Swinging High and Low

Photo of a walkway in a forest
Photo by Wai Han

High, euphoric, extremely happy…that was how I felt at the end of my A-levels. That was coupled with a first-in-my-lifetime travelling out of Singapore, even if it was only taking the Malayan Railway all the length of the Peninsular from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to Penang and back.

A bunch of about 20 schoolmates from junior college provided further stimulation to my overactive mind. We visited several associations for the disabled to understand their situation. We also went to the former Woodbridge Hospital, painting the stage of a meeting hall and putting up a variety show for the patients. I sang the signature Cantonese opera excerpt, The Flower Princess!

On the cusp of adulthood, with hormonal changes and psycho-social enrichment, my mental state was, to say the least, over stimulated by the additional queries of religious contradictions and continuous nights of insomnia.

My father, thankfully, recognised the symptoms and called in a psychiatrist. As the doctor and his assistants came towards me with a syringe, my heart sank as I knew he would knock me out with a sedative. That sense of helplessness is something I will not wish upon anyone today.

Over the next four decades of my life, through marriage, motherhood, paid and voluntary work, I would experience five major bouts of manic and depressive mood swings. My family stood by me each time, bringing me to re-start psychiatric care and accompanying me for reviews.

For a bipolar person, it was exhilarating to be on a high, becoming extra creative and in my case, I wrote several classical Chinese poems (in the manner taught by my father). All kinds of things in the environment – the branches of a tree, the clouds in the sky, the ringing of a telephone – would be stimuli for the imagination. And I would not recognise my manic state.

But when the lows hit, I would be weepy and end up as a couch potato for days on end. Books no longer held my interest. I couldn’t focus on reading the daily newspapers. I couldn’t even decide what to eat for each meal.

However, I was never suicidal. Yet I know of those who went over the tipping point. When such ideas come to mind, it is critical to share these thoughts with trusted ones and contact helplines like the Samaritans of Singapore.

What held me together was probably the love of family and friends. They care enough to sound the alarm when they notice that my mood may be swinging too high or too low. Medical appointments may be brought forward and the psychiatrist can titrate the medicines given.

To encourage others to seek treatment, I have often shared about my bipolar condition, comparing the need for medication to how a diabetic person needs insulin meds or jabs. What is keeping me on a more even keel, I believe, is this willingness to comply with treatment and the faith that would not let me go.

Wai Han

(From May 29, 2021)

To receive more thoughtfully-penned weekly letters freshly delivered to your mailbox, subscribe to Attunement here: bit.ly/ethosletters