Now that twice the amount of time has passed and subducted memories have resurfaced, I feel I can confess what happened 23 years ago without fear without shame. I was in my second year in University in Singapore. I was isolated, struggling with bipolar depression. I had saved up some money and planned a solo backpacking trip far away to North America to try and find something to continue living. What it was I did not know. If I did not find it, I would wander off into the wilderness and disappear.
There is stigma associated with mental illness everywhere but even more so in “meritocratic” conformist Asian societies like Singapore where it brings shame to the family. Being identified as having mental illness guarantees gossip, shunning, and no job prospects. Same goes for being a homosexual. There is only one right path dictated for you – to be straight and sound of mind; to marry in your 20s and produce grandchildren. I was neither and wanted neither. I did not expect to live past 30 in Singapore.
I first realized something was amiss when I experienced PTSD after I left National Service (Singapore’s compulsory enlistment) to begin university studies. A casual mention would trigger panic attacks – my chest would tighten, I had difficulty breathing, my body turned into jelly at the dreaded inevitability of being called into Reservist service after graduation. Whenever there were guys in study groups and social gatherings, they would swap army stories while I sat there and sank into a pit of bottomless despair.
Growing up as a latchkey kid and becoming a loner since adolescence, it was easy to hide my moods and behaviors from others. From outward appearances, I was respectable, well behaved if somewhat aloof, accomplished, as befitting the eldest grandson on both sides of the family. I hid my true self behind a stone facade – most of the time I felt sad for no apparent reason, no interest in interacting with others, laconic, avoided social activities and situations, and prone to ruminating and periods of extended lethargy. I thought it was my personality, having been classified INTJ on Meyers-Briggs. What did not conform to that personality type were the periods when I felt really good, which appeared and vanished for no apparent reason. During those times my behavior changed, instead of being shy and withdrawn I became proficient and fearless in public speaking and presentations. Other people would comment that I was very witty and spoke very fast that they had some difficulty. I had excess energy I did not know what to do with it; I would pace restlessly around my room in the middle of the night or obsess over some meaningless task like highlighting my textbooks and notes in different colors. I practiced the piano for hours. I sparkled with creativity and genius, an endless font of ideas and free associations. I filled margins with fragmented shorthand notes and ideas for my great symphony, my great novel. my great play. I felt invincible, I would do reckless things such as challenging authority figures like professors, openly critique the Singapore government (who does not take kindly to dissent nor non-conformity), and acts of civil disobedience. I recall being chased by a bunch of policemen, and thrilled at my successful evasion through the stairwells and interconnected corridors of a housing estate; what it was I did I don’t remember. Other times I went to university, went about my life as if it were a vivid dream. I felt disembodied and detached and watched everything play out as if I was an external observer to my thoughts and actions. I tried to moderate my interactions with others to conceal my erratic behavior and moods, whenever I caught myself when my words became too intense or I started to babble, I would cover with a joke, excuse myself and walk away.
I fell hard for a straight classmate in university who used my feelings as leverage. That cracked the stone facade I had cultivated to contain my moods. My highs and lows became more and more pronounced – the higher I got, the lower I crashed. Instead of euphoria, my highs became dysphoric and raging. I started spiraling to periods where I was unable to move, huddled in mental and physical pain. Beaten down in situ it felt until there is nothing left. It was not until I picked out “Touched with Fire” (a book by psychologist Kay Jamison on the links between manic-depression and creativity) by chance from the remainders bin in the University bookstore and read it did I recognize my bipolar depression symptoms with clarity; and realized I needed help.
I secretly sought treatment at Woodbridge Hospital (Singapore’s loony bin), it was structured as a hospital for mental patients and operated as such. Located in a isolated estate with cold polished concrete floors, dark trimmings, aloof and self-serving nurses and doctors who would not be out of place in a Hollywood mental asylum thriller. There was no one I could confide in or count on for support. My isolation increased as I endured the condescension of the doctors who told me it was all in my mind (duh!) and refused to listen to what the crazy person had to say. They were more interested in talking at me instead of talking to me. I dropped out of therapy as it caused more grief and isolation; I was afraid to reveal too much, the true extent of my pain and downplayed my suicide ideation and attempts, as I feared I would get committed and become even more trapped. I endured the side-effects of different drug combinations they tried until I had to have regular blood tests to monitor drug levels were below toxic levels. Nothing worked. My condition worsened into rapid cycling – periods between crushing depression and desperate mania compressed into days and the agony became more unbearable. I began experiencing Mixed States (where mania and depression are present) which intensified the pain and paranoia. My nerve endings felt like they were burning, I believed there was someone around the corner waiting to get me, everyone was waiting for me to fall apart, the drowning suffocation of exploding manic rage straitjacketed by depression-zapped energy. Those days I crawled under my bed and waited to die, a living corpse being at one with the cold tile floor.
During one of the brief episodes of clarity or disembodiment between the pain and numbness, I decided I could not live like this. This was not living. I gave myself two months to find something to live for, and if I could not find anything at the end of two months, I would go somewhere where no one could find me and disappear. When I told others that I was planning a solo backpacking trip to N. America (my first trip and the farthest I could get away from Singapore) they tried persuading me out of it, not out of concern for me but because I had broken 3 Asian travel taboos – I was backpacking instead of going on a tour, I was traveling alone instead of a group, and I had no intention of visiting Disneyland.
It was the early days of the Internet. I was a member of the Sondheim mailing list and asked for suggestions for places to visit and somehow the trip became structured around connecting with fellow list members in different states who wanted to meet the Sondheim fan from Singapore. I would visit over 30 states over the course of 60 days via Greyhound, subsisting on chips and coke, alternating between hostels and kind list members who offered me a couch to crash on.
It was not what I had originally envisioned but I was glad. The weeks of trip planning gave some structure and purpose to my life, and there was someone from the list I really wanted to meet.