Ex-stewardess writes tell-all book on bipolar disorder

SINGAPORE - For years, Ms Mahita Vas struggled with disruptive mood swings, from the lows of depression to a frenzied manic high.

The former air stewardess never knew why her moods were so intense until she was 41 - she found out she has bipolar disorder.

"I never thought there was anything wrong with me. Everyone has temper outbursts so I never thought any part of my behaviour was abnormal," Ms Vas, now 49, lives in Bali and is a writer.

She has written a book, "outing" herself and charting her journey from emotional chaos to stability.

Entitled Praying to the Goddess of Mercy, it will be out at bookstores in the first week of October.

What Ms Vas termed as "episodes from the condition" were her increasingly frequent rages.

By then, she had quit flying and was working in the advertising industry.

"The mania served me well not only during the long-haul flights but also in the advertising industry. It gave me the never-ending energy for those long days and nights and weekends, but it also has an ugly side - the rage," she said.

She has lost her temper in carparks, on family holidays, shouted at clients, colleagues and subordinates.

"The outbursts happened so many times that I am amazed I never got arrested. People were so forgiving they never called the police on me," she said.

Incident

The worst was when she swore at a young advertising executive.

"I was doing some calculations on an Excel spreadsheet while she had her hand under her chin and staring blankly at my computer screen.

"Concerned, I asked if she understood and she said 'It's okay. I'll use a calculator.' I lost it," Ms Vas said, adding she regretted her move.

According to the Singapore Mental Health Study, in which 6,616 people were interviewed extensively by the Institute of Mental Health in 2010, more than one in 10 people in Singapore will be stricken by mental illness in their lifetime.

The lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder is 1.2 per cent, but a staggering seven in 10 sufferers did not seek medical help.

Like Ms Vas, they do not regard their behaviour as abnormal.

"It was after a couple of episodes, too many and too frequently that my sister, at the risk of our relationship, said over the phone, 'Maybe you have Daddy's illness'," Ms Vas said.

Their late father was a volatile man, who, at times was happy and enthusiastic, but at other times morose and full of rage.

That was when she went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with Bipolar I, the most severe form.

She was prescribed medication, but she said that as she was coming to terms with her mental illness, the urge to die "weaved its way in and out of her head".

Ms Vas said she was told by her psychiatrist that one in two people diagnosed with bipolar disorder attempts suicide.

"So can you imagine those who were not diagnosed and who died by their own hands? No one would know why a happy, normal person would kill himself," Ms Vas said.

For the severity of her illness, Ms Vas underwent electroconvulsive therapy, where electric currents was passed through her brain to reverse the symptoms of her condition.

"But what was important here were supportive bosses who accepted my illness, even calling me exceptional. My boss at McCann (Erickson) told me to take as long as I wanted to get well, while the one at Carlson, the largest American chain of hotels, hired me despite my mental disorder," she added.

"I wrote the book to show that with enlightened bosses, people whose mental disorder is properly controlled with meds can still function as normal people in society," she said.

She also hopes the book will help others understand that if they are going through the same mood swings to go get properly diagnosed and treated.

Helplines

Samaritans of S'pore (24 hours): 1800-221-4444

S'pore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

Care Corner Mandarin Counselling Centre: 1800-353-5800

juditht@sph.com.sg

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