A chat with Sheldon Angayiah is punctuated with hearty jokes, which he cracks almost effortlessly.
The 28-year-old comedian radiates youthful vitality and cheerfulness never departs his countenance. Nothing about him suggests any health condition, much less a mental health issue.
For 10 years, though, Sheldon has gone through the wringer with a severe bipolar disorder, with every episode of the condition leaving his social and professional life torn asunder.
The condition first struck in 2009, shortly before he joined Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology to study mass communication.
“For four years, I experienced serious mood fluctuations. I would be hyperactive at one time only to turn melancholic the next moment. I became highly irritable and lost my appetite. Each episode lasted a few days before I regained my emotional stability,” he tells the Saturday Nation.
Even as he went through this emotional rollercoaster, neither he nor his parents knew that his might be a medical (mental) condition.
Upset by his occasional mood swings, his parents even accused him of using drugs, and nearly isolated him.
He went through his first major relapse in 2013, one week after he had begun his academic attachment. This would mark his moment of truth.
“I could barely contain myself and would blabber for long, mostly about immaterial things. I was not violent, but I was very restless, making it hard for my colleagues to work,” he recounts.
Sheldon’s condition expressed itself in irrational generosity, and at one time he gave out his smartphone to a street beggar.
A few days later, he donated all his clothes to a children’s facility.
“At the marketing department where I was working, I was very erratic. I would irregularly give out company merchandise to people, without consulting my supervisors,” he says, adding that whenever he was confronted, he lost his temper and retreated.
His deteriorating condition prompted his father, also an employee of the company, to seek medical attention for him.
“For the first time, I met someone who was willing to listen to me without antagonising me. The psychiatrist was patient with me and allowed me to express myself freely. It is then that she diagnosed me with bipolar disorder,” he says.
Sheldon was put on medication and under scrutiny, with regular assessments with the doctor.
He would enjoy an improved emotional state before crashing again a few months later.
“As time went by, getting sleep became harder and I started to gain weight. Expressing anger, joy and other emotions also became difficult for me. I would bottle up emotions before imploding,” he says.
While he may not have experienced stigma, Sheldon admits that the condition cost him important relationships, among them three girlfriends in a space of four years.
“I lost several close friends too mostly because of my erratic behaviour. Bipolar attacks are fitful and a nightmare when they occur. Maintaining long-term relationships became harder for me as fewer and fewer people could tolerate my overreactions,” he regrets.
As an escape from this emotional whirlwind, Sheldon became addicted to pornography, started to engage in illegitimate sexual behaviour and taking irrational risks. Thereafter, he would slide back to depression and rue.
“I was never bothered by the consequences of my actions. I once jumped from the balcony of an upper floor to one on a lower floor of a mental facility. It was not a suicidal act but an overflow of confidence,” he says.
Every time he worked at an organisation, Sheldon would be under the illusion that he had solutions to all the problems at the workplace, often putting him at cross-purposes with his colleagues and supervisors.
“I would try to outperform myself in everything I did. One time I demanded three times the amount of stipend that I was entitled to as an intern at a certain car manufacturer. My boss was angry and he immediately terminated my contract. This dismissal devastated me,” he says.
In a different instance, Sheldon had drifted off the script during a stage performance owing to his overconfidence.
Angered, the audience booed him. “I was wounded emotionally and stormed out of the stage in fury. It took me one week to recover,” he recounts.
His condition exhibits symptoms of both mania and depressive moments, shifting from one to the other extreme end of mental state, and leaving him broken.
His lowest moment came in 2014 when, in a fit of rage after clashing with a group of sex workers in Nairobi, he stripped and was arrested for public disturbance and put in police custody.
He says the drugs used to manage bipolar are very strong, and often leave the patient in a state of dullness and suppression.
Besides the side effects, the high cost of the medication left his family cash-strapped.
“Each of the three types of medication ranges from Sh2,400 to Sh3,000. That I would be on these drugs throughout my life tormented me, only I did not have a choice but to keep taking them,” he says.
In 2016 though, circumstances forced him to stop taking his medication, an abrupt and dicey move that put him at risk of falling back to the pit.
He goes on: “While I was a student, I was covered under my father’s health insurance. The cover expired upon my graduation. I did not want to burden my parents who were struggling to fend for my younger siblings.”