And for every matchstick house in the burbs of the Northern Areas there’s a father and a mother. There’s a family in ganglands. Symbolic of apartheid. Symbolic of ethnic cleansing. Symbolic of the divide between wealth and poverty, the disenfranchised marginalised youth who have no skills. Only unemployment staring them in the face, and in the shadows. Foreshadowing every glimpse of their identity, lock, stock, and barrel. Ammunition has become like Braille is for the blind. All youth well they must be initiated into the gang. They must know how to knife, how to stab, how to make a knife, a knife that can go in for the kill. For every wedding, there’s a bridal bouquet, the bride, and her wedding feast sometimes in a Methodist church hall or sometimes not. For every Baptist, Protestant, Presbyterian, Mormon, Muslim, there’s an agnostic. I was lucky that I just escaped that lifestyle by the skin of my teeth while growing up in South End before we were forcibly removed by police and by the government of the day.
My son when he talks sometimes it’s hard for me to follow (he has so many ideas, you see). It’s hard to understand what he is talking about. He talks fast. He uses wild hand gestures a lot when he is making a point. I wish they would all come to church with me. I wish they could all be saved, baptised. But we all worship the same God. For some of us he’s right here with us on this planet, beside us, walking beside us in our hour or time of need. For others like my wife God is on an astral plane. I try and understand her. Love has a delicate smell. There was a time when we had good times. We’d eat out. There’d be movie night. We’d leave the children at home and go and watch a film. But now it’s different. She’s a grandmother. I’m a grandfather. Overnight we’ve become different people. It’s as if the ordinary madness that other people call reality has possessed both of us. Times were good. Times are still good.
I remember my mother was a domestic worker. Ouma. Oupa. Both fervently borderline-religious.
I remember so many things now about my childhood with such a clarity of vision. Thought patterns come in waves. Their crests are beautiful, magnificent, electrifying, Cheshire cat magical.
Once upon a time long ago, more years than I care to remember I decided not to return to university to complete my teacher’s diploma but rather to complete my B.Sc. Honours in Botany at the University of the Western Cape. I was refused admission due to my political past. I decided to teach and bank my salary in order to repay the government loan I had received in order to complete my degree. I got a teaching degree at my alma mater South End High School in January 1965. I was excited and looked forward to the challenge although my teaching roster was very loaded. For the standard sixes I had social studies and general science. I took the standard sevens for history and taught another class history in Afrikaans and then there were my standard nine classes. I taught physiology and hygiene. This was one of the main reasons which militated against me making a success of my teaching career. Many of the pupils were older than myself and I found myself teaching in the medium of Afrikaans even though I never had a teaching certificate. The students were difficult. I felt frustrated as if I could not get through to them. Of course I didn’t realise I could not relate to them and they could not relate to me. For the large part they were undisciplined. Large classes made circumstances for effective teaching impossible.
For the first three months I managed to cope however come to April I started to slow down. I could not concentrate on my lesson plans and found it easier to give up. I frequently fell into fits of depression and spells of self-pity. I found it difficult to teach. I was completely disinterested and demotivated. I found myself withdrawing from social interaction at school and at home. I left for school in the morning and stayed in the classroom for the rest of the school day. There was no discipline in the classes as I said before. This made things even tougher for me. I was disorganised. The pupils carried on acting out. They did just as they pleased. Pupils ran riot all over me, I virtually dragged myself through a school day. I had no assistance or support from my colleagues or people who I considered to be my friends. I also had no appetite and could not fall asleep at night. I was like a zombie from Hollywood B-movie dragging myself to school and home and back again. The doctor diagnosed me with having a vitamin deficiency. Anxiety overwhelmed me as I fell more and more behind with my lessons. I was overtaken by guilt of the injustice I was doing my pupils. I asked myself questions like who would be responsible if the pupils had to fail their examinations. Could I blame the principal, parents, learners or myself? I now felt like I was in a bottomless pit and in a dark tunnel. This was what always wavered on my mind those days. A feeling of gloom began to overwhelm me and suicide seemed to be the only way out. My thought process slowed down almost until it came to a standstill. My mind was completely clouded with negativity. After school I would spend the majority of my time in my bedroom. I vividly remember putting a plastic bag over my head. It burst before I suffocated. My mother was the only one who stood by me during this difficult time of my life. She prayed for me and saw that I had something to eat, had clean clothing. If that was hell what was to follow was even a greater hell.
