Wavelength: My Brilliant Burden
I never believed in depression or any mental illness and was convinced it was all in the mind, and that your mind has the ability to conquer anything. In fact, when my late brother, Barak showed signs of depression and started taking meds I never believed in it. That was until I experienced my first depressive episode a couple years later.
It was 2002 and I had just moved to New York City. I didn’t have any formal job but went from helping at a film festival to packing shoes in Astoria Queens. As long as I was living my dream in the greatest city in the world, I didn’t care what job I had. About a year later in 2003 I had a full-time job as a receptionist at an animation studio.
All of a sudden I fell into such a dark hole, a slump so deep that I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt so hopeless that at one point when I was waiting for the A train on the subway I heard a voice inside my head saying “jump in front of the train Yael”. I was terrified and went immediately to the GP I had just met the week before (because I finally had health insurance after a year). I stormed into her office without an appointment and desperate in tears said “Please you have to help me, you have to give me something otherwise I may not be around tomorrow.” She agreed, as long as I started with therapy – and so I did.
I reached out to Barak telling him what I was experiencing. I apologized for being so judgmental before and was so scared because I felt like I was losing my mind. He was so understanding, and said I had to see a psychiatrist. Why? I asked. “They will give you the right chemicals for your brain and diagnose you properly.” He explained. He even did the research for me and found me a fantastic psychiatrist in the city. Before I had my first session, I had to fill out a 50-page doc of multiple choice questions and bring the person closest to me to the session. I moved to NYC alone only knowing 2 people (barely) one was a male friend/mentor who I had worked for a few months and we had become good friends over the past year, he was like the uncle I never had.
I began to hear my friend answering the doctor’s questions and telling him the reckless and dangerous things I had been doing especially if alcohol was involved. What! Me? The doctor nodded and then asked me a few questions and diagnosed me with something called Bipolar II, the less severe Bipolar Disorder. The common name for this condition is called Manic Depression.
This was crazy. Who had I become? He gave me a mixture of a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant. He also explained why I needed the mood stabilizer because an anti-depressant alone would induce mania which would make me more reckless and engage in dangerous activities and lead to suicidal ideations and depression. Barak was right. You can’t play around you have to see the brain chemist for this stuff not a GP.
The first few months were brutal with side effects like nausea, insomnia and feeling out of touch with reality. Then one day I woke up feeling at peace with the world, a day where I wanted to be part of it and participate again. There is no greater liar than the depressed mind and I was back to the Yael whose skin I felt comfortable in.
At the same time my weekly therapy sessions were going well. I had to stop numbing with alcohol and it was about in the 6th session that we had uncovered that my late biological uncle had sexually abused me as a child. My clever little brain had blocked this out for 15 years and the resurfacing of this trauma is what triggered this manic-depressive episode. That whole year was terrifying, I thought I was going crazy having flashbacks, night terrors and feeling powerless. I was asking squirrels on benches if they could give me a sign if I should stay or go. Luckily the squirrel jumped on my bench and looked at me in the eye, which meant I was here to stay. But I did the work, studied my condition, read all the books, dove into the trauma. I couldn’t believe how much of my behaviour was linked to the trauma. For example, I was bulimic after my first intimate experience with a man. The psyche is absolutely fascinating.
Twenty years later, I am still on meds in therapy, still researching and with a brain chemist. There were times in between when I went off my meds when I wanted to fall pregnant. A few months later I miscarried and the loss of a baby together with the pregnancy hormone dip sent me spinning.
I had such heightened anxiety that the only way I could feel like I was breathing was going for a Ussein Bolt league sprint in the park. At one point it got so bad that I curled up in the fetal position on the floor completely paralyzed and frozen. If you have never experienced anxiety, picture yourself feeling like you can’t breathe and you’re convinced you’re dying. Personally, I find anxiety even more debilitating than depression. It’s scary and you feel powerless and out of control. The inability to self-regulate naturally during an attack is beyond scary. I have developed some tools and methods that work for me, and even then it’s still scary.
And then drumroll … there’s the fun part. My little friend called Mania! The part where I am creative, funny, witty and productive as hell. The part when I am able to do 3 weeks of work in a day… Mania feels incredible, your head races with brilliant thoughts it can’t stop, you cannot sleep and you do a million things all at once – and you can. People want to be around you because your energy is electrifying.
However, it can also make you highly irritable and hyper vigilant to sound and brightness. The problem with mania is that if you act on the impulses of not sleeping, drinking too much and engaging in reckless behaviour you eventually crash and fall into depression. I am very lucky that I have all of this very mildly, I cannot imagine what someone’s life must be like with Bipolar 1. I have friends with it and work colleagues, and it must be hell on earth at times.
