A conversation with Thulisile Mhlungu: Founding Director – Maua Facilitation and Coaching
LM: My Dear Sister, thank you so much for an opportunity to share with my readers your personal journey and how you have chosen to live a positive and inspired life in spite of your challenges.
TM: I appreciate the platform.
LM: What were your early life influences, and how have such influences shaped your outlook in life?
TM: There are so many bhuti. I can think of four life defining moments.
Growing up in a family with 4 girls and my parents. The Love and support from my parents. The intentional love and affirmation of me as a woman in the face of people openly telling my mother, in our presence, akazalanga, just because she did not have boys.
My father passing away when I was 18 leaving us with my mother, how I had never recognised her strength before then. My father was such a big character and my mother seemed to me content to be his supporting act. After his death, I understood that she was his pillar of strength. I grew into a woman in a home let by a strong matriarch.
My year spent at Kingswood college at the age of 17 years as the only black person in Matric. This experience shaped and sharpened my fighting spirit. What I choose to call my staying power. I learnt how to live and thrive with my difference. I learnt how to be okay with myself and being on my own just because others do not understand you.
1994 when I took the decision to accept Jesus and Lord and Saviour in my Life. It brought so much clarity of purpose and Hope in my life. Understanding and embracing unconditional Love and unmerited favour of God was transformational, a peace and joy that nobody could take away. I was addicted to the feeling. A feeling and a way of being that I was willing to give up my relationship with my strong black man for. We broke up because I unilaterally changed the intimacy rules of our relationship. It was hard on him at first, but it got him curious about whatever it was that was threatening to take me away from him. He started visiting my church and he also made that decision. We started walking the journey together and we got married a year later in 1995 and we are still married. I am a very different woman now and I still like him. I do not take this for granted at all. This is the strong foundation our marriage is based on. The day we got married he was asked to pray. His simple prayer was: Lord you are the biggest piece of the puzzle. When it is difficult, I always search for the missing piece.
LM: You met the love of your life, or your “strong Black man” as you describe him very early in your life. Tell us how you met and how your relationship has grown over the years?
TM: He is a strong black man, no pun intended. I am sure we tell this story differently because of our different personality types. My version is always more colourful.
I knew his brother and when I met him we became good friends. During the holidays he worked with his father at their family store eMqanduli and I was working at my parents video shop in town. He would drop by during the holidays to visit me. Short visits but I was fond him. We continued our friendship when I went to school in Grahamstown and he was at Rhodes doing his first year.
I was interested in someone else who was at Rhodes with him, so I asked this friend of his to be my date for my matric dance. He had to cancel on me the week of the dance and my friend (strong black man) offered to step in. Just to say I had the best night with a friend. I think every girl should go to their leavers dance with their friend, I was free to be me. Great conversations I remember. We drove around town after the dance and he dropped me off at school.
That December my family travelled to Swaziland for the holidays and I missed him so much. He tells me he missed me too. I was so happy when I got back home after new year’s and he had left a message for me. I think that is when I knew that he was my strong black man. It took a while before our relationship was official. I learnt earlier on in our relationship that he is a very patient and persistent strong black man. In 1989 we started dating and 1995 we got married. I was 23, just completed my junior degree and he was 24 and a fifth year medical student. We had nothing but crazy love for each other, and our faith in God.
LM: You are an active and doting Mum, tell me how you find time to be a successful business woman, a loving wife and such a super mom?
TM: Thank you for the acknowledgement bhuti.
It has not always been this way. I have been through a time where the balance was not there. My mother is my hero; she has been there for me and my sisters, present, and I always understood that this was important but until I became a mother myself, I never did understand how hard and sacrificial it can be.
I suffered what I now know as post-natal depression with both of my children. The connection was only after three months. Yes, I was a functional mother but the bond and the pull that most mothers have was not there. I was overwhelmed by this person who was totally dependent on me. My mother stayed with me and supported me through it, she lived with us for the first month and helped. My husband was amazing. He stayed up alternate nights with the baby for feeds, just to give me time to rest and be on my own, It helped.
