Every day she woke up feeling helpless, empty and exhausted, as if she was dying a sad, lonely death. But she didn’t dare speak out about it because of the stigma attached. In black communities, she says, if you admit you’re depressed you’re immediately classified as “insane”.
And so she kept quiet about it for years – until she sank into a deep, dark place after the birth of her second child and realised she needed help badly.
“I had to go back to work when my baby was just a month old,” award winning actress Dawn Thandeka King (40) says.
“Pregnancy must have worsened the condition because I just wasn’t coping. “On one level I wanted to go back to work but on the other I didn’t want to be seen as an irresponsible mother. In that same year I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and had to stay home for four months.”
The Uzalo star is speaking out about the nightmare of depression precisely to help break the stigma.
The seriousness of the condition was thrust into the spotlight again recently after Professor Bongani Mayosi, dean of medicine at the University of Cape Town, took his own life after a long battle with the disease – devastating the South African academic community and the students who looked to him as a mentor and leader.
Depression is something that must not be swept under the carpet, hidden from public view, Dawn says.
Things need to change.
“In my case, I knew something was wrong for years but whenever I tried to get help people would respond with one word: insane. It was a big joke for them but I’d shut down. I was helpless.”
With the benefit of hindsight and after reading up on the condition, Dawn now realises she’d been struggling with mental-health issues since she was eightyears-old.
She had anxiety issues and panic attacks but she didn’t know what they were.
“They went unchecked so it developed into depression. From a very young age I knew I wasn’t mentally and psychologically balanced.”
Things became worse when she was an adult and started working.
“I felt worthless and I stopped taking care of myself. Every day I felt as if I was losing direction in life.
“I wanted to seek help but I didn’t want to be seen as a failure. I just didn’t know how to ask for help.”
Dawn describes depression as “a silent killer that creeps in slowly and drags you into a deep dark hole where you cannot escape.
“Once you’re isolated from everyone else it crushes you day by day – hence the suicides.”
She admits she came very close to killing herself in 2016 when her depression was at its worst.
“I was dying inside and nobody was noticing it. Every day was a struggle. I wanted to get help but something kept holding me back. I suspected I might have depression but I was scared of the stigma attached to it,” she explains.
“The emotional and psychological pain had engulfed me so much that I started cutting myself. I became a loner and that’s when I became suicidal. At that point nothing mattered – I just wanted to be free.”
Dawn now uses every platform available to her to highlight depression and how to live with it.
“I believe I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m no longer shy to state I’m still battling it, and that I’m still taking medication so I don’t relapse,” she reveals.
She has learnt to manage the disease, even at her busiest. Relying on medication isn’t easy but she knows she has no choice.
“I also have strong family support. At first it wasn’t easy for my loved ones to watch me but over time they have accepted I have this illness, and when those episodes come we all deal with it.
From time to time my psychologist consults with me and my family, which also helps a lot.
“My ultimate goal is to have bigger platforms where I can share my experience and also help people get help. It’s time to show we are also human.”
One of the scariest incidents when it comes to managing her depression happened in 2016.
“At that time I was shooting Lockdown and straight after that I had to shoot Uzalo. I was overwhelmed. I had to deliver the character of Ma Z in Lockdown, which was complex and emotional,” Dawn says.
“After that I had to play MaNgcobo on Uzalo and this was also a complex script.”
She pushed herself too hard she believes. “My mind and body couldn’t take it anymore and my system collapsed.
I’d reached a point where I couldn’t push myself anymore and I relapsed into depression.”
Her five children were instrumental in her recovery – she and her businessman husband Jabulani Msomi are parents to Jaydeen (17), Jayda (14), Jade (9), Jadazia (7) and Jaedon (4).
“When I was in hospital in 2016 I made a vow that I need to be strong for my kids. My survival was also not just for my kids but also for everyone out there who is silently suffering with depression. I wanted to get better to tell my story.”
Despite landing in hospital she loves the two characters she plays. “They are strong and strong-willed. Just like both of them I love my family and I’d be prepared to kill if anything threatens them.”
Her Lockdown character, Zandile “Ma Z” Mkhwanazi, is a gang leader in a prison cell. This exposed Dawn to another world, the life of a female prisoner.
“It was exciting and overwhelming at the same time. The character demanded a lot of research and inner strength from me. I was one of the lead actresses which means I had to deliver that character to the best of my ability.
“I had to be convincing as much as possible.”
Playing Ma Z wasn’t too hard as they had similarities, she shares – they both have strong personalities, love to be in control and want to be at the forefront of things.
As MaNgcobo on Uzalo she’s the wife of a gangster. She’s disowned by her father so she’s stuck with her husband with no way out.
“With MaNgcobo I share the love for my family and kids. Nothing can come between me and my family.”
On the home front, Dawn has been hard at work recently fielding rumours of an impending divorce.
She was cheating on her husband, gossipmongers said, and getting up close and personal with one of her Uzalo costars.
It’s all lies, she tells DRUM. Bad publicity isn’t going to stand in the way of her happiness. She and Jabulani are doing just fine and have learnt to make their long-distance marriage work. Dawn works in KwaZulu-Natal, while her family is based in Johannesburg.
“I’ve survived the worst, nothing can break me now,” she says. “First of all, I am not getting divorced. My marriage is still intact and I see my children and their father frequently. I am not sure where these allegations are coming from.
“Secondly, I never dated Bongani [Dlamini] – he’s my colleague and friend. I don’t understand why people assume a man and woman cannot be friends.”
She’s always had male friends, she adds. “Does this mean I am dating all of them? Gossip like this can break a person and their career.”
Society makes it hard for men and women to maintain platonic relationships, she says.
Dawn has been using her ancestral calling to help her deal with anything that might come her way.
“This has helped me a lot in dealing with depression,” she says, “and to refocus my energy on my family and my career.”
It was hard to understand her calling at first, she admits. “I didn’t realise I had an ancestral calling until I had a car accident in 2008. I was hospitalised and I couldn’t walk for about a month. But my sixth sense told me that this had to do with an ancestral calling. “I remember uttering the words, ‘If this is an ancestral calling then I accept it’. At that point I didn’t even know what I was agreeing to or what I was saying. But after that day I was able to walk.
“In 2009 I officially started my journey as iThwasa (traditional healer). I started consulting and healing people. I’m fortunate because my calling is part of my career , it actually drives my craft.
“Some people don’t know that apart from being an actress I am also a singer. I receive all my songs from my ancestors and I perform them. When I perform them on stage I am actually communicating with the ancestors and healing someone in the crowd. I use different mediums to connect people with the ancestors.”
Even with her busy schedule, she manages to find time to consult clients.
“I can’t disclose if they are celebrities or not. However, a number of celebrities have ancestral callings and we can identify one another from afar.
People don’t know that we do support one another a lot. We forget about our status as celebrities and become ordinary traditional healers.”
At a later stage she might leave the entertainment industry and concentrate solely on her work as a traditional healer. But for now, she’s focused on her acting, singing and public speaking to give it the time it deserves.
“For me these are not just jobs – they serve as a platform for healing people.”
She’s done TV, radio and music so producing and talk shows are next on her list, she says. “I am negotiating with 1KZN TV – I’d love to do a TV show with them.”
And if she can use them to further spread the message that depression is nothing to ashamed of but a disease that needs to be discussed and treated, then that will make it all the more worthwhile