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

As I’ve written before, financially I usually break even with Mental Filmness or even end up losing a little money on it. But this, this is how I get paid. With gifts like these.

This is Kagan Goh’s Surviving Samsara, a poetic memoir about living with bipolar disorder. His heartfelt, genuine inscription in the front communicates how honored he was to have his short film The Day My Cat Saved My Life selected to premiere at Mental Filmness. It further elaborates that he toiled over this book, re-visiting and processing painful memories, so he could achieve the very same mission that Mental Filmness strives for—that of invoking understanding and empathy for mental illness.

I guess I need to get a few things out of the way. As I mentioned, this book was a gift from a very kind man who submitted a quite lovely and thought-provoking film to the festival, starring a cat, no less. The book is a memoir about mental illness, and I think I’ve mentioned here before that at one point I read pretty much every memoir on mental illness available in the library. Furthermore, it is a book about surviving bipolar disorder, which is my specific diagnosis. In short, I am very, very, very biased in favor of loving this book.

And, predictably, I do. What I loved about Kagan’s memoir was the same thing I loved about the others I’ve devoured: seeing myself reflected back to me, even when it was painful. Like me, Kagan’s diagnosis came on suddenly and unexpectedly in his young adulthood and broke up a serious and loving domestic partnership, fractured some of his close friendships, and challenged his ability to function and hold down a job. Like me, he rotated in and out of the hospital for years, experiencing suicidal ideation and revelations. He alternated between what he amusingly called a “flaming manic depressive,” proselytizing to all of his artistic friends of his madness and the unique vision it gave him, and being overly apprehensive of telling anyone about his illness, fearing their reaction toward him would change.

An overly simplified way of defining “samsara” is as a cycle of death and rebirth. One thing I love about Kagan’s story is that we see him check into the psychiatric ward on a few occasions. Open and honest about his journey, Kagan shows the realism of most people who grapple with serious mental illness diagnoses: they experience more than one stumble, more than one hospital stay. Mental illness is such a mysterious illness, so multi-faceted and reactive. It can mutate in the face of different medicine and routines and life events. It really does feel like a big circle sometimes. As Kagan’s doctor put it, he had an incurable illness that would last for the rest of his life. 

Kagan’s experience as a spoken-word artist and poet definitely lend the manuscript a verbal artistry and flair. I was happy to recognize the piece that would eventually become The Day My Cat Saved My Life, a vivid portrait of a psychotic breakdown and its accompanying imagery of architecture and riding on an escalator, all interrupted by his cat Tarim “grounding” him. Other episodes are portrayed in the book with an unflinching detail, like when Kagan becomes so hypersexual he persistently tries to seduce a friend of his parents, and when he checks himself back into the hospital after standing on a bridge contemplating suicide and experiencing visions that he is responsible for his father’s death.

The book is formatted in the style of chronological diary entries and recollections, many of them brief and concise. They could probably all stand alone as interesting personal stories, but they all tie together and interweave the same characters and concepts, eventually painting a larger picture of incidents of illness and recovery. Kagan has to experience and conquer many challenges that his illness presents: hypersexuality, suicidal ideation, sleeplessness, intense visions and revelations, and more. Battling mental illness ain’t for sissies.

This book is probably not for everyone. Some may not like its style of short, poetic diary entries that make up a larger narrative. Some may be frustrated with the circular nature of Kagan’s recovery and relapse. It may seem like the story arc doesn’t progress, or end with enough certainty. I could be presumptuous here, but I think the circular nature is part of Kagan’s point. As he says earlier in the book, the doctor tells him he has an “incurable illness.” Managing the illness is a lifetime responsibility, and though it may become easier at times, there are bound to be life changes that sometimes exacerbate it. The idea of a cycle also implies the hope that things will eventually circle back to stability again. 

So how does Kagan’s story end? Well, I already knew that when I spoke to him he seemed both happy and stable, that he’d just gotten his short film accepted into Mental Filmness and seemed thrilled about that. He had several other artistic projects in the works as well, including this book and other readings and theater events. He was happily married and seemed to be well-regarded and to have many friends in the Vancouver arts scene. According to Surviving Samsara, he has been giving back to the mental health community by leading recovery workshops for the mentally ill. Not too shabby for someone whose doctor once advised him that people with his condition oftentimes couldn’t work for a living.

Kagan is careful to note that recovery is not an end, but an ongoing journey. He stresses that putting his health ahead of everything–he makes the metaphor that it is the first car in the train pulling everything else behind it–has helped him constantly manage his condition. He hasn’t been back to the hospital in sixteen years. It’s true that there is no cure for bipolar disorder, and recovery can sometimes take much longer than desired, but Kagan and others like him are proof that mental health management and leading a happy and productive life are possible. 

Kagan even has a unique take on bipolar disorder. He feels it should be viewed as a “condition” rather than an illness, and even a condition that can tap into unexpected fonts of creative and spiritual energy. From Kagan’s essay “Zen and the Art of Manic Depression”: “Perhaps people with mental illness are not freaks of nature but instead the next evolutionary stage in humankind. Maybe we are mutants. We are X-Men, who have evolved to the next level of human development. I wonder if people with mental illness are using more of the brain’s untapped potential—unlocking secret hidden powers, psychic abilities, and extrasensory perception.”

Yes, I realize that there’s a bit of a stereotype to the “mad artist or visionary.” And l will readily admit, if I had a choice at the beginning of life, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be born with bipolar disorder. There is no doubt, however, that those of us who live with this condition have experienced a way of thinking that others have not—and yes, a way of thinking that doesn’t quite fit in with society’s expectations. However, the thinking can provide epiphanies, visions, and revelations that can be as beautiful as they are sad. The ecstatic energy and the dark despondency create a more intense and emotional connection to life and the world that provide perspective and deep appreciation during moments of balance and harmony. Kagan Goh taps into all of these aspects of living with bipolar disorder, training an in-depth and non-judgmental eye on his own experiences. He captures the pain and the specialness and sometimes even the humor of living with mental illness in a way that is eloquent and relatable. I would highly recommend Surviving Samsara as a way of understanding and relating to this unique condition. It is a quick, accessible, and very humane read. It is available here:

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