Victor: Journalist turned mental health activist, shares how overwhelming life’s challenges drove her to a mental break down. Nsimbi opens up about the trials she went through and how she struggled to bounce back, writes Esther Oluka.
“I began talking less, yet, I am a talkative person,” she says during our Sunday evening meeting in Najjera, a suburb located in the outskirts of the city centre. Then in 2009, Nsimbi says she began hearing voices.
“Someone who has never had a mental health breakdown cannot understand this. They wonder how you can hear voices yet no one else is talking to you,” she says.
“I was paranoid suspecting that everyone wanted to harm me. I was insecure, I began losing interest in social life, and work became boring, especially when it involved going out of my way to do things. I did not want to exert myself anymore. I got to a place where I completely withdrew and life no longer made sense,” she recalls.
Then, a very scary episode occurred. One day, Nsimbi remembers waking up, strapping her then nine-months-old daughter on her back and then walking to the compound where she spend hours talking to herself.
“I was on auto-pilot talking about issues of pain, what I was going through, things which had oppressed me,” she says, adding, “I don’t even remember whether my baby, who was on my back, ate anything that day.”
What caused the crisis?
Different issues caused the melt-down. According to Nsimbi, she broke down because of the overwhelming marital issues that partly rose because the communication in the marriage had broken down, there was the motherhood stress that rose from looking after her children and work pressure, among other issues.
“I was overwhelmed at the time. Many people thought I was a tough person who could handle any pressures of life, so, I also pretended all was well and carried on with life as if everything was okay until that day when I spent the day talking to myself in the compound,” she says. Now she knows she should not have bottled up her struggles. “I should have spoken up sooner and sought help earlier on when the issues began manifesting,” she says.
Nsimbi says at work, she was lucky to at least have someone to whom she often voiced her concerns, and, this was her late sister, Keturah Kamugasa, who was then a regular fashion columnist with the New Vision newspaper as well as the editor of Bride and Groom and Flair for Her magazines.
“She was my sounding bound. Even when I pretended to be okay, smiling and all that, she would look beyond all these things and ask me whether I was okay. And, whenever I mentioned that all was not well, she would counsel me,” Nsimbi recollects.
The second mental health episode
In November 2011, she suffered another mental health breakdown four months after giving birth to her fifth baby, a son. “I remember just waking up one day, standing in one position in my bedroom, then, talking and talking, completely disconnected from everything around me. My husband went and bought milk, and fed the baby,” she recalls.
Later, Nsimbi was sedated and taken to Mulago National Referral Hospital where she spent eight days. She was given medication and had to continue going for reviews before eventually resuming work.
“I dreaded the idea of returning to work because I was nervous. By then, I had lost self-confidence and wondered how I was going to start work all over again,” she says.
She adds, “Meanwhile, no friend had called in to check on me. They fled. I later learnt that people do not want to associate with those having mental health issues. They flee because of the stigma and ignorance surrounding the condition. These myths and negative perceptions around mental health are partly what forced me to speak out,” the activist says.
While friends fled, her immediate family members stayed close encouraging and supporting her.
Nsimbi, was diagnosed with bipolor affective disorder (in 2010) by a doctor from Nakasero Hospital.
“I was notified that I had to be ready to live with the condition for the rest of my life and had to take medication to cope with it,” she says.
Nsimbi who had been taking the medication from 2009, then made a personal decision in 2014 to stop taking the prescriptions.
“I made the decision after doing research on the effects of the medication. I found out that the longer one took the medicine, the toxicity in their bloodstream would as well shoot up. Besides, I was encountering other complications including body tremors, overweight issues, among other difficulties,” says Nsimbi.
She says getting off medication was a great decision.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually get better without having to rely on medicine, but also, it was a way of curtailing the expenses incurred in purchasing the prescriptions which were quite expensive,” she says.
She then found other ways of coping with the condition including taking walks, playing music and dancing, openly speaking about her condition and constantly keeping busy with doing any constructive work.
“This condition can be partly managed when you keep busy. Idleness creates space for episodes,” she notes.
Nsimbi says she learnt to love herself more, stopped focusing much on negative energy and learnt to easily forgive people who offended her.
With these practices, Nsimbi says her marriage is better than it was especially during the height of the crises.
