MOM AND ME: HOW STORY BROUGHT US CLOSER

He’s a self-confessed nursery school dropout battling against anxiety and depression for as long as he can remember. Yet DR GARTH JAPHET (57) has pushed back at his challenges to produce award-winning messages about health and social values that consistently reach 45 million Africans, and create a programme enabling Google, Lloyds and Investec to operate more effectively. He’s also working with South Africa’s Department of Health to create effective messaging around Covid-19 using story as medium. But Garth’s account of how story helped heal his relationship with his own mother is equally compelling. He sat down with KATY MACDONALD

Then and now: Garth Japhet as a boy with his mother, and today as CEO. After many difficult years, he and his mother connected through stories about her life. ‘Showing who we really are can be a gift to others,’ says Garth. ‘I’ve come to realise that when I dare tell my own story, it can bring healing and hope to people who are suffering in similar ways’
Fulbright Scholar Garth is the founder of Soul City, a multimedia project addressing health issues such as HIV/AIDS via gritty films, plus the CEO of Heartlines, a centre for social values promotion whose programmes were endorsed by Nelson Mandela. He’s a senior Ashoka fellow and has received, amongst numerous awards, the Bishop Tutu Andrew Murray Prize for Media. Garth attended a number of schools, including South Africa’s Michaelhouse and the UK’s Westminster School, and did his medical degree at Wits University. He’s married to Jayne, a doctor specialising in HIV medicine and palliative care, they have two children and live in South Africa’s Somerset West. Garth recently published a memoir about the healing power of story entitled ‘Like Water is for Fish’. He’s also the driving force behind ‘forgood’, a digital platform connecting charities with volunteers, and ‘Beyond the River’, a feature film tackling social issues set around the Dusi Canoe Marathon

A QUARTER OF PEOPLE globally experience some form of mental health issue. I call my version Stuffed Head Syndrome because when I’m spiralling down, my head literally feels ‘stuffed’, done in. It’s a bit like putting on a pair of dark glasses. I can’t see clearly, and a guttural despair, nausea, lethargy and sense of pointlessness creep in that become almost physical. Everything slows down, it’s like walking through glue.

Then, when I’m out of it, it becomes quite hard to remember or describe.

Externals don’t always tell the full story. Garth suffered from deep anxiety as a child. ‘The problem with mental illness is that you look absolutely fine to the outside observer, who can’t understand why you might be anxious or depressed,’ he says

None of us like being vulnerable, but I’ve come to realise that when I dare tell my own story, it can bring healing and hope to people who are suffering in similar ways and can’t see their way forward. Mental illness is as treatable as diabetes or asthma, but society’s only just beginning to see it that way.

The problem is that you look absolutely fine to the outside observer, who can’t understand why you might be anxious or depressed. Even I, who have lived with depression all my life, struggle to understand that someone’s feeling down when I can’t see what’s causing it.

irrational

I had deep levels of anxiety as a kid. When I started school, I remember worrying how my mother would find me if I got sick. It was completely irrational, but I felt abandoned. Her response was to let me become a school dropout and, over the next few years, to attend six different schools. Looking back, I’ve come to realise her separation anxiety was greater than mine, and while there’s a strong genetic component to my anxiety, some of it simply rubbed off from her. I don’t think she had a great marriage so, as her youngest child by eight years, I was her primary relationship.

I battled my way through school, national service and a medical degree: I hated the sight of blood and dropped the first baby I delivered. Increasingly, I felt a failure. By the time I came out of those, I pretty much felt that I was hopeless and everything was pointless. I went to work at Edendale Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal. During that time, fighting started up between the rival ANC and Inkatha political groups with appalling slaughter and maiming. The trauma and medical pressure were hectic. I bombed out and had to resign. Through my attempts to get help from a counsellor, a psychologist and a priest, I discovered my anxiety had catapulted me into a deep depression.

Above: Garth at boarding school in England.  Below: during his first year as a qualified doctor with Enrica Heslop, a patient with whom he had bonded. All the while, he was functioning but suffering from depression and anxiety. ‘Mental illness is as treatable as diabetes or asthma, but society’s only just beginning to see it that way,’ says Garth. ‘My encouragement to people with mental illness is to not get discouraged’

Woe is not me. I’m extraordinarily blessed on a gazillion fronts! But I now understand I have a combination of anxiety and depression feeding each other. After years struggling to find the right medication, I found my sweet spot about seven years ago. Anxiety-provoked depression usually needs much higher doses of anti-depressants than pure depression, so I’d probably been under-medicated for many years. Nowadays, with my medication, I go through short bursts of depression but am still reasonably functional and, after the black periods, the light begins to shine again.

this is who I am

I’ve kind of made peace with the fact that this is who I am. Too much imagination is a dangerous thing. Although I feel it gives way to my mental health issues, it’s also what helps me be creative, to look beyond the horizon and envision what could be. A lot of creative people are like this.

