Health

The Never-Ending Fight to Find the Right Treatment for My Bipolar Disorder Has Left Me Numb

It's always hard to find the right treatment for mental health issues like mine. It's even harder in Indonesia, where even admitting you have a problem is taboo.
Illustration by Farraz Tandjoeng

Heres an uncomfortable fact: I tried killing myself last October. It didn't work. A week later I gave it another shot, and failed yet again. That, for me, was the day the world started to fade away. I couldn't get rid of this feeling of despair in my gut. I lost interest in things I used to love. I shut myself off from the world and neglected my responsibilities at work. And forget looking for a shoulder to cry on—alcohol gave me more comfort than anybody I knew.

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My second, then third, chance at life didn't make me appreciate it more. I fell deeper into this depressing hole I had created for myself. I began to take more and more benzodiazepines until I felt like my body had become too used to them for them to. work anymore. One time, I took 15 pills for them to give me the effect I wanted. It felt like I had thin leaves where my muscles should've been. It made me too weak to even stand straight.

Then a big change happened. My life felt like Bradley Cooper's character's in Limitless. The high doses of sedatives no longer made me weak, it opened my mind instead. It was suddenly impossible to shut my brain off. Sleep was no longer a concern. I became more creative at work, and more talkative. I was literally unstoppable. For a while, a delicate balance of high alcohol and mood-altering drugs helped me live as normally as I could.

Depression is very common but, here in Indonesia, it's often under-reported. In Indonesia, 10 percent of the total population, or about 2.5 million people, are suffering from depression caused by a variety of reasons. Depression is one of the leading causes of suicide, which according to the World Health Organization, happens every 40 seconds globally.

I'm one of the millions of Indonesians living with depression today, but before 2014, I knew close to nothing about it. I didn't know that it would eventually control my life. I never thought this would happen to me.

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Let's dial back the time to after my wedding. My wife and I were blessed with a child. I knew I was supposed to be happy. But with the arrival of my daughter, something else came back to haunt me. This time, I couldn't self-medicate my depression with the benzos. Since the arrest of an Indonesian actor, who was found in possession of 30 pills of benzodiazepines, pharmacies were no longer allowed to sell them without prescription. On the black market, dealers, now aware that the risk of selling them was way higher, started to charge more than I could afford. I felt empty again.

I decided to see a psychiatrist only after having a mental breakdown at work. I knew full well, from my friends, how difficult it is to get mental health treatment in this country. It’s not easy to find the right psychiatrist, and the kind of antidepressants that work without making you dependent on them. But this time I didn't let those warnings to discourage me. Several pointless visits to hospitals later, I decided to contact a psychiatric clinic in South Jakarta.


Watch: Living with Depression and Assisted Suicide


The place was nothing fancy, but I had heard good things about it. I signed up and was told to wait in an assessment room. The nurse, skinny and wearing a hijab, asked me to sit and relax.

“How are you feeling right now? Are you sad?” she asked while jotting down on a piece of paper.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

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“From your face," she replied.

It was strange for a complete stranger to just guess my feelings like that. And I didn't even feel sad. I felt numb. The assessment was more like a job interview to me. She asked, do I hear voices in my head? Have I been eating well? Have I been sleeping?

The next person I met was a doctor in his mid-40s. It was in a narrow room with nothing but two uncomfortable chairs and a table. It was nothing like a psychiatrist's office in the movies, those spacious, comfortable spaces with a big leather chaise lounge. The doctor then read me back the nurse's assessment and asked me, "What's wrong?"

I didn't know what's wrong. I still don't. Maybe it was passed down from my mother's side of the family. Maybe it was my marriage or my job. But I can't say now and I couldn't tell him then. It was like there was something I wanted to say, but I just didn't know how. I've read some books by people like David Hume and Emil Cioran, which made me think, are humans really built to be happy? Humans have made achieving happiness their number one goal in life, but what if there's no light at the end of the tunnel?

For the sake of giving this doctor a concrete answer, I just agreed with everything he said, including that my life at home was the biggest burden. He seemed satisfied with this, and wrote a few unreadable sentences on a form.

He then asked if I had experienced mood swings. Yes, I said. Whenever I took benzodiazepines.

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“You have bipolar disorder tendencies,” he said while looking at me straight into my eyes. “Benzodiazepines are used for treating anxiety. It has nothing to do with bipolar disorder.”

I was taken aback by this. Bipolar disorder? I thought I was just depressed. And how did this doctor come up with this diagnosis after only talking to me for a few minutes? For all he knew, I was lying the entire time. I doubt there's any accurate way in the world to measure somebody else's mental health with one simple conversaton.

At the end of the consultation, the doctor prescribed me several kinds of drugs, including one that contains Lithium, and another that contains Aripiprazole and Trihexyphenidyl. None of them has any effect on me other than drowsiness. I wish there's a simple cure to all of this, but I have to accept that finding an expert who understands me and what I go through, and who will point me to the right medications is a more difficult task than I thought.

Until then, I keep trying to learn more about why I feel as empty as I do. Maybe someday I'll find the right doctor… or maybe not. But I honestly hope so.

*Ajo Kawir is a pseudonym.