Being bipolar

2009-10-09 00:00


OLLOWING news reports in

The Witness

about the death of Nompumelelo Ndlovu at the hands of an allegedly mentally disturbed man (

The Witness

August 17), the paper carried a letter pleading for public education about issues related to mental illness (September 7). The anonymous letter writer said: “… I was reminded of how ignorant people are ... and how stigmatised this illness is ... Nobody wants to know or hear anything about mental illness …”

The Witness contacted the letter writer to find out more. Rachel* was only diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 40s. On the way, she lost everything: her husband, family, friends, job, and home, and was financially ruined.

This is her story.

“If I look back at my life with the understanding I now have of my condition, I can see that the signs were present from early on. I was very anti- social at high school and often prone to extremes of behaviour as a young adult.

“However, I was able to hold down a highly pressurised job and had a very successful career in marketing. But in 1995 my responsibilities were ‘outsourced’ and I was basically retrenched and things started to fall apart.

“I was distressed by the loss of my job, even though I got a good payout, and the way it was done. I stopped sleeping and started imagining I had all kinds of illnesses. I thought I was seriously ill and was going to die. I know now that I was displaying symptoms of psychosis.

“I went from doctor to doctor, for all kinds of treatment, including two ear, nose and throat specialists, a maxillofacial surgeon and an ophthalmic specialist. At one stage, I thought I had mercury poisoning so had all my fillings removed and replaced with composite restorations (white fillings). Another time I thought I was being poisoned by the tick and flea medication on my dogs, which slept on my bed. I threw out all my bed linen.

“Eventually, a GP diagnosed chronic anxiety and depression, and started me on the road to correct treatment. He diagnosed antidepressant medication but it made me feel nauseous so I stopped taking it. It still took several years before I found out what was wrong with me and found a team to help me manage it.”

Rachel started working again in 2000 as a fundraiser for a nonprofit organisation (NPO), thinking she would feel better if she had something to occupy her time. Three months into her new job, after 25 years of a happy marriage, her husband suddenly and inexplicably committed suicide. “He left no note. I found him and was left with his body for half an hour before anyone came. I was devastated and absolutely numb.

“I became paranoid and thought people were tapping my phone. I could not stop moving so spent many nights doing housework. Because of my behaviour, family and friends distanced themselves from me and I was very alone. This intensified when I was hospitalised for the first time and was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder. I was put onto lithium treatment and given shock therapy. My mother and an old friend were the only people who stood by me.

“After seven weeks I went back to work. I had no idea what bipolar disorder meant. I thought a few pills would sort it out. My manager had other ideas and was unhappy about my condition


Even though I had been very successful,

she sidelined me and slowly edged me out of my job. She treated me with a complete lack of understanding and compassion. We had a huge row and I left.”

Shortly afterwards, Rachel was hospitalised again and more medication was added to her treatment regime. When she got out, her “extreme behaviour” continued, but she still didn’t manage to get a correct diagnosis and suitable help.

“I went on a wild spending spree, buying a new car which I didn’t need, and Persian rugs. I also gave away and sold valuable family heirlooms and it breaks my heart to think of that now. I continually had minor car accidents, but one day I was involved in two. The car was a wreck and I had to replace it. I was a danger to myself and others.

“I took loans against my bond and let out my lovely home to move into a bedsitter in a retirement home, where, at 56, I was the youngest resident by far. I weighed 43 kilograms and was really psychotic — I felt ants crawling all over me and saw lights coming out of the TV so I unplugged all the electrical equipment in the room. Sometimes I would just lie on the bed and cry all day.

“My medical costs were also out of control as I was hospitalised several times in 2004 and 2005 so I had to sell my house, give up my medical aid and become a state patient. That actually proved to be a godsend because I eventually ended up in Town Hill hospital.

“For the first time, I started to understand what was happening to me and how fragile my mental health was. Although the facilities were spartan, the staff there were fantastic. By working with a psychiatrist for medication and a psychologist for intensive therapy, I began to get better.

“Medication and therapy have to work together. I had all kinds of emotions to deal with, including anger and guilt about my husband’s suicide and my father’s in 1969. I recognised that the soul and the mind also need healing, as well as the body. That’s the approach that the Town Hill staff took — they work to heal the whole person from within.

“I began to understand that it’s as though I have a faulty switch in my brain and excitement flips that switch and easily escalates into mania.

“People like me have an imbalance of brain chemicals; with the right medication we can live normal lives. Like people who take medication for other conditions, we are not ill all the time.”

Rachel continues to consult a medical team — a psychiatrist, psychologist and psychiatric nurse — who help her to manage her condition with the correct balance of medication and therapy. “Therapy helps to deal with the psychosocial stressors that can precipitate or worsen manic or depressive episodes. Psychologists play an important role in treating bipolar disorder and I see now that I should have consulted one from the very beginning.

“I have learned so much about myself and about this condition. I realise how utterly unstable I once was. I still have bad days, but the good days are much more frequent and I’m able to function at a much higher level than before. I have a wonderful partner who understands my condition and the support of a wonderful team of dedicated professionals.”

* Not her real name

Bipolar mood disorder:

Also known as manic depressive disorder, this is a category of mood disorders defined by episodes of abnormally raised moods or “emotional highs”. These are clinically referred to as mania or, if milder, hypomania. Individuals who experience manic episodes often also experience depressive episodes or symptoms, or mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present at the same time. Cycles of mania and depression may relate to daily rhythms and environmental stressors. These episodes are usually separated by periods of “normal” mood, but some individuals experience “rapid cycling”, in which depression and mania alternate quickly. Extreme manic episodes can sometimes lead to psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.


This term refers to a wide variety of abnormal variations in an individual’s mood. If these changes are persistent and cause distress or difficulty in functioning, then a mood disorder may be present. Individuals with mood disorders experience extremes of emotions, for example


adness, that are higher in intensity and longer than normal.

Mood disorders are generally classified as either a type of unipolar depression or bipolar depression. Unipolar depression is characterised by periods of depressed mood, profound sadness, or loss of interest in activities. Both unipolar and bipolar categories have specific sets of symptoms characteristic of particular disorders, each of which has its own diagnostic profile, treatments and prognosis. The North American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes the diagnostic criteria for each disorder.


Abnormal condition of the mind, a generic psychiatric term for a mental state often described as involving a “loss of contact with reality”. People suffering from psychosis are said to be psychotic. They may experience hallucinations or delusional beliefs, and exhibit personality changes that may be accompanied by unusual or bizarre behaviour, as well as have difficulty interacting with other people and carrying out daily activities.

— Wikipedia

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.