Relebone Rirhandzu eAfrica’s debut book, Broken Porcelain, a memoir-in-essays, removes the veil and gives us access into the life of a young Black woman struggling to be human while living with the stigmatized mental illness, bipolar disorder.
By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
Main image: Portrait and book cover (supplied)
Broken Porcelain is an imperative book for this generation that is suffering in silence due to overwhelming socio-political and socio-economic issues, further compounding mental health issues.
Relebone offers candid insights into themes such as depression, (inter)generational trauma, medication like anti-depressants, as well as body image issues, loneliness, and finding love while living with mental illness.
The author says she was inspired to pen the book after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
“In 2019, I was diagnosed with severe depression and generalized anxiety disorder. The more I spoke about my diagnosis, especially to my friends, the more I realised that people had so many questions,” she tells me over a Zoom interview.
“So, at the time, I started writing down all the questions people were asking me as questions/titles for essays. I had a residency with Blackbird publishers, and that’s how it developed into a book. This was my way of thinking out loud about the questions that my friends and family had, and I had. It’s an exploration into mental illness; how society deals with it, how I grapple with it and how we heal from it.”
Blacklight Media: How did you begin to educate yourself about your diagnosis so that you could better educate your loved ones?
Relebone: My education came after I received my first diagnosis in 2019. Before seeing a psychiatrist, I was treated by a general practitioner. I felt like I needed a specialist in order to get a better understanding of my condition. That’s when I got my proper diagnosis, which is bipolar (type II), also known as bipolar depression, anxiety, and adult ADHD. People don’t even think adults can have ADHD because it’s associated with hyperactive young boys. That forced me to do more research and understand some of my behaviour. Educating myself then makes it easier for me to educate my community so they can better support me. Because sometimes people do want to help but don’t know how to. Acceptance is the biggest step; accepting my condition and the symptoms and letting go of the shame helped me articulate myself to loved ones.
BM: How did your family receive your diagnosis?
RB: My family did not understand, which made the process of acceptance bumpy. My mother, especially, had difficulty grappling with the diagnosis because her idea of mental illness was someone who is mentally incapacitated and can’t take care of themselves. She was also worried about me being on medication and potentially becoming addicted to it. So, I had to do further research on SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) and learn more about my treatment and meds so that I can help her understand. People also did not how to behave around me because they did not know what would trigger or push me into a psychotic breakdown. It’s been a challenge, and we are still not perfect at it, but we are still finding ways of dealing with it. The more I learn and better articulate myself, the more they learn and accept my condition. It’s been a challenging and sometimes funny journey. But at the core, my family loves me; and that grounds me.
BM: We still struggle to have deep conversations around mental health; did that make it difficult for you to publish this book?
RB: I was fortunate not to have major challenges because I was able to articulate my idea and why this book was urgent. Because I know how hard it is to stay alive (living with mental illness), I was able to show how this is more of a crisis than we think. The funny thing is: When I got diagnosed, I became the go-to person for mental health in my friendship circle. That makes you realise that there are so many people suffering in silence. Even after sharing my story on social media of nearly dying because of a hypomanic episode that landed me in a psychiatric hospital, I got a lot of DMs of support and people sharing their own stories. Even the people I know and love also shared their stories, and it was a surprise because this was something they felt they had to hide from the world due to fear of judgment—which is sadly true. It made me sad that so many of us could not be the support system for one another because of the shame that follows mental illness. Those are some of the things that made me realise that a book like this needs to be published.
“Acceptance is the biggest step; accepting my condition and the symptoms and letting go of the shame helped me articulate myself to loved ones.”
BM: Were there any moments where you were scared of sharing too much about yourself and your condition?
RB: There were many moments of fear. Even now, when I have conversations with people about the book, it hits me that I shared so much about myself. I also get anxious when someone I know or who is in my circle tells me they bought or read the book. I revealed so much about myself and my family because they are part of who I am and who I have become. In the beginning, I just wanted to write about depression, I didn’t think I would write so much about my family and loved ones. However, you can’t write a book like this without getting personal because it’s such a deeply personal subject. If I wanted people to receive the message, I needed to expose many parts of myself. It was scary because once people have the book, they can interpret it however they want to—you lose control as the author. I am learning to allow people to receive the book because people receive and interpret things their way, based on their understanding. You have to give people the freedom to interact with your art in their way. I am just grateful that people engage with the book, period!
BM: What were some of the chapters in the book which forced you to dig deeper and uncover new revelations about your life?
RB: Part one of the book is about family. Many people did not understand why I wanted to write about family when I was writing about depression. I believe we are not isolated. The thing about mental illness is that so many things can serve as triggers. There is childhood trauma, and the environment we grew up in can be conducive to trauma. So, mental illness can be triggered by childhood or past traumas. Yes, genes also play a role in the development of mental illness, but our environment can also aggravate our mental condition, and family is a big part of our environment. Family is the first place we learn to be human. So that was a tough part to write because it felt like I was betraying my family. Sometimes the truth is not so pretty. I wondered how my family would receive it, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching. I had to relive my past. It was not easy, but I could go back and work on the parts that still needed healing.
BM: We see the youth experiencing mental issues, and there seems to be a huge spike in suicides; what do you think needs to happen for us to address mental health issues in this country?
RB: We need to have more conversations about mental health, and we need more people to tell their stories. I see a lot of young black women writing more about mental illness and their mental health journey—and I am thankful. It’s great to have your peers, even outside your personal life, validate your story. We are then able to bring our voices together and let society know that this is a serious topic and we can’t continue being ashamed of it. This needs to be part of our daily conversation and should be normalized.
What’s hard for people to understand is that: Suicidal ideation is something that people living with mental illness have to live with for the rest of their lives. People are also scared of confronting their own darkness that it becomes hard for them to deal with someone else’s darkness. So there are layers to the conversation that make it difficult for people to engage fully. But it’s better to engage with the topic of suicide than to bury someone you love—because by then, you can no longer have those conversations with that person anymore. So, let’s be uncomfortable and awkward while the person is alive than regret it when they have passed on. Sometimes you can give someone all the love and support, but they are unable to stay alive because of the illness. People don’t understand what it takes to be human when living with mental illness. So sometimes it’s not that people are not loved or supported; they get tired of fighting.
Broken Porcelain is available at selected leading book stores and online. You can also order a copy on blackbird.africa