Mental disorders do not wholly define an individual. And yet, there is a tendency to stigmatise individuals coping with mental illness, to trivialise their experiences, or to define them solely by the disorder they’re coping with.
In collaboration with the good folks at CTRL x SHIFT, we bring you honest, nuanced travel stories from individuals living with their states of mind.
In our second installment, Marc Ashley Alexander shares travel stories from all over Europe, and sheds light on his lived experience coping with Type II Bipolar.
My name’s Marc. I’ve just turned 25. I’m a poet, and have been a copywriter for a year plus. I’ve just finished the manuscript for a book titled Egoterrorist, and done spoken word shows both in Singapore and abroad.
I read a lot of Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou. But I also enjoy a lot of spoken word artistes: Lauryn Hill, Dan Smith from Listener, Levi. They talk about these themes of dealing with yourself, dealing with life. They tell stories through their poetry.
Through my own poetry, I try to write about mental illness: thought of inadequacy; living with mental illness; nihilistic outlooks on life.
Since I was around 8 or 9 years old, I’ve always gone on mindless, purposeless walks. I used to live at Farrer Road, and I would walk that stretch King Albert Park to Coronation Plaza.
I would walk that long road, hoping to discover adventure. You know when you were a kid, and you just wanted to explore because you’d read a certain book or watched a certain movie, and you were hoping to discover something magical?
A TIME LAPSE IN VIENNA
I had that same desire when I was in Europe: To travel and do things that my peers and had never done before, to live an interesting as hell life. I went to Europe right after NS, at 20. I came back around 22… so I was there for almost 2-and-a-half years.
There was this one time when I got to Vienna. I got there at 4am in the morning, which is really not the time to try checking into your hostel. I had come from Zurich, so I had legit absinthe with me, with wormwood.
I had a couple of nuggets of weed, and some coke I’d brought along. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my bag down, sat by the Danube river, and watched the city come alive while drinking, smoking a joint.
I ended up drinking at a bar that morning because I wanted to keep the momentum going. And then I blanked out, I’ve no recollection; there was this big blob of time where I had no idea what I was doing. (Laughs) Maybe if I go to a hypnotherapist I’ll remember what happened.
The next day I woke up and I wasn’t in Vienna anymore. I was in Bratislava. That was probably the highlight of my whole Europe trip, being so wasted that I ended up in a totally different country.
A MUGGING IN AMSTERDAM
Travel is as fruitful and as sad as one makes of it. If you really want to travel, I think you’ll find a way to make sure it happens. Travel is expensive, especially if you don’t know how to budget yourself like me. You can end up spending more than you expect to spend, a lot of things you don’t factor in: emergencies and stuff.
I think people should erase the fantasy that travel is opening this Pandora’s box and wonderful things. You’re going to see amazing things, but you’re going to see crappy stuff. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns.
I got robbed in Amsterdam, beaten up for 20 Euro. I was walking along a really dead street at night, which had been really bustling in the daytime. The rest of my money was safe inside my backpack, just in case of situations like… this, I suppose, which unfortunately happened.
This guy came up to me and was like “Hey do you want some coke.” And I was like “No, I don’t really have any money to buy coke right now”. (Laughs) The first thought in my head was actually, yeah why not. But it wasn’t practical.
He was like,“It’s fine. The taste is on me.” I was feeling a little more adventurous that night, so I was like “ok, fine, if you say so”. So I dipped my finger in and took a little taste of the coke, snorted it up.
A few seconds in and I felt that numbness, that buzz you get from snorting just a bit of coke. Then, the next thing he said to me was “Ok, give me 60 euro for the gram.”
I was like, “That’s not even a gram. That was like a dip, man.”
He started getting really scary: “I’m from Morocco, you don’t fuck with me.” This other guy came along, and was like asking if I was looking for trouble with his friend. That’s when I got really confused, really scared.
There was nobody else on the street and I was wondering if I should run, but the guy had his hands inside his jacket… and you don’t know if he’s got a gun or a knife. I was scared out of my wits by then because I’d never experienced anything like that in my life before. I was like ‘ I don’t have anything on me, I’m so sorry’.
They got angry, and one of them punched me. And I got angry. And I went “Fuck you, what was that for?” And the next thing I know I was being beaten up, hit in the head out of nowhere. So I took out the 20 Euro and I was like “Bro, this is all I have, what do you want from me?”
He was like, “Give me your phone.” In this digital age, a phone becomes everything… your digital identity. I was thinking, I’m not going to give you my phone, that’s like my only contact to the world. I could lose my passport and still get a passport [if I had my phone].
So I just ran as fast and as far as I could. At that point I was thinking that I’d rather be shot or stabbed than to give them my phone.
A COLD WIND IN OSLO
I know I was depressed in Europe because I was making a lot of bad decisions, consciously. I made those decisions knowing what the consequences would be.
I was in Europe, seeing the world and not getting what I wanted out of it. Maybe I had this fantasy that I’d see the world be inspired to do something, write something.
