Being Bipolar

2014-01-14 00:00

Alexander Strachan

True Stories of KZN

“Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.”

— R.D. Laing

BANGKOK, big bad Bangkok. I think that is where it all started. It was a city, they say, whose main industry was recreation and whose main business was pleasure. Wickedness, by all accounts, was a form of art here. The seven vices and seven graces seemed to blend in perfect harmony. The city’s two most common and appealing sights, after all, were its holy men, the monks in spotless saffron robes, and its scarlet ladies.

Looking out of my hotel window at the Park Hotel in the heart of the Pratunam Market, I suddenly felt a fever that all but made me tremble. Twenty storeys below me in the illuminated Bangkok night the Pratunam Market, famous for its deeply discounted fake branded clothing, was a beehive of activity. I found it difficult to sleep at night. Bangkok was very noisy, especially after dark; but it was also doubt and depression that kept me awake. I had just spoken to my wife, Michelle, back at home in South Africa.

The news was bad. The bank had decided not to extend my overdraft and would no longer honour any further cheques. My thoughts started racing about the consequences that would inevitably follow. The closure of my businesses, hordes of creditors descending on me like a swarm of bees, my struggling employees and their families being left without income and my family penniless, with me bankrupt and possibly landing up in jail. Even this buying trip and the feverish rushing, bargaining and buying of clothes for my stores in the five days I’ve been in Bangkok, had suddenly became a worthless waste of time; every ounce of energy expended, with hardly any sleep, all in vain. I started trembling. My whole body was shaking. Nausea overwhelmed me. I rushed to the bathroom and collapsed with my face in the toilet bowl, vomiting.

Outside, rain had started to fall in a heavy tropical downpour. I found myself curled up under the counter of a seedy go-go bar in Patpong. A few people, mostly foreigners, were huddled around the bar watching some live sex show with animated excitement. A scantily clad young sylph flashed me a soft smile, took my arm and led me by the hand to a bar stool, pressed her body lightly against mine and urged me to order a drink. As soon as I did so, she threaded long and languid arms around me, brushed lustrous, sweet-smelling hair against my face, tickled her lips with her tongue, and whispered sweet-nothings that could not have been sweeter or more full of nothing. Then, gradually, gently all sidelong glances, and with kittenish giggles and seraphic smiles, she glides through a ritualised cross-questioning: “Oh, you have sexy eyes. Where you from? Where you live in Bangkok? How long you stay? Do ya think I’m sexy?”

Give the right answers, I had already discovered after many visits to Bangkok, and the response is immediate; but at that point, my utter confusion about where I was and how I got there — drenched and cold to the bone and mumbling incoherently to myself — quickly dissipated her interest in this weirdo bummer. She swiftly moved on to better prospects who entered the bar.

After what seemed to be an eternity of aimless wandering in the sweltering, pouring rain in the streets of this huge, sprawling and scary city, my mind finally started to settle down and some good Samaritan who, for no apparent reason took pity on me, dropped me off at the lobby of the Park Hotel, which by now I recalled was where I was staying. Trudging my way into the hotel, I was met by Sukanya, my travel guide. She was beautiful.

“Where were you? I was worried sick. Your plane leaves in an hour. Are you packed?”

For some reason the flight was delayed for two hours and I went to a coffee shop, sat down and found some solace from the relative peacefulness there. My eyes kept shifting to the Thai security guard and the revolver casually strapped to his waist. Should I end it now? “Peace!” my mind screamed. I thought of the mess on the beautiful white granite tiles.

After a fitful sleep on the plane, I arrived in Johannesburg at six in the morning. Clearing through Arrivals, I hazily made my way to a pay phone and called my mother. “I am sick”, was all I said when she picked up. I dropped the phone and eventually found my way to my brand new dark green BMW parked in the underground garage of the airport, bought in an impulsive frenzy and illusions of wealth and grandeur. I drove home. During the four-hour drive to Pietermaritzburg, my senses amazingly increase and I am suddenly enthralled by the beauty of the landscapes around me; the clear blue sky and the snow-capped Drakens-berg mountains on the horizon forming a magnificent backdrop to the lush green foothills of the mountain range.

Slowing and driving into the garage at home, the dark sombreness returns and increases in intensity, standing in stark contrast to the lightness of my perceptions during the journey.

The kids, Nandi and Alexander, rush out and jump into my arms. I kiss Michelle hello. I am tired and decide to take a shower without saying a word to Michelle. She must have noticed that something was amiss and after a while she came into the bathroom. Her eyes shone with all that was left unsaid. It was as if she somehow understood and I just crumpled down on the shower floor, crying uncontrollably. I can’t take it anymore and know that I’m close to a breakdown, or killing myself. My mother arrives and, with that sad knowing look, arranges for my sister’s psychiatrist to see us as soon as possible. With one look he diagnoses me: bipolar! (Not surprising after all, since my younger sister had already been suffering from the same illness for 15 years; it is in the genes). The psychiatrist recommends immediate and extended hospitalisation.

On the way to Grey’s Hospital we stop at Shuter & Shooter and I buy a book. I start walking up the mall in Church Street and pass the old church on the left side of the street. Walking did me good, despite my fatigue and the chilly wintry wind funnelling through the mall. My nausea disappeared. In fact, it was then that it happened — inexplicably, but with a remarkable strength and clarity.

The previous second I had been at the end of my tether, crushed, defeated. Then suddenly, I was like someone plunged into water, who sinks and then when he hits bottom bounces up with a kick and shoots to the surface with a wild energy he doesn’t know he possessed. It came from deep within me. It was a rage, a fierce merry rage. It was the irresistible feeling of invulnerability. The feeling lasted all that day, and it would return later, in the months and years to come. At the time it even changed my gait. Despite the chilliness and my 40-odd hours without sleep, I floated on air that seemed lighter, my step became a dance. I would recognise the signs of it later, each time it overcame me and cast its ecstatic, rather cosmic hue over my life. I later learned such an episode is called hypomania (somewhere on the continuum between normal and manic or mad).

For 20 years I have been on a roller-coaster ride of a life, littered, mainly, in its tornado wake, with destruction and failure. My condition, diagnosed in 1996, took away almost everything I had: family, friends, businesses, top jobs and the ability to continue practise as an advocate.

Ironically, my breakdown was also the well-spring of the breakthrough realisation that “it is only when you’ve lost everything that you are free to do anything!”

Doctors don’t completely understand bipolar, but they’ve made significant strides in knowledge of the bipolar spectrum, which includes the elated highs of mania to the lows of major depression, along with several mood states between these two extremes. It is now believed that bipolar is mainly caused by an underlying problem with specific brain circuits, the balance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, and, specifically, abnormal serotonin functioning in the brain.

Thankfully, medications are now available to treat the imbalance of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain. I consulted with one of the early researchers in this area, who had lost a brother to suicide, and he started me on Quetiapine in 2008. From that time on I have been able to live as normal a life as possible.

• The True Stories winners have been announced and we will now be running the remainder of the semi-finalists’ tales.

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