Out of darkness and into the light of knowledge

2010-07-16 00:00

IT all started as a nightmare, a weird dream that played itself out in broad daylight.

The scars on my flesh still remain, constant reminders of the beating I received from someone who thought they were protecting themselves from a crazy man.

Driven by ignorance of my affliction, the public soon found what they thought were apt descriptions of my condition. “Lunatic”, “crazy” and “mad man”, were but some of the adjectives used to describe my condition. Back then, I hadn’t even come across the word “bipolar”, I was just as ignorant as the rest of them of a condition called bipolar disorder.

My long and painful journey to recovery began in February, 2005.

My daughter, Siphokazi, was hardly a month old when I was admitted to Townhill mental hospital.

I was in and out of the hospital for six months before I was officially discharged on August 26, 2005.

I had graduated with a national diploma in journalism the year before, when disaster struck.

I was looking forward to the new year, to finding a job and doing what I loved — writing.

Perhaps it was out of denial, or it could have been part of the symptoms of the sickness; either way, I felt angry.

I was within its cohort. Bipolar disorder affects men and women aged 15 to 25 years equally. The thought of me being kept with all those “crazy” people when I, (or so I thought) was in fact a reincarnation of my great-grandfather, Prophet Isaiah Shembe, left me bitter.

Nowhere at that point did it occur to me that I was also a nut case.

I grandly boasted to my doctor, whenever he assessed me, that I had lived before, and had founded The Nazareth Baptist Church.

It was this fantasy that kept me longer in hospital. The more I insisted I was Shembe, the longer the doctors kept me there.

They wanted to discharge me when they believed it was safe to do so.

As time went by, I slowly realised that all the praying for people and the singing of church hymns would earn me nothing more than an extended “sentence” at Townhill.

As the illness subsided and I began responding to the medication, it dawned on me that I owed it to my children to recover fully.

I wanted to go back home to my daughter and my son, Sisanda, who was three at the time.

I was hurt when I was told that I could not play with my son. I realised that the person who was supposed to protect him, was considered a threat.

It was a psychiatrist who explained to me what bipolar disorder was and how, if I took care of myself, I could live a normal life again.

I slowly began to take control of my mind.

Two months after being discharged from hospital, I went to visit my son and I vividly remember him saying: “Daddy it is better now that you are no longer a crazy man.”

I asked him who had told him I was crazy and his curt reply was: “Everyone knows that you were crazy, baba.”

Therein lay my next challenge, having to deal with polluted perceptions from my community, and indeed convince them that I was no longer a “mad man”, but a normal person again.

My road to recovery was not an easy one.

Coming from a family with a traditional Zulu background, my parents believed that there had to be a traditional equivalent that could help, if not better, the efforts of Western remedies.

I have no words to thank my parents for looking after me when I needed them most.

They literally drove me everywhere to seek help.

It did not help that I had to follow the doctor’s orders while at the same time have to reckon with the instructions of a traditional healer. If anything, it left me more confused.

On the one hand, traditional healers would dish out instructions about what my parents needed to do, and on the other hand were the instructions of the Western medical practitioners.

The traditional healers would say I needed to perform a ritual called igobongo, a process involving the slaughter of a goat to connect with my ancestors.

Western doctors treated my bipolar disorder using strong pills that made me sleep a lot because they believe that a person in my condition requires lots of rest.

I duly obliged by following the advice of both traditional healers and Western doctors because all I really wanted was to heal and lead a normal life again.

With the help of my good friends Thokozani Gcaba, Siyabonga Maphumulo and Sibusiso Ngalwa, I adapted well going back into society because they made me feel like a normal person throughout my encounter with bipolar disorder.

Even though I’m six years behind as far as my career goes, I appreciate every day away from Townhill because I don’t wish for anyone to go through what I experienced.

The most important lesson for me was that people with my condition require a lot of support from their families, friends and communities. Therefore, I’m grateful to the community of KwaMbonambi in Richards Bay where I was born, and the Napierville community where I grew up, for learning to put up with a person in my condition.

One of my favourite verses in the Bible is Hosea 4:6, for it says: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge; because you have abandoned knowledge, I will also abandon you…”

It is this kind of knowledge that made me realise that I need to know more about my condition. The more I know about bipolar disorder, the better the position I will be in to understand myself.


Healthline.com lists some of the symptoms.

• Agitation or irritation.

• Elevated mood.

• Hyperactivity.

• Increased energy.

•Lack of self-control.

• Racing thoughts.

• Inflated self-esteem (delusions of grandeur, beliefs in special abilities).

• Little need for sleep.

• Over-involvement in activities.

• Poor temper control.

• Reckless behaviour.

• Binge eating, drinking, and/or drug use.

• Impaired judgment.

• Sexual promiscuity.

• Spending sprees.

• Tendency to be easily distracted.

These symptoms of mania are seen with bipolar disorder I.

In people with bipolar disorder II, hypomanic episodes involve similar symptoms that are less intense. The depressed phase of both types of bipolar disorder involves very serious symptoms of major depression.

• Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.

• Eating disturbances.

• Loss of appetite and weight loss.

• Overeating and weight gain.

• Fatigue or listlessness.

• Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and/or guilt.

• Loss of self-esteem.

• Persistent sadness.

• Persistent thoughts of death.

• Sleep disturbances.

• Excessive sleepiness.

• Inability to sleep.

• Suicidal thoughts.

• Withdrawal from activities that were once enjoyed.

• Withdrawal from friends.

There is a high risk of suicide with bipolar disorder.

In either phase, patients may abuse alcohol or other substances. Sometimes there is an overlap between the two phases. Manic and depressive symptoms may occur simultaneously or in quick succession in what is called a mixed state.

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