September 15, 2016

Happy Birthday, Babe Dlamini

by Stefanie Kaufman '17

Stefanie Kaufman '17 is a Contemplative Studies & Global Mental Health concentrator and current Social Innovation Fellow. She's working with Project LETS-- an inclusive community for individuals living with mental illness that aims to supplement traditional mental health care with peer support services. Project LETS operates in both Providence, RI and Swaziland.

This is an interview with Babe Dlamini of IMERSE (International Mental Health Resource Services), exploring mental illness, psychiatric oppression, and most importantly, birthdays.

"I didn’t take it from anyone. I always fought back. Always."

Babe Dlamini is grateful to be alive. Those are the first words he uttered when I sat down to interview him. I don’t think I should have made it. But I did. They tried to tell me I was sick. I didn’t understand that I was sick. I didn't trust anybody. I tried to tell them I was God. I ran this place. Let me out of here.

Babe (which means ‘father’ in Siswati, and is used as a sign of respect for men) recalls when he was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and was coming out of an aggressive paranoid state in which he thought two men were attempting to kill him. In light of all of the experiences in Babe’s collection of a life, both positive and negative, becoming “prisoner to the psychiatric system” is burned into his memory deepest, like a jagged-edged scar.

Babe laughs, now, relieved to be on the other side of these days. He was I promptly given the name Legend during his first stay in a psychiatric unit. Because I didn’t take it from anyone. I always fought back. Always.

I felt a strong connection to Babe Dlamini, and only partially because the surname I was given here was the same as his - Dlamini. We both enjoyed learning this, and he proceeded to call me ‘daughter’ for the remainder of our time together.

Aside from sharing a surname, I too had struggled accepting my illness, and struggled with others accepting my illness. I too had felt betrayed by the oppressive nature of psychiatric systems. I too, felt that so much needed to change. I knew early on that Babe and I were just different sides of the same coin.

Babe and I came to the conclusion that the way psychiatric institutions (the very people who are supposed to be helping) treat the mentally ill largely shapes how society views and treats us. During his first admission in 1976, Babe was almost beaten to death by the police officers who brought him there (who, he states, “just thought he was menacing”), tied face-down to a bed for multiple hours on end, and kept in seclusion for long stretches of time. During a second admission, Babe was withheld food on Christmas Day for asking a question. He reminds me again of his nickname Legend. I am beginning to see why.

When I asked Babe what the word mental illness was most closely associated with here, he immediately responded: hopelessness.

The brain is a complicated organ. It is hard to heal. But when you learn the thing, you can know the escape routes. If you don’t try and learn the thing, you will be forever trapped. Knowledge is power. People are dying because of ignorance.

Babe wholeheartedly believes that peer support, engaging with others who share a common ground, has saved his life. He also credits his medications, though, he notes, the side effects are not always pleasant. Babe advocates for community-based care and resources, and again, I smile, as we share the same hopes and dreams.

On the day I spoke to Babe, who is also a board member of IMERSE - International Mental Health Resource Services - (the organization I am working with), he told me he never knew when his birthday was, and beamed a large smile as he exclaimed, "I gave birth to myself. We had extra cake in the office leftover from Sanelsiwe’s birthday, another co-worker of mine, and together, decided that today would be Babe’s birthday.

As we all sang and laughed, Babe reveled in the noise and attention. At one point, he held a finger up to the room and reminded us all that laughter and smiling is the best medicine - and we should continue doing both for as long as we can. He smiled at me, and whispers once more, "niyabonga, indvodzakati"-- thank you, daughter.