Surviving Samsara: A Memoir of Breakdowns, Breakthroughs, and Mental Illness

In Kagan Goh’s debut memoir, he recounts his struggles with manic depression, breaking the silence around mental illness. From the welfare office to the hospital ward and many places in between, Goh struggles to discern the difference between mental health breakdowns and spiritual breakthroughs. Facing his experiences with courage and authenticity, Goh shares his memories of family altercations, being pushed to the brink of living on the street, and visits to his psychiatrist. He explores his diagnosis of bipolar mood disorder not only as a medical condition but as a spiritual emergence—a vehicle for personal growth, healing and transcendence.

Inukshuk

July 1996

As I languish in my bedroom downstairs, Father wrestles his own demons upstairs. Major depression takes hold of him.

I rouse myself from bed to accompany him to Saint Paul’s, where he will receive electroconvulsive therapy. Together we walk down the antiseptic, fluorescent-lit corridors, corridors I had walked on my own as a patient months earlier. Today, we keep each other company as we wander through the battlefield of our fractured minds.

I feel him tremble at a pace unlike the steady shakes caused by his Parkinson’s. Sensing my concern, he reassures me that the treatment will help him. 

"It is not as barbaric as the movies make it out to be," he says, unconvincingly.

I wait for him in a puke-purple room on a sticky plastic seat. I wait too long. Eventually, a doctor brings him to me. 

“You had one hell of an impressive convulsion,” he compliments Father. 

I look at his frail body standing before me, finding it difficult to believe that moments before, he was strapped down, teeth gritting the bit hard so he would not bite off his tongue. One thousand kilowatts of electricity jolted through his forty-watt body.

Afterwards, Father and I walk in silence down Davie Street toward English Bay. His body is weak and our minds are tired. The bay holds the mist tight. We approach the Inukshuk monument: granite slabs of rock arranged to form a mighty statue of a man, a beacon of hope to those who are lost on the vast, featureless tundra. It towers over us, arms reaching out to embrace the sea like a vast father.

The sky breaks and the wind and rain pelt the Inukshuk, Father, and me. 

I wonder, How much pain can a person endure?

"Father,” I say, “you are not alone."

Caitlin Press
2021

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kagan Goh

Kagan Goh was born in Singapore in 1969. He emigrated with his family to Canada in 1986 and now resides in Vancouver. He is a poet, playwright, actor, and mental health advocate. Kagan has been published in several anthologies, including Strike the Wok: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Canadian Fiction and Henry Chow and Other Stories from the Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop. He has also been published in periodicals like Ricepaper, SARE: Southeast Asian Review of English, and Open Minds Quarterly.