Mental health stigma, Mental Illnesses

I am my sister’s keeper: A battle with Bipolar Disorder

This week, I have an inspiring and moving story from Johanna Iipinge. I’m grateful that she shared her story with me, and even more, willing to share with my readers about her journey caring for a sister with bipolar disorder. When she first told me her story, my heart was filled with sympathy, but at the same time huge admiration. Her tenacity to fight for her sister’s life while simultaneously juggling work, school, and transitioning into motherhood and wife duties is highly applaudable. This is her story:

Johanna was the last born of 10 siblings who grew up in a village in northern Namibia called Ongozi. She came from a humble background with both her parents having little income as they were unemployed. However, her eldest brother later moved to the city, Windhoek, where he got a job at an auction company. After some time, he not only managed to make an income enough to send money home but also to get one of his sister to move to Windhoek for her secondary school. She was a very hard-working young woman.  After graduating from high school, she got a job in one of the big retail supermarkets in Windhoek, where she quickly climbed the ladder to a supervisor position.

Her sister quickly took on the responsibility as the breadwinner of the family. And for as long as she can remember, to Johanna, her sister was always that “deputy-parent”. Buying her clothes and often paying for her education. They grew up with a close, loving bond. After graduating from high school with low scores, Johanna was invited by her sister to move to Windhoek to attend a private school to help her improve her grades. Sure enough, she worked harder, succeeded and attended university where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Tourism.

Not long after Johanna moved to Windhoek, her sister’s boyfriend passed on. After his death, Johanna started noticing new faces coming around the house. Some ladies from a new church started coming for “bible studies” and also with intentions to pray for her sister. Her sister extended the invitation to Johanna to join them, but she respectfully declined. Even though her sister was not happy with her rejection, she nonetheless went on about her life.

A couple of weeks after joining this new “bible study group”, Johanna started noticing different behaviour patterns with her sister. The sister that once grew up loving and protecting her started becoming her verbal and emotional abuser. She was criticizing Johanna at everything and soon enough, accusing her of having demons in her.  For the most part of the day, she recalls her sister would be fine. But eventually, she’d start with illogical and incomprehensive speech often declaring that people will begin worshipping her soon. Johanna recalls a day they were busy doing laundry outside, and their landlord came by. He was a very chatty man, always coming around with jokes. On that day as he stood around them cracking jokes, she noticed that her sister was barely acknowledging his presence. And without warning, she started screaming at him, calling him names and accusing him of being a witch. Johanna was startled.

Over time, her sister’s condition became worse. She started walking around the house “prophesizing” things, often had an incomprehensible speech, and started to get aggressive with people. Fortunately, Johanna had one of her brothers living with them that would help her control her sister when necessary. They eventually took her to the hospital, where she was admitted and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After about a month of treatment, she became better, was discharged and even resumed back with work. At the time, Johanna was still with her undergraduate studies. However, she would make sure on top of just her classes, her sister is fed, adhering to her medication and going to her follow-ups. A year after graduating from university, Johanna got a job at a hotel and moved out to live on her own. However, with Johanna not being around to monitor her sister 24hrs on the clock to adhere to her medication, she eventually relapsed again. And this time around, it ultimately ended up costing her job. It was back to the hospital once again.

Johanna explains that there were numerous hospital visits and at one point, the doctors accused her of lying and just not wanting to take care of her sister because she barely showed any signs of mental illness when she would be admitted. She would be alert and aware of her surrounding and able to communicate comprehensively with the hospital staff.

As the years progressed, things started getting even more difficult for Johanna. Her sister’s condition began to worsen, and the only person around to help her was her one brother. Johanna’s brother, unfortunately, passed on in a car accident and the following year, she lost her mother too. Johanna was left on her own to carry the burden of being her sister’s sole care provider. Her family distanced themselves from them, and all Johanna could say was “God, why me?”

Some elders in her family told Johanna that they believed her sister visited a witchdoctor for self-enrichment, and she was unable to pay back; thus, she became like this. This was the price she deserved to pay, they said. It was her own fault. Johanna was devastated. All she could do was try and make sure her sister complied to her medication. And cry her eyes out when she would find herself alone by her sister’s bedside in yet another hospital admission. Her family later advised Johanna to take her to a witchdoctor. At the time, Johanna was very young, just in her early 20’s. She barely knew anything about witchcraft community, and the thought of being in the presence of a witchdoctor frightened her.  Furthermore, she didn’t have the finances that would be needed to pay them. Because Johanna refused to take her sister to the witchdoctor, her family also left the matter and did not provide further assistance.