The viciousness of depression lifted and symptoms in direct contrast to the previous phase prevailed. I became talkative, loud, agitated. I walk around the whole school and the vicinity where I lived. I visited and spoke to people I never knew before. Within two weeks I spent all my savings which I religiously accumulated over a period of six months on useless items like antiques, liquor, old music records. Gifts were brought for people I met for the first time and I spent no time of the person. I did not sleep at night. I had no concern for my welfare. I did not listen to the people who had my best interests at heart. I could not bring myself to eat anything and walked long distances. Up streets and down streets. I decided to walk along the National Road to Cape Town. The road was pitch dark. This did not matter since I had a lot of energy. I got a lift in a furniture truck as far as Swellendam and then proceeded to the Meyer family in Bellville South. Two ministers of the United Congregational Church had me admitted as a voluntary patient at the Valkenburg Psychiatric Hospital in Pinelands Cape Town. For the first time I realised that I was in a mental institution when on admission I was given a polo jersey, khaki shorts and a pair of sandals. I was placed in a locked up ward. The patients came from all walks of life and suffered from all forms of mental illness. I was not diagnosed with any mental illness however I was not released from the locked up ward. However I must admit that it was therapeutic to be among other mentally ill sufferers. However I missed Port Elizabeth and my family. After a month at Valkenburg Psychiatric Hospital I took my leave to the medical school at Groote Schuur where I wanted to be in the first place. I then meandered through District Six where I found families dismantling their homes and belongings as a result of the forced removals of 1965.These residents were being moved to the Cape Flats and areas like Mitchell’s Plan, Lavenderhill. These are now the centres of gang warfare. I sought help from the social worker at Groote Schuur Hospital. They supplied me with cigarettes, pocket money, and a third class railways ticket to Port Elizabeth. On the train I discovered that I had left the ticket in the jacket I had loaned while in Cape Town. Therefore I had no ticket on the train with the result that the guard and the policeman wanted to put me off the train at the next station. They were reluctant to believe my explanation. When reaching Port Elizabeth they handed me over to the police where I had to sign an undertaking that I would pay the cost of the ticket as I began teaching again.
Then I had a manic episode in Kimberly. My services had terminated at the South End High School. In January 1966 I was offered a temporary post at a high school in Square Hill Park in Kimberly. I made a grave mistake by not checking on my medication. There was no psychiatrist or doctor who could describe mood stabilising drugs. I arrived in Kimberly on the 1st of February. The first month went okay. I gave my lessons clearly and meaningfully then all hell broke loose. I experienced a major episode of mania. I could not stop myself from making grave errors in judgement. I took myself to teach on a Saturday morning. During which time I consumed excessive amounts of whiskey and milk. I spend long hours at school disturbing other teachers in the classrooms. I was creating complete mayhem in the school. I was not prepared to listen to the advice of well-meaning individuals. I also took to drinking alcohol. My meagre salary militating it becoming an uncomfortable habit. I spent a daily visit to the Kemo Hotel. I shudder to reflect on my manic state during the inter-Provincial swimming tournament of the Swimming Federation of South Africa. All the provinces from all over South Africa took part. I took charge of all the arrangements of the tournament, although I had no knowledge of competitive swimming. It was a disaster from the start. Without anybody’s permission I appointed myself the manager of the Griqua Team. This was extremely embarrassing to the rest of the Griqua officials. I placed myself in charge of the bus which was going to transport teams and officials to a holiday resort along the Vaal River. I waded into the children’s swimming pool in my pants and vest vainly trying much to the amusement of the crowd. I visited a family in Kimberly and was attracted by their son’s toy gun which resembled a real gun. I went around the area and scared people as if it was a real gun. People began to avoid me as the stigma of mental illness was pronounced. I spent a night with a homosexual.