When we counselled with our Pastor at the time of my pregnancy I remember him saying something to us that stuck with me: When your children come, they must fit into our agenda and we should not change our life agenda to accommodate them. This is still a principle I live by. I believe in quality time rather than quantity time with them. This helps a lot because I do not beat myself up when I must travel or do what I love or work; I just make a mental note to return and be intentional about quality time with them. They make it easy because they have interests and they are passionate about their chosen interests, so I just need to find out where they will be and be a cheerleader. I am their ardent supporter and it is important for them to know this.
When I started working away from home a lot, I used to feel guilty. I felt I was abdicating my responsibility as a mother. I would do what most mothers do. Hide and sneak out the door when I had to leave. I did this until my mother gave me one of her nuggets: she said do not hide. Call them and tell them you choose to go to work because as a woman it is important for you to have your own career and to live out your own purpose. She said if I say I have to work, they will see work as something that takes their mother away. I remember her saying how important this attitude and thinking is for my daughter. Growing up knowing that she has a choice. Another defining moment for me. The language you use creates your reality.
My family is my support structure. My mother and my sisters will cover for me at all the big events I am not able to attend because of work. My husband is a true-life partner. He loves his children and he is very hands on present father. I never travel and feel what is going to happen with the children and the house. He takes care of things. He has consistently demonstrated that we are equal partners when it comes to raising our children.
Because of my mental illness and how it started showing up in lows, depression, or hyper mania, heightened irritation. I have had to apologize a lot to them for my overreaction, irrational behaviour and with my daughter, violent behaviour that I am not proud of. When I first became aware of my condition I decided to be honest with them. I told them the truth and I decided not to “spank” because I always over did it.
Today we have an open and supportive relationship where they can give me their honest feedback. They know my triggers and they help me manage me. They even ask me if I have taken my tablets when they see me going off kilter. I tell them that I am a woman in process and they accept this.
Because of my illness I believe they are very independent and self-driven, simply because I am not able to be a helicopter mom. I have forgotten them at school more times than I care to remember. I pray to God that they are not scarred for life.
LM: Over the last few months you have shared your battle with Mental illness. What prompted you to do so?
TM: It is about taking back control of my life. It is about exposing what for a long time I believed was a source of shame. I was always so afraid that someone would expose me. I started opening up to my friends and family after I started abusing alcohol to cope with my highs and lows.
I attended a social entrepreneurship class at the Essence festival in Durban 28 September 2017. The facilitator/teacher was Darrin Harris, the founder of www.zerostigma.org in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was a divine appointment. He started sharing his journey living with mental illness. He shared so generously how he tried to commit suicide and how he has come back from that to raise awareness among young people.
This was my face book post after I attended the class:
Master Class with Darrin L. Harris. A man who has come to South Africa for such a time as this!!!
I thank you Thuli for showing up. No place I would rather be.
What do you care about?
- Why this?
- Why me?
- Why now?
- Now what?
If the WHY is good enough, the HOW will work itself out.
I do believe that this was the defining moment for me. This when I decided THERE IS NO RISK.
LM: You have told me before that people generally do not fully understand the daily battles of those living with mental illness. What do you mean by that?
TM: People do not understand what we go through – For me the intersectionality of gender issues makes it very hard. I am a black woman living with mental illness. It sometimes, even for me, sounds like a career limiting move talking about it.
People do not understand what we are going through because we are afraid to speak out. For me personally the church was a huge reason why I stayed silent for a long long time. Nobody believed that I was sick. The easy interpretation is that you are demon possessed or its Satan so pray. This a huge challenge for Christians in the workplace, therefore I believe that churches need to be educated about the disability.
I read a lot to educate myself on my illness and I find blogs the most helpful. As a Christian I follow a blogger Cody Swoboda. His latest blog articulates what I am feeling.