My beautiful brother was not willing to live his life on meds and felt there was another way. He was very intelligent so he was able to influence his med docs to give him what he thought he needed. He started mixing his meds and even came off them without doctor supervision. You cannot meddle with medication for mental illness, you cannot mess with your brain chemistry. Devastatingly after a few suicide attempts, each time being rushed to the hospital Barak eventually succeeded and succumbed to his illness. He took his life and it was so utterly traumatic and devastating. I feel like I failed him and still feel so much guilt, especially when he was so helpful to me. The reality is when someone is suicidal and I have experienced this myself, it feels like there is no other option to end the pain and immense suffering. You are not of sound mind when you have these thoughts and attempt and fail or attempt and succeed. I have had to come to terms with this – that this was his choice and his life.
Luckily what’s helped me is when I feel: “That’s it I don’t want to be here anymore”, I am I reach out to my SOS group which includes my therapist, my psychiatrist, my reflexologist, my astrologer and my best friend who also has Bipolar 11. These are the people that have my back. I have learned to observe the feeling and not act on it but it’s very difficult especially when you are feeling so hopeless and in despair. It is essential for anyone with a mental condition to create and rely on this SOS group, especially because when this happens you tend to forget that this shall pass and that you will eventually come out of it. I still get surprised coming out of a dark hole how terrible I felt.
I came out about my condition publicly last year because I was so sick and tired of the stigma and lack of knowledge and support for those suffering with these conditions. I was once let go at an advertising agency in Los Angeles because I confided in them and let them know I had a relapse and the new meds had slowed me down to a blur where I couldn’t think properly. They let me go a month later. It was cruel and heartless. If that happened today I would have taken them to court. Mental illness should be in the same category as any medical condition like diabetes or an autoimmune disease. Yet it’s not. The families with loved ones who are experiencing this are also in crisis because they don’t understand it and don’t know what to say and what not to say. There is little to no support for families and friends. People also don’t know the signs of someone who is about to attempt suicide, including the person suffering. One of the signs is that they become happier and you think “Thank God they are becoming themselves again”. Again this is not public knowledge.
Today I consider my condition my brilliant burden. Brilliant because of the capacity of creativity and output that I can achieve and for the courage I have and a burden because there are those days where I cannot get out of bed yet force myself or experience crippling anxiety.
I have had to learn to accept myself, let go of the shame just like someone would accept a diagnosis of Diabetes. My favourite response when you tell people you are in a depression is “why don’t you go volunteer somewhere or go to the gym.”
I have lost many people to mental illness along the way and the suicide rate is the highest it’s ever been in the world. I believe it’s because we don’t talk about it enough. Especially high-profile leaders who are scared to. I want to inspire other figureheads to come forward and talk about it and tell their story. It is possible to have a fantastic career and solid family life with children with this condition. It is possible to find the light in the darkness with the support and help of your SOS mastermind group and adopt a certain lifestyle. It’s also okay to not be ok.
Since I have opened up about my story, so many people have opened up to me about their experiences. They have never felt comfortable to share their stories before. We have to talk about it more, we have to help awesome people feel safe, feel like they can open up and choose to stay in this world. There is significant research that points out that people who experience these conditions are not only brilliant minds but also the best leaders because they have compassion and empathy. Guess what Einstein, Churchill, Heath Ledger, Selena Gomez all have in common? – Mental illness~!
My message to those out there silently suffering and to the families that have loved ones suffering not knowing what to do is start talking about it, find the resources, get the SOS help group and more so try and learn to accept yourself because this is your brilliant burden.
This is the reason why you are unique, awesome, real and empathetic to others. Remember this isn’t you, it’s what’s happening to you and in those dark times this too shall pass. When I started to speak about this even making Keynote talks for brilliant brands I really thought the world would turn its back on me and instead it opened its arms towards me instead.
This article is dedicated to my late brother, Barak.
Yael Geffen, CEO Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty.
Yael Geffen is the CEO and shareholder of Sotheby’s International Realty, South Africa. She grew up in a real estate dynasty established by her grandmother, Aida, and, prior to joining the family business in 2009, she acquired extensive real estate marketing, brand building and business development experience in the United States.
Yael is also an accomplished public and motivational speaker and her broadcast experience includes hosting and producing her own radio show from 2013 to 2017. Yael is a sought after Life and Business Strategy Advisor and is the 2020 winner of Standard Bank’s prestigious Top Woman in Property Award.
Yael is a mental health advocate and has been chosen to represent South Africa as a speaker for the World Leaders Summit in November 2021.