There’s nothing sexy about having a recurring mental illness like it’s portrayed in American films. Some people you can trace its origins along your family tree. Some say it’s in the nucleic acid of the ladders of your genes, your biochemistry. Maybe your dendrites are just out of sync with the dopamine and serotonin levels in your brain for that cycle, or season, or day. Maybe you were just having a stressful day. Mental illness is governed by equal measures of loss, feeling shattered, truth feels sharp, you become aware of the isolation you might feel from time to time, acutely aware of the environments and the landscape you find yourself in, and intense mourning that can startle you out of your reverie. Mind you, it is not who you. And it does not define who you are as a person, your character, or your personality. It doesn’t matter what ‘they’ say. They don’t have your psychiatrist’s degree behind their name. You’re human. Pain is what comes along with the territory of humanity. Understand it, learn from it, navigate those ‘shark-infested’ (or should I say stigma-busting) dangerous waters with your moral compass. This earth is damaged. We are damaged. Damaged people. Shattered. As I’ve said before we live in a traumatised country. The entire fabric of society is traumatised. The nuclear family as a unit is traumatised.
So now we have to learn how to survive. How do the mentally ill, the most displaced, the most embarrassed, largely the most ridiculed, and humiliated respond to survival? Instinct. From my perspective we all have to rely on it at some point in our lives. And it works every time. Just remember you have to swim before you begin to tread upon land. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try again. You can mourn the fact that now that you are aging, this also means becoming more comfortable with your principles, more in tune with virtuous qualities as you grow older, you are also becoming wiser, more understanding of your mental illness, your relapses, your recovery. Yes, some people who are mentally ill hear voices. That is as scary for them as it is for you. Some people see things, have hallucinations, and it is very real for them. That is as scary for them as it is for you. Some men, though mostly women who are mentally ill can became promiscuous seeing it as a replacement for real intimacy and unconditional love that they should have received from their parents in the first place. Know that you belong in this word whether you have a disability, mental illness, or have refugee status. Know that having a mental illness doesn’t mean self-punishment, or self-imposed exile. You have one life to live. It is precious. So why not start now. Don’t let your mental illness feed you, scar you, wound you intrinsically speaking, sate you, starve you. If you are mentally ill you have the right not to hurt yourself, but you do have the right to accept yourself, love all of who you are unconditionally. People might think you’re not good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, but that is just an opinion. Determining if the glass is half full (positive vibrations switch on), or of its half empty (negative vibes switch off). Your conscious mind speaks to your subconsciousness mind all the time.
In April 1966 I returned to Port Elizabeth. My mania had abated and I obtained a temporary teaching post at the Gelvandale Secondary School. It was located in Helenvale which was a sub economic area and was established as a result of the slum clearance scheme of the municipality and the government. The area was soon overcrowded three primary and one secondary school was built in the space of three years. Ten people had to use one outside toilet. The streets were scattered with litter and dirt. The pupils came mainly barefoot to school and without any lunch. My class had more than 60 children. There were insufficient desks and writing materials. These circumstances made my teaching days in the beginning difficult, sad and depressing.
I had taken Zoology as one of my degree subjects. I collected stray cats. I placed one on a glass sheet which I covered with a bell jar and placed chloroform on wadding and placed it under the bell jar. I had underestimated the strength of the drugged cat.