I’m tired of feeling like my illness is some terrible thing that I need rid of. Certainly, if I could be rid of my bipolar disorder, I’d let it go in a heartbeat… but as a Christian, there is a strong emphasis placed on my needing to be healed of my illness. My illness, in the throughs of mania or depression, has the propensity to cause me to sin, but at the same time, it isn’t my fault I was born with this condition.
It has become my understanding that to be healed of my illness is maybe to partake in the healing of a world’s perception of it. Maybe God could be revealed to me and others through my illness and the redemption of it. Redemption can often be defined as paying a debt, being saved or gaining control over something. Could it be that the struggle towards redemption with my illness — the gaining of control — can be a testament to God, a beacon of light, to others in the world?
I think of the following verses from the book of John, where Jesus explains to the disciples that the blind man or his parents are not to blame for his condition and neither has sinned because he has it. In fact, Jesus says to the disciples that the man was born this way so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
So how has my illness allowed God’s works to be revealed in and through me? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest.
2 of His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” – John 9:2-3
Maybe I was born with this illness so that people like me might be a beacon of light in a world full of darkness — a world where tragic acts of violence are blamed on mental illness. A world where stigma and misunderstanding run supreme. A world where, because of stigma, mental illness is more often associated with fear, dehumanization and hurt than redemption or beauty.
Perhaps it is because I experience bouts of depression that I can sympathize with someone struggling better than some others. Perhaps it allows me to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are in pain like me. Perhaps my coming out of those lows can be a testament to redemption, glory, and healing.
Perhaps my mania or mixed states can be outlets to create in ways that allow others to connect to God. Perhaps my coming down from the highs and working towards normality can be a witness to the power of community because I am largely unable to do it on my own.
But Jesus didn’t work in perhaps or maybes… he worked in certainties. It is with the same certainty by which He spoke of this blind man that He speaks for all who live with disabilities (mental and physical).
To those with mental health struggles, He speaks of the certainty of obtaining peace. He speaks with certainty that our testimony of health can help bring healing to those all over the world. He speaks with certainty that you and I are worthy, and we can help others see their worth as well. He speaks with certainty that it is our duty as Christians, both with illnesses and without, to speak truth and justice for those who struggle… for those whose stories are skewed by fear, lies, doubts and blame.
I choose to let light be shown through my illness and to be a light for those who can’t find their way out of the darkness.
Cody Swoboda a blogger
LM: How can organisations create a better and more supportive environment for people living with mental illness at work?
TM: You mention creating an enabling environment, I agree. It can only work if the mentally ill disclose. Therefore, I believe it is key that we encourage us to disclose and be able to talk openly about mental illness, so we can get help. No stigma and NO SHAME.
We have wellness days – we need to have mental health and wellness days. October is mental health awareness month in South Africa. This is something to capitalise on. Create a buzz, generate conversation. Encourage your employees to disclose. You as leaders disclose. We need black successful leaders to disclose and lead the conversations. We need mental health officers in the work place.
LM: How can we deal with the stigma of mental illness?
TM: I think we can learn a lot from the HIV campaign (I am HIV POSITIVE). Everyone is affected by mental illness. The way they have dealt with the stigma and disclosure in the workplace could help.
There were individuals who were prepared to speak openly about their HIV status to create awareness and fight stigma. Posters with faces of real people struggling with illness and their call for action.
They got popular people within the black community (politicians, artists) to care about the cause and to show support by proudly wearing the I AM HIV positive t-shirts. They got us to understand that we are all affected by HIV.
The campaign made a case for lack of access to services for the majority who needs it – a human rights violation.
The definition of health includes mental health; health is a progressively realisable right in our constitution. It is the same cause and it should be seen and taken just as seriously. Life Esidimeni tells the story.
LM: With the benefit of hindsight and your knowledge and experience now, what are the things you wish you could have done differently?
