Lesedi: Hi. Just letting you know that today’s episode contains material of a highly sensitive nature, including suicide, sexual violation, and mental illness that may be triggering for some individuals. So please take care as you listen.
Ole: Okay. Let me first ask, am I the first and only bipolar person you know of? Or have you had encounters with other people?
Sbongile: You’re the first.
Sbongile: I’ve never met anyone who was diagnosed with bipolar before.
Lesedi: Hi, it’s me again, Lesedi Mogoatlhe, the host of Radio Workshop. Our podcast generally features stories and essays by and about young people in Africa, and today’s no different. But for this episode, we’ve put together a very special and unique show with three stories, produced for the annual SNF Nostos conference on mental health and young people.
Ole: Have I cried in front of you? Do you remember a moment I’ve cried in front of you?
Sbongile: Uhm, yeah. Well, you cried a lot. Well, not any, but yeah. You, you are always…
Ole: I’m a crier.
Sbongile: Yeah. Yeah. You were always emotional about this and that. And you, you were very open and you would vent about things, especially the environment that we worked at.
Lesedi: Capturing true stories on tape is central to the work of Radio Workshop. But we also host workshops where young people are shown the basics of story-making. And recently we held a workshop in Johannesburg. Nine young people attended and we worked on how to interview and how to record honest and open conversations about their mental health.
According to UNICEF South Africa, 73% of young people in the country are in need of mental health services. 73%. My guess is that number may actually be higher. Because we don’t really talk much, if at all, about anxiety, depression, family dynamics, therapy. So much of our emotional lives is taboo, not to be spoken of, but Sbongile Sithole and Ole Morolo took time during our workshop to really open up.
These two friends met at the office about five years ago. They work in the radio and television industry, and as anyone will tell you, it’s a high pressure environment. Early call times, late shoots, hectic deadlines. Ole talks to Sbongile about how she keeps going through all of the ups and downs despite her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Ole: If I should explain bipolar, for those who don’t know, there’s a manic and a depressive side of it. So manic is when you’re in a high, you on top of the world, you feeling all these good emotions, you know, and like, yeah, nothing can derail you from like how you’re feeling.
You also feel like God-like if I can say. For some people they overspend, other people engage in sexual activities or going out and all of those kinds of things. I feel like I’m connected to God and I am like the most highest person on this earth right now. I’m the chosen one. Like, it’s, it’s the weirdest feeling, but yeah. And then depression, obviously. I mean, it’s the most familiar feeling that most people have. The lowest of lows, obviously suicidal thoughts, anxiety, um, isolation. Drowning. It’s like you drowning and everyone else around you is breathing.
Lesedi: As Ole’s friend, Sbongile works on being supportive, but she wasn’t, at first, she didn’t understand Ole’s emotional ups and downs says. As a kid, she learned emotions are something you pack away.
Sbongile: When you grow up in a space where you are always taught to sort of either get over it or deal with it you walk around with that. So when you see someone who seemingly is not able to handle their emotions or it feels like they can’t handle their emotions, that’s like, ah, come on, come on, you know?
Ole: Get over it.
Lesedi: But Ole says for her it’s not that simple. There are her mood swings and her energy fluctuates wildly at times. Sometimes she’s exhausted for no reason. Other times she can’t seem to stop. Ole says it’s also a real challenge navigating family and a world that isn’t accommodating. It can all be too much for her.
Ole: It is a lot. It really is a lot to deal with someone whose emotions are like all over the place, you know? I don’t expect actually a lot from people because they’re not necessarily in my shoes and I don’t think they’ll fully understand what I’m going through. And it, I feel like it would be very unfair of me to expect much from people because it it, now I’ll come back to suicidal thoughts. So…
Sbongile: Have you had any?
Ole: A lot. Yesterday! Yeah, yesterday. Um, oh. Oh gosh. I don’t wanna get emotional. I’m sorry.
Sbongile: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Ole: I’m sorry.
Sbongile: It’s okay.
Ole: I feel nervous all the time, by the way. It’s like on edge. It’s like you’re trying to avoid that thing that’ll make you tip over. So sometimes I can’t even explain why I feel the way I feel. So for me to be like, I was suicidal, not, not saying I was suicidal, I’m gonna do it. It was just like it can end because I feel like I just can’t articulate what’s going on in my head ’cause it feels like such a prison. People with bipolar don’t process things the same way everyone else does, so that’s why you feel so misunderstood.
Sibongile: It’s okay.
Ole: I told myself I’m not gonna cry.
Sibongile: It’s okay. Take your time. Um, you know, the older we grow, we find one or two things that help us cope. Do you have certain things that are your coping mechanisms?
