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The Struggles And Strengthening Of Simphiwe Dana

Singer songwriter Simphiwe Dana says staying mentally healthy while living with depression and anxiety is an “ongoing” process. Here’s how she does it, writes Nia Magoulianiti-McGregor.

Simphiwe Dana says staying on top of her depression and anxiety has been a lifelong struggle. Sometimes she’s battled to get out of bed beset with dark thoughts. Other times she’s talked herself into thinking it was “under control”.  And sometimes, she would invite friends over, cook and play music. But her children, Zazi, now 18, and Phalo, 16, kept her going.

A self-confessed introvert, Dana says she was surprised at the effects of hard lockdown. “I think of myself as a hibernating person so I imagined I would revel in restrictions. But I discovered very quickly the fact they weren’t on my terms unsettled me.”

Dana says the time came when she couldn’t “escape” using her usual defences. “It led me to a dark place. I opened festering wounds. I was forced to confront certain existential issues.

“I had been living with depression without guidance, and during lockdown, my usual escape outlets were shut. I couldn’t go walking whenever I chose. And, although I’m a loner, occasionally I want to socialise with my friends. Besides external restrictions, my inner jail had become bigger than I could control.”

Dana says she “thrives” on control and felt like it was slipping away. “It triggered childhood memories of feeling helpless. I had to ask myself, ‘why do I feel the need to control so many aspects of my life?’ These were times of deep reflection. I realised developing coping mechanisms had become a badge of honour.”

None of it was working anymore. Dana had questioned the need for therapy before but finally got to a point where she didn’t want to “manage and control” her demons. “I didn’t want to be responsible for them anymore. I wanted it all to go away.”

She doesn’t know the crux of her condition exactly. “Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance mixed with social anxiety or psychological factors. I’m still getting to the bottom of it. But I always knew my thought patterns were intense. I always wondered what triggered certain feelings, but to articulate it as something that needed my attention took some time.

“Worrying about how it reflected on me professionally incapacitated me, so I created a safe space in my personal life. I had to educate people around me while dealing with depressive episodes. I needed them to know the ‘pull your socks up’ idea only exacerbates the situation for sufferers. I had to empower myself, and help my friends, my partner and my children understand.”

Dana is living her truth increasingly. She came out on Twitter last year saying she was set to marry Berlin-based opera singer, Pumeza Matshikiza. “I know coming out means Africa will block me. But after a lot of thinking I’m ok with it. I’m marrying a woman and I have never been happier. I’m gay,” she tweeted.

Dana says she’s in a much healthier place now and that dark night of the soul led to a helpful discovery. “I realised my coping mechanisms were more escapist than useful.”

She takes anti-anxiety medication, but not anti-depressives fearing they may block her creativity, and exercise helps.

“A healthy and supportive home environment is paramount to feeling healthy mentally,” Dana says. “Family needs to understand you’re not ungrateful for your life; it isn’t about being indulgent. That’s why so many of us suffer in silence. We don’t want to place another burden on our family or the community.”

She says she feels like she’s handling her traumas now. “I needed a supportive environment to heal and understand that part of that healing means breaking into little pieces and building myself up again.” For that, she says, a good therapist gives the space to be completely honest and “face the fear of what that honesty means”.

It takes courage, but “the more you speak openly about it, the more it helps. It’s about thinking: ‘My life looks like this. But instead of wishing this away, I will find a way through it’.


Simphiwe Dana

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