friend who helped me put things into perspective again.”

We’re in the 7de Laan studios in Lonehill, Johannesburg, and Vuyelwa is the epitome of Alyce. Her pretty face is perfectly made up, she’s wearing a long white cardigan over a cosy black poloneck and the toes of her sexy boots peep from beneath wide-legged jeans. She looks as though her life is always sunny-side up.

But she’s intensely serious when she talks about her “disease”, as she calls the depression that has tormented her since childhood. “Suicidal thoughts have been my enemy for years,” she says. “And still they come back often. Depression makes me feel as if I’m sinking continually deeper into a pit. Or as if I’m in a glass box that’s pitch dark inside.

“I look out and see people going about their normal lives; they’re happy and laughing but I feel completely isolated. I scream for help but no one seems to hear. I’m suffocating, as if the box is shrinking and soon I won’t be able to breathe.”

It is this kind of feeling that makes those who suffer from depression consider suicide, Vuyelwa says. “All you want to do is escape from that hell. It’s as if the devil has got into your head because you can see only the negative side of life.”

Three months before our meeting Vuyelwa’s unwanted companion led her to be hospitalised for a week.  “That’s where I finally had to accept I suffer from depression,” she says. “I had to admit I’m sick and I need to do something about it. I tried to handle it myself but that didn’t work.

“I want people to be aware depression is real. Many people suffer from this condition but fortunately it can be managed. We depression sufferers need to face our condition and talk about it. We have to accept we need help and we need compassionate and informed people around us.”

Her earliest memories are of a terrible unhappiness that surrounded her like heavy fog. “I couldn’t handle life. I knew there was something awfully wrong with me. I was so unhappy at primary school in Soweto I wanted to kill myself. I felt fat and ugly. I was lonely and had few friends. I cried and asked God, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like everyone else?’ “

Vuyelwa was about 11 years old when her suffering became so unbearable she seriously considered suicide. “I thought about taking an overdose or cutting my wrists but I didn’t have the courage. ”

No one, including her parents, knew how she was feeling. “I have been my own counsellor since I was a little girl. With God’s help I asked myself the right questions: ‘What options, other than suicide, are there?’ But I’m here today and I have to find a way to deal with life.”

Music has been a calming influence and in many ways her salvation. “As a child I realised things didn’t feel quite so bad when I was singing,” she says. “Although I was in the school choir I sang on my own most of the time. Music is holy to me. It’s the sound of life. It has kept me alive.”

Still trying to cope with her depression, Vuyelwa started experiencing panic attacks when she started high school. In Grade 10 she was finally admitted to hospital for medical treatment for the first time. That was when she was told she was clinically depressed.

“I was under sedation for two weeks. The psychologists and social workers came to counsel me but I still didn’t know exactly what depression was.” Back at home, however, she was once again her own therapist. “Things carried on as normal,” she says. “My parents didn’t want me to take antidepressants. We didn’t even talk about my depression. Many people, especially in the black community, don’t see depression as a disease. They think it’s just moodiness, something you just have to snap out of.

“I once watched an American sitcom in which a black woman said to her friend: Black people don’t get depressed or get therapy; we just go to church.”

In 1998 Vuyelwa matriculated then went on to Midrand University (now Midrand Graduate Institute) to study drama. After a happy first year, financial problems forced her to drop out. “It was a setback and I became depressed again.”

But healing followed when she spent a year working as a volunteer at the Cotlands Children’s Shelter hospice in Johannesburg. “Bringing joy to those children made me feel better. By loving them I helped to heal the neglected child within myself.”

When one of her Midrand lecturers gave the struggling student permission to attend classes for free, her door to the theatre – and later to 7de Laan – opened. Vuyelwa was only 19 when she joined the soap.

“I was happy until I decided I needed a new challenge in 2004 and I resigned from the show. I began singing at corporate parties and acted on stage.”

In June 2005 she left South Africa to study at the New York Film Academy. After just three months she ran out of money and once again had to drop out. She plunged into another depressive episode.