Ole: Definitely. You have to actually, so, um, definitely being a church-going person, being Christian really helps me. Um, reading the Bible, praying, meditating, listening to music that speaks to my soul. That really helps. Journaling! That is actually my best therapy, if I can say, and I think maybe that’s why that I’ve been so down. I haven’t been doing it as often. Whereas when I do it often, it’s such a release and I cry and stuff. If I don’t cry, I explode. So that’s why it’s important for us to go to therapy because we need to talk, you know? And I wanna ask like, will I ever be okay?
Sibongile: Um, I don’t think anyone is okay. I’m learning this, the older I grow. No one is okay. We’re just finding avenues and coping mechanisms and, but no one is okay. And I think you should take comfort in that. So when you do want to talk, talk to me ‘cause I don’t share it, but I’m not okay either. No one is fully okay. It’s, it’s okay if you are not also.
Ole: Yoh it’s a lot though. It’s a lot because even if I have like victories, if I have great moments, they’re so short-lived. I feel like the negative always outweighs the positive and I don’t know why. And maybe that’s why I’ve had so many failed relationships and that’s why I’m like, I’m sticking with the person I’m with ‘cause he understands me. No one also understands me the way you know, I’m surprised that I still have people in my life that really do understand how I am, you know?
Ole: So I wanted to know like, is it uncomfortable to receive when someone says I have this condition?
Sibongile: It wasn’t uncomfortable for me when you told me. It was just like, I guess, um, I was, I didn’t say much cause I don’t know about it. Um, you know, our conversation when you said it was just very brief, it was, “Yeah, ‘cause I was in hospital. I had an episode ‘cause I have bipolar” and it was just that I was like, “Oh, sorry.”
Ole: It was such a warm response, to be honest, compared to like other interactions that I’ve had. It was just like very, yeah, receiving, shame.
Sibongile: It wasn’t hard for me to receive, it’s just the knowledge I didn’t have.
Lesedi: That’s Ole Morolo and her friend Sbongile Sithole. Ole told us that she talks openly about her experience with bipolar disorder. She tells anyone who wants to understand it from friends to coworkers and family, and most recently on social media. She wants to help overcome the stigma associated with the mental illness and hopefully create an environment where she and the other half a million people in South Africa suffering from bipolar disorder feel better understood.
Abigail: Today I was supposed to have a conversation with my dad and it didn’t happen. This day was supposed to be the best day of my life but…
Lesedi: This is Abigail. She’s asked us not to use her last name as part of our workshop. Abigail planned to interview her father about the wall she feels between them and how she wants to find a way to have a better relationship.
Abigail: At first, when I told him that I want us to sit down and talk, he was just like, “Oh, okay.” So then I told him that I’m serious. I wanna talk to you. I just wanna have a conversation with you, a conversation with your father and daughter, and speak about things that we both don’t like and speak about how our relationship, it’s not working. Why is it not working?
Abigail: As much as I stay with him in the same roof, but there isn’t any relationship. You know, we live in the same room, in the same house, but both of us, we just in our different worlds and things happen in the house, but we never sit down and talk about them.
Lesedi: Abigail lives with her dad. It’s just the two of them. She’s 23 years old, and for as long as she can remember, she’s always played the role of caregiver for her dad. Today, she’s the only one who works and she provides for the two of them.
Abigail: I think it’s that thing whereby we all raised in a way that when you start working, you should look out for your family. You know, so for me it’s, it’s not a big deal for me that, that I do, you know, help out at home and, you know, provide things for him. I do everything for him, and he’s not grateful for that. You know, I’m there for him, but he’s not there for me. I’m not saying that he should show up financially. It’s more of like him being present in my life. It’s like I don’t exist in his life. It’s like Abigail is not there. And what surprises me, the name I was given by him and the meaning of my name it’s “Father’s Joy”, but it doesn’t feel like I’m his joy. It feels like, I don’t know, the opposite of joy. I don’t know, but it doesn’t make sense to me.
Lesedi: On the morning that Abigail planned to interview her father, she called to make sure that he’d still make it to the studio, and she was relieved to hear that he still intended to come. In fact, he sounded enthusiastic, but a few hours later she called again and the phone just rang and rang. He never picked up and he never showed up. So, one of the other students in the workshop, Lethabo Phatlane, sat down with Abigail.
Abigail: What I’m feeling now, I feel like he disappointed me as a father. He failed me.
Lesedi: Abigail wonders if her dad got cold feet, if he suddenly felt overwhelmed about speaking in front of a microphone. She believes a good heartfelt talk will not only benefit her and the relationship, but it will help her dad too.
