Being bipolar

By Drum Digital
10 September 2011

SHE can’t sleep and spends all night cleaning the house from top to bottom. When members of her family are woken by her nocturnal activity she rambles on about how the house needs cleaning, ignoring her loved ones’ worried stares as she scrubs vigorously at one spot.

This is typical of what Rosemary Lenaba is like when she’s not on her medication. The 31-year-old mother of one was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was just 14 and has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals ever since.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects an estimated one million South Africans and is characterised by alternating episodes of mania and depression. A sufferer swings from being overly energetic and irritable to sad and hopeless – hence the name “bipolar”, which means opposite ends. It’s a debilitating condition that, if untreated, can disrupt work, school, family and social life.

We meet Rosemary at her mother’s home in Olivenhoutbosch in Pretoria and, now on her medication, she is calm and almost detached when she speaks about her experience. At school she was a bright student who excelled at maths and science. But before she had even reached her teens the cracks started to show.

“I would always throw paper at my classmates during lessons,” she says. “Everybody brushed off my behaviour, saying I was just being naughty but I felt out of control. I had so much energy and felt like I knew everything but when I talked teachers said I was speaking so fast they couldn’t understand what I was saying.”

Gradually Rosemary’s family began to realise she wasn’t well – and when she started to hallucinate during a family holiday in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape they knew she needed help badly.

“I started having visions of crashing waves and wild animals coming towards me. I told my family and warned them to run but they just looked at me. I just ran out of the house.”

When her family finally caught up with her they took her to hospital where doctors recommended she be transferred to a psychiatric institution. It was there that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Doctors explained the condition is usually hereditary but can lie dormant for years until it is triggered by factors ranging from stress, hormonal changes in adolescence or even an argument which stirs unresolved anger.

In Rosemary’s case doctors believe her illness was brought on by her parents’ separation at a young age as she mentioned it often in subsequent therapy sessions. “No one in my family had ever heard of bipolar disorder,” she says.

“They just thought I was mad.”

Read the full story in DRUM of 16 September 2010

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