Maybe I wanted to hit rock bottom and see how I’d crawl my way out of it. Maybe I was being stupid. Maybe I was banking on some fantasy that life could be better.I had no money to eat, and I was thinking “I’m turning 21, screw this, I’m going to snort as much coke as possible, do as much blow as possible, and die on the streets.”
I was broke because I was dating this Swiss girl, and her ex-boyfriend had come out of prison, and so she was cheating on me. I was having that in mind, and also not being in school anymore, not doing anything productive with my life except travelling the world, and living off other people in a way.
Being a parasite. Being unreliable. I felt unwanted and useless as a human being. In some ways I still feel like that, but not as extremely as I used to back then.
It took me turning 21 in Oslo to get clean from cocaine and MD. I was sleeping in the streets without any money, my hands being frozen on the road. The next day I woke up and I was just crying.
I’m not sure if you know how strong the winds in Oslo can get. I was lying on the ground and I was literally sliding away from where I had lain down.
I texted my mum and told her, “Mum, I have no money. I’m so sorry, but I need to get out of this country. I need to go back to England at least, go to my uncle’s place in London, and gather myself for a while.”
GETTING CLEAN IN THE ALPS
I flew back to London, and I was there for about a month in my uncle’s place, not doing anything at all, but trying to gather myself and get clean.
I worked in bars, being paid under the table… doing legal stuff illegally, saving a sum of money and planning my journey hence.
I stayed in France for a while on vineyards, and riding horses along the Riveria. I spent some time with this couple in Switzerland, outside Zurich.
I really got clean in the Alps –because before that I was still occasionally taking coke and MD – but I was consciously trying to take control of my life. I spent hours and hours on end walking in The Alps, sitting on the snow, contemplating life and how I was going to change it.
RELAPSES AND REALISATION
My dad found me a job when I got back to Singapore. I was doing that job for a while – property management – and it paid really well.
And then came the big crash, which was I was telling you about earlier. This was the crash that made me realize that I have mental illness.
I got into this stupor of drinking every day. It was about finding an addiction, finding something to cling to, a feeling of not being aware, altering my state of conscious in a way, and losing myself in that.
I was being very suicidal. But not even my regular, joking suicidal, but a legitimate thinking of ending my life. Like, wanting to just get out of existence.
It just got that bad. I was just manifesting all those thoughts, and really trying to explore them on as deep a level as I could. Translating thoughts and ideas into words.
The lethargy was coupled with hypersomnia – just wanting to sleep for days on end- and locking myself in my room for 2-3 weeks… having friends come to my house and force me to come out with them.
I’m thankful for friends like that. Friends who went the extra mile, tore whatever clothes I had on, threw me in the shower and friggin’ showered me.
AN INSIGHT INTO BIPOLAR
Right now, we have two categories of bipolar, Type I and type II. Type I is more manic and Type II is more depressive. I’m type II.
There are blurred lines, grey areas that haven’t been explored. Most of my traits are categorised under bipolar. But at the same time my psychiatrist thinks I might have a slight tinge of paranoid schizophrenia, which leads to anxiey, which leads to this or that.
It’s not like Pokemon where you have to catch them all… but I think everybody with a mental disorder has a little bit of everything. It’s about what presents itself to you most obviously, and what you cling on to subconsciously… or consciously even, which is worse.
When I spoke to my psychiatrist I tried to be as honest as I could. I wanted to see what was up with myself.
Not what was wrong with myself, because my depression does feed my work. It does help me be more expressive and more creative, and to feel things on a deeper level.
I wouldn’t say I feel more than the average person, but I tend to feel more than the average person more often than the average person.
Ever since I discovered I have the manic side to myself, I’ve been able to control certain urges. It does still happen, and medication is not going to cut it out completely.
I used to go on manic spending and alcoholic binges. I would buy three bottles of hard liquor and binge through that. Or just try to steal something, or break something, or start a fight.
Some people who get manic are clearer, more informed about certain things. But at the same time it can be drastic, they can make very bad decisions overnight, or in a few minutes.
You need to understand and try to observe yourself, and try to curb as much of that behaviour as possible.
It’s always better to seek expert, professional opinions. You attribute certain aspects of yourself to that, but that’s not your full picture.
It’s about being very proactive; it’s recommended that you eat regularly, sleep regularly, take your medication as needed. But it’s not going to guarantee the fact that you’ll be ok, or anything socially perceived as ok.
I admit I don’t take my medication as per prescription, but not because it makes me feel nothing, or dazed. It’s because I want to try to let who I am be who I am. Does that make sense?
I’ve been trying to let that happen slowly, and to accept myself for who I am, and curb it to the best of my knowledge and understanding. And try to make use of that to create and tell stories to people.
ON WRITING AND NARRATIVES
I think as writers, people expect us to be able to come up with good words, or a good line, or something profound, just like that (Snaps fingers).
But people don’t tend to realise we’re always observing. Always trying to watch and just contemplate “What side of the story do I want to show?”
