u-turn 25 birthday

My fight for mental health and an end to homelessness intertwine like yarn that warms the winter cold, so it’s not surprising that we commemorate World Homeless day and World Mental Health day annually on the same day.

Psychiatry is not impervious to people who sleep rough on the streets and are not able to receive the help they need as they don’t have access to mental health facilities. If they do, it’s difficult for them to take medication on an empty stomach.

It took me six years to gain access to a psychiatrist. I fought hard to see one. I was diagnosed by a general practitioner during my mental breakdown. I saw a psychologist at the local clinic, who said he would refer me to a psychiatrist when our sessions ended. He never did. I reminded him on multiple occasions, but it felt like dandelions in the wind. I experienced the horrific side effects of psychiatric medication for more than six years. My anti-manic treatment made me emotionally numb. I could neither laugh nor cry. I was not depressed, but  I felt as though laughter and crying, which were intrinsic to me, were being held captive from me.

I was easily amused from a young age. As a toddler, the air pockets on a flight to Johannesburg tickled my tummy, which made my laughter infectious to the passengers, especially those who suffered anxiety.

My heart was detained in a prison of emptiness, despite being shattered into million pieces when my granny, who raised me, died and I could not cry. When my GP changed my medication to Lithium, the side effects became worse. I was no longer emotionally numb, but the side effects were as long as a Christmas shopping list.

In the last few months of sharing the pain of homelessness, I even cried at work and felt something was wrong with me.

It was tough not knowing if it could be my last day in the shelter and sleeping rough on the streets would become a reality. During the pandemic, my friends also confronted many challenges and I wondered if one day they would tell me that they could not be able to cover my shelter fees. It felt like an hourglass with the sand running through an open sluice towards the end of three months and a tortuous welcome back onto the streets.

If the streets at night are not safe for a woman living in brick and mortar, how much more compromised is the safety of women sleeping rough on the streets?  They are sexually violated., even if a partner is with them. A lady who was sleeping rough on the streets was raped while her partner was sleeping next to her, she was labelled a cheat.

Such stories show that danger on the streets isn’t a case of what-if, like wondering if you switched off the iron when leaving for work in the morning. It’s a reality.

My medication was changed when I saw the psychiatrist last month and had a check-up with him a few weeks back. I am on medication that feels as if I’m my old self again. I’m able to rebuild the ruins of my life. As part of the work’s wellness programme, I am seeing a Clinical Psychologist.

Even though I was taught mindfulness as a Champion, it’s hard practising it, as the ulcer of my soul takes time to heal. Each time it feels like I’m homeless again.

As I take baby steps in my recovery from the trauma of being destitute, I am reminded of how my mum used to cover me with her love by gifting me each winter with a jersey she had beautifully crafted with cable stitches. I  have not inherited my mum’s knitting skills. In the needlework class, my projects were always teddy bears or cats.  I never ventured to jerseys. The cats and teddy bears had more holes than mesh.

Dealing with the trauma of homelessness, I was hard on myself as I wanted to snap out of the draining emotions. My journey to mental health felt like my heart was an open wound  that was bleeding like a burst artery, but I know I am not alone on my journey of recovery. There is a community that surrounds me with prayer and support. As I navigate the path to wholeness, one day I know I will feel like the jerseys created by my mum and my testimony will be like cables crafted from the yarns of life.

My mind can’t begin to comprehend what somebody goes through who is sleeping rough on the streets if their mental health is shakey.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Day was “Make mental health and well-being for all a global priority”.  At the U-turn service centres, we have an occupational therapist or social worker encourage psychiatric patients to take their medication together with the three meals provided.

If you are a health professional who has a psychiatric background and are able to volunteer to walk a journey with our clients, contact volunteers@homeless.org.za

Are you sleeping rough on the streets or overcame homelessness? May you know that you are not alone, there is a community to support you.