Adrian Yunan was witnessing the the highpoint of his career as the bassist of the influential indie band Efek Rumah Kaca when it all started to fade away. In 2005, Adrian was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease caused by a Behçet's disease—a rare genetic disorder found in former trade route countries like Indonesia. Doctors told Adrian that he may lose his sight.
"I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a form of inherited retinal disorder," he said. "But I didn't believe it back then since I asked all family members and none of them ever had it."
Five years later, it happened. It was 2010 and Efek Rumah Kaca's second album Kamar Gelap (translation: Dark Room) was just named album of the year by the Indonesia Cutting Edge Music Awards 2010. The band had previously won similar awards from Rolling Stone Indonesia and MTV Indonesia. They used the fame to start Jangan Marah Records, a label that aimed to support other Indonesian indie bands and help build a scene.
But Adrian was feeling sick all of the time. He had struggled with yo-yoing health for years, but always feeling ill was starting to catch up with him. When the band performed a show in Singapore, he scheduled a full checkup with a doctor. The doctor has some bad news. Adrian had contracted Toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that can cause fatigue, muscle aches and flu-like symptoms that last for months.
"I'd get sick, tired, headaches, and my immune system was weak," he said. "When I hung out with other people, if one of them had a cold, I would catch it almost immediately."
His wife Yonita Ismiyati was devastated. When they married three years prior, the future was bright. Adrian's career as a musician was building steam and the two were looking forward to starting a family. Then suddenly Adrian couldn't get out of bed for days.
"I thought, 'man, my time is near.' I became static. I couldn't think of anything else. I was simply waiting."—Adrian
"We were so excited and happy about our life together," Yonita said. "He had his career and his band. I was working too. We were both productive. Then one day, he couldn't even get up from bed. He couldn't see. I was stressed and panicking. What was I going to do now?"
Adrian spent months in bed as his condition deteriorated. He was ill, feeling fatigued all the time. At first, it was just his health that was suffering. Then his mental state started to fall apart too. Laying there in the darkness, unable to find the energy to get up, Adrian was sure that he was about to die.
"After a while I just sunk mentally," he said. "I thought, 'man, my time is near.' I became static. I couldn't think of anything else. I was simply waiting."
Yonita quit her job within a year to take care of her husband. He was too depressed to get out of bed, too lonely to sit at home alone.
"I had to help him walk to the bathroom," she said. "He was paralyzed [by depression]."
Even when he got better and Yonita was able to return to work, she still had to get a neighborhood kid to come around and read him books and the news so he wouldn't get too lonely. Adrian wanted to write new music, but he felt stuck. It was too difficult to be creative when he felt that depressed.
"I was desperate," he said. 'I thought, 'will I make it through this?' Honestly, I had to go through a process to find a way to think positive again. When your life gets turned upside down like mine, you only see negatives."
Eventually, the gloom started to lift. Adrian still couldn't see, but he started to focus more on his other senses. He was hearing new things in the backgrounds of songs, learning a new way to appreciate music.
"I used to purposely turn off the lights and listen to music in the dark, it sounded better that way," he told me. "But, now…"
"It's dark all the time, right?" I asked.
"It's dark all the time," he said with a laugh.
Melodies started to creep back into his head. Yonita would help him record the riffs and keyboard melodies. She learned how to use recording software and she helped Adrian find his passion again.
"I realized that we're stronger when we're supported by those closest to us," Adrian said. "My wife played a big part in that."
Efek Rumah Kaca began to work on a new album titled Sinestesia. Adrian helped with the songwriting process, and the band asked him to describe what colors he saw when he listened to each song. Those colors became the song titles. Adrian also started to think of music as more than an escape. It was an outlet, a reason to feel better about life, to think positive again.
"When I used my feelings to work on music, I didn't see it as an escape from the burdens of life anymore," he told me. "When ERK started to write again, arranging songs and whatnot, there was a different feeling—a better mood. I used more feelings and love in my music."
These feelings were eventually too much for one album to contain. Adrian started to work on his first solo album, a wistful folk-pop album he decided to call Sintas (translation: Surviving). One of the first songs he wrote was "Mikrofon"—an ode to the role music had played in helping him overcome his illness.
"I thought perhaps God didn't give us a child due to my condition. But when Rindu was born, I could feel the positive energy."—Adrian
"When playing music, my mind and imagination comes to life and becomes my fuel," he said.
He also found a new reason to think positive: the birth of his daughter Rindu.
"I was dispirited, but when Rindu was around, I didn't get tired," he said. "I thought perhaps God didn't give us a child due to my condition. But when Rindu was born, I could feel the positive energy."
When I visited Adrian at his home in West Pamulang, Tangerang, his three-year-old daughter was a ball of energy. She ran in and out of the room and climbed all over her father as he stat on a mattress on the living room floor. The home, Adrian told me, had become something of a safe haven, and a source of inspiration, as he worked on Sintas.
"After I fell ill, I became more sensitive to the situation at home," he said. "Home can be a source of inspiration, it turns out."
But the birth of Rindu brought up new concerns. How could Adrian make sure he's the best father when he can't see? Could he ever pick his daughter up from school, he wondered. "Can I give her my best? Can I make enough money for her education and quality of life?"
Adrian considered the idea for a while. He then explained that maybe these restless feelings were for the best.
"Why do artists have to be restless?" I said.
"When an artist is restless, his creativity flows," Adrian said. "If we're talking about honest art, then it's necessary to be restless."