TM: I wish as a manager and leader of an organisation I have insisted on people taking their leave and encouraged more work life balance instead of praising those who are always in the office. I also wish I had more meetings where I asked employees to tell me what works or what they did well rather on focusing on what they did not do well. I would also look at the performance appraisals we used – include a section where we have a conversation about mental wellness and encourage employees to set goals and a plan of how they will create a work life balance. I wold have encouraged them to have medical aid cover that covers therapy sessions – debriefing sessions maybe. I would have mental health wellness days at work. not just wellness days, to end the stigma and to push the message that we are all affected. I would appreciate employees more every single day by focusing on what they do well and let them know. I would use an appreciative style of leadership.
We need to stop celebrating people for not taking leave, I did this. Balance before breakdown.
LM: How has your disclosure affected your family and how have they coped?
TM: I wish I had told my family the truth about my struggles sooner. Especially my children. Again, it is because I did not want to be seen to be weak. I expected me to be a super woman and I thought they expected the same. when I did get the courage to share, the assumption of them wanting a perfect mother and wife was shattered. They want a happy healthy mother and wife. My husband has been amazing. Being a medical doctor, he understands the condition and is very sensitive to my triggers. When I am not able to get out of bed he will silently take the kids out to a movie or for lunch to let me rest. When I am irritable, he points it out in love. I know he worries about me, a lot, but he tries to be strong – for all of us. I appreciate this about him. He does not talk much; he is love is action.
He is a better parent than I am, this does not upset me at all – it compliments me. He started building a business that gives us a passive income just to make sure that I can work when I can while I still earn money. This has taken off a lot of pressure for me. I do what I love now, and I thrive.
My family grounds me. Most days I fight for them when I am not able to fight for me. They give me a reason to stay alive.
LM: What drives your passion to go on and live a positive life?
TM: I want to be here to see my grandchildren I am taking responsibility for my health. They appreciate it – because of my disability my husband now understands work life balance.
LM: How do you take care of yourself and what advice can you give to others?
TM: Firstly, I talk openly about mental illness, it is no longer a secret that can be used against me. This shifts the locus of control back to me. I can then answer questions of clarity; I can teach people how to support me. I can educate them on my triggers. In the context of mental health affirmations help.
Secondly, I have realized that I am the only one who can take care of me. Self-care has become important because for us, relapse is a fact, so I always prepare for it.
Thirdly, I take medication, I exercise, I eat clean, I journal every day to watch my thoughts – I have a mood app on my phone. I check in throughout the day. This way I know when I am slipping into a negative thought pattern. I am intentional about taking rest days now, and this helps a lot.
Lastly, I plan to and through busy work seasons. After a busy work season, I plan a day of rest, to regroup and to celebrate my own success. It works, and I avoid feeling overwhelmed.
I am slowly finding my connection with God. When my mind has me on my knees, I need to connect
LM: One of the most difficult things for many of my colleagues, friends and family members suffering from mental illness is the question of therapy. What is your attitude on therapy and what has been your experience?
TM: Talking therapy is something I avoided for long time. I am currently involved in therapy, I found that I need to talk to somebody to get it out of my head. I found that therapy helps me listen to myself. When you live with a mental illness you tend to feel everything 10 times over. I call it 10Xing. It is good to check in every month to listen to your thoughts and have a professional who has nothing vested in you to help re-frame.
LM: What are the challenges of therapy and how can employers look at this differently?
TM: Therapy is really very expensive and most medical aids have limited cover. This is very sad and tragic for the country and for those suffering from mental illness.
I think this is a great opportunity for employers to give support- in the same way as large corporate’s have built in-house gyms, companies should have in-house therapists who can refer. This must be part of creating a culture of support and understanding so that the stigma is removed.
LM: What are your other coping mechanisms?
TM: I have learnt that focusing on others helps me with my disability. Living with a mental health challenge means you can live in your head a lot of the time. When I choose to live an outward focused life intent on helping others, I do better. I spent 6 years of my life advocating for the dignity of young girls through an access to sanitary towel project, now i am committing 6 years to raising awareness about mental health in black communities. It gives me purpose. The cause is bigger than me. It also encourages me to fight to stay alive. I must be congruent.
LM: How can people help you to raise awareness of mental awareness in Black communities?
