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.
At Departure, we bring you honest, nuanced travel stories from individuals living with their states of mind.
In the fourth instalment of this series, Marie B. shares stories of her impulse trip to Vietnam and insights into living with Borderline Personality Disorder.
My name is Marie. I am a 24-year-old almost-lawyer. Three countries, one history degree and two law degrees later, I am now working in a student-at-law role while prepping to be admitted to the bar. I currently live in Singapore.
I enjoy making art with my friends, dressing up to go dancing, trying delicious foods, and going on spontaneous adventures. I run my own online art collective of artists from a bunch of different cities I’ve lived in, from Toronto to Paris, London and Singapore.
For entertainment, I watch a lot of crime documentaries, nature documentaries, and the news, as I feel a constant need to feed myself with real-world information. I also love theatre and live music.
I have been diagnosed with Depression, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. I have been seeing therapists and I take the medications that I’ve been prescribed with.
UPSWINGS AND DOWNSWINGS AND GENERAL INSTABILITY
My life was all sorts of ups and downs when I was a student in London. I started seeing a psychiatrist at my university when the lows became so low that I didn’t leave the house for weeks, stopped going to classes, but intermittently went on extreme sprees of partying and excess.
I continued therapy throughout my studies but my mood never stabilized. The diagnoses kept changing accordingly. The medications were trial and error.
I only sought support in the first place because the doctors helped me in practical ways, i.e. with missed assignments and not failing my classes. Besides notes for missed deadlines they gave me all these acronyms that kept piling up and made me laugh whenever I had to list the medications I was on. Like, where do I begin?
But as I did therapy and learned more about Borderline Personality Disorder and the different states and cycles of bipolar I looked back on my behaviour since I was young and thought, “right, that makes a lot of sense”.
I became hyper-aware of myself so I could regulate my reactions. At one point I had a therapist tell me to stop thinking so much and be more like the hardworking peasants in Tolstoy novels. Then I began to rely on a different pill for any given situation of distress I found myself in.
It took a lot of just going through the crises to figure out what I’m experiencing and how to deal with it without medication. It’s always helped to have someone guide me through at times like that, so shoutout to my friends and therapists who had to be the voice of reason when my mind wasn’t quite there.
CHAOS AND SPONTANEOUS ADVENTURES
I woke up hungover one afternoon with a boarding pass in my inbox. Apparently my night at the bar ended with a little shopping spree. Destination: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Departure in 2 hours.
I didn’t have a return flight, a travel buddy, or a place to stay. I didn’t even really know anything about Vietnam apart from what I had learned in my war history classes. But that’s kind of how I like things to be anyway. Unplanned, unexpected.
Anyone who’s been on a motorbike in Vietnam knows that traffic there is fast, hectic, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous. That’s how my life feels when I am on an upswing. With lots of energy, insomnia and no plans, I ended up seeing quite a lot of Ho Chi Minh City in 5 days.
I walked around by myself, ate the best banh mi I’ve ever had, stole mini chairs made of champagne caps from a fancy rooftop bar, accidentally ended up inside the zoo, rode around the outskirts of town, rowed down the Saigon River at sunset, got drunk at a restaurant that doubled as your worst EDM nightmare and also a brothel; I even got a marriage proposal.
I was in one of my high moods for a while before Vietnam. I was going out all the time, which was good in a sense because I got to meet a lot of new people after moving to a new place. The night I booked the flight I had a particularly irrational reaction to being ditched by someone I was into at the time.
I wanted to get away from the situation so I guess booking the next flight out of Singapore made sense.
I tend to make snap decisions in response to circumstances that I get senselessly wrapped up in, so fleeing the country was probably not the best idea but it ended up being an awesome travel experience. I think my inner history nerd helped to keep me sane a little bit.
I spent a lot of time in museums and took a long train ride to the coast. It was amazing to observe the scenery outside Ho Chi Minh City: hills, mountains, small villages, new growth forests, and land recovering from a cruel history. The topography spoke more than the people did. I found it difficult to approach subjects of history and politics but the historical sites I visited told their own stories.
It was telling to see remnants of French colonial architecture in contrast with a postcolonial society, no remnants of the French language, no comments on monuments of postwar Communist leaders, a resounding silence on dark experiences of the past. While I find value in taking a historiographical look at the places I visit, seeing how nations shape their identity and recount historical fact through narrative, this wasn’t your average holiday filled with museums and sightseeing.
I got lost in paranoia somewhere along my train ride to Mui Ne. Because of an unrelated incident with an acquaintance in Jakarta, I somehow became convinced that this person found out where I was and had sent people after me, to kidnap me or something.
The train conductors were keen to talk to the random girl travelling by herself, with good intentions I’m sure and perhaps a bit of curiosity, but in my mind they were somehow after me, out to get me, at the command of Mr. Jakarta, whom I had suddenly and irrationally become distrustful of, chasing the few bars of network reception that would pop up on my phone from time to time to check my messages in case he sent any more information about what I was sure would be my ultimate demise.
After getting to Mui Ne I was too sketched out by the people around me to stay there. I checked out of my hotel after one drink on the beach and took a long and expensive taxi ride back to Ho Chin Minh City. It was a totally ridiculous scenario, getting lost in my own delusions. I’ve had some crazy things happen to me but this time, no, there were no leaders of the criminal underworld trying to kill me in Vietnam.
I didn’t have a return flight booked so after I had had enough of Vietnam, I hopped in a cab to the airport, checked the departures board and flew standby back home.
After this, I was put on antipsychotics, which I promptly discontinued because they made me feel dead inside. I realized that I would come to miss my impulsive, energy-fuelled escapades.
THERE’S A LITTLE CRAZY IN ALL OF US
All of us – we’re all a little psycho sometimes. It’s not just something people with mental disorders go through – it’s something everyone goes through, to varying degrees. Some people are just better at handling it, so that’s where I had the most work to do.
I’m most thankful for the people I’ve met throughout my life while living with mental illnesses, for being kind, non-judgmental, and not putting me in danger while travelling alone and unstable. And of course all the memories I made.
We think of mental illness as something that is very obvious and very debilitating. Sometimes, the hardest struggle is when you seem the most functional. And there is still a reluctance to talk about it in professional environments.
I went from a law school that had made great strides in mental health awareness to full-time work in a corporate office where you are supposed to hide this sort of thing. I wish I could talk to people more openly, to explain the reason behind my mood swings, but we are not quite there yet.
It seemed strange to my friends and colleagues that I became quiet and antisocial after the bubbly, chatty girl they met who was full of surprises. To me, it was the end of a period of instability and mania, so it was actually a positive thing, but it’s hard to understand that without having some awareness and being willing to talk about it.