Lance is in his forties. He works as a consultant and often has to travel overseas for his job.
It’s like being in a double closet. Being gay is one closet, being mentally ill is the other.
I have bipolar disorder. When I was diagnosed in 1988, it was known as “manic-depressive disorder”. The term “bipolar disorder”, which sounds more neutral, only came about 10 years ago as they thought “manic-depressive disorder” sounded a bit too psychotic. As the term suggests, it is a mental illness that results in severe cyclical mood swings, from feeling very low and depressed to feeling very high or elated. If left untreated or unstable, the mood swings can repeat themselves, ranging from monthly to weekly cycles.
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Talking about it now, more than 20 years later, I suppose it no longer hits me so hard, because I had been living with it all this while.
During one of my hospital stays, I became delusional and tried to run out of the ward, which was gated, locked and monitored. When I finally came to consciousness again, I remember my hands and feet were being restrained with Velcro binders to the side railings of the hospital bed. Either I had passed out, or I was trying to run and had harmed myself in the process.
I went through regular sessions of electro-convulsion therapy, because that’s supposed to be one of the fastest ways to normalise the brain waves. One of my friends from secondary school said the sessions could have affected my memory, as there were things he remembered that I didn’t. I suppose it must have been quite traumatic for someone like him to hear that I had gone through all that.
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Back then, my mum was the only one looking after me at home. She once got so frustrated with me that she walked out of the house, saying she needed a breather. It was then that I swallowed my entire bottle of lithium-carbonate tablets. There must have been more than 100 pills. I remember drinking lots of water to wash the pills down. Nothing happened. My desired result – death – did not materialise.
When my mum came home, she realised that all my medication had disappeared. Then I started throwing up quite badly. I was rushed to Accident & Emergency, which led to another extended hospital stay. Doctors had to put me on blood dialysis for several hours to clear my system of all the lithium-carbonate tablets I had swallowed. Later, I remember the police coming to talk to me, and fortunately I was smart enough to say I had accidentally overdosed, instead of admitting that I had attempted suicide. They didn’t pursue the matter further.
My mum felt really guilty that I overdosed after she left the house. What she didn’t know was that I had deliberately tried to get her out of the house, so that I could be alone to proceed with my plans to end my life.
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Because of my mental illness, I had always known that my life would be a little different. At least now as a gay man, I also know that I’m not alone. I know there is a community of people out there. It means I’m not one-of-a-kind. I’m not an alien, and I’m not a freak.
If you’re reading this and you have bipolar disorder or some form of depression, go seek professional help. If you know of someone who may have a mental illness, advise them to get help quickly. Bipolar disorder is a treatable illness. With the right medication, it is possible to live life normally, to study and to work. Get support for yourself, whether it is seeing a professional like I did, or receiving support from family and friends. My parents do not usually give praise, but during one of my depressive episodes, they told me they were already very proud of me for completing my university studies after my first hospital stay. They felt it was already an achievement in itself. I felt very good on hearing this, especially since my parents were not usually open with their feelings. Having friends who may or may not know about it was important for me too. At least they wouldn’t give up on calling me or asking me out. That social support net was critical.
As for my sexuality, I always believe there is no one template of what it means to be gay. What’s important is learning to cope, and having the confidence not to feel like you’re a lesser person just because you are not part of the mainstream.
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The above are excerpts from Lance’s full story, which can be read in the book.