Imagine not seeing your daughter for seven years primarily because everyone says you are mad, but you are in fact just living with bipolar disorder, an illness that can be controlled with medication and therapy.
*Palesa suffers from the disorder which causes periods of depression and periods of extreme happiness as well as unusual shifts in activity levels and energy. This then affects a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. The illness has destroyed her life because of ignorance about the disorder, and the stigma attached to mental illness.
“I have tried to commit suicide five times over the years. No one has been there for me. I have been so alone,” says Palesa.
“My life was never easy. My father chased me away when my stepmother died. I managed to survive and then I met my husband, who after 16 years of marriage kicked me out of my home and my child’s life because I was ill.
“I have always helped everyone where I can. I gave money and food to those who were hungry. I was always the first to put money in when there was a death. I would care for those who were sick. But when I became ill, instead of offering me help, I was laughed at.
“They would laugh when I walked down the street and called me a mad woman.
“I quickly discovered that when days are dark, friends are few.”
Palesa found herself completely ostracised and spiralled into a depression that she couldn’t understand.
“I left my home for Gauteng to try to get my life together. I went to Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria as I was feeling so ill. They diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. They gave me medication which didn’t work.
“I thought that if I went to church again I would find friends and I would be well. But the friends I made there also started avoiding me. Therapy wasn’t working; medication wasn’t working. I started to give up.”
Palesa refused to turn to illegal drugs to ease her pain or make her ‘feel better’. And although broke as she couldn’t find a job to sustain herself because of her disorder, she would also not turn to prostitution.
“I was battling to get up in the morning. I was so depressed. I didn’t know what to do. And then I heard about the Outreach Foundation’s counselling centre.
“I met Sizwe who listened to my story. She didn’t judge me. She didn’t laugh.
“One day she sat me down and pointed at my ID photo and told me that she would like to see the lady that was in the photograph. The one that was well-dressed, well-looked after and smiling. I didn’t know what she was talking about at first.
“Then I realised that I had given up on myself. I didn’t look normal. I would get up in the morning, brush my teeth and come through to see her. I didn’t bother about what I was wearing, or what my hair looked like, or anything else.
“It was as if I had finally woken up after a long sleep. Psychiatrists hadn’t helped, psychologists hadn’t helped. But this one caring lady uplifted me. She made me see myself again after just three weeks.”
Palesa decided to take back her life. The next time she came to the Outreach Foundation’s counselling centre, she had made some changes.
“I walked into the centre and sat next to Sizwe. She was shocked and so happy. I had bathed, put make-up on, dressed nicely and done my hair. It was very hard to do, but I did it.
“It was the first step. There is a lot still to do, but I’m working on it and Sizwe is still there uplifting me.”
Palesa says that people, especially women, are too scared to talk about their issues or to get help.
“We have been told that we need to be quiet and listen to our husbands. So many of us have had no choice but to bury our illnesses and carry on because we have to look after our families.
“But I have discovered that to say what is inside, to the right person, is therapy.
“It is also stressful though if you don’t know who to talk to or how to share. Before the Outreach Foundation, I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
“I had no support, and that’s exactly what you need. I was so confused about my illness. But now, after such a short time coming to the centre, I feel so much more confident and strong.
“After my husband left me and everyone thought I was mad, I would walk in the street and feel like I was naked yet non-existent. But now I feel like I can go back and fight for my child.
“I feel like I’m a human. Like I can do it. Like I’m beautiful and that I can be what I want to be without needing a man to do it for me.”
Palesa believes that more education needs to be done on the disorder not only for others but for those who have the illness.
“I didn’t know who I was, what was happening or why. I was shouting then screaming then crying for absolutely no reason. Even when I was diagnosed, I wasn’t sure about what needed to be done or what I could do if the medication didn’t work. I didn’t know that there was other medication too. I also didn’t know how important therapy and counselling was.
“People need to know that we are not mad. And that we can be treated and that we need help. They need to support the person.”
By sharing her story during women’s month, Palesa hopes to inspire women who are battling with illnesses such as this to not only speak out but to seek help. She also wants to remind others that like her, it is possible to pull yourself together when you feel like it’s the end.
“I know I have a long way to go still, but I am determined to be who I want to be. I want to fight for my child, and I want to go back and study. I used to be a caregiver in hospice and some hospitals, and I have been a midwife, and although I know I will be a good nurse, my goal is to become a doctor.
“I’m going to keep taking my medication, going to counselling and therapy and do whatever I need to do to get what I want. I thank Sizwe for opening my eyes and for listening.
Palesa also feels strongly about the way women allow themselves to be treated.
“Let us not allow men to “play” with us. Don’t tell yourself you are dependent on him. We need to fight for ourselves and to stand up for one another. If you say you want to be like this, go for it. You can do it. Remember that education is important. No one can take it away from you.
“Men abuse us because they know we have nothing to fall back on. No man can undermine you if you educate yourself.”
But she also worries about the youth.
“Children never see far. We need to encourage young girls to be themselves and not to seek ‘sugar daddies’ or to fall pregnant because they think it’s an easy way to get money from grants. Grants do not get you far, education does.
“Also, if you feel depressed or ill, you must seek help. So many young girls are very depressed and are too scared or ashamed to do anything about it because of the stigma that still exists.
“There are so many women out there who don’t know what to. Please do what I did – speak to someone!”
Palesa is a brave woman fighting for survival from an illness with causes that are not clearly understood. According to the Wikipedia entry for the disorder, ‘…both environmental and genetic factors play a role…environmental factors include a history of childhood abuse and long-term stress. About 85% of the risk is attributed to genetics.’
The entry also states that ‘the risk of suicide among those with the illness is high at greater than six per cent in people over 20 years, while self-harm occurs in 30-40 per cent of people.’ In addition, other mental health issues such as anxiety disorders as well as substance use disorder are commonly associated with bipolar disorder.
More than four million South Africans live with bipolar disorder. It is an illness that does not discriminate between social or education class, race, sex or nationality. It is an illness that is treatable.
*Palesa is not her real name. We have changed her name to protect her identity.