I remember November 2008, not because of the country’s politics, attention-grabbing headlines or even the gorgeous weather synonymous with the Highveld at that time of year. My November was characterised by the question, “Are you okay?”
There’d be a knock on my door at odd hours and I’d sit through conversations made up of what sounded like an endless stream of far-fetched theories that refused to end. I became scared for myself, my family but mostly for my friend. Something was amiss.
The smart, sassy, gorgeous and intelligent businesswoman I’d known for most of my life was no longer there. Her body was, but this person who never slept, who believed she was Jesus Christ, who constantly searched for hidden meanings in everything everyone said and incessantly demanded one thing or another from whoever was around her all the time, freaked everyone out. This was not our Nthabiseng Ngubeni*.
Joburg psychiatrist Dr Mirriam Close confirms Ngubeni’s behaviour as some of the telltale signs of someone possibly suffering from bipolar – a mood disorder where patients experience extreme highs and lows. Close affirms Ngubeni’s diagnosis by saying, “Sleep is one of the first things to go. You also find that patients seem to feel some sort of pressure to talk - they talk a mile a minute. Their thinking happens at an incredibly rapid pace and their ideas are all over the place.”
Close says Ngubeni’s belief that she was the second coming, is a psychotic feature often associated with the illness. There’s a disconnect from reality which could be the result of nerve cells not communicating with each other. Classic signs of the condition include impaired social functioning, a complete lifestyle change and at times actions leading to a complete loss of dignity. She says often after recovering from a manic phase, patients remember everything.
As if that’s not bad enough, the road to recovery’s often difficult and tricky for some. Ngubeni says, “Finally accepting what I have has brought some kind of peace. At some point I was being treated by sangomas and a prophet, all because no one got that it was just a chemical imbalance. That actually made the situation worse.
We come from backgrounds where signs of mental ailments are often mistaken for witchcraft or something along those lines.”
Even after a proper diagnosis Ngubeni still had to face the truth. “I remember looking back and feeling like I didn’t want to live, just the shame of my actions and the stigma I’d attached to myself made life difficult.”
Fast-track to 2012 and Ngubeni’s found some stability. At 32 she’s no longer self-employed, has a two-year-old son and relies on her medication to maintain that stability. “I’ve had four relapses since diagnosis, but I get up and keep on trying. I’ve seen extreme cases and I don’t want to end up there.”
*names have been changed.