‘Our society is obsessed with being perfect’: Bonnie

2012-10-26 11:47

‘With my tattoo, bald head, outspoken manner and ice-queen demeanour I represented the new generation of black women,’ says Bonnie.

But behind the scenes she had an ongoing battle with clinical depression.

If you saw the poised and beautiful actress, who has starred in major films both here and overseas, playing with her two young sons you would never guess that she endured a miserable childhood.

She looks like any proud mother sharing downtime with her kids. But Bonnie’s casually confident parenting style belies her traumatic relationship with her deeply depressed mother and her own diagnosis with depression four years ago.

Bonnie is serene and happy as her two young sons play on her lap in the sandy playground of a beach-front restaurant in Cape Town.

‘No Micaiah, say sorry to Hanniel,’ she admonishes, as the little boys push against each other. Micaiah, three, immediately wraps his arms around his younger brother and Bonnie smiles.

‘You really have to find creative and effective ways to pass on the values you want your kids to have,’ she says. ‘You can’t teach them to be something you’re not.’

In her recently released autobiography Eyebags & Dimples (R195, Jacana), the beautiful actress shares in excruciating detail why she felt so misunderstood as a youngster – and why being a supportive and involved parent is so important to her today.

In fact, the stress and anxiety of her childhood caused so much psychological damage that, over time, it translated into physical symptoms and she was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression.

‘Insufficient serotonin was causing my clinical imbalance,’ she says.

‘My psychologist was amazed that I’d lived so long with it without committing suicide or destroying myself through addictions in an effort to numb the pain.’

Childhood scars
Growing up in a four-roomed Soweto house in Pimville Zone 3, Bonnie was at the mercy of her fearless but emotionally unstable mother. ‘I just wanted her to love me, to see me, to be glad that I existed,’ Bonnie writes.

 ‘I craved her affection and her approval, but I had to content myself with beatings – they were her only real engagement with me. Her words were always hard, critical and uncaring, abrasive to my soul.

‘I was convinced she hated me. The mere sight of me irritated and disgusted her, and she’d often say so, her eyes inching slowly, coldly over me in disapproval, her lips curled down, nostrils flaring as though smelling
a waft of sewage. “Sukalaphambikwam. Get away from me.”’

As a child, Bonnie cooked, looked after her siblings and kept the house clean for her increasingly neurotic and irrational mother.

‘Everything seemed to agitate and overwhelm her. If I entered her room with my homework diary for her to sign, she’d shout and call me names, and sometimes throw it at me. If I tried to explain that I’d get detention if she didn’t sign, she’d shout “Shut up! I don’t care!” I’d walk away feeling hurt and ashamed, tears burning my eyes.’

The seasoned actress, who began her career at 13 when she was discovered at a bus stop and cast in Viva Families 2, grew up in a single-parent household.

She was four months old when her father was murdered and five years old when her mother became suicidal.
‘The mood in our house was always sombre, the ambience gloomy and devoid of all hope,’ Bonnie writes in her book.

‘I spent much of my time feeling sorry for my mother, wishing I could take upon myself all the pain she was carrying, to spare her from the harshness of the world. But her threats plunged me into desolation; the constant fear of losing her loomed over my head. And she learnt to wield it as a weapon to coerce us into cooperation.’

When her mother was particularly angry, she would say, ‘I wish I’d never had you. You’ve ruined my life, you’ve destroyed all my dreams. I wish I could die and leave you to suffer.’ As Bonnie explains: ‘I lived with the constant guilt that she wanted to kill herself because of the evil of my very existence.’

In the limelight
Bonnie is used to public scrutiny.

As the presenter of Technics Heart of the Beat in 1997, she was the youngest black woman hosting a music television show of that magnitude in South Africa at the time.

She admits that acting gave her an escape from her own pain and loneliness. ‘With my tattoo, bald head, outspoken manner and ice-queen demeanour, I represented the new generation of black women,’ she admits.

‘I was a pioneer, a trendsetter. Girls wanted to be me; boys and men promised me heaven and earth. My look, approach and manner blazed a trail for many young people in television.’

But despite her growing professional success, Bonnie admits she continued to fight feelings of anger, worthlessness and despair.

