LOUD WHISPERS: Sheila’s Blues

Years ago, I coordinated a documentary project with five other people. It involved shooting footage in six African countries over a period of two weeks. One of the crew members, let me call her Sheila, was married to another member of the team, I will call him David. Obviously, something was wrong with their marriage. It started with them ignoring one another at breakfast or avoiding each other at airport check-ins. Initially I didn’t notice, till another colleague brought it to my attention. I decided it was none of my business and stayed out of it.

The behaviour of Sheila and David got increasingly bizarre. They would be all lovey dovey one day and the next they were on ice. Our fourth country stop was South Africa. The flight from Johannesburg to Nairobi was four hours, they sat next to one another and did not utter a word. David spoke to us occasionally, but Sheila ignored everyone. When we arrived at the hotel in Nairobi, she left us at the check-in desk and went off to sit in a corner in the hotel lobby.

After dinner that night I called her to one side and asked her if there was a problem. She said no. I asked if she was having problems with David, she said no. I told her she could always come to me if there was something bothering her and she nodded, but did not say anything. I did not probe any further, and I felt a bit of relief because I did not want to get involved in people’s personal dramas. I told Dora, another colleague, that we shouldn’t worry about their behaviour as long as it did not get in the way of our work. From Nairobi we moved to Kampala, Uganda. The first two days went without incident. The morning of the last day of filming, David joined the rest of us in the restaurant for breakfast. We asked after Sheila and he said she was on her way. We all finished our breakfast and went back to our rooms to get ready for the day. Then there was a loud bang on my door.

Dora was standing there, trembling, ‘Bisi please come, come’. I rushed after her and she led me to the room where Sheila and David were staying. The room was in chaos, there was broken glass everywhere. There were at least five hotel workers in the room, including a Manager, all appealing to Sheila to calm down.

David and Sheila had got into a fight and Sheila attacked him with as many bottles as she could lay her hands on. We needed to leave the hotel within the next ten minutes for our recording and here we were in the midst of a crisis with the filming crew. Sheila refused to say what the problem was. David said she attacked him the minute he walked back into the room from breakfast. Sheila did not deny or confirm anything, she just stood there. It was obvious she was in no condition to go out with us. I certainly did not want both of them with us in case one triggered the other. I however did not want to leave her on her own.

The hotel manager told one of the female workers to stay with her.  I silently thanked God that the manager had not called the police. We left for our appointment, but we were all in a state of shock. I had never seen anything like it, and for it to happen to us when we were in a hotel in a foreign country. We finished the shoot for the day. When we got back to the hotel, Sheila was still in her room, she was much calmer. She was however smoking furiously and there were two empty bottles of wine on the table. I asked her if she wanted another room and she insisted that she wanted to be with David.

I asked David if that was okay with him and he said yes. We all had dinner together because it was our last night for the documentary shoot. From there, three of us were going to Tanzania and Rwanda for meetings with other women’s groups and to take photographs, Sheila, David and the camera man would be going back to Ghana. Both Sheila and David apologised for all they had put us through.

Sheila told us that she had anger management issues and she did not mean to cause so much trouble. In fairness to David, he never said or did anything in our presence that gave us cause for concern. He did his job well and we knew we would have a good product because of his professionalism. Dora and I talked about the possibility of emotional abuse that was hidden from us, hence Sheila’s erratic behaviour. We know only too well the many ways in which men abuse women without having to lay a finger on them. Perhaps this is what Sheila was going through? Since Sheila persistently refused to confide in us, no matter how many times we asked, we felt helpless. Fast forward to two weeks after we all got back home.

I was at a meeting when I got a call that Sheila had been arrested. Whatever for? She had flown into a rage and smashed up David’s equipment – his cameras, computers, tapes, she destroyed them all and poured water on everything for good measure. David called the police because he did not know what else to do. I rushed down to the police station with two other colleagues and there she was behind the counter. We had to arrange for her bail. When I got home, the memories of what had transpired on the documentary trip flooded back and I started to cry, from a mixture of sadness, anger and frustration.  I kept thinking about the broken bottles on the hotel room floor. And the carnage I saw in the home of Sheila and David.  I then found myself in the hypocritical situation of begging David to drop the charges of assault and destruction of property. The irony was not lost on anyone. If it had been Sheila who had been attacked and her property destroyed, we would have bayed for David’s blood from the mountain tops and we would not have listened to any pleas. I felt terrible.

When Sheila was released, I had a long conversation with her. She admitted that she needed help and promised to get it. We both cried. She left for the US shortly after and our paths never crossed again. She died five years ago from cancer. When a fuller picture emerged from others who knew her over the years, it seemed that there were unresolved traumas from her adolescent years that led her to abuse drugs and alcohol. The rages were just a symptom of something much deeper. I have had several encounters with women and men suffering from one form of mental health disorder or the other. None of them shook me as badly as Sheila’s case.

I pushed myself to learn more. To observe more. To listen. To provide whatever support I can. To refer to places where they can get an accurate diagnosis beyond the need for prayers. I also noted the strong links between gender-based violence and mental health. Sheila’s case was not the last experience of this kind I have had.

Years later, there was the case of Madele, who has not recovered from finding out that her husband was sleeping with their daughter. She is now a totally different woman.  I have written about that experience too. We all know a Sheila. We all know a Madele. We all know a David. We all need to be aware of how complex mental health issues are and how no one is immune. Ranging from having the occasional bad day, to  mild depression, clinical depression, phobias, panic attacks, uncontrollable rages and all kinds of anti-social behaviour, we could all find ourselves or people close to us somewhere on the spectrum. There are many mental illness triggers – genetic disposition, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence, bereavement, poverty, substance abuse, and so on. We need to educate ourselves and others.

We need our governments to put mental health laws and policies in place, supported with political will and the requisite resources. We all need to make a commitment to be mindful of our physical, emotional and mental health. We also have to stop stigmatizing people with mental health challenges. I hope some of these conversations will take place in public and in private, as we mark World Mental Health Day on October 10th.

‘Sheila’s Blues’ is in ‘Demand and Supply’, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, published by Farafina books, June 2023

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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6 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Sheila’s Blues

  1. Tunde October 14, 2023 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks for constantly speaking above the whispers ma, all for the betterment of our society ma…

  2. Ibukunoluwa October 14, 2023 at 9:18 pm

    Our Mental Health Matters too.

  3. Maryam October 15, 2023 at 9:08 am

    Put your mental health first

  4. Iyanuoluwa Isinkaye October 15, 2023 at 5:51 pm

    Mental health is real

  5. Adegbola Opeyemi October 17, 2023 at 8:42 am

    Ma’am this is so touching
    Truly there are many “Sheila”, “Madele” and “David” out there. It’s best they seek help as soon as possible. Thanks ma

  6. Rachael October 23, 2023 at 8:30 am

    Our mental health really needs to be taken care of


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