Abigail: Sometimes maybe when he is drunk he’ll say like, “I’m stressed. I’m stressed.” When he’s sober, he doesn’t speak about anything. We don’t speak. Also, for me to have this conversation with him, it was to help him to speak up and tell me what’s eating him up and try find help for him so that he’s okay.
Lesedi: Abigail lived in Alexandra Township with both of her parents until they got divorced when she was in grade eight. She doesn’t know why, but she decided to stay with her dad while her little sister went with her mom. Abigail says once her mom left, she had to take over running the house and making sure her dad was taken care of.
Abigail: My dad is the kid, so I’m supporting my dad. He once got sick. He was diagnosed with TB. I cooked for him, made sure that he drank his medication. Sometimes I would lie at work. I’d lie that I’m not feeling okay because he was not feeling okay and he has like family, the family would call. They knew that I had other things going on in my life, but they couldn’t help me. So the burden was on me. And at that time also, I was still young. You understand? But I had to be there for my dad. [SIGH] I wish I like when my mom said, “I’m leaving the house,” I left with her. But at sometimes I feel like maybe I’m destined to stay with my dad and take care of my dad because he is old, so who’s gonna take care of him? So I feel like I’m obliged to stay with my dad ‘cause nobody has his back like I have his back.
Lesedi: There’s a tension that exists in Abigail’s life. She loves her father, but staying with him is having a terrible effect on her mental health. She’s put her life on hold for him, but she does wonder at what point her life will become her own.
Abigail: Sometimes you feel like your life is being delayed, you know, ’cause a lot of things I have to think about my dad and then my needs later on. And that has an impact on my mental health, because also I don’t talk a lot about my mental health, ‘cause sometimes I feel like other people are going through the most as well and I can’t be sharing my pain. To be honest with you, this pain has like become part of me in, in such a way that it’s Abigail and the pain.
Lesedi: Abigail spoke to the other student in the workshop for about 50 minutes, not an especially long time, but enough for her to discover that talking shed a light on how much her relationship with her dad weighs on her, how much pain she carries, and now she’s decided that she doesn’t want things to stay the same.
Abigail: Like, I want him to get help. Number one. I feel like help is the main thing. The both of us at this point, we need to get help. That could be a step to something being, building a relationship between a daughter and and a father. Sit down and speak about things that are affecting him and speak about his day. Yeah, I’m disappointed today, but I still have hope that one day we’ll sit down and talk.
I’m not hoping for the worst, like I’m not, I don’t want to, I’m trying not to.
Lesedi: For our final story, I’d like you to meet two sisters, Masechaba and her older sister who has asked us to not use her name or their family’s last name.
Masechaba: I love you. I love you, man.
Older sister: I love you too.
Masechaba: I love you. I miss us. I miss us. I miss you. You know, since that accident that happened, I miss you.
Older sister: That time changed me. In fact, it took my whole life. It took everything from me, so it was difficult for me to come back to reality.
Lesedi: Masechaba and her sister have not talked about “the accident” for nine years, and when they say accident, it’s with quotes around it because saying out loud what actually happened all those years ago is too painful.
The accident happened on the 14th of August, 2014. It happened late one afternoon when Masechaba’s sister was out with her friend, Masechaba remembers her sister arriving home late that night. The family gathered around her when she told them what happened and the news of the accident hung heavy in the room.
Her mom was shaking and no one knew what to do. They sat together for a long time in silence. Then they slept. The next morning, everyone was still devastated. Masechaba remembers seeing her mom in the kitchen crying into the part of porridge she was making. Later her mom would take her sister to the clinic and then to the police station to report a case of rape.
Masechaba wasn’t sure that she fully grasped what had happened to her sister, but she understood, they both somehow understood, it was something they could never speak about.
Masechaba: I lost so much. You know? [Mm-hmm.] It hurt me that day. I don’t wanna lie. It made me to feel lonely. I, I lost you. I lost my protector.
Older sister: I even lost myself… I end up being like, no, it means I’m dirty and stuff. Some of the days I so wish like I can be on my own world and be, just be alone where there’s no sound, there’s no one. Just be alone.
Masechaba: But it feels scary when you do that. I’m, I’m like, I don’t know what to say to you. Sometimes I need your help and I don’t know how to, to tell you. ‘Cause you, you be like, you don’t wanna talk to us even, even when I talk to you, become rude and you don’t wanna talk to me. And I feel bad when you do that.
Older sister: You don’t have to because you are not the one who raped me, and you are not the one who brought anger into my life. So you don’t have to blame yourself and you don’t have to be afraid to talk with me.