“It was terrible. I had an emotional meltdown. It was as though my body, even my brain, had stopped functioning. For three weeks I couldn’t walk, talk or eat. I wasn’t alive, I was just breathing. My friend Tracey Slade, with whom I was staying, had to help me as if I was a baby. When you’re very depressed it feels as if your mind has split in half. There’s the intellectual side saying ‘Pull yourself together’ and the other, darker side – and that’s the side that was controlling me.”

As she had so often before, Vuyelwa realised she needed to pull through. “I eventually forced myself to get up and go out. I also knew I needed music to heal.”

Then she bumped into South African musicians Michael Rennie and Nick Turner in New York. Finally the tide began to turn. These two members of local band Sons of Trout had founded a group called Mikanic and they wanted Vuyelwa to perform with them. “Music saved me again,” she says, smiling.

Shortly afterwards, in December 2005, she won a leading role in the South African production Drumstruck, which was being staged in New York. Things went well. She had money and moved into a flat of her own. But one morning she woke up and just knew she had to return home.

After 11 months in New York she returned to South Africa and to 7de Laan. “I realised why I’d had to come back when my cousin Lehlohonolo Damoyi committed suicide two months after my return. She was my other half, like a twin sister. There was such a strong bond between us.

“After Lehlohonolo’s death my life collapsed. I was so close to her but I didn’t realise she was suicidal. Now I wonder if she also suffered from depression . . .”

Vuyelwa couldn’t accept her cousin’s death. It was the beginning of another downward spiral. “Everything was a haze,” she says. “Thoughts of suicide haunted me. I finally wanted to do it on 23 December 2006. I was lying on the floor sobbing and I wanted to cut my wrists. But I couldn’t. I phoned my sister Zanele.

She understood. ‘I’m coming to get you,’ she said and I stayed with her for a while. I had nightmares and I could not eat yet I still believed I could sort this out myself.”

Fortunately Vuyelwa received the support she needed from family and 7de Laan colleagues. “It’s thanks to them I’m still alive. I went back to work as soon as I could because 7de Laan is a safe place for me.”

She also started consulting a psychologist. “I had to get therapy to help me out of the depression. I had more than 28 years of therapy to catch up on. But I still didn’t want to take antidepressants.”

She made her depression public for the first time in a contribution to Towards the Light*, a book in which celebrities talk about their experience with depression. It was written by depression sufferer Jeanne Els and published last year.

“Going public was terrifying but it made the disease real to me,” she says. “I stopped shying away from calling it by name. Until then it was just this ‘thing’ I struggled with.”

But in March this year Vuyelwa collapsed again. After days of being constantly in tears she told her colleagues she needed help urgently then went to her GP, feeling as if “something inside me was about to break”.

She was sent straight to hospital where she had one panic attack after another. “I was given antidepressants there. Perhaps I had put too much pressure on myself trying to handle my depression without medication.”

Today she describes herself as “a work in progress”. “I’m not where I should be but I’m working on becoming whole again. I don’t know how long it will take, but I hope to heal completely.

“I take every day as it comes. Who knows, perhaps I’ll end up in hospital again. But I’ll keep fighting. Depression is a monster that’s always threatening to sink its claws into me. I’m fighting to stay alive. I’m fighting for happiness.”

Despite the constant battle she has made peace with her disease. The next step is to decide how to deal with it. “I still don’t know exactly what I have to do but I’ve made a few changes in my life. I’ve started avoiding places and situations that upset me, as well as people who drain me emotionally. And I’m easy on myself. ”

Vuyelwa’s advice

If you’re suffering from depression, try to keep this in mind:

  • Be aware of this monster in your life, be in tune with your emotions and monitor your feelings.
  • You don’t have to struggle on your own. Get help. It’s good and right to say you need help and can’t cope. It might feel as though no one understands or cares but, believe me, you’re not alone.
  • There’s nothing wrong with seeing a therapist.
  • If you need to take medication ask your doctor to explain to you exactly what it is and how it works. Be aware of medication that might be too strong for you and ensure your response to the medication is monitored. Don’t self-medicate.

*Towards the Light by Jeanne Els, published by Lux Verbi, 2008.

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