“After knowing what we were dealing with, we discussed how we were going to handle the problem together and somehow, this improved the state of affairs in our marriage. I stopped over relying on my husband for compliments. Those years, I would feel bad whenever he did not say anything nice about me, sometimes, which would dampen my mood. Today, I have learnt to make peace with the reality that I will still be okay even if he does not throw nice compliments my way. I have learnt to pat myself on the back instead,” she says.
Nsimbi adds that her faith has also played a crucial role in helping her cope with the crisis.
“Prayer has also been very helpful in this coping journey. Talking to God whenever challenges surface restores my peace of mind. I know that all is well even amidst the challenges,” she says.
Angela, and her husband, Benjamin Charles Nsimbi, have five children aged respectively 20, 17, 14, 13, and 10 years.
Although she had attempted to hide her health issues from her children, when things were getting out of hand, she opted to tell them.
“I did not want to deceive them that nothing was happening. In return, the children became very supportive around the house including assisting in doing chores,” she says.
Nsimbi adds, “My husband was also very helpful in dropping and picking them from school. And, the beauty about my work then was that I could do it from anywhere, sometimes even home. This also enabled me to put myself back together.”
Nsimbi left active journalism in 2019 to focus on mental health activism.
“I co-founded a non-profit organisation with some friends called My Story Initiative and a support group for people who have mental health challenges and their caregivers. This group is called Heart to Heart chat and was founded in 2015,” she says.
Then, recently, Nsimbi authored Breaking Free: I am not bipolar, a book about her journey of hope, healing and restoration.
Advice to others
After emerging through the dark tunnel of mental illness, Nsimbi has learnt not to take some things lightly. “Whenever you notice something wrong with you, talk to someone or seek professional help. Do not forget to pray as well. Call on God’s divine intervention to comfort and heal you. You would be amazed at what prayers can do in your life.
But also, families, caretakers and friends should be supportive to members suffering from any kind of mental health crisis. Do not be too judgmental towards them. Instead, talk to them, find out what is wrong and find suitable ways of helping them.
But also, reading more about their condition will enable you understand better what these patients are going through,” she advises.
Her husband advises other men who have partners suffering from mental illness to ride the storm together.
“It is an illness and no one should be blamed for it. Breaking up a relationship or marriage is never the solution. If you love the person, stick around, help them because the grass is never greener. You might decide to leave your partner for another woman and find that the other one’s problems are far worse,” he advises.
Benjamin Charles Nsimbi, her husband says: “When you get married to someone, you promise to love them in sickness and health. Since many people do not understand the aspect of mental illness, you find that both parties in the relationship end up struggling. I did not understand the tell-tale signs that were manifesting until she had a total breakdown. Eventually, when I learnt about what she was suffering from, I was shocked.
The condition is like having a mood swing and then multiplying that by 100 per cent. The condition can get worse when the woman is expecting a baby. I remember vividly when she had the first breakdown, it was bewildering and we all did not know what to do.
Angela changed and we had to go through counselling because she was constantly paranoid. I was constantly looked at as the bad person. She had been a bubbly and outgoing person before suddenly starting to drift away from the marriage and society as a whole.
As things were unfolding, I kept reading about the condition until I understood it. Since the condition never really goes away, there are times (even now) I get overwhelmed by everything and have felt like walking away from the marriage.
I love my children very much and that is the reason why I am hanging in there. I don’t want to break my family apart by walking away. For now, we are continuing to manage mostly by providing psychosocial support to Angela.”
Psychologist...Moses Karis Oteba
“Bipolar affective disorder happens whenever there is an imbalance in the brain chemistry that causes extreme emotional highs and lows. The human body is chemically connected, operates based on chemicals that are called hormones. So, when there is an imbalance in these hormones, it will trigger disparity in emotions in which someone is either overly excited and then, the next moment they are extremely low.
When a person is experiencing high emotions, we call that situation maniac and then when these emotions are low, it is called depression. So, between these maniac and depressive episodes, there is usually a very fast shift often regarded as bipolar or split personalities.
One moment someone is very hyper and the next moment, they are so low. From the term bipolar affective disorder, the word affective usually refers to interactional behaviour while bipolar is a mixture of all those highs and lows and how they affect the way the person interacts with others. Medication could help stabilise one’s mood. However, treatment should be taken under a supervised medical personnel.