Garth working as a doctor on the border between Kenya and Somalia

EVERYONE’S GOT A STORY ABLE TO ENHANCE A RELATIONSHIP: YOUTH PASTOR NATHAN

Depressed or anxious people tend to self-stigmatise because they feel ashamed, but I talk about my health issues because I don’t want them to label me or others. It’s not easy to put yourself out there, there’s always the nagging doubt of what people will think of you, but I believe that the personal risk is far less than the potential reward.

My encouragement to people is not to get discouraged. Mental illness isn’t like having a broken leg: what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. I can remember being driven up the wall by some of the stuff I was put on, so it’s key to acknowledge that this is a journey. There’ll be trial and error, so don’t give up!

just look for the next step

Often you can’t necessarily see the big picture. Just look for the next step, the next cat’s eye in the road. If the next little thing seems like something you could do but you can’t see the full picture, think about doing it anyway. Stick at it. As with pain management, try and stay ahead of it and be aware of situations or times. For example, every January I now know that when I come out of holiday I’ll go into flight or fight mode and, like a diabetic, I need to manage that.

I had a vision to simplify complex medical messages for South Africans. It took four years to do it, but I stuck at it until I set up Soul City, an NPO addressing issues such as maternal and child health and HIV/AIDS. They’re needed in our country: our campaign denouncing gender-based violence elicited over 120 000 calls to helplines.

Though he was not suited to being a practising doctor, Garth had a vision to simplify complex medical messages for South Africans. ‘It took four years to do it but I stuck at it until I set up Soul City, an NPO addressing issues such as maternal and child health and HIV/AIDS.’
Soul City’s medical messages were well received in South Africa and elicited many responses from the community. Here, at Baragwanath Hospital in 1995, Garth introduces the visiting Queen Elizabeth to the work of Soul City

While working with health messaging, I stumbled upon the power of engaging with people’s lives. Emotions influence behaviour more than facts do, so it’s way more effective to tell a smoker their breath smells bad than attempt to motivate them with the fact that smoking gives you cancer.

storytelling has the power to heal

Next I set up Heartlines, an NPO aimed at tackling social values. Here I came to see that storytelling has the power to heal. If people don’t know each other’s stories, they simply skirt along the fringes of other people’s lives forever, but as people share stories, hardened attitudes shift. Understanding helps us suspend judgement, and healing can begin.

Next, Garth set up Heartlines, an NPO that tackles social values. It was through this work that he came to appreciate the healing power of storytelling

There’s hard science in this. Research indicates that when you listen, really listen, to someone’s story, your brain produces oxytocin, a hormone whose molecules transport you into their world, enabling you to understand and empathise with the person, turning so many assumptions on their head. None of this is new, it’s not fluffy, it’s as old as humanity.

I wrote Like Water is for Fish to show how powerful story can be. Its reach and influence never cease to amaze me. Understanding other people’s stories, whether in the workplace or home, is probably the most powerful way to lead, influence and promote change. And spending time with your own story may sound self-indulgent, but it can be exceptionally empowering.

annoyed

In addition to a self-examination, the book constitutes a series of interviews I conducted with an eclectic group of people. The story that stays with me most is about a homeless guy called Gary, living in Cape Town’s Woodstock, who would beg for food. The community supported Gary but felt annoyed that he started turning down food. It turned out that he himself had been feeding a Muslim family who could only eat certain foods. It was such a powerful story of not judging a book by its cover.

The other story was Steven Mzee, a pastor from Every Nation church in Cape Town, who realised he needed to tell his story to his church to free others to be vulnerable: it completely transformed his relationship with his congregation.

Scenes from Beyond the River, an award-winning feature film by Heartlines, that tackles weighty social issues through story (available on Showmax)

I, too, have found that when I’m vulnerable enough to tell my own story in the Heartlines organisation and elsewhere, it hasn’t undermined my leadership but rather strengthened it. They think, Yes, you’re our leader but ultimately you’re just another stuffed-up, mortal human. That’s fine by me!

Heartlines has a division called Heartlines Consulting which has worked with over 40 companies in South Africa and, globally, with a group called Leaders’ Quest. In the last few months we’ve worked with clients such as Investec, Lloyds, Google and S & P Global Ratings to create understanding and cohesion in businesses. We also work in schools and churches, the biggest social network in SA. Our work has continued online during Covid and we’ve had great feedback. People say their relationships are transformed, and 80% go on to use the methodology with people in their own circles.

