My best friend Marc (from Secondary School) told me when he returned from his first trip overseas, he cried when the plane landed in Singapore because he was sad to be back. I cried as well when my plane landed in Singapore. The woman sitting next to me said “There, there, you’re back home now.”
But this isn’t my home. It is where I was born and where I grew up but this isn’t my home. Home is where your heart is, where you want to be. I had discovered strength and abilities within myself that I never knew I had, were they going to waste away here like my other dreams and talents?
Although I did not originally intend to hike the Grand Canyon, I did plan to participate in a whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado river through Westwater Canyon. I cannot remember what made me decide to do a whitewater rafting trip in between visiting Sondheim list members – I think it had something to do with the folk song “The Water is Wide”.
The raft trip began with a series of lazy Class II rapids before we broke for lunch. The trip leader asked who would like to tandem kayak the “Little D”, a Class III rapid at the confluence of the Little Dolores and the Colorado, on a ducky (a sit-on-top inflatable kayak).
I decided to try it and was paired with another guy who was traveling solo, altogether there were 20 of us. While lunch was being prepared, we huddled around the trip leader who drew on the sand to indicate the rapids and hazards.
“This is the Little Dolores rapid, we call it ‘Little D’. What you are going to do is come down here. The river is going to push you to the right but keep away from the right as much as possible. There is a big eddy here on the right that will trap you. If you get caught in the eddy, the river is going to push you back to the top of the eddy. You will have to break out of it and run the rapid again. There will be a raft at the end to pick up swimmers in case someone flips. We have another raft downriver to fish you out if we can’t catch you in time. After running Little D, depending on how everyone is doing, I might let you run the next rapid, Marble Canyon – which is another Class III. This time you need to keep right because that is where we are going to pick you up, around here. And it’s tight! We are going to deflate the duckies, get everyone packed up and run Staircase rapids on the raft. Watch out for the rocks here, here and here … and …. “ by the time he finished marking all the rapids and hazards, it looked like someone had repeatedly clawed through the sand.
I was hesitant, it kind of freaked me out but I told myself I survived the Grand Canyon, maybe I can do this as well. I ate my lunch gazing at the Little Dolores rapids in the distance, psyching myself up. As the rafts were leaving to get into position, my assigned kayak partner came up to me and apologized “I’m sorry Stephen, I can’t do it. I’ll be taking the raft. I think you should too.”
I decided to continue (after assessing the risks in my mind), albeit more concerned than before. I watched the rafts run the Little Dolores rapids and disappear around the river bend, then I got into the water with the other kayakers. I practiced some strokes on the still water and felt a bit better though it was difficult to navigate and propel since I was the only person on a tandem ducky. I started chewing my gum furiously as I got close to the rapids, “Shit! The standing wave is taller than me!”
I did not know what I was doing so I thrashed about the waves trying to stay afloat. Suddenly the water stopped frothing and I sighed in relief “I made it!” Or so I thought until I realized my ducky was moving backwards. I had been swept into the eddy.
There were other kayakers also trapped in the eddy. As my ducky circulated to the head of the eddy, I saw a broad-shouldered guy in another kayak get pushed off when a wave hit him. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for having childbearing hips instead of broad shoulders.
When I tried breaking through the eddy head, the river pushed me back it was more powerful than it appeared. I tried again using all my strength, this time I broke through and re-ran Little D but the river swept me back into the eddy again. On my third attempt, I saw another ducky flip as it went over the eddy wall. By my 5th attempt, I was the only one in the eddy. I was exhausted. I had to work so much harder being one person in a tandem ducky. I was too tired to re-run the entire stretch, I was being pushed into the eddy sooner and sooner.
I scanned the waves along the eddy wall, looking for a potential spot further down and weighed my options. I selected a spot and managed to break through but the next wave pushed the ducky up almost 90 degrees on the verge of flipping (but miraculously did not) and I got pushed back into the eddy. “Thank God for my big butt” I thought.
On my 9th attempt, I used my big butt (aka low center of gravity) to my advantage and tried to minimize the surface area of my torso as the waves tried to flip me as I furiously dug into the river with my body weight against the paddle. Waves crashed over me as I went against them, I could barely see where I was going. Somehow I managed to free myself from relentless push of the Colorado and ran the rest of the Little D rapids.
