Features & Columns
Brandon Ha wanders around Santana Row compelled by the voices inside his head. Some of them sound familiar, the inflections of friends. Others sound like celebrities, mostly President Obama and Steve Jobs. One he can't quite place, but it barks an order as he passes an upscale men's clothing store: "Take it."
Drunk and numb to the sting of the cold winter air, Ha swivels on a heel and steps into the store. He grabs a messenger bag and walks out. He's done this countless times in other shops, driven by the voices. Only this time, someone is watching Ha. A cop follows him to his car and cites him for petty theft.
With a record-scratch halt, illusion cracked against reality, Ha says. Consequences mattered again and this one brought him to criminal court. For all the arrests, jail stays, bills defaulted, jobs lost and suicide attempts, this marked Ha's lowest point in a near decade-long battle against his own mind.
"The embarrassment I felt, I can hardly describe," he says, pausing, searching for the right word. "Consuming. Isolating."
Eight years earlier at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Ha aspired to practice medicine. But something cracked then, too—just slightly at first. Maybe it was the stress of being away from home. Maybe it was the latent emotional wounds from having lost his father during the family's escape from Vietnam and, years later, his stepfather's death. Whatever it was, Jack Daniels helped him forget, though it fueled a force that robbed him of sleep and spun his thoughts into soaring delusions of grandeur.
Not until his first involuntary psychiatric hold, at the age of 22, did Ha learn a name for the jarring ups and downs that hijacked his consciousness: Type I bipolar, a mood disorder that jerks a person from manic grandiosity to suicidal depression.
"I didn't want to be crazy," Ha says. "Taking those pills didn't make me crazy, but I thought, in some twisted way, that if I didn't take them, then I wasn't crazy."
So he didn't. And for a while life continued uninterrupted. He got a good job, a mortgage on a condo at 25, a V12 CL600 Mercedes, a Breitling watch. But the stress of debt and its demand for longer hours and harder work led him to excessive drinking again, to ecstasy and cocaine. And routine blackouts.
Finally, the paroxysm—an uncontrollable flight of aggression and fancy—would send him 51-50ed to the psych ward. The cycle continued. Guilt from the crash, brief treatment, shirking the antipsychotics that helped tame the illness, self-medicating with drugs and liquor and the inevitable, implacable mania.
Standing in court in winter 2010, answering to charges of theft, the shame Ha felt was so much more crushing, weighted by a decade of fuck-ups. Was he psychotic or alcoholic? Thirty years old and accused of shoplifting, he thought about a permanent way out. During the arraignment, his mother placed her hand on his lap and looked up at him.
"However many mistakes you think you've made, I will always love you," she whispered in Vietnamese.
Ha bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut to lock away the tears.
"At that point, I decided to get help," he says. "I realized, ego aside, that my problem, whatever it was, affected not only me but the people around me."