Her extreme blues almost killed her

SINGAPORE - Ms Mahita Vas realised she had bipolar disease only after she turned 42. She shares in a book the ugly side of her mania.

People used to call Ms Mahita Vas siao (Hokkien for crazy) because her behaviour was disruptive and unpredictable.

For weeks, she would be in an exuberant state, bursting with energy and talking nineteen to the dozen.

Though she never became physically abusive, the petite woman would have screaming fits, yelling expletives at whoever antagonised her. This would usually be followed by a low state, when she felt listless, quiet and sad.

Thankfully, this usually lasted only up to 10 days.

Things would then remain normal for a few weeks to months before she hit another high again and the cycle would start all over again.

It was only in mid-2005, a few months shy of her 43rd birthday that she found a medical reason for her extreme mood swings - bipolar disorder.

Also known as manic depression, it is characterised by periods of prolonged and excessively elevated or irritable mood that alternate with periods of deep depression.

Ms Vas, now 50, had a relatively normal childhood. She was the second in a family of three daughters. Her late father was a businessman while her mother, now 80, was a secretary.

It was only when she was in secondary school that she started to feel different. She said: "I felt I did not fit in because I was very extroverted, restless and talkative."

Occasionally, she felt quiet and sad. Thoughts about killing herself would assail her for no reason.

She had a collection of songs in her head to accompany her in her days of extreme joy and sadness.

After her A levels, she helped her father in his business for a few months before becoming an air stewardess. In 1988, she quit her job of six years and a year later, married an American pilot.

The following year, she started a new career in the advertising industry.

Through it all, the cycle of energy and emptiness intensified. The songs in her head got louder. The ugly side of her mania also began to show its face. She would overreact to certain situations and fly into an uncontrollable rage.

Once, a car moved into a space that she and her husband were waiting for. She was so mad that she got out of the car to yell expletives at the driver and bang on his car hood.

She said: "I would regret it after each outburst and tell myself I would never do it again. But I did. I just could not control myself."

Her manic state served her well in the stressful environment of advertising, giving her energy to work long hours and meet deadlines.

But, inevitably, she would crash. At times, she felt so drained she had to quit her job to regain her strength.

She worked in four different advertising agencies and a luxury hotel chain, from 1990 to 2006, where she rose up the ranks to become a group account director.

Even though she had screaming fits every few months at everybody - including her twin daughters, husband and bosses - nobody around her suspected there was anything wrong with her.

She said: "It helped that I delivered at work. The people around me - including myself - thought I was, at best, just passionate and temperamental, or at worst, just ill-tempered."

It was only in mid-2005 during a phone conversation with her younger sister, who lives in the United States, that she realised she might have bipolar disorder.

She had called her sister after she had two huge outbursts within two weeks. She had threatened to kill herself while screaming at her husband. She had also grabbed a colleague's wrist and asked the woman if she was retarded.

Her younger sister, now 44, told her that she might have inherited "daddy's illness".

A family friend, who was a doctor, had told her sister and mother many years back that their late father, who also had extreme mood swings, could have had bipolar disorder.

Ms Vas could not believe that either she or her father, who had died in 1991 from a heart attack, were mentally ill.

She said: "My impression of mentally ill people was of people who talked to themselves or who had schizophrenia or looked unkempt."

She decided to see a psychiatrist to prove that her sister was wrong.

She was shocked when the doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder stage 1, the most serious type. She went to get a second opinion, only to be told the same thing.

She became depressed and a month later, in November 2005, she tried to kill herself by putting a waxy plastic bag over her head and taping it all round with packing tape.

Luckily, her husband arrived home unexpectedly early that day.

Her husband, 59, said he did not panic when he found her lying still on the floor. As a pilot, he was trained to react calmly in emergencies.

He said: "I could not tear the bag open so I got a pair of scissors and cut it open. She was still breathing and conscious so I bundled her into the car and drove to the hospital, which was only five minutes away."

Ms Vas was put on a mood stabiliser, an antidepressant and an antipsychotic.

But the suicidal thoughts continued to plague her. In April 2006, her doctor suggested electroconvulsive therapy, where an electric current was passed through her brain to reverse the symptoms of her condition.

This managed to keep her suicidal thoughts at bay. In 2007, she became a marketing communications manager at a hotel chain.

She stopped taking her antipsychotic because it made her feel very sleepy. As a result, she had a few outbursts and was asked to leave her job after two years.

She has since learnt her lesson and no longer skips her medication.

She does not need antipsychotics these days as her condition has stabilised, but she carries them in her bag all the time, in case an acute manic episode were to arise.

She takes her mood stabiliser, lithium, twice a day. It gives her dry mouth, acne and muscle weakness.

But she has learnt to cope. She carries mints and anti-acne creams in her handbag, and lifts weights to strengthen her muscles. As lithium may cause blood toxicity, she goes for blood tests every few months.

After running a bed and breakfast service in Bali over the last two years, she returned to Singapore early this year to take a hiatus and write a book about her experience.

Praying To The Goddess Of Mercy: A Memoir Of Mood Swings by Mahita Vas is available at major bookstores at $19.80 (including GST).

Ms Vas wrote the book because she felt there is too little awareness about bipolar disorder. She said: "I should have been diagnosed in my 20s, but I did not understand myself and nobody around me suspected there was anything wrong with me.

"My moods are more stable now. I have been very fortunate with the support I've had. It is as important as treatment."

She is grateful to her husband, daughters (now 21-year-old university students), bosses and small circle of friends who stood by her.

When asked why he stuck with her throughout it all, her husband said: "She is my wife and mother to our children. There were many good times, too. I believe in marriage, we take the good along with the bad, as in the vow, for better or for worse."

leawee@sph.com.sg


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