HAPPY FACE. After a long struggle with clinical depression, actress and TV personality Bonnie Mbuli has finally found what she’s been looking for: a reason to smile.
Text Mark van Dijk
You know Bonnie Mbuli. If you didn’t see her in the big-screen dramas Invictus, Drum or Catch a Fire, you’ll have caught her on the small screen in Backstage, Traffic or as a presenter on SABC3’s popular Afternoon Express show. At least, you think you know Bonnie Mbuli. Despite her high profile, she’s never been completely comfortable with being famous. “In fact,” she says, “I spent many years being reluctant about it. It used to scare me that so many people could know me, yet I don’t have an inkling of who they are! It also scared me that people thought I was famous because I was special, and not because I just happened to be doing a particular type of job that put me in front of so many people.” Despite her reservations, Mbuli has learned to use her celebrity status in a positive way. “It’s about redirecting the attention to something more important,” she says. “And you can always do that in a moment.” Mbuli uses the platform she’s been given to speak up about an issue that’s close to her heart: depression and mental illness.
Having suffered from clinical depression herself, she has a special interest in helping others who might be fighting a similar battle, and in clearing up some of the many misconceptions and misunderstandings around mental health. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that people who have mental illness are crazy, or that they can choose to snap out of it,” she says. “People often think that if you’re depressed, you’re just being a baby. They’re like, ‘Snap out of it! Smile! Get in the shower, put on some clothes and get on with it like the rest of us!’ And you’re thinking, ‘Guys, I can’t even get out of bed!’ There’s also an assumption that people who are famous or wealthy or privileged never suffer from mental illness – or that if they’re depressed, they’re just being brats!” Admit it: you’ve thought so yourself.
I’ve finally come to a place of peace, where I’m comfortable saying that the thing I’m most proud of is myself.
You look at someone like Bonnie Mbuli, who’s young, beautiful, talented, famous… and you think, What could she possibly have to be depressed about? But that’s not how depression works. “It works in such a mysterious way,” she explains. “You don’t see it written on the person who’s suffering from it. It’s not like having a broken leg or another kind of injury or illness, where you can tell just by looking at the person that something’s going on. With mental illness you can’t tell. Everything seems normal, and the person who has it can often seem well put-together. Some people who suffer from mental illness will also go out of their way to disguise their illness to make it look like they’re absolutely fine and have got it all organised. I did the whole façade thing for many years myself before I started to speak up.”
Mbuli understands that clinical depression doesn’t have easy cures or simple solutions, but she has learned to manage it by focusing on three key things: “Health, health and health!” (Okay, so it’s just one thing. But she’s pretty adamant about it. When we called her for this interview, she was just coming out of a yoga class, on her way to the studio to shoot Afternoon Express.) “I’ve changed my entire life to work around my health,” she says. “I make sure I exercise, and I make sure I’m always breathing right – whether it’s through yoga or through meditation in the morning.” Mbuli describes yoga as the best thing that’s ever happened to her. “It changed my life,” she said. “I started doing it about four years ago, and I ended up training as a yoga teacher because I believe in it so much.” Mbuli also eats a diet that’s tailored to tackle her anxiety, enjoying ‘good-mood food’. Speak to your GP or nutritionist about your options. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to improve mood, while foods like chicken, tuna and nuts contain tryptophan, an amino acid that maintains the serotonin levels in the brain.
Mbuli adds that she’s started to manage her anxiety by having fun with it. “There’s a hide-and seek game that I play,” she says. “I’m always finding ways to score points against it and outrun it. I’ve found that the more I do that, the less of an issue it becomes.” By managing her depression, she says, she has changed her perception of it. “Now, when I do have a moment of anxiety or feel a bit low, it’s not as huge as it used to be,” she says. “I know that it can be beaten, and that I can get out of bed, and that it will pass. But you need a couple of victories in order to know that.” Sometimes those ‘victories’ mean being on medication. “A lot of the time, people who suffer from mental illness, depression, or anxiety or mood disorders have never had a normal life,” she says, “so they don’t know what to compare their feelings to. They can’t say, ‘When things are normal, I feel like this or like that.’ All they know is the ‘normal’ of their depression. That’s why I advocate medication. It opens your eyes to how a lot of people, who aren’t going through what you’re going through, feel every day. And when you find that out, you’re like, ‘Woah! Is this what I’ve been missing?’ And then, when you go off your meds – when you’re ready to – you can try to replicate that feeling, because you know what to aim for.” Mbuli now sees her experiences with depression as a blessing, because the tools and techniques she has used to overcome it – or, as she puts it, “to quell its destruction in my life” – are tools she uses in other areas of her life: in her work, in her relationships, and in her family. After all, she says, “I’ve also got two kids whose lives I can’t ruin!”
Following her divorce, Mbuli is now raising her two young sons, Micaiah (8) and Hanniel (7), as a single mom. “Parenting is probably the toughest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she admits. “It’s beautiful, but – and most moms and dads won’t admit this – it’s the most humbling journey you’ll ever go through. It’s teaching me to sweat the small stuff. If your kid comes out of the bedroom with their T-shirt on the wrong way round, that is not the thing to sweat. Trust me. Just around the corner, there’s a way bigger thing waiting for you!” As for her career, Mbuli looks at her glittering CV with a sense of pride… not only in her work, but also in herself. “I’m proud of myself for staying the course, and for being adaptable,” she says. “All of those projects required me to be adaptable, and to grow and to push myself, and I’m glad that I did that.”
Looking back on a career that’s seen her play in acclaimed films and TV series, write an autobiography (Eyebags & Dimples), and has given her the kind of profile and platform that many actresses would envy, Mbuli struggles to identify any single role or project as her favourite. “I’d love to say there’s one role or project I’m most proud of,” she says, “but I’ve finally come to a place of peace, where I’m comfortable saying that the thing I’m most proud of is myself. Although everything I’ve done has brought me a different gift, the only constant through it all is myself.” Considering all the self-doubt that so often comes with clinical depression, when you hear Bonnie Mbuli say that about herself, you don’t hear someone who’s arrogant. You hear someone who’s… well… happy.
WHO INSPIRES YOU?
My children. They’re so simplistic in what they believe, and so clear in what they want. They just want to connect, and I find that so beautiful in a world where we’re drowning in social media.
BEST PERSONALITY TRAIT
I’m as loyal as a little puppy!
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Right now it’s a brown rice pilaf, and a chickpea and butternut curry. I’m trying a vegan journey. You feel like a billion dollars, but it takes a lot of discipline. It’s not easy driving around trying to find meat-free chicken stock!
HOW DO YOU DESTRESS?
Yoga… and Netflix! There’s nothing Netflix can’t fix.
WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING?
At the moment it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m also savouring my way through Breaking Bad. It’s like a slab of your favourite chocolate, where you eat just one block at a time. I’m watching one episode a week.
WHAT’S YOUR MOST TREASURED POSSESSION?