Finding Myself from a Bangkok Mental Hospital

The mental ward was painted in pastel white and green, the cleanliest part in the busy hospital. The couches were upholstered in misty earth-tone faux leather and everything in the waiting room was carefully selected for its ostentatious, almost fake, simplicity. The pictures hung on the walls were straightforward—the painting of a hut in a green field is a hut in a green field. There is no room for interpretation, as if they were afraid a small fraction of false decoration would agitate the mind of the un-nerved patients.
A lot of thoughts could have passed through your mind while you were waiting in the hall of a mental ward: the electric shock, the MRI scanner that cost a fortune; you’d be cleaning dishes to pay your way out of the hospital. None of that mattered to me as my mind was pinned to the deadline I had to deliver the final draft of an article that was looming faster than the queue in the mental ward was growing. I couldn’t just sit on my chair and stare blankly at the forcefully straightforwardness paintings on the wall while my jaw hung low like depression had overcome my erstwhile normal consciousness.
It wasn’t because I was depressed or having suicidal thoughts or one of those syndromes creative people tend to suffer that made me see a psychiatrist. But it was close enough. The mental breakdown was the side effects from the false belief that when you find the job you love that you’ll living the dream. Backed by a handful of articles on Medium.com that urge readers to find the thing they enjoy doing and then look for it in a full time position. The premise is that you take your hobby to the next level—finding jobs the equivalent of the things you enjoy doing when you have free time and you will no longer feel like you’re working.
Everything was all right at the beginning. After I ditched my architectural degree and went to be an interview-writer for a premier English language magazine in Bangkok—I interviewed a handful of high profile people and get to have my interviews published. I thought I was totally game doing what I love: writing and writing and writing, until one day it wasn’t. I recalled when my dad gave me his two cents after I told him about quitting the interior design job to pursue writing, “Work is work. Like it or not, this is what it is supposed to feel like.” I’ve never truly trusted my father who is a flat out Baby Boomer far too strict to the conservative way to understand the dynamic of the new sharing economy (Uber or Airbnb for instance) or even read articles in a foreign language.
“What do you know about living in the big city? What do you know about finding the job you actually have a passion for?” I often told my father this whenever I wanted to win an argument. If there were his life autobiography it would have been written in two pages. My father was one of those people who seek safety in working for the government. At the beginning he was being transferred to wherever the position was available—it could be a remote village in northeastern Thailand or a land bisected by caterpillars, and grasp a position with a low risk of getting fired and guarantee the job there until he’s retired. Banality at its finest.
Now, looking at my architectural degree my father decorated in a golden frame and hung so proudly on the wall of our living room along side the pictures of me growing up. His voice echoed in my head. “Work is work.” I didn’t hope for it to make sense but it did, and when it did I started to question the new kind of serious questions. What the hell am I doing with my life? Is this architectural degree supposed to take me somewhere? Designing a nice resort or decorating a private home for a rich man, perhaps. Five years of my life. Gone. The relationship between architecture and me is over.
So here I was, suffocating the mid-youth crisis. I thought my father’s opinion was useless and I was just curious about what a professional had to say about my situation…
I thought most psychiatrists should exude a certain level of charm and look like they’re more capable of keeping their shit together than the average working person, or at least, their patients. My psychiatrist was nearly bald and had a broad tanned face which he unprofessionally powdered with a cheap baby powder. He was drinking milk tea from a 7-eleven cup and was wearing clothes that Adam Sandler would wear in his movies under the hospital gown. The first time he saw me, he looked at me like I was an easy examination he could easily take with his eyes closed.
He struck me as if he was merely acting as a doctor but was actually a street vendor who fostered skills of convincing people to buy shit they don’t need, or in this case, to make people believe in shit they refuse to believe.
“What brings you here?” He asked while flipping my medical records. It was my first time in the mental ward so he stationed his pen on a blank page as I began to answer. As I was telling him the story I noticed an unseasonal Christmas tree in the left corner of the doctor’s office despite it already being February. My eyes gazed at the doctorial textbook titles and lists of mental disorders on a rustic bookshelf behind his desk which contradicted the pastel white color of the wall, that Christmas tree and his outfit under the hospital gown. Suddenly the mood and tone of the mental ward changed from simplicity to absolute madness as soon as I entered his office.
“So you know what to do already!” My psychiatrist voice emerged, I wasn’t sure if I was done with my story yet. “You know you have problems separating work from pleasure. Then go find pleasure!”
This wasn’t what I had expected to hear. I was hoping that he would enlighten me with his professional advice and compassion or at least give me some anti-anxiety pills and these problems would magically (or chemically) vanish.
“But writing is also my pleasure.”
“Anything besides writing you like to do?”
