Hauwa Ojeifo is the founder of SheWritesWoman, a movement of love, hope and support for women that live with mental disorders.
Four months after she was diagnosed with bipolar2 and post-traumatic stress disorder in December 2015, Hauwa created a channel to speak for herself especially when it’s hard getting someone to talk to about mental illness.
Today, SWW has grown to become a safe haven to women living with mental illness.
Not bothered about stigma, Hauwa is trying to normalise the conversation as she looks forward to a time when people will talk about mental health as easily as they talk about physical health in Nigeria.
In an interview with Sola Abe for woman.ng, Hauwa talks about her experience with mental illness and her NGO, SheWritesWomen.
The experience that prompted the initiative
I live with a mental illness. Usually, when people think about mental illness, they have a picture in their head of a man in the street, dirty, torn clothes, and talking to themselves on the road but people don’t realise that there are bosses at work that drive the classiest cars, wear the most fashionable clothes, speak very well and look very beautiful who live with mental disorders.
So, for me, it was my own experience that gave birth to SWM and because I was diagnosed with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder in December of 2015.
It’s a lot to deal with. I had a near-suicide attempt. I know first-hand what it’s like to be delusional and paranoid. And for me, it was “this can’t just be it, there’s a message in all of this.” I decided to use SWW as my outlet. I use it to speak freely because it’s hard when you’re in this kind of situation to find a place where people understand you. So, there was a lot inside that I needed to pour out.
I started SWW four months after I was diagnosed. My psychologist had told me that my case needed to be transferred to a psychiatrist because, when you start crossing over into medication, you need a psychiatrist. It was after that, I realized that I needed an outlet. It’s just not enough for you to take medication and see a doctor, there’s so much more that goes into your recovery and healing and your general sense of self.
Symptoms she noticed that made her realise something was wrong
Statistics show that before anyone goes to see a doctor, we wait an average of about 10 years, i.e. the interval between symptoms and intervention . Unfortunately, that’s because of awareness. For me, and like many other people, you start noticing some things and it’s funny how people say “That’s how you are”, It’s your personality”.
So, what happens is our wellness starts deteriorating and we start saying that it’s our personality. Sadly, we catch it at the time when someone is suicidal. But the truth is that the signs have been there for a long time.
In my own case when I started tracing it; part of the things you have to do is go back and keep digging. I realised that I had it since secondary school but some things actually triggered it and made it worse. So, that was from 2001 and I’m realising it in 2015, and that happens to a lot of people. In some people’s case, they never see it until someone jumps off the bridge and it becomes too late.
I realised that I’d been having these extreme highs and extreme lows in my life, which I now know is a classic symptom of bipolar. The highs are characterised by amazing energy levels, you can go on for days, you’re very creative, talkative, you’re bursting with energy and don’t need much sleep, your thoughts are racing and you find yourself making some impulsive decisions that you would ordinarily not make and then you find yourself in situations you did not plan to be in.
You also come to a point where you can barely get out of bed and do basic activities like brushing your teeth, you’re crying hysterically and you don’t even know why. You start feeling hopeless and worthless and that’s you that was incredibly full of hope and energy right before. So, I realised that my life was a series of ups and downs and I thought it was my personality.
Some people will say they are just melancholy.Whilst that might be your case, it’s also a time to be cautious. Sometimes, you’re the most important person that can spot when there’s something wrong. I got to a point where I was suicidal. People think being suicidal is when you are at the edge of the bridge and you’re about to jump.
In my own case, it was me driving and seeing a trailer coming, and I’m like maybe if I just turn, the trailer can hit me and I’ll die or maybe it will just be an accident so that I’ll save everybody the shame. At some point, I had to tell myself that it was not normal, so, one day, without telling anybody, I took a cab to psychiatric hospital, Yaba.
How she felt when she was diagnosed
For me, I was relieved because it was a “finally!” situation. It was a “Thank God, I’m not just making this up in my mind.” This is real. I was glad that there was an explanation. Sometimes, denial is a luxury. I was at the edge, I couldn’t afford to be in denial.
I got my diagnosis without even telling my family anything. They didn’t know I was seeing a doctor. I just wanted to seek counsel and I wasn’t sure if anybody would help me or do any good. Sometimes in this process, you want to be very careful about who you tell, and how you tell them, because the kind of support you get or the lack of it, can do a lot in your recovery, in accepting and treating your illness.I just wasn’t ready to gamble with that.
I started therapy even without telling anybody. Unfortunately, I went broke whilst paying for everything by myself so I had to stop and it was when I stopped that I tumbled down and my suicidal thoughts became worse. At that point, when I had my near-suicide attempt, I had to tell my sister. I told her we needed to tell our parents because my psychologist told me I had to see a psychiatrist.
How her parents took the news
That’s probably the hardest part about this entire process. If you have overcome your self-denial, then, you have to deal with denial from your loved ones and that’s one of the biggest kinds of denial because you’re dealing with a group of people.
It’s hard to accept such because of the narrative in the society. When you think about a child with mental illness, you think about the end of your dreams and aspirations. When you have that kind of picture in your head either consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to deny it when your child tells you they have a mental illness. I tell people that if your parents are denying your illness especially at the beginning, it’s because they love you and acceptance isn’t that easy.
I have very close friends that I’ve never had this conversation with. They see it on social media but we’ve never really sat down and discussed it. It’s a very hard conversation to have because of the narrative the society has played for so many generations.
At some point, I had to do what’s best for me because I’m the one going through it and when things go bad, I’m the one who’s going to be standing at the edge of the bridge waiting to jump off, nobody else will be there.
When they first heard, it was denial. They are doing the best they can. I’m not saying support is bad. For me, I’ve also set up external support group within the mental health space because if you live with the expectation that they are going to jump on it from one day, you’re just going to kill yourself. For one that lives with a mental illness, support or the lack of it can be devastating. I’m just living with whatever I get. It’s a lot better than a year ago and it’s a long process.
If it is genetic
It is genetic but that’s assuming we know what genetics really mean. Lets say my great great grand father had depression, it is possible that nobody has had depression up until me. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? No, not necessarily. That it is in the genes, doesn’t mean that it will manifest and sometimes, you could be the first person to manifest it.
If the medications will stop at any time
The thing about mental illness is that there is no one size fits all. Two people can have depression, they can exhibit it slightly differently and they will be treated in slightly different ways.
There are people who take medication for six months, some for two months, some people twenty years and some people from the point they get diagnosed till God knows when. It’s a very individual thing because chemical composition varies from one human being to the other.
I have bipolar2 and I know people with bipolar2, but we don’t even take the same medications at all and it could be that we take the same medications maybe in different dosages and that’s bec ause we are different individuals with varying body chemistry.
If there is a cure
Theoretically speaking, no, it doesn’t. Being that if you go online and search for something of that sort, you’ll get no, there’s no cure. Having said that, there are people who talk about their mental illness in the past tense. So, there are a couple of ways to look at it. Some people would talk about their mental illness in the past tense if it lasts a short period of time.
Treatment is very affordable at government hospitals. You can pay as little as N5, 000 for about six sessions.
If people can monitor their mental health
Yes. I advise people to always have a mental check-up. We need to incorporate mental health care into our total well-being as a nation. We need to make it a part of our own lives – it’s okay to have a mental health check up when we go for routine medical checkups.