Wednesday 27 September 2017

I Once Knew a Genius Who Ended up a Simpleton: My Brother Gabriel Had Epilepsy and Bipolar Disorder, by Marie Abanga

My name is Marie Abanga and I am from Cameroon in Africa. Before my brother Gabriel was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of eleven, all I knew about the condition was the appellation “fainting fits”. In my country and probably in a large chunk of Africa, such fits are still attributed either to evil attacks or ill luck. There is so much taboo and stigma surrounding such cases, to the extent that some families would rather hide their children suffering from seizures than risk public shame. They simply are never sent to school, or withdrawn once seizures set in.

As if the epilepsy was not enough, I learned barely two months before my brother’s death that he had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This made sense to me because I had witnessed firsthand several highs and lows of his behaviour, but I was left speechless. I remember a blog post I did on my blog in June 2014 on the occasion of his 33rd birthday, crying out loud: “Somebody tell me what is wrong with my brother”.

Shortly after that post, I gathered enough courage to ask my kid sister with whom he recently lived in the US, and like it was super top secret “of course”, she told me of his bipolar disorder diagnosis. Sadly, before I could start understanding anything about bipolar disorder or how to help him, he died on the 2nd of August 2014.

We probably know about all the stigma, taboo and abuse cum outright rejection of persons living with a mental illness and I won’t go there anymore. I will just say that I nearly went down the drain mentally too, both before and after my brother died. Indeed, it was my quest to learn what was wrong with my brother which helped me realize something was wrong with me. A psychotherapist I saw in Brussels mentioned PTSD. I didn’t want to dwell on the diagnosis so much, but on what I could do to take better care of myself.

For pretty much all of my life, others’ wellbeing has been my priority, and my brother’s especially. I now know I tried my best to love him even when he was at his worst. I just think if I had known what he had been diagnosed with and reached out earlier to the big online community, I would have done much better.

When my brother died I froze: I needed to write his story and immortalize it before he too became a statistic. I needed to let my family and the world know I had had enough with all the taboo and stigma, and that I was putting myself all out without fear or favour. The fierce mental health advocate was born and you wouldn’t find even a handful of those in my country–that is not bragging.

The memoir (the third of four I have so far self-published) is my tribute to my brother and all those with mental challenges and illnesses. It is titled My Brother’s Journey from Genius to Simpleton: Battling with His Mental Illness and Coping with His Loss.

I am still coping to be candid, and only recently have dealt with the last guilt I still harboured for my brother’s Waterloo. This is a big credit to the book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. In this book, whose emotional journey reading I blogged about almost religiously, I felt it all, learned so much, braved it all, and healed so much. I am implementing a lot of lessons learned and have discovered several other resources from the website of the co-authors. It is really true that if you seek you will find.

I am the Country Director for the Foundation created in my brother’s honour. The Gbm Centre for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing in Cameroon is a project of the Gbm Foundation for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing established in the state of Massachusetts where he died. A Centre for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing in Cameroon will definitely be one of its kind. Yet, mental illness is one of those taboos “society” still balks at. Not because most are spared from its ravages and deliriums, but because of the stigma associated with any such illness. It is no more than a decade or so ago that the country saw its first Center for Autism. Before then, and even now, illnesses and disorders such as these are simply attributed to witchcraft, ill luck, bad parenting, and even demonic attacks.

About the Author

Marie Abanga is a lawyer, coach, consultant, author and mental health advocate, also Country Director for the Gbm Foundation for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing. She blogs passionately about her thrilling life and mental health advocacy at

Her books are available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon.



  1. Hi Martin and Fran,

    It's been an honour for me to contribute this post to your website. As a follow up; I just learned from mum that the bipolar diagnosis was never confirmed (whatever this means) and you can imagine how confussing and distressing this is for me. It is true my brother was on a vast cocktail of meds shortly and was actually found dead leaning over his medecine box (his life had been reduced to what I call in post: 'Take my meds'), but I think a full diagnosis and treatment plan would have helped him much more than what he got both from medical practice and us his family (no friends he had). If 3 years later I am still unable to say outright he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I can only imagine how confusing it was for him not to know what exactly was wrong with him other than epilepsy. Am glad to have written this post anyway

    1. Oops I don't know why it reads ...shortly (that was an oversight)