I paused for a moment. Writing was all I had done since graduating from university and it had been my secret pleasure when I was studying architecture. I was so obsessed with it to the point I wouldn’t eat. “No,” I told my doctor. “Writing is all I want to do. I understand why they have the term starving artist. I haven’t eaten for pleasure in years because I’m afraid if I don’t starve enough then I won’t find my creativity.”
For the first time the doctor seemed to take my words seriously. He said, “I’ve worked here for more than twenty years. I could tell you all about real crazy people if you’re in for a non-stop talk for, maybe, ten days. And I can tell you this. Sam, you are not sick.”
“Then what should I do?”
“Go find pleasure.”
If this had come from someone with an air of professionalism, I would have taken it, but when it came from someone who was not only dressed like Adam Sandler but also sounded like an extra from his movies. I wasn’t sure how to feel exactly. “Go home. Find a new hobby or a girlfriend; find anything that is not writing. But if you think you can come in here and really want to leave with a syndrome I can give you one.” He gestured toward the list of the doctorial textbooks on his shelf. He was obviously challenging me.
“OK, thanks.” I said, although I was dying to know.
On the walk home I found a secondhand shop selling old television sets, lots of box type sets for ridiculously cheap prices. I had always been curious about what was going on inside a television. How does the machine work? What makes the technicolor and sound? I bought one on the spot and waited for the weekend so I could tear it apart and satiate my childhood curiosity. When that didn’t work I was devastated.
In the box of screwdrivers and nails I found an old Staedtler pencil. At once I remembered that in high school, I used to be quite good at drawing life portraits. It began as a hobby, something to do besides attending school. Some kids join a provincial football club or basketball club. Some kids attempt to master a musical instrument, the mainstream. These extra after-school activities enable students to build their own character when the government doesn’t do much to encourage students to fully express themselves during school time.
Without taking a gap year, I signed up for a drawing class to see if artist is the character I wanted myself to be, and luck was on my side. I found it right away. Or I thought I was. The beauty of being young is that no one tells you that your drawings are crap, and, after doing it for a while, nothing could stop me from choosing the artist path.
“You’re going to be poor.” This was what I commonly heard from the people who didn’t appreciate art, but that was more than half the people I knew.
“But I’ll be making beautiful things.”
That was an innocent with a big optimistic hope answer. I was so determined to become an artist. There were rewards in practicing drawing life portraits. In the anatomy examination in my biology class, I remembered all the muscles from the previous drawing practice. Drawing life portraits was relaxing and it gave me a chance to study human emotion and personality. Is the model who poses for me ambitious? Is he fun? Or is he a desperate person looking for money? These tiny details would wind up in the weight pressed from my pencil. But the best thing about drawing life portraits was they helped me understand what it’s like beneath our skin.
All that faded when I was accepted in the architectural school and after pursuing the writing career. Back to the big question: If there were anything apart from writing I would do; it’s this. But I’m not a student anymore; people are not going to give me paid compliments like when I was a student in the art school. If I want my hobby to mean something, I need something more challenging. So I came up with an idea to make a series of serious life portrait drawings on canvases—the nude kind of serious.
“Just Google it, honey.” An artist friend I have in my circle told me during a Facebook chat after I asked him about how to find a nude model. “A lot of nude photos on the internet.”
“No, I don’t want to take nude photos from the internet and draw from them, I want real people.”
“Then call the Liberal Art Faculty and hire one.”
“I would love to but right now I’m broke as fuck. How can I afford to hire a model?”
“You could use an app.”
“Is there an app for people looking for a model?”
“No, I mean a dating app.”
“Tinder?”
“No not that one, too much work. You could use Grindr, though. Talk to the gay people, see if they’re interested. Those people on Grindr with their shirtless pics, ready to hook up. You can choose whoever you want from there, no? Not to mention it’s free.”
So… I was on Grindr—a man-to-man dating app, I figured it was the cheapest way possible to find a volunteer nude model.
“Oh God” I thought as I was completing my profile and struggling with the profile picture. After seeing a bunch of deltoids and biceps on other people’s profiles, I opted for an anonymous picture. On the bio, I wrote; ‘I’m an artist living in Bangkok looking for a model. Hit me up if you’re interested to be my nude model,’ with a basic smiley emoji.
Every other hour on the weekend I would go online waiting for somebody to take the bait. But when no one respond to my Grindr existence, I changed the profile to the picture of me freshly off the plane at the airport and added a mischievous emoji at the end of my bio description.
It worked like crazy. The first man who took the bait was Chinese. He was visiting Bangkok and totally down with the idea. ‘But no sex. I will go to you just for the drawing OK?’ He texted.
