The long road to overcoming mental illness
She was only 12 years of age when, against her will, she lost her virginity to a man much older than her.
Confused and frightened, Letang Selepe never told anyone.
Living with such a terrible secret would haunt her for the rest of her childhood and much of her early adulthood, eventually causing her to go into post-traumatic stress disorder.
In total, Selepe was diagnosed with four mental illnesses, including anxiety, clinical depression and bipolar two.
“It took a long time because initially the symptoms were not in your face, they were very subtle. I got very forgetful, but I just attributed it to aging, I didn’t think much of it. I was about 26 or 25 years old,” she explains.
Now aged 34, Selepe is still trying to heal from the traumatic episode that took place in Ramokgonami village in Tswapong area 22 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, she has vivid memories of the day.
“I had just completed my primary school. I remember very well it was around Christmas time. My cousins went to a local bar and I joined them. Around eight or nine I wanted to go back home to sleep and they asked someone they trusted to accompany me back home because it was late and dark.”
As they neared home, the trusted neighbour requested they take a slight detour to the village’s football ground so he could pee. The pitch was fenced with thick hedge.
“I trusted him. In him I saw an older sibling; he was somebody who was always at our house. So he gets in there and does his things but then he starts asking me funny questions, like whether I have a boyfriend. I am sitting there like a fool and I mean I am 12 years old.
“He asks me to bend over and he went on me and then he says I should not be afraid because he was not going to hurt me and he will just put it between my legs. I kept thinking these are the kind of things that we are taught at school that cause people to end up being killed.”
Frozen with fear, the next few minutes would leave mental scars that would fester for years.
“I was just there, he ended up penetrating and it was not the most amazing experience, but thankfully he didn’t kill me. I don’t know why but for a long time I wished he had killed me.”
Although her attacker warned her not to tell anyone, he openly told his mates, even bragging that Selepe was his girlfriend.
She laughed it off to her friends, dismissing it as nonsense. Deep down, however, the emotional damage was killing her in silence.
“I didn’t deal with it at all and I shut down. That is when the drinking started and the smoking, the partying. I blamed myself.”
Selepe’s later love life was also affected. In her late teens she got a boyfriend who found out about the rape rumours.
Instead of comforting her, he confronted Selepe, demanding to know if it was true.
When she told him it was, he dumped her on the spot, because ‘he did not want such drama and stress in his life’.
It was a further blow to Selepe’s already fragile mental state.
“I guess my view of relationships changed because I saw men as just being evil. If they are not there to molest you, they are just there to make you feel like s**t. So up until the breakdown years later, I became dis-attached to relationship. I could just break-up with someone without even thinking twice because I knew they were only using me for sex. I developed diversion from intimacy because of this.”
In her early 20s, Selepe left for a cultural exchange programme in the United States of America.
She saw it as a chance to escape her demons – the demons, however, had other ideas.
“I started having trouble sleeping and my drinking went to a whole other level; let’s just say I struggled with substance abuse in my late 20s. I couldn’t sleep without having something to drink, usually a full bottle of wine!”
Although her struggles were obvious to those around her, Selepe remained unaware she was spiraling into despair.
“I hardly noticed changes in myself. They were noticed by those around me, my close friends, they were the ones who went to my supervisor and told him something is not right with her. Of course I got defensive. It becomes an issue when you think you are living your life and suddenly people tell you something is wrong with you!”
Eventually, though, she could not ignore the signs.
“I would cry alone in the shower and I didn’t know why I was crying. I was this bubbly person who enjoyed going out, but suddenly I would close myself indoors and drink. I love writing, I used to speak to my father via emails but I realised that something was wrong when the emails did not make sense at all.”
Her health – both physical and mental – was rapidly deteriorating. In the midst of a breakdown, her one saving grace was that she was due to travel back to Botswana.
“At the airport I could not make sense of anything. I could not read anything, I was so confused but I prayed that if only I can arrive safely in Botswana, then I would get help. I missed my first flight, but I did arrive nonetheless.”
Selepe’s homecoming was a somber affair.
Dangerously underweight and with her hair starting to fall out, she was unrecognizable from the fit-looking youth who left for USA just a few months earlier.
“The trauma had started showing. The symptoms were now severe, more physical and I couldn’t focus. My body finally shut down.”
Indeed, ‘shut down’ perfectly sums up what happened next.
“I had to learn to bathe afresh, my other side became weaker than the other and I had to limp as though I had been in an accident. I struggled to write; I was like a struggling ten year old. My memory became worse, such that I became a safety threat to myself and others – like I would light three stove plates but put a pot on the unlit fourth one and go sit down in the sitting room.”
Fortunately, Selepe’s family were unwavering in their support, ensuring she got the therapy and help she desperately needed.
“I re-learnt every thing afresh but the reason I am sharing my story is for people to realise the importance of supporting those living with mental health conditions.
“When people think of mental health they don’t think how badly it can affect you, that it can affect the physical body as well. I knew my body had to be bathed, but in what order, was the problem. Had it not been for my family, I probably would have become a complicated mental case, but here I am recovered and well.”
Speaking to The Voice in the company of her clearly besotted boyfriend, with an ever-ready smile and an infectious laugh, Selepe is indeed the picture of health.
She has even come to forgive the man who plunged her life into a living hell all those years ago and harbours no thoughts of reporting him to the police.
Instead she is focused on her own life as well as helping others struggling with their mental health. Her Facebook page ‘SugarGlazedEvents’, in which she shares her past experiences, offers support and advice to anyone in a dark place.
According to Botswana Network for Mental Disorder, people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can feel anxious for years after the trauma, whether or not they were physically injured.
Common symptoms of PTSD say include re-experiencing the event in nightmares or flashbacks, avoiding things or places associated with the event, panic attacks, sleep disturbance and poor concentration, Depression, emotional numbing, drug or alcohol misuse and anger.
For coping strategies they recommend, exercises, spending more time with other people, lifestyle change, undergoing couselling, and even keep a diary among others.