My journey of hope with Bipolar Disorder
As I took a walk along the winding Chepsito river, listening to the roaring sound of water cutting across the rocks and birds singing in the background, I reflected back on my journey since receiving a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder type 1 nine years ago. At the time, I enjoyed a great career as a senior technical advisor at an international NGO strengthening pharmaceutical systems in Kenya. We had just landed a five year project and all pieces seemed in place. Our proposal was subjected to numerous reviews ahead of its approval and this was a demanding task. I invested a lot of energy in the process and went without sleep for a couple of days. This took a toll on me. I became irritable, and restless and pushed my point of view vigorously. This was unusual and I was advised by my project director and human resource manager to see a doctor. I initially hesitated, but gave in on the second day and went to see the doctor accompanied by my wife. That marked the beginning of my journey with mental health.
The journey of denial
I looked at the note scribbled by the psychiatrist to the accident and emergency nurse. As a pharmacist, I deciphered the prescribed medications and instructions for my admission to the hospital. I raised my objection. I told them all I needed was a quiet room to rest, a notebook and a Bible. Despite this, I was admitted to the hospital against my wish. I refused to take medication initially, and only obliged following convincing by my family members and friends. My siblings, parents, friends, human resource manager and the hospital pharmacists visited me during my stay. I was assigned a room in the hospital I once worked at for four years. I was discharged after two weeks, and my journey of denial began. I stopped taking the medication regularly largely because I did not accept the diagnosis. I thought it was a temporary situation that did not require lifelong treatment.
Key accomplishments after my diagnosis
Back in the workplace, I was posted as regional advisor to coordinate project activities in the expansive Rift Valley province. This was a great opportunity and later got transferred to Western Kenya in the same capacity. In August 2011, I gained admission to pursue an online leadership program at the prestigious Pharmacy Leadership Academy under American Society of Health System Pharmacist (ASHP) Foundation through a scholarship by Pfizer Foundation. This was a great learning experience and an opportunity to network with international pharmacists. Throughout this period, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was tightly locked in the closet in all spheres of my life. I successfully completed the program in March 2013. I then led a team which crafted and implemented a winning proposal that won the Inaugural Innovation Challenge (INCH) award fund of USD 10,000 by Management Sciences for Health (MSH).
At community level, I teamed up with Hon Moses Lessonet and professionals from my home constituency to found Eldama Ravine Education Foundation (EREF) whose vision is a world where all children realize their full potential. Over 230 bright children in need have accessed high school education through our sponsorship and we have with support from various stakeholders established Uzalendo School in Eldama Ravine to help us realize our vision. Here is a testimonial.
The turning point
I had one relapse in 2012 which required hospital admission and a mild one in 2014. I continued to take medication, albeit not on all days. All appeared normal until May 2015, when I experienced a severe manic episode. This was my darkest moment ever. I was hospitalized twice for two weeks in a span of two months, and my car was written off following an accident. It dawned on me then that I was dealing with a serious situation. My job situation was uncertain and I had to get a second opinion from another psychiatrist for my continued employment. For the first time, I willingly took medicine as prescribed and kept clinic appointments.
This was a moment of serious reflection. I felt isolated and ashamed of my life situation. I was clouded by thoughts of having let down my community of family, friends and professional colleagues. I accessed online sites like Bipolar Hope Magazine, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and the Namiathens Ohio recordings, which were like a candle in the dark. The stories of others rising from more challenging circumstances to live successfully with mental health conditions uplifted my spirits and gave me the courage to soldier on. With the help of my psychiatrist, I learnt to forgive myself for my previous shortcomings. I had strong family support from my dear wife Deborah, siblings, cousins and parents. They stood by my side throughout these moments. My employer was also very supportive and understanding. The medical insurance cover enabled me to access psychiatric services and medication.
“I began to read numerous articles about living with bipolar disorder, mainly from Europe, Australia and North America. I longed to hear from people in Africa, too.”
In September 2015, Robert David Anderson (Andy), my long time friend and professional mentor mobilized his friends to raise funds that enabled me to attend the ASHP Midyear conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the largest gatherings of pharmacists in the world. I met face to face with Andy, eminent hospital pharmacists and the faculty team of Pharmacy Leadership Academy. I also made a presentation on my experiences. I was able to visit historical sites in Washington DC and later joined Kenyans at a function to mark the independence celebration for our country which was organized by our embassy in Washington DC. This trip uplifted my spirits. I came back to Kenya after two weeks and continued to work until the end of December 2015 when my contract ended.
From hiding my diagnosis to becoming an advocate
The key pillars in climbing out of the rock bottom were forgiveness, hope, courage, educating myself about bipolar, adhering to medication and acceptance of my diagnosis. Now that I had accepted my diagnosis, I began to read numerous articles about living with bipolar disorder, mainly from Europe, Australia and North America. I longed to hear from people in Africa, too. I finally stumbled on an article featuring the work of Sitawa Wafula, a leading mental health champion with lived experience on Epilepsy and bipolar disorder. I got in touch with her.
In January 2018, I received an email from Sitawa inviting me to pursue a fellowship at Sitawa Wafula Mental Health Academy. This heralded a new phase in my life. For the first time I gained the courage to talk about my diagnosis in public. On March 30th 2019, together with other mental health advocates, we convened under the banner of Bipolar Heroes Kenya to mark the inaugural World Bipolar Day in Kenya. We held the event at the Arboretum in Nairobi and over 40 people attended. There, six people living with bipolar disorder shared their lived experience. The Director of Mental Health in Kenya sent a representative and our event got media coverage. A lecturer shared his story in a leading publication in Kenya. As a result, we started a Bipolar Heroes Kenya Whatsapp group and Facebook page, which has over 100 active participants. We hold physical meetings once in a while.
We believe in a world where people living with bipolar disorder will achieve their full potential. This includes being respected and treated with dignity. We support one another by sharing our lived experiences, insights and challenges. Through this social media platform, caregivers, service providers and people living with bipolar disorder help one another. It is my joy to see newly diagnosed persons joining the group and getting words of encouragement from those who have longer experiences. We also mobilize each other to advocate for a better mental health environment in Kenya. Mental health conversations are beginning to take place in Kenya, but the level of awareness, access to reliable information and investment in mental health services are still very low.
“It is my desire to create a website and widen the reach of Bipolar Heroes Kenya. We aim to raise awareness and empower people living with bipolar disorder by harnessing our collective wisdom acquired through lived experiences.”
I recently Joined The Stability Network (TSN) as a Stability Leader, and also connected with global organizations such as CREST.BD that are doing a great work in improving the wellbeing of those of us living with mental health conditions. I am also an advocate for Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) through Non Communicable Diseases Alliance Kenya (NCDAK), and have been trained to teach peers for the Our Views Our Voices Program, which seeks to amplify voices of people living with NCDs globally. I also continue with rewarding full time employment. The journey is still challenging at times, but with a strong support system, medication, and self-management skills such as good sleep and journaling, there is hope in weathering the storms of life. My faith in God has helped me.
It is my desire to create a website and widen the reach of Bipolar Heroes Kenya. We aim to raise awareness and empower people living with bipolar disorder by harnessing our collective wisdom acquired through lived experiences. Bipolar disorder is a medical condition managed best using a combination of approaches. I share my story to demonstrate that you can go on to accomplish life goals despite a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It is a journey of rebirth marked with resilience to bounce back and take another chance in the winding path of life.