Dealing with Mental Illness on the Road (How the Beats Inspired Me to Live a Life of Purpose and Fulfillment)
For me, Jack Kerouac was a hero who became an eccentric but distant alcoholic. Early inspiration in my life ultimately came from the Beat writers of America. It had been the first movement in the country associated with hippies, dropouts, burnouts, druggies, artists, and malcontents. This was a literary movement that inspired a generation. My name is Bryan, and I’m a published author. Previously, I worked as an audio engineer, traveling with a Beatles impersonation band. Then I switched to working as a copywriter and began tutoring and teaching English to ESL (English as a Second Language) students. In 2018, I left the U.S. for Italy and then made my way to Southeast Asia. The following year, I traveled to 12 countries. I spent the last two years living in Da Nang, Vietnam (mostly) while working remotely during the pandemic. I’ve also self-published 15 books. I wrote about Allen Ginsberg’s impact on my life for a literary magazine dedicated to the Beats. His famous poem Howl astounded me with its ferocious opening stanza that begins with, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” The poem had been dedicated to a friend in an insane asylum. (Ginsberg’s mother had experienced the same.) Mental illness was at the heart of the world’s most important literary movement of the 20th century. Kerouac read his poetry while binge drinking from a jug of wine. On the Road was published a year after Howl. Like Ginsberg, Kerouac’s masterpiece became the voice of a generation. In his letters to his family and friends, he was somewhat manic when it came to developing his work routines. Sometimes he even asked his agent to help him get speed (or one of its derivatives) so he could write his next book. I followed in Kerouac’s footsteps like many boyish, middle-20s, flannel-wearing dudes across America. That led to broken relationships, switching jobs constantly, and never really finding my place under the sun. Kerouac did his best to stay at home with his mother, but Ginsberg preached his views through public appearances and lectures. He implied that the materialism and conformity of modern America often acted as precursors to addiction and mental illness. That dichotomy lived within me. Between poet and madman, shouting from the rooftops by way of my actions, a rebellion I saw in myself and others around me. I had to escape the ordinariness of American modernity. It seemed to be leading us toward the precipice of a disaster. Today, On the Road is taught at Yale University. (Where I recently submitted my second full-length play to their Drama Series contest.) And where is America now?
Traveling the World (Which is My Home)
Before the pandemic began, which initiated a noticeable rise in anxiety and depression, I was traveling the world. My journey began back in October 2018 when I took a one-way flight from Newark, New Jersey to Rome, Italy.
I remember distinctly being on the plane during a turbulent patch when it felt like the whole world was ending as the plane tossed and writhed through dark gray storm clouds and intermittent flashes of lightning. A girl in the seat across the aisle, terrified, curled up into a ball on her seat, clutching her knees in sheer terror. Traveling the world brings to the surface some things you might have kept hidden in normal, everyday life. Like, for instance, being afraid of death. So, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic felt like a rude awakening that still hasn’t gone away.
Finding My Place in This World
I ended my traveling after visiting 12 countries in 2019. After a failed relationship with a beautiful Chinese girl, we separated in Malaysia. I came back to Vietnam.
Before I get to that, another thing most people don’t realize about themselves is finding their place in the world. That is the whole point of defeating mental illness or at least being able to overcome it.
The best part of being a human being is that we get to observe the world. And through that, we get to know ourselves.
That change came to me (or it rose to the surface) when I was mid-way through traveling to 12 countries in one year. I was walking along the streets of a neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul. Looking up at the bright blue sky with wispy white cotton clouds, I felt that the Earth, finally, was my home.
I had that feeling for a bit when I was in Rome.
But I also felt that way when I got back to Vietnam. It was my third time in the country. I had truly missed Da Nang, which is a gorgeous beach city alongside the central highlands.
A big Buddha statue (Lady Buddha) oversees those dangling cotton swabs misting over a twinkling, crystal clear, blue-green sea. Arriving in January 2020, the mellow, vibrant streets came back to life as the rainy season waned in the rearview mirror and tourists abounded for the start of the Chinese New Year/Tet holiday.
Little did we all know our lives would soon be turned upside down for the next 20 months.
The Road Ended in Da Nang, Vietnam
Da Nang escaped the pandemic for most of 2020. I met lots of people who had left their worlds filled with malaise, cloudiness, and despair for their place under the sun. Literally. Then the next summer came, in 2021, and the Delta variant finally arrived in Vietnam. Dealing with mental illness on the road during a pandemic became a lot harder when you were forced into a seven-week lockdown. I spent the whole first day of a new lockdown with a Vietnamese girl I’d been seeing. We shared the same birthday. Through the big windows of a beachfront hotel, the sea glistened. Birds hovered, scattered, and soared. Fishermen baked in the relentless sunshine. Dystopia began to appear. The local government shut down businesses, set up checkpoints, and then forced the entire city of 1.1 million people to remain indoors for three weeks. I got stuck in a 25-floor hotel with only two other guests. Some of the staff moved in during the stay-at-home order. I had room service. Soon, mental illness reared its ugly head. Suddenly, I had to rebel. There were barricades put up between neighborhoods. I wanted to knock them down. But really all I could do was to follow orders. Vietnamese are some of the warmest, friendliest, kindest, and most generous people you could ever meet. Mental illness in their country is taboo. And nobody questions the government. I saw everything differently, again. Da Nang began to look ugly in a brutal lockdown, and America to me seemed to be one of the greatest places in the world. After somewhat of a mental breakdown, I knew I had to get out of living each day as a prisoner. I told the girl I’d been seeing that the lockdown felt inhumane. She thought that was a bit harsh. Foreigners were not able to renew their tourist visas any longer. I joined a Facebook group of others looking to take a bus to one of only two international airports in operation. I could no longer handle sitting inside for weeks at a time with no end in sight. So, I made my escape.
What I Learned from the Pandemic and Traveling the World
The pandemic and traveling the world taught me that it doesn’t really matter where you are, but what you make of your life is what really counts. Some people prefer their cage. In a strange way, it helps them to feel safe. Others prefer freedom. The Beats spoke to that sentiment through their art. Writing becomes a form of escape when there isn’t any. What’s yours?
Stray cat in Istanbul, Turkey. Author’s photo. (July 2019)Stray cat in Istanbul, Turkey. Author’s photo. (July 2019)