Johanna was juggling her job and going between homes to care for her sister, but she couldn’t always be around. People in her sister’s community started taking advantage of her because of her condition, including her church. Johanna had to fight with pastors who coerced her sister to donate her residential plot to the church. In one horrific incidence, Johanna found her sister on the floor crying and spitting all over. When she asked what was wrong, her sister told her that a pastor from the church raped her. He had locked her in her home the whole day to lay with her telling her that his semen had healing powers and she need only swallow it to get healed.

At this stage in life, Johanna started to battle with depression too. Losing her main support system, her brother, was taking a toll on her mental wellbeing. Johanna  was an orphan with no proper paid income job who was struggling to protect her mentally ill sister with no support system. She felt alone and lonely, and often remember how she would spend most of her days crying. Countless nights, she kept asking “God, why me?

Johanna later got a boyfriend, now husband and father of their two beautiful boys. She explained to him her living conditions from the beginning. To her surprise, he was willing to take on the burden with her and help her. When Johanna fell pregnant, this man not only took on the role to support his then-pregnant girlfriend, but also her mentally ill sister. Johanna eventually got a good stable job at City Police that helped her gain some financial independence for herself and her family. God started answering prayers. She started meeting amazing friends who became sisters to her. They helped her along the way when they could with her sister.

In 2017, as Johanna was preparing for her wedding up north, her sister took ill once more.  Johanna was an orphan, so the burden of being at two places at once was a lot. She was preparing for her wedding up north and travelling back to Windhoek to care for her sister. She heard the whispers coming from her family all too clearly:  “This is all Johanna’s fault, she neglected her sister!” Johanna eventually married her prince charming December of 2017. But the fairytale was shortlived as they quickly hurried back to Windhoek after news that there’s a “new man” living with her sister.

When she got to Windhoek, Johanna saw that her sister was very lonely, and defended this man to live with her. Johanna observed him for a little while and later agreed to her sister’s request as he didn’t look like a threat. As a matter of fact, he seemed to be more helpful as he would prepare meals for her and search for her when she would go missing. When Johanna was with her second pregnancy, her sister was kidnapped. The same man she entrusted her sister with had now abducted her after allegedly hearing that Johanna was going to send her sister to the north. Heavily pregnant, Johanna searched the city for her sister until she became ill and was admitted in the hospital. Fortunately, authorities contacted Johanna to inform her that they found them living under a bridge.

They admitted her into the hospital for another month. During this period, Johanna received a call from her brother who stayed at an army base about a man from their village who wanted to help them. The man knew of a traditional healer who can help with their sister’s condition. The healer informed them to permit her sister to complete her treatment in the hospital and once she’s stable, to be sent to the north. Her sister stayed with this traditional healer for two weeks. The healer gave her sister some herbs to inhale and informed them that she should continue with her medications from the hospital. Today, her sister is living with their brother, who returned from the army base, and his girlfriend. Her brother’s girlfriend has adopted her like a sister and has assisted her in all her needs and care since she moved in with them.

Today, Johanna testifies that her sister has not experienced any relapse since the visit with the traditional healer. She continues to adhere to her medications and regular follow ups.

I saw her recent picture, and I got to say, she looks nothing like the story she lived. She is beautiful with radiant, glowing dark chocolate skin and exudes confidence. Whatever the traditional healer provided her with, Johanna will never know, she’s just happy to have her sister back.

My advice is never to give up on your family, regardless of the situation. Take care of your family, who needs help. If there are any with mental illnesses, love them, care for them and compliment them. They like to be complimented. No-one chooses a sickness. Stop the stigma.

Johanna Iipinge

Johanna Iipinge holds a Master in International Relations and Diplomacy Management and currently a first-year law student at the University of Namibia. She continues to work at the Windhoek City Police department and a full-time mother and wife. If this isn’t the definition of a warrior, I don’t know what is!


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