Roles in the TV series Gaz’lam and the movies Drum, Blinded Angels and Catch a Fire followed, cementing her reputation as an actress to be reckoned with.

But after marrying fellow actor Sisanda Henna in 2006 and moving with him to Los Angeles to pursue fame and fortune, the impressive exterior Bonnie had fought so hard to create started crumbling.

Facing financial difficulties, professional rejection and stress within her marriage, she was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression.

Embracing imperfection
‘I was very angry and I thought it was unfair,’ she explains.

‘But I was also relieved because I knew what was going on. I was no longer fighting in the dark. When I spoke to close friends and family, explaining to them what I was going through and what I had decided about the medication – and needing their support – the announcement was met with mixed reactions, and most of them were not favourable.

‘I realised there is still a stigma around depression. It is still seen as a sign of weakness, and as a white man’s disease,’ she says.

Bonnie admits she wasn’t immediately convinced that medication was the right answer.

‘Our society is obsessed with perfection,’ she says.

‘I didn’t want to take meds in the beginning – I fought it. I didn’t want to constantly have to confirm every morning that I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want to keep reminding myself that I had flaws.’

However, she adds, these days she is strict about taking her pills and is very grateful for what they do for her.

‘I now have an opportunity to live a full live and be fully present in every moment. My medication has grounded me and brought a lot of humility to my life.’

Building bridges
Being diagnosed with depression has also given Bonnie an opportunity to gain some understanding and empathy for her mother.

‘Three generations of women in my family have fought the same monster called depression,’ she acknowledges.

‘I saw who my mother could have been, and recognised that she had always loved me, although it had been masked by the cloud of depression. I understood now where her rage, anxiety and erratic, remote-controlled emotions had sprung from.’

She adds that becoming a mother herself has opened up a whole new understanding of her mother’s challenges and the position she found herself in all those years ago.

‘I’m proud of who I’ve become, and a large part of that is through her doing and sacrifice.’ Today Bonnie says she loves watching her mom playing with Micaiah and Hanniel.

‘It’s as if she’s received a second chance to be the mother she wanted to be.’

Motherhood and love
Bonnie is also very happy that Sisanda is such a devoted and hands-on father.

‘He does all the outdoorsy things with them, like kite flying, hiking, boogie boarding and wrestling,’ she says. ‘That’s when I get a chance to read a book, or go for lunch.’

In light of her own upbringing, Bonnie has very clear ideas about parenthood.

‘A mother’s role should be to nurture her children’s emotional being and to provide the inside of a home – not the actual building, but the components that make a home – comfort, safety, love, warmth and emotional security. She should also teach them how to trust their truth. I want my boys to grow up to be brave, truthful history makers.’

She says she is both humbled and proud of becoming a mom. ‘My favourite part of motherhood is when they comfort me.

‘For example, Micaiah will come to me in my room and stroke my face and say “Mommy, I’m proud of you.” That just warms my heart. I often catch myself looking at them in disbelief, feeling so grateful that I can call them my sons,’ she says, as the little boys tumble back into her lap.

Coping with gossip
As Eyebags & Dimples is released, blogs and tabloids have been speculating if the book was sparked by Bonnie’s supposed divorce from Sisanda.

Bonnie makes it clear that ‘Sisanda and I are not divorcing, and we don’t have any plans to divorce. Obviously where there’s smoke there’s fire, and I’ve never been one to smooth over stuff and act like nothing happened. I don’t want to go into detail about what that fire was.

‘It’s my fire. But once people have read the book, they will realise just how much our marriage took on, and how it was tested. When there is stress, there’s going to be a breaking point where your bond either gets stronger, or you call it a day.’

She also addresses their move to Cape Town. ‘I’ve always had a love affair with Cape Town, and if I could live here forever, I would. Joburg is a big part of my work; I just don’t enjoy living there. I live in Cape Town and work in Joburg. Sisanda’s situation is the same, so we travel back and forth.’

In the wake of the book’s release, Bonnie is philosophical about her open relationship with her fans.

‘People have watched me present my work, and we have a relationship,’ she says.

 ‘And I would rather the public know me, instead of just adoring me. The public sometimes test my boundaries and I tell them to back off. There’s no fame or celebrity handbook, you just find out once you’re there.’

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