Doctor prepared to take his own medicine; Garth and his Heartlines colleagues. ‘I’ve discovered that when I’m vulnerable enough to tell my own story in the Heartlines organisation and elsewhere, it hasn’t undermined my leadership but rather strengthened it,’ he says

The principle is very simple. ALT: ask, listen and tell. Be prepared to ask a little bit more about people around you, at different levels of depth: it doesn’t always have to be their whole story. Be prepared to truly listen, which is hard. When asked, be prepared to engage with, and tell, some of your own story. It’s a simple methodology which is why it’s so effective.

be prepared to truly listen

We recently partnered with the South African Council of Churches to develop communications on all aspects of Covid. We try to make complex issues, such as vaccines, approachable and listen to what people are saying. It may seem otherwise, but it’s actually a relatively small group of people who are worried about vaccines. Part of our job is to show that the vaccine reduces the risk of infecting vulnerable people – and that part of loving your neighbour is not to infect them.

I’m very wary of anyone who tells me they’ve completely got it together in terms of their faith walk, but a while after my breakdown I made a decision to embrace Christ. Either Jesus’ life and teachings are not true, or they are. So, as I believe they are true, I need to embrace them with every aspect of my life.

Garth with children and wife Jayne, an HIV and palliative care doctor. ‘I’m very wary of anyone who tells me they’ve completely got it together in terms of their faith walk, but a while after my breakdown I made a decision to embrace Christ,’ he says. ‘This decision helps me not to take myself too seriously and has given me a perspective that helps me survive the headlines’

I don’t believe in beating people over the head with my faith. However, I do believe that while living life based on one’s instincts is simpler in the short term, in the long term it can create problems.

My decision to follow Christ has given me a perspective that helps me survive the headlines. It also helps me not to take myself too seriously, to understand that what I’ve managed to do is often not because of me but despite me. I am also supremely grateful for the amazing people that I have worked with over the years. While it may take some courage to follow your dreams, I think it takes more courage for the people who work with the dreamer. They’re the true heroes of the work I’ve been involved in.

God has been trustworthy

I find the app Lectio from Coventry in the UK quite useful in helping me connect to God. When I look back I see God has been trustworthy, however hard I might find it emotionally at times to trust Him for the future. I have so often felt a failure in life but I now understand my ‘troughs’ were a launch pad for something else. There’s no greater feeling than feeling you’re doing what you were created to do. I’m supremely grateful: many people can’t say that.

After years of encouraging people to connect by discovering each other’s stories, I realised I knew very little about my parents’ own stories. Had I too judged them without knowing their stories? By the time I thought about this my dad had died, but I sought out my mother’s story.

glimmer of a smile

I left work early to visit Mum one spring afternoon when she had just turned 82. She was initially irritated by my questions, but eventually a glimmer of a smile crossed her face as she realised she was cornered.

I discovered she’d been sent to boarding school at five, only saw her parents once a year, and used to wait at the school gate when term ended not knowing who was going to collect her. I realised her unhealthy attachment to me, which had impacted me hugely and made me angry at times, was probably deeply embedded in her own history. She could have made other choices, but we all have feet of clay and screw up, and she mothered me the best way she knew.

A younger Garth with his mother and family. ‘After years of encouraging people to connect by discovering each other’s stories, I realised I knew very little about my parents’ own stories,’ he says. ‘Had I too judged them without knowing their stories? By the time I thought about this my dad had died, but I sought out my mother’s story’

I often describe myself as a follower of Christ rather than a Christian, as the latter brings a whole load of cultural and other stuff with it. The person of Jesus attracts me. He was a radical troublemaker unafraid to embrace society’s most marginalised people: prostitutes, lepers, the poor. I believe that the resurrection happened, that you don’t need to commit intellectual suicide to believe it. I still have millions of questions, including the question of pain, but having looked at and sampled alternatives to Christianity, none works for me.

Just like the father of a sick son who cried out to Jesus, Lord I believe, help my unbelief, I experience a constant battle between faith and disbelief. Yet nothing else makes sense to me. As a doctor I’ve seen a number of people die and believe there is spirit as well as body. If so, where does it go and where does it come from? To me it’s as much a leap of faith to believe there’s nothing behind the spontaneous jump from inanimate to animate as it is to believe in a God who breathes life into our world.

ability to forgive her

With understanding came the ability to forgive my mother and to realise that, despite my anger and sadness, I have a huge amount to thank her for – including my ability not to give up, which I believe comes from her and which I saw in her brave fight with polio.

‘I love you Mum,’ I said from the doorway as I left her that day. She looked up, smiled and said: ‘Love you too, my boy.’

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The title of Garth’s book, Like Water is for Fish, was inspired by writer Jonathan Gottschall, who said: ‘Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all-encompassing and not quite palpable’
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