The main things I want to do with my poetry is to create awareness that mental health is a real issue, particularly because we’re living in Singapore specifically, and Asia in general.
You have men who are clinically depressed who have not sought treatment for years. I’m talking about intermediate generations before Gen Y came along. Men in their mid 30s to 60s right now, people like my father.
They think they have to carry the whole family. They’re ingrained with this idea that ‘You’re the man of the house, the sole breadwinner, the head of this dragon’. They believe that people who feel depressed or sad are just not mentally strong.
I’ve gotten a lot of that from individuals in my generation as well, all these kids raised by such men. They think mental illness does not exist, or they don’t see it as a spectrum.
They see it as a very binary divide of ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’. And I don’t blame them for it. That’s’ the way they were raised.
I feel like more time and understanding needs to be invested in this. I believe that there is enough awareness, but there’s not enough understanding.
It’s like how people think that OCD is not a real mental illness, but if you live with someone who has OCD, you realise how it can take over their lives. Stories like these do not present themselves as vividly – or as ‘entertainingly’ – as stories like ‘Oh that guy’s a sociopath.’
We’ve come to look at certain mental illnesses in a very romantic light in a way. It’s almost like if you’re crazy you’re more attractive in a way? Like The Joker and Harley Quinn, Hannibal Lecter, Batman even. You have kids posting, “Who’s going to be my Harley Quinn? Who’s going to be my Joker?” But they don’t understand the real problems that surround mental disorders.
Sometimes people ask ridiculous questions like “What triggers you?” It’s like…if I knew what triggered me, I’d definitely try to avoid that subject, right? It’s not like I have PTSD, I have bipolar; anything can turn into something.
Bipolar is not a personality switch. People have this belief that bipolar people can switch their personality like that (snaps fingers), which is far from the truth. Even when I was first told I have bipolar, I was like “Huh? How do I have bipolar? I always feel like myself.” And my psychiatrist was like, no that’s not what bipolar is.
When I told my army mates in reservist recently, a lot of them were like ‘Huh, you switch personalities?’ It’s become so commonplace a term that people use it loosely as well.
People will say things like, “One moment my girlfriend was calm, and then I said something and she went nuts, wah so bipolar, right?”
And there’s this common misconception and belief that people with bipolar are creative geniuses (Laughs). Yeah, as a writer, I would love to believe that.
THE ROAD FORWARD
It’s always a series of crashes. If you look at Sylvia Plath, she writes these long paragraphs about depression and suicide where she gets better from it, and then she goes back into that…and then she kills herself.
They create some of their best work at the low point in their lives because they’ve transmuted that experience into a piece of art… a story, a song. But they still revert into that reclusive shell, it still happens. There’s no stopping it.
I decided I was going to start from scratch, rebuild my life and use that momentum to work towards I really want. I’ve completed a book, I’ve done spoken word shows internationally, which is something I never expected.
It looks good right now, but I know there will be a crash again. I’m just waiting to see where that crash happens. At least now, I’m more prepared, I’ve learnt from the past.
I’ve had a grown man in his 40s come sit with me after a spoken word show, and say, “I think I feel that way as well.” This is a guy who’s my senior in life, done more and seen more than me, but who still has that shell of not letting anyone notice, while trying to cope with it.
He asked me why I chose to go to a psychiatrist, and I was telling him what happened, what I was feeling, what I did. That if you keep bottling yourself up like this, you’ll never move anywhere.
I’ve had people come up and tell me “I feel like this”. I tell them ‘I’m not going to be able to understand you. Nobody’s going to understand you’. We can only correlate and make assumptions. If you think that people are going to completely understand you, you’re wrong.
But if you have this idea that you want to take control of what you’re facing, the first step is to figure out what’s wrong with you. And the way to do that is by asking a professional.
It may be more comforting to talk to your friends, but it’s more therapeutic to talk about your problems and your life with a complete stranger; you tend to want to reveal more. They don’t know who you are, so you have to paint the story for them, and you paint it in a more detailed, honest way.
Your close friend of many years may look at your depression and just say, “Bro, get over it, let’s go for a drink.” You go out, you have a few drinks, have a few laughs. You thank them and you say ‘I don’t know what I would do without you’.
But at the end of the day you go back home, and the problem is still stuck at the back of your head. Just clawing at your mind, y’know? And you’re trying to push it back, push it away, until it explodes and you lose control of yourself.
That’s the only thing I can say to those who suspect they might have mental illness: Try and understand that there are no miracles; pills are not going to work 100%; therapy won’t change who you truly are.
I see a lot of people who try to blame mental illness, or use mental illness as an excuse. It’s really shitty, but depression does not tell you to do things.
Mental disorder is not the devil whispering in your ear. Yes, it can certainly feel so; the devil whispering into your ear, clinging onto your back, weighing you down.
But it does not force you to do things. You act on your own impulses. Being able to control it – and then learning how to move forward – is the best you can do.