The guy was shorter than I’d expected and slightly thinner than the picture on his profile. I was stationing my easel while he was taking his clothes off. He was the type of man that girls would have found attractive, without hesitation he took off his trunks, comfortable being naked in front of me. To my surprise, the one feeling uncomfortable was me. I tried to act as professionally as I could when I was positioning him but the feeling of having a stranger standing still, naked, in my own apartment room made me twitchy. “Can you put the trunks back on?” I asked him. “Okay, no problem.” He said, reaching for his white and blue striped trunks lying on the floor.
When I finished drafting his body with the pencil, the Chinese guy wanted to see what I had drawn on the canvas so he darted my way standing close to me. “I haven’t drawn for five years. Please don’t be upset.” I said when he leaned his face closer to examine the drawing, close enough to my face I could feel his gentle breath, and then he kissed me…
“Dude, you told me no sex.”
“Yeah, but this isn’t.” He leaned forward, attempting to put his tongue into my mouth. “Unless you want to.”
I knew from the beginning that my little experiment could have go awry and my instincts were right.
On Grindr, I received a bunch of unsolicited dick pics from numerous guys living in my vicinity. For some people the dick pics are like the call-to-action for ‘hey let’s hook up.’ For me it was the opposite. Western men would approach me on Grindr with normal introduction, but then things went down-hill very quickly. I had almost agreed with a Dutch traveler who wanted to volunteer to be my model in exchange for the picture. ‘Can I ask something strange?’ he texted me after I hit sent my location. I felt anxious—the Dutch guy knows my location—what’s the strange thing he wanted to ask?
‘Do you sneeze often?’
At first I thought it has something to do with his health or hygiene when travelling in the tropical, sticky climate, but it turned out to be some sort of a fetish. ‘I like the feeling when I sneeze and watching someone sneeze I like even more.’ I thought my idea of inviting strangers from Grindr was strange enough but with the world full of billions of people, there’re countless possibilities to encounter someone with even weirder preferences, and when he texted me ‘The more sneezes the better.’ I pictured what comes with the sneezes and blocked him.
On the next doctor’s appointment I told the story about my new hobby and that TV from the secondhand shop to my psychiatrist. He was stunned, expressionless. Then he broke the silence.
“Can you tell me what the hell is Grindr?”
I wished I had recorded this so I could get a refund from the hospital.
Mental syndromes are like the dysfunction of the collective personalities from the sources we think we belong or the communities we deserved. I denied my father’s advice and trusted those creative people on Medium.com who I haven’t met. The breakdown took me by surprise when I was standing in the middle of the bridge between Thonburi side and the city side listening to the sounds of traffic behind me. I used to worry about how I was going to be as good as the person I was listening to. I was afraid if I listened to my father I would end up just like him. If I listened to my peers, I would be just as good as them. It got to the point where I saw myself, all alone, without anyone to count on.
It took me two doctor’s appointments in the mental ward and a secondhand television that I broke it with my own hands to see that the statement is not necessarily true. I trusted my psychiatrist’s advice, I sought pleasure and what happened? I wound up on Grindr asking gay men to be my nude model and almost lost my homosexual virginity to a Chinese guy. I should have known that anyone in his right mind wouldn’t have joined me in this hurriedly abandoned project.
Sometimes when you get really frustrated, smashing things can temporarily relieve you from anger. But to overcome frustration and anger, tearing something apart is not enough; you have to put it back together too. The idea of resurrection my long lost ability of drawing with the nude model maybe too extreme, but, right now, I am sure that art is the way to put myself back together. I deleted Grindr from my phone but I’m still drawing portraits—on paper not the canvas and definitely no nude for now.
When it doesn’t seem to work out most people just change their psychiatrist and look for a new doctor. But I want to stick with one doctor and wish I could tell, between my doctor and me, who is more sane to prove my sanity. He’d probably seen worst. Some guy name Dang with bushy hair who is addicted to video games and Japanese pornography and has a primal urge to shoot people. It’s difficult to remain in a state of normal consciousness when you have to deal with the people like that every day.
On the last doctor’s appointment I bailed on him. I gave up and I didn’t need to take orders from him to go find pleasure and pay the hospital $50 for that privilege. I threw my doctor’s appointment in the trash can and ignored the calls from the hospital. Maybe it’s worth losing my mind for the sake of keeping my heart, so I am back to writing full-time without precaution the same way I was before I went to the mental ward for the first time. I sent the canvases home by train, wondering what my father has to say about that nude portrait of the Chinese guy.
I stored the brushes and acrylic colors into a shoebox. The hospital called again, I looked at my iPhone6S and wondered what it looks like from the inside. You need special tools to open iPhones or any MacBook computer and you need special tools to open a human heart. When my phone went quiet, all I wanted to know was what’s going on inside the mind of the psychiatrist. Maybe he was wondering if I broke my iPhone to pieces to examine it or why he still has the Christmas tree in April while waiting for me in his office expecting to hear more.

Featured Image Credit: Daniel Chekalov
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