In November 1966, the year mark for General Science and Social Studies had to be prepared for moderation by the Inspector of Education. At that time I fell into another deep episode. I slowed down, demotivated to do the simplest of tasks. I felt deep exhaustive depression. In the absence of the principal the deputy showed no sympathy for my depression. The day before the Inspector arrived my work was not yet complete yet the Inspector Mr Swanepoel ordered me to leave the school immediately despite the explanation of my depression. Fortunately for me the principal had just arrived from Cape Town. He assessed the situation, told me to see a doctor and to return to teaching when I felt well again. As I left the school to board the bus I was overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts. I had a strong desire for the bus to crash. This was not to be. I was alone at home and decided to take an overdose of tablets. It turned out to have the opposite effect. It didn’t even make me drowsy or sleepy. The tablets that I did take turned out to be too few to have a serious effect. I got to the Port Elizabeth Mental Health Society where I received help.
Suicide was uppermost in my mind to the extent that I was continually thinking about taking an overdose of tablets. Fortunately my mother’s early return from work removed these negative thoughts from my mind.
I was taken to the humble offices of the Port Elizabeth Mental Health Society in Brassell Street in North End where the social workers in particular Jann Hollingshead spent almost three hours of therapy with me so I could realise that suicide was not the only way out in a crisis situation. The next day I had an appointment with the psychiatrist in the outpatient department of the Livingstone hospital. He diagnosed me with manic depression also known as bipolar mood disorder. The seriousness of my condition necessitated five sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. A white patch had to applied to both sides of my head which got me the nickname of the Western actor Jack Palance. I felt very sore and hurt when I heard these remarks made by people who I thought were my friends. I was also very young. I had never heard of electroconvulsive therapy before. Since I was not aware of what it was I was very apprehensive at every occasion when I had to receive the treatment. However the white doctor who was in his fifties explained to me that the seriousness of my major depressive episode necessitated this treatment. He also gave me the assurance that the treatment wasn’t a guarantee that I was to recover. I didn’t know what the hell was going on the day I left the hospital that day. I was twenty years old. I don’t know when I fell in love with Jann. She was vivacious. But I knew that nothing would ever come of it. She died of throat cancer. August died of stomach cancer. Jean died of breast cancer. Cancer riddled bodies. Cancer riddled cells. I imagined the white bloods cells putting up a fight, while the cancer cells still got through floating by them like free radicals to attack the golden cells of organs and tissue. People die every day. Every Saturday churches are packed. Parking lots filled with cars. People coming to pay their respects. And sometimes I was one of them. Shaking people’s hands firmly. Looking them in the eye and saying, ‘My condolences to you and your family. I am really sorry for your loss.’ And I really meant it. I really did.
Present day. Keep up or you’ll get lost. Jann’s loss. I never quite got over that. She was still so young. She could have had that sunny road. I could have met her on that sunny road. Perhaps we could have had those kids, a family, raised them in England. Perhaps she asked for me when she was in the hospital. If I had gone it would have meant a sense of closure on both of parts. I don’t think I have ever loved a woman, known a woman like Jann Hollingshead so intimately just from our conversations. Love has a delicate smell. Hospitals smelled of furniture polish, nail polish remover, something antiseptic, and sanitary. I know standing next to her bed watching while she slept, or drift in and out of consciousness, I would have perhaps lost all sense of self-control, my belief in God, or perhaps we both would have found closure. But I wanted to remember her smile, handing over the ‘contraband’, my favourite brand of cigarettes (how did she remember), and us tucking into the purest pub lunch you could find in England, and meeting Jann’s sister and computer programmer husband in their lovely home. The feeling of being invited, this grand gesture, how excited I was to explore the city of London. I felt like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the beginning of childhood I always felt cast out of society. But in London town I was a new man (Jann’s man? No. I had decided. I had made up my mind that Gerda was the only woman for me. And if it wasn’t for her, for Abigail, for short stop, for Ambrose, for Cody, for Ethan, for Lauren, I wouldn’t be the man that I am today if it wasn’t for my angels). But sometimes I think to myself of Columbia University. I would have been a unique ‘Christopher Columbus’-type don’t you think striding not sprinting? Sometimes I think of that sunny road. Sometimes I think a lot of Jann. How I let her go without even saying goodbye. That wasn’t very gentlemanly of me because I had thought very highly off her, and she of me.