Masechaba: I miss us, like I, I miss talking to you, sitting with you on the bed. And then we talk for long hours, like, we’d sleep together. We used to bath together, you and I, but these days we, when was the last time we bathed together? We no longer do that. We no longer do that. And it’s painful like.
Older sister: I understand.
Masechaba: Sometimes I wish like I could call you and be like, sister I’m not well, at the same time I’d be like, she, she’s not, she’s not emotionally well my sister, I feel like she’s depressed. She, she got her own issues.
Older sister: I remember that man took everything from me. That man took my virginity from me. So that’s the thing that changed me, changed the whole part of me. And I had to get used to new me. So the new me, was no longer happy. The new me was always afraid of his body, who was always covering his body, who always thinks that his body’s dirty because of I’m HIV positive. So yeah, it’s difficult, man.
Masechaba: Can you please tell me they knew you, who you are?
Older sister: I’m the person who’s living with the pain.
Lesedi: When the accident happened, Masechaba’s sister was only 14 years old. It was almost impossible for her to return to her normal high school life, let alone leave the house. The police opened a case, but the investigation seemed to go nowhere, and the neighbors were talking, telling their children to stay away from Masechaba’s sister. But mainly her sister was haunted by the fact that the perpetrator still roamed free. So a year later, Masechaba’s mother and sister left their village and relocated to be Benoni in Johannesburg for a change of scene and to give Masechaba’s sister a chance to start her life over. But Masechaba had to start over too.
Masechaba: Mom lost herself in the process also. Because I had to become a mother. I had to, I have to forget that, okay I’m also a kid and take care also of the others, of my other siblings, while my mom was taking care of you. So we lost ourselves also.
Older sister: I understand that. But then it wasn’t your mistake, guys, you had to go all through that.
Masechaba: I’m not blaming you. I’m like, sometimes when I called you, when you arrive at, Benoni you will not even take up my calls. Like I kept on calling and calling. Sometimes you’ll just be like…
Older sister: I was adapting to a new place. I was adapting to a new school, new place. And then I’ll be asking myself, how are these men around here? Do they behave the same as men in our villages? By that time, I was only thinking for myself to find peace and to be in a peaceful place where there’s no one who knows me.
Masechaba: Is there a moment in your life that you felt like me and the family, we are not supporting you enough?
Older sister: Nah, I don’t feel like that because you guys, you were amazing. You were amazing in such a way, I couldn’t even have words to explain that, but you were amazing.
Lesedi: Three years later, Masechaba’s sister received a call from the Moutse Police Station to say they’d found the suspect. Only when the perpetrator was given a life sentence did she feel that justice had been served. Masechaba’a sister could finally move on with her life. She finished high school and in 2017 she gave birth to her daughter, Boitumelo.
Masechaba: How is it like to be a mom? Motherhood! Like giving bed to this beautiful daughter Mafuta? A princess, awu!
Older sister: Being a mother at a young age, it wasn’t easy journey for me, but then it was helpful because of it bring back me, it bring back me, like I became happy again. I started to realize, no, I have someone o gore. I have to- she must look up to, and then it’s amazing being a mother while I was HIV positive, my baby is negative. I was protecting her towards the journey while I was pregnant. So yeah.
Masechaba: Like how can I help you when you are not feeling well, what can I do for you to ease the pain?
Older sister: Just cook me a nice meal, wena!
Masechaba: But you know very well that I can’t cook, you know?
Older sister:: Oh, you’re the horriblest one!
Masechaba: Yeah, but I can bake!
Older sister: Just bake nice cookies and then I’ll be…
Masechaba: I can bake. I’ll bake for you when you’re not feeling well. And I’ll bring with a bottle of wine, you see, and then you sit down with the wine. Would that be lovely?
Older sister: Most definitely.
Lesedi: Thank you for listening. If you or someone you love needs support, you can call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s toll-free number on 0800 567 567 or go to www.sadag.org for resources and other help lines. This episode is produced by nine youth reporters, they’re Abigail Maedza, Lethabo Phatlane, Masechaba Mhlahlo, Nonhlanthla Mashabane, Paballo Mokoena, Puseletso Tjiane, Sbongile Sithole, Thato Mkansi and Tinyiko Mathe.
Thank you to Solid Gold Studios in Randburg, where we recorded this podcast. Jo Jackson is our managing producer, Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Music by Qamani Sambo at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Sound Engineering by Naomi Grewan and Rob Rosenthal. For more information and to support our work, visit our website at radioworkshop.org.
This episode and the work of Radio Workshop would not be possible without the support of The Stavros Niarchos Foundation in Greece. Join us for more live mental health discussions during the SNF Nostos Conference on June 21st to 23rd 2023, which will focus on mental health. I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe.