As she glided down the aisle, she was the picture of happiness. Her husband-to-be beamed at her, she could barely contain her delight at becoming his wife and romance filled the air as they said their I do’s.

Dawn Thandeka King, the actress who plays MaNgcobo in the popular soapie Uzalo, was ever the professional as she shot these loved-up scenes. Nobody would have guessed that inside she was filled with anguish and pain at the demise of her own marriage.

Just a few days after shooting the happy wedding sequence, her relationship with her businessman husband was declared officially over.

“I am mourning the death of my marriage,” Dawn tells DRUM.

“The pain is still there. It feels like I’m widowed.” The couple were married for 15 years. “But I don’t regret my decision,” an emotional Dawn says.

“I know it was the right thing to do. “I met my husband in 1998 at tertiary and we got married in 2004. But I’ve been separated from him for two years.” Things finally ended mid-June and Dawn is still trying to come to terms with it all. “It’s a painful and traumatic journey for me and the children but I had to do it for my sanity.

“I haven’t totally healed but I have to be strong for my kids. I had to protect them – I didn’t want to raise them in an unhappy home. I was no longer happy in our marriage.” It was about three years ago that Dawn first noticed her marriage was starting to fall apart.

“When I think about it now I can see the signs were there but I overlooked them. But suddenly there was a lack of communication or miscommunication between us. I felt avoided whenever I was home.

“This triggered my depression and I was subsequently hospitalised,” she says. At the same time her career was really starting to take off as Uzalo grew in popularity around Mzansi. Uzalo is the reason she was living in KwaZulu-Natal, where the soapie is shot. Her husband and their five kids, meanwhile, were living in Joburg and she would go home regularly. But it was a long-distance marriage and this could’ve played a role in the breakdown of their relationship, she admits.

“I wouldn’t speak for my ex-husband but I strongly feel that the long distance coupled with the demands of my career contributed to our failed marriage. It created a void,” she says. Yet she doesn’t regret embracing her job as an actress or having to move to another province for her craft. “For me acting is not just a career, it’s a calling,” she says.

“I never chose the arts – it chose me. I cannot run away from it.” She didn’t go into her new job blindly. When she took the Uzalo position she was aware it could create challenges and tried to ensure things didn’t become impossible to deal with.

“To avoid such problems, we agreed that I’d come home twice a month, which I did,” she says. “I guess we both didn’t see it coming.” She also had to fight rumours of marital problems and infidelity. Last year Dawn vehemently denied things weren’t working after claims of her cheating with one of her Uzalo costars made news headlines.   She and her husband were doing just fine and had learnt to make their long-distance marriage work, Dawn said at the time. 

“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,” she said at the time.

 “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. Gossip like this can break a person and their career.”

She still maintains she was faithful to her husband but now admits they were struggling to keep their marriage alive then. 

Dawn tried various avenues to rescue her failing relationship. “I tried to save my marriage,” she says. “I prayed, I fasted, I went to marriage counsellors, but it got to a point where I felt it wasn’t worth it.” But she admits living with her family might have been what they needed to make it survive. “I do think that if we all moved to KwaZulu-Natal things would have worked out better for us. Long-distance relationships barely survive.

“I loved my ex-husband, perhaps I still do. We shared a lot of things together, we grew up together, we raised children together, but it wasn’t meant to be. We had to go our separate ways. “I had to end it to save my dignity.” She’s now trying to look forward. “I am talking about it because I’ve finally made peace with it. Emotionally and psychologically I feel a lot better and stronger. I’m moving on with my life.”

She and her ex are also working at having a good relationship. “We are co-parenting. We understand each other a lot better now than we did when we were married,” she says. The children used to stay with their father but now live with their mom. She will still ensure they have a great relationship with him, though.

“I’m not going to break their relationship with their father,” she says. “Instead I encourage them to have a strong healthy relationship. I make sure I won’t badmouth their father because that would damage them.” Despite all the heartache she’s experiencing now, Dawn still believes in love. “I know one day I’ll meet someone who’ll sweep me off my feet just like Khathaza [played by Sibonile Ngubane] did to MaNgcobo,” she says, referring to her Uzalo storyline. “But I’m not in a rush. I’m taking my time to heal.”

She also wants to use her experiences to help others. Once she has fully recovered she’ll embark on counselling other women, she says. “I will be hosting seminars where I shall be discussing the same or similar issues.” She’ll also touch on the fact the breakdown of a marriage can have severe mental and emotional effects.  

Dawn says she fell into a depression while trying to save her relationship. “I realised I was losing myself. In the process I realised I was hurting myself more than I was trying to save my marriage. I eventually decided to walk away,” she adds. This isn’t the first time she has spoken out about her struggles with depression. She previously shared with DRUM that there was a time when she’d wake 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 to mental illness. 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. “I had to go back to work when my baby was just a month old. Pregnancy must have worsened the condition because I just wasn’t coping.

“In that same year I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and had to stay home for four months.” With the benefit of hindsight and after reading up on the condition, Dawn realises she’d been struggling with mental health issues since she was eight years old. She admitted that she came close to killing herself in 2016 when her depression was at its worst. “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.”

Fortunately, she sought help. “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 has learnt to manage the disease, even at her busiest. Relying on medication isn’t easy but she knows she has no choice. Now she’ll work on getting stronger and focusing on the future. “I’m a spiritual person and I have faith that this too shall pass. It’s certainly not going to break me. Instead I’ll come out stronger than before.”