TM: We need to talk about it, hence my masithethe trend on social media. We can no longer wait for high profile people to take their lives for us to come out and talk about mental health issues. We need to come out.
LM: Do you have any words of advice for spouses, children and family members on how to support a loved one with Mental illness?
TM: The language you use creates your reality.
There are so many things that we need to unlearn bhuti. Men don’t cry. Man-up. Stop dreaming. Why are you always sleeping – you are lazy. You are too emotional; people will think you are weak.
Mental illness is a swear word in our communities. This must change.
My message would be: believe me when I tell you that I am sick, believe me.
LM: What advice would you give to managers and colleagues to support a person with a mental illness?
TM: Every manager and leader should watch the animated cartoon series Winnie the Pooh. Notice Tiger, Winnie the Pooh and all the other characters in-between if you want to understand mental illness. It’s ingenious. All shades of mental illness are depicted there, and the characters make it work by focusing on each other’s strengths and working with their strengths to solve every day challenges. They know who to call for what. They understand the working of a team.
LM: If you could tell South Africans three things about mental illness that you would like them to understand better, what would those be?
TM: “It’s okay to feel unstable. It’s okay to disassociate. It’s okay to hide from the world. It’s okay to need help. It’s okay not to be okay. Your mental illness is not a personal failure.”
Ask for help. I did.
LM: There are also well-meaning people who either say or do the wrong things based on ignorance. What friendly advice can you give us about what not to do or say to those suffering with mental illness?
TM: Hold your assumptions lightly. Ask the question. Ask me how best you can support me. I know what I need, I am afraid to ask because of suspicious looks that tell me you don’t believe me.
LM: We live in a world dominated by patriarchy and misogyny with growing abuse of women and children. How more vulnerable are young girls and women suffering from mental illness? How can we increase awareness about these dangers?
TM: I always have to think before I answer this question. It is the intersectionality of gender issues again. When any organ of your body is sick you are generally vulnerable bhuti. When your mind is sick it is the same. With mental illness we can be even more vulnerable because one of the areas that can be better about us is managing our emotions and our relationships with others. So, it does makes us vulnerable to these influences because people and situations and social influences can be triggers.
We get boxed in a lot as women so I do not like doing it or speaking for others. We are all individuals with individual experience. I can talk about me.
Personally, I always have to step back and out of the we into the me. Because I can 10x things, I have to be very careful not to get caught in the emotions and the general group and mass hysteria that comes with this space and the crisis we are in as a country right now. It will lead me to chronic depression.
I have to guard my space. This is why I am not able to join in the narrative that ALL men are thrash because for me this is deep! It means that I am saying my strong black man is trash. My father was trash. My son is trash. From what I have told you already, they are so obviously not. I am safe with them and I want them to know this.
I have been around men that have displayed everything that you are referring to and they have hurt me in ways that I am not even ready to talk about. I just cannot afford to focus on them. I choose to focus on the things and qualities that I want in the men I choose to invite into my space and my life.
This is the gift I believe mental illness gives me. I am very in-tune with my inner self. It is a form of self-care.
I am conscious about the people I attract in my life, I see this as a strength.
I am a feminist. Feminism to me means having a choice to do what I want to do just like every other human being. A choice over my body, my movement and my general livelihood, equity really. Not to be treated differently and disadvantaged because I am a woman and I am mentally ill.
I would rather want to empower young women and girls about their freedom of choice. How they have choice to live their best lives – however this looks, feels or eves tastes like for them. How they can always give themselves permission to change their mind. Not because they are women or because they are mentally ill, simply because they are beautifully and wonderfully created in the image of God.
LM: Do you have any special message to your hubby, children friends and colleagues who have been part of your journey?
TM: Thank you for loving and supporting an imperfect me perfectly. I know you have forgiven me for a lot of things. I am now learning to forgive myself.
LM: Thank you so much for this most inspiring conversation, I have followed your life over the last few years and I remain inspired by your vision, your passion and your determination.