In 1974 I won a scholarship by the British Council to complete a study of the mentally and physically handicapped in England and Wales and implement it in the position in South Africa. It was a very valuable scholarship since it covered a return plane ticket, tuition fees, books, warm clothing and even a maintenance grant. I was very happy, excited and content to undertake the scholarship and complete the relevant study. All went well up to the Christmas recess when the English students went home for the holidays. I with my friend, Jones Mceke and other African students was left behind to make provision for ourselves. I took the opportunity to organise a trip via Cosmos travel agency to visit five or six of the European countries. This was a dream come true for me since I visited Brussels in Belgium, Cologne and Frankfurt in Germany, Florence, the Vatican, Rome, Paris and then back via Dover. One of the most remarkable incidents happened to me at the customs at Dover. I was placed in a room with my luggage where I was asked to open my cases so that the customs officials could search my clothing. They also asked me a number of questions concerning my place of origin, why I had come to London and when I was going to return to South Africa again. After about two hours I was allowed to go. I then bordered the train to Euston Station which was not far from the residence. I was very, very down, depressed and sad at the happening at Dover. And I just wanted to go home to South Africa, however my friend Jones was waiting for me. He helped me with my luggage and got me to my room. I realised that a major episode of depression was on its way. I had no appetite. I was exhaustibly tired. I couldn’t fall asleep and I didn’t know what to do because just before I left a young black student from Kenya who was manic depressive was sent home without getting suitable treatment. I thought that the same fate would face me. I couldn’t get up out of bed in the morning. And I only responded to persistent knocking of my friend Jones. He got me out of bed. He saw to it that I got dressed and washed and virtually forced me to go to a nearby restaurant where I could enjoy some breakfast. I felt much better after that but not good enough. He took me back to my room where he sorted my clothing and placed the dirty clothing in a bag and took me to a Laundromat where he saw to it that I washed my clothing.
Jones saved me. I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today, surrounded by a loving and supportive family and my first grandchild, my son’s son if it wasn’t for Jones Mceke. Jones not only saw to my physical needs but was always encouraging and motivating me to allow the dark clouds of negativity and depression to lift. Fortunately when the university reopened I felt much better and could take my meals in the canteen and attend lectures as well as school visit in the English countryside. I must emphasise that I really enjoyed the greenery of the countryside. I will never forget my trip from London to Glasgow on the Express that travelled from the one end of England to the rest of Glasgow in Scotland. For the first time I could appreciate where English literary figures and poets could get their inspiration. London. Walking up streets, and down streets. The young man who had the dorm room next to mine always invited his friends over for coffee but I was never invited. He was a minister, what they call a pastor now. He never talked to me. Never once looked in my direction. But there were people who were kind. Kinder to me I think because they see I was depressed. Michelle, Sue, Jan, my memories of madness, my education at the school of life, religion, Bush University, and eventually I found that perpetual balance I had been searching for my whole life. I found that balance in my community work, my bright faith, the respect, loyalty and love I had for my wife, the affection I had for my children. The memories of my family coming to visit me at Hunterscraig Psychiatric Clinic are bright in my mind. My children were still very small. My wife and I would whisper to each other while they played, so innocent on the far side of the garden. They would hug and kiss me before they left. It broke my heart to see their heads at the back of the car waving madly goodbye to me. My son, my son, his hair dark and curly, already his mother’s favourite. The girls would cling to each other waiting for me to get up grass stains on my pants, helping my wife get up who put her best smile, her best foot forward. My oldest, oh-so-serious in the seat in front with her mother and the middle child with a Cheshire cat smile saying, ‘We’ll see you soon daddy. See you tomorrow.’ Every year or so this was repeated. Hospitalisation followed by recovery, then a relapse, and very soon my children grew up and they weren’t affectionate children anymore. Instead they became rebellious, anxious teenagers who often could not find the words to describe what they were feeling and thinking. I missed the days of their innocence like I missed my years at the Bush University.