The remaining kayakers were resting and waiting for me. I thought I should call it quits and get on the raft as I was so tired but the pickup raft was gone, it had gone ahead after picking up the swimmers. When the other kayakers saw me emerge from the rapids, they proceeded ahead to Marble Canyon. I had no time to recover, I had to keep going.
The bipolar depression returned but now I was prepared for it. I had to be very aware and conscious of the state I was in and took steps to prevent it from deteriorating. Many times I would be paddling blindly when caught in the waves of mania and depression, but during my moments of dissociation and clarity, I can plan how to break through the eddy wall to fight my way downstream, to break the inexorable cycle that pulls me along; and if I failed I would try and try again. Depression was easy to conceal since I was used to distancing myself since adolescence, not letting others close. Mania was much more difficult to pass with its racing ideas and agitated speech and angry energy that needed release. I devised what others called my “Shocking Stephen” persona, where I could let loose my grandiose ideas and schemes in triggered dramatic outbursts as if I were in a soap opera; sometimes that included risky public criticisms of the fascist government, sometimes that included outlandish ways of killing myself. Afterwards I would laugh as if it were a hysterical joke, and others would too. They thought I was just a clown but I wasn’t just play acting, I was Pagliacci.
I was committed to staying off medication and therapy given my traumatic experience. I began writing poetry and took up photography (when some of the snapshots I took from the trip turned out to be surprisingly good). I found the process of developing negatives and prints in the darkroom for hours very therapeutic. The darkness matched my isolation and isolated me from realities of the world, the rigor and steps needed to perfect the negative and print gave an outlet to my compulsive behavior. It was still a lonely existence, but at least I was functioning somewhat. I still did not know if I was able to live past 30.
My turn to photography surprised those who knew me as I famously hated to have my picture taken. (When I reconnected with Marc about a decade later in NYC, he asked “I know you hate your picture taken, but would you allow me this once?”). There are no photos of me in Singapore past 13 years old. I made several excuses why I did not want to be photographed, but the real reason was I hated how I looked, my body was alien to me, I could not imagine being loved or being happy, I could not imagine a life where my talents and thoughts were appreciated. I felt trapped by my circumstances and confines of conformist society. I felt utterly alone and wanted to be alone. Since society had rejected me I rejected it as well, I pushed others away, I did not want anyone to get close to me. Since adolescence a secret desire was born, I wanted to leave no trace behind, not even a memory, not even a photograph, when I disappear. I was not worth remembering, it was my only revenge – to deprive others from the satisfaction of reminiscing or gossiping, or the facade of proforma condolences. So I lived my life as captured in those last pictures at 13, dead eyes trapped behind a smiling facade. I began to start dissociating from myself, as if I were an observer to my thoughts and actions. At times the thought crossed my mind that I was the greatest actor that ever lived. If there was an inverse of the Academy awards where normal people act out pain, I would surely win for acting everything was normal.
For film studies class, I went against the lecturer’s dialogue and plot convention requirements and submitted an experimental short film North South as a final project that relied solely on music to convey the phases of manic depression I experienced. It was a grand manic FUCK YOU gesture to convention and my classmates. Everyone was shocked, especially when I revealed my diagnosis after the screening. I was shunned but that was fine with me. I neutralized the threat and power that classmate held over me and my condition. I had wasted too much time and energy pretending to be someone else for people I did not particularly care for.
I discovered I had an affinity for research methods and analysis and switched my specialization. Just as the concert pianist has to interpret the notes on the page to convey the music, I look at numbers to interpret and communicate the meaning behind them. I could productively apply my compulsive behavior to data collection, and down the rabbit hole of endless statistical analyses to search for meaning. I was so successful that the professor leading the specialization (who would address me “sir” to my confusion) would later task me to run Asia’s first autonomous student-run research organization for the university. Inspired from my meeting Sondheim list members on my US trip, I decided my honors research thesis would be to develop a methodological approach to validate the structural relationships in online communities (which was a first in academia). I picked online chat channels as it was easier to collate the data across multiple chat groups for network analysis, and it was through my data collection process that I found Eric again.