Abigail’s childhood was difficult. She had an abusive mother and a manic-depressive father. She felt that her mother preferred her younger brother and sister to her, and that they didn’t believe in her. Her mother bullied her, and her father did try to protect her. This affected her school life, as she felt worthless to her peers. She was bullied at home by her mother, bullied at school by her teachers and teased relentlessly by her schoolmates to such an extent that she withdrew into herself in shyness and clung to one good friend only.
She did manage to do all the usual childhood things though like swimming, speech, and drama lessons, and have dogs and cats as pets. She remembers that her parents never had any high expectations of her, no sense of worth, she was never praised for performances in school plays even though her father was quite soft and gentle with her, she felt unloved in general.
She retreated into herself so much that she acted mute during her teens, but would retreat into books, encouraged there by her father. Her mother was verbally and emotionally abusive to her, preferring her sister because of her lighter skin coloring. She was however loved and helped by her paternal grandparents and spent many of her happier moments with them. She recalls small memories and quotes “I liked the fig trees in the backyard and the hens my grandmother kept. I loved them both and miss them very much. They are such an inspiration to me even years after they have passed. I chose a picture of me sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she is sitting next to my grandfather on the sofa. I was just a baby. I chose it for my book “Of Smoke Flesh and Bone – Poems Against Depression”
Later she describes her teenage years, “truly a terrible experience for me. I had no self-esteem, felt the world was largely indifferent to me and I felt abandoned and neglected by my mother. I did not know then that my father was a brilliant, highly intelligent, energetic man who was also manic depressive and that this had probably a lot to do with my own mother’s attitude and mindset towards me, as well as my genetic makeup.”
Her adolescence was difficult, but she did manage to play some sports, again swimming, and some table tennis, but the years were interspersed with spells of mental illness, depression, and hospitalization. Those years are difficult for many young people as they discover their sexuality, but for someone with low self-esteem they can prove harmful. Abigail goes on to quote those coming of age and coming to terms issues as such: “Relationships and friendships were extremely difficult for me. I could fall in love but could never bring myself to commit and stay in the relationship. I admired the opposite sex from afar, did and didn’t want to be dominated and submissive. Never wanted to be subservient to those same men. I wanted to be admired and adored by them. Have a good reputation.”
She coped by building mental walls, shutting out the world around her, “I had low self-esteem. I was battling weight issues. I felt bad about myself. Then I would get a manic high, have racing thoughts and feel elated about life.”
There were good times when she was away from the familial influences but when life took a turn for the worse her coping mechanisms took the hit in a bad way. She goes on to describe those years: “In adulthood I fell in love but couldn’t commit to one person. I had trouble finding meaning and purpose in my life. In Johannesburg and Swaziland, I was far away from my parents and could do whatever I liked. I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I did my O’levels in Swaziland and went to film school in Johannesburg. Later I found myself at a production company. For eight months it was a fun experience but then I had a nervous breakdown and came home to Gqeberha. It was disappointing. I had all these goals, plans, hopes and dreams and they all came to nothing.”
After that period, she describes her feelings so well, but is still not sure if they were real or just in her head. It is classic self-doubt. “I was the black sheep of the family and spoke about in whispers. I had family laughing behind my back saying that I wouldn’t amount to anything.”
Her battles against her mental illness are described so bravely and I hope that by allowing her to be so open about that in our interview we have helped her therapy in some way?
“My father was bipolar and took lithium. I was bipolar and also took lithium for years. Our illness seemed to have a lot of parallels. My siblings soon became disenchanted with me. I was no longer someone they could look up to. I was an affected failure. There were many times when I thought of taking my own life. I tried twice. Once I took painkillers. They gave me a sedative in the Emergency Room at a hospital not far from our house. The second time I took an overdose of lithium and landed in a coma. Even today suicide is never far from my thoughts, and I am generally a very unhappy individual. Always searching for happiness in achievement but never finding it.”
The effects of her medication over the years where the battles with her low self-esteem had resulted in weight problems affect her even now. How many of us on medication for other issues know those can hinder our weight, fitness etc. They may help attack part of the issues but hurt us in other ways. “I have weight issues now with the psychotropic medication I am on. I experience insomnia and chronic fatigue. I have hypothyroidism, chronic kidney disease and high blood pressure. I used to be health conscious and experienced great health in youth but after my first hospitalization I slowly started to gain weight. There were periods when I lost the weight, but it was a relentless mind game. I would binge and purge. When I was in a slump, feeling low or unhappy I would eat. This would make me feel calm and in control but then I would remember my youth. When I was thin, I would either starve myself or go on a diet. Longing for the days when my physical body could effortlessly fit into clothes. I had acupuncture once to try and lose the weight, but it would not budge. Nobody thought of telling me way back then that it was the medication. No one in the medical fraternity especially said anything to me.”
I asked Abigail what her ambition is for her future goals and where she sees her life over the next 10 years, and her answer was perfect for me here that I have reproduced it in full. I hope that it is an inspiration for others who have found themselves in some form of despair, of having mental health issues, that there is help out there in the wider world, that medication has also evolved that will help battle your own demons.
“I wanted to write. I have always had the inclination. Writing is therapeutic for me. It is where I find my happy place. I want to devote myself to writing plays, becoming a playwright, perhaps even starting my own theatre company, and writing and developing scripts for television dramas and film. I have always had this work ethics. I guess I unmerited it from both of my parents. They were devoted educationalists. What is most important to me is my spirituality and my daily living with mental wellness. People are becoming more aware of mental health and the capacity we have to become depressed during this time of the pandemic, throughout the trials and the challenges we face as human beings, as humanity on a daily basis. I want to be an advocate for human rights. Discuss bipolar on as many platforms as I can. Tell people that you can have a happy and successful life and live with a mental illness and debilitating depression. It is going to be alright. It is going to be ok. I still have a lot of fear and anxiety that I will be hospitalized again. But I do know I can’t hold onto that fear and anxiety for the rest of my life. I think it is too late for me to have children. To get married. I think with the taking of my medication regularly I have adapted to the world around me and the environment I find myself in. I see myself now as a well-adjusted individual. I look back on my life. I have written books in a variety of genres. I am a published author. I have a novella coming out at the end of this year in Canada and another appearing next year in Australia and the districts of New Zealand. I have written for a symposium, written my first screenplay for a short film, and am collaborating on another with a SAFTA-award winning filmmaker from South Africa. I have written a play. My life is filled in general with the pleasurable activities of work and the thing that I have the most passion for in this one God-given life is having the gift of writing. I want to write more. Perhaps one day I will be in the position to adopt. I have always wanted to be a mother. If it’s a dream, then it’s just a dream. I can live with that but through writing I can create. I can use my imagination as an instrument. In that regard life is some kind of beautiful. Magical. Wonderful even and a land of both harvest and plenty. I can be anyone I want on the page. For now, I have a lot of ideas I want to pursue, and I definitely feel more confident about the future. More than I have ever been. Maybe I am still sad. I worry about growing older. I ask myself will I still have time to write all the books inside of me? Nowadays I just want to write. Everything fascinates me. I am a blogger, an essayist, a short story writer and a poet so suddenly my life doesn’t seem that tragic at all on the days when I feel I am living my dream.”
Bless you Abigail for opening your heart to us at www.greathealthwatch.net and we wish you every success in the future.