I have known since the age of 12 that I was not quite right.
It was more than just a tricky adolescence spent listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark and other songs I could wallow in, contemplating what it would be like to be somewhere other than the world I found myself inhabiting. It was also the time I encountered something I now know to be called lucid dreaming. In it the dreamer can control parts of the dream and in some cases it becomes difficult to distinguish between one’s ‘real’ waking life and these other visions. Indeed, at times in my life I have spent long periods in my room focusing on that as my main reality, and supposed real life is a mere inconvenient distraction.
At my worst stages of depression I have self-harmed, partied for weeks on end with an uncontrollable energy and destructive lust. I have even taken ‘accidental’ overdoses to transport me to that other state where I live my alternate life. Yet within this framework I have managed to hold down full-time employment, have friends and forge loving relationships. However, in every one of these I have pushed situations and people to unacceptable limits. I would normally say this is a source of regret, but that doesn’t help because it is a symptom of simply who I am. I cannot continue to be an apologist for that.
Dealing with the Pain
Over the last couple of years ‘the fear’ has descended on me with increasing regularity and I have hospitalised myself on a number of occasions. It becomes an addictive cycle. Having 10 milligrams of Valium pumped into your vein and being put on an IV line feels comforting. For a brief period you can drift away and abdicate self-responsibility.
A couple of months ago I woke up feeling poorly and called in sick. When I left my bed I could barely make it to the bathroom — I felt a tightness and pain in my chest. Somehow I made it to a hospital were the EKG machine indicated I had had a heart attack. I am not overweight and have no family or personal history of heart problems. The doctor re-ran the EKG an hour later and concluded I had simply had a strong anxiety attack. I was kept in overnight and in the morning it happened. I finally saw a psychiatrist.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I had known this for many years, but to finally be told that what I was doing and saying were not simply the actions of a selfish egomaniac was somehow comforting.
Bipolar disorder is categorised by a number of behaviours. Yet not every sufferer will have the same experience. When my mind ‘clicks’ I can do in days what many would take weeks or months over. When it turns over again I can be the last man standing in a proverbial den of vice. When it switches again I become almost paralysed with apathy and a feeling of abject misery. I can float between extremes of selfishness and generosity. I have been both wealthy and in debt, wondering how I am going to pay people back who have put love and trust in me without real credibility I will be able to come back from the dark. I can take care of others better than I take care of myself because the fear and loathing made famous by Hunter S. Thompson is all too real. I don’t ever want to leave Ho Chi Minh City like Nicholas Cage did Las Vegas, but I can never rule anything in or out. A close friend told another of mine that he felt I wouldn’t reach old bones. I hope he is wrong but I am fearful he is right.
Living with Depression
Many media commentators believe psychiatry to be a pseudo-science and that drugs for treating ‘disorders’ such as mine simply don’t work. They are based on a misunderstanding of the human condition. Tom Cruise has used the oxygen of publicity to pontificate this view — in particular in relation to Brooke Shields and her experiences with feelings after giving birth. All I know is that what I write here is an accurate account of how I have felt and continue to feel. Why be so honest if it is a great big myth to excuse inexcusable behaviour? I am not proud of where my condition has brought me at times but, again, I am not going to be an apologist for it. I also recognise that in its more positive states it has helped me greatly in my education and search for ideas and truths.
So, where now? I am currently on a mixture of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers — one in the morning and four in the evening. I also see a psychiatrist for an hour every two weeks. We work on how I can better understand my mind and deal with my moods. He also reviews my medication.
I have written this piece because the issue of mental illness is still seen as taboo. People are still afraid of the shame and stigma that may come by talking about it. It was only through watching Stephen Fry’s documentary, The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive, that I was able to reach this point.
I feel I am a coward for not putting my name to this piece. However, I have been in Vietnam for a number of years and am reasonably well known in the expat community. I wish this piece to stand alone.
This article was originally published in April 2014. Ian Wills, the writer, passed away in Saigon at the end of October. He was 44. Despite having friends around him trying to help him through his troubles, he fell through the safety net. To read more about what happened, click on http://wordvietnam.com/people-culture/the-talk/the-tight-rope