Durban - Mental illness is often hidden because of fear, stigma or shame; and then there is Niki Saks.
The South African businesswoman has written an audacious, in-your-face-book detailing her mental health struggles and how she was finally diagnosed with “quiet” borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2018 at the age of 47.
Through her book, “Hiding in the Open: Living Sensitively”, Saks gives us a candid account of how she reached that moment and how it changed her lens on life.
Up until that point she had sought answers from tarot card readings, consulted astrologers, sought out mediums, listened to audio books and done many courses to find answers to her personal struggles. She writes: “After many hours working with various therapists and trying different pharmaceuticals for treating conditions like ADD, bipolar, alcoholism, clinical depression and codependency, there was finally some clarity as to why my life seemed like a bunch of psychological disasters all strung together.”
The 190 pages of blow-your-mind reading is not for the faint-hearted, because Saks doesn't tip-toe around issues or hesitate to show the ugliness of human nature.
Instead she gives a raw, unfiltered account of her dysfunctional childhood, the constant beatings her dad meted out to her mom and how she, her twin brother and her sister would hide away when her dad went on a rampage.
Saks was born in Johannesburg in 1971 to a model of Irish Italian descent who came from a “humble home”, a woman who was “wanted by men, hated by women”.
She says her dad was a successful Jewish businessman in the clothing manufacturing industry with global connections; a rich handsome man who was adored by his friends. “He partied. He gambled. He drank. He enjoyed life,” writes Saks. He was also abusive, filled with rage and would often beat her mom in front of the children. During one of his aggressive episodes when she was 8 years old, her dad ordered her twin brother to fetch his gun while he sat on top of their mom and pummelled her with his fists.
Saks says there were many similarities between her life and the 1991 movie “Prince of Tides” starring Barbra Streisand and William Hurt. In the movie, three children, including a pair of brother-and-sister twins, would hold hands and jump into a river when the chaos in their home (rape, physical and verbal abuse) became too much. Once the water covered their ears it would block out the screaming and there would be silence.
She writes: “The three of us had our own place too. We would hide in my sister’s walk-in closet, huddle tightly together under the lowest shelf, barely breathing until the noise stopped. Sometimes we would wake up in the morning, still bundled together.”
Through moments like these she sets the scene for her anxiety-filled life and how these experiences possibly set her up for the mental health problems she would have to deal with.
Saks doesn’t pull any punches and even tells of an experience when she went abroad and her dad saw her as a commodity; he wasn’t ashamed to try to “pimp” his daughter to an old man.
She gives a detailed explanation of BPD, including the chronic feelings of emptiness, intense emotions, and difficulty controlling anger that people who have BPD must deal with.
Research suggests that the condition is usually brought on by a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and traumatic early life experiences such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, writes Saks. Her journey to her BPD diagnosis is peppered with challenges in every stage of life: apart from a tumultuous childhood there is anorexia, a failed marriage, gunpoint robbery and the unexplained death of her sister.
Filled with resources, inspiration and candour, it’s a roadmap for others dealing with personal crises and a testament to her indomitable spirit. Ultimately, says Saks, the decision to be happy rests with her, as it does with all of us.
- “Hiding in the Open: Living Sensitively”, sells for R285 and is available at bookstores including Exclusive Books, Takealot and Amazon.
The Independent on Saturday