He burnt his A-level cert and drank his own pee in manic meltdown: 27-year-old man shares his rebound to resilience

(Left) Kevin Wee as a speaker now and (top right) at a time when he struggled with his mental health.
Kevin Wee

Kevin Wee is a picture of calm and easy confidence when we speak to him through Zoom for this interview.

In fact, he shares with us that he's in a good mood because his prior meetings that day had gone well.

But nine years ago, one would have seen a very different side to the 27-year-old, who turns 28 in July. 

Between the ages of 18 and 19, Kevin went through a bout of depression, followed by what he believes to be mania, characterised by a period of intense "high".

The episode culminated in the former Raffles Junior College student recording and posting a four-hour-long YouTube video of him performing bizarre acts, including drinking his own urine and eating dog excrement.

Ironically, it was his sudden intense desire to share his "epiphany" on mental health that led him to create the video in the first place.

Driven to succeed

Kevin describes himself as the standard "Type A personality" who could never stand losing or being second-best. He was driven to excel in whatever he did and as a student, that meant striving to do well academically.

But although he graduated from top schools, he reveals that he wasn't a straight-A student "like everybody seems to think".

"I was more of a hard worker, rather than someone who's extremely smart when it comes to studies."

The talented athlete also had lofty goals for himself in the sports arena. He shares that "at one point, I even wanted to be an Olympian".

But the stress of preparing for the A-levels somehow took its toll, and by the time he sat for his General Paper (GP) in late 2013, Kevin suddenly found himself in the midst of a meltdown.

The mental paralysis he experienced during his examinations was so severe that he ended up handing in blank papers for his math exam.

Incredibly, Kevin scored an A for GP — the very subject he thought he didn't do well in and sparked off his spiral into depression. He ended up scraping by with grades B, B and D for his other subjects (math was ungraded).

At its worst, Kevin's depressive episode plunged him into a dark, emotionless void that caused him to have violent and suicidal thoughts.

"There were thoughts of death, thoughts of me being hanged or chopped up into pieces, just very gruesome thoughts that I couldn't control anymore," says Kevin, sharing that at the same time, he also experienced a loss of emotions.

"I became a hollow human being basically and I'd lost my emotions completely. I felt like a zombie," says Kevin of the "scariest moment" of his life.

He begged his parents to take him to the Institute of Mental Health, which they did. He was given tranquilisers and put on anti-depressant medication.

Kevin shares that what helped him to turn the corner eventually, however, was when he began volunteering, at the suggestion of his parents.

"When I took small actions [to help others], there was some respite. I realised people didn't care whether I got straight A's or not.

"In those moments, I realised that my worth is not just tied to whatever I had built my life on and I had to let go [of that belief] in order to progress," he explains.

But the switch in his mindset also had an unintended effect.

"The epiphany came to me one day that I don't have to go to university to be successful. I could define my own success and be whatever I want to be," Kevin recalls vividly.

And it was a message that he wanted to share with the world. In hindsight, Kevin believes that it was this sudden 180-degree shift that signalled the start of what he self-diagnosed as mania.

"A thought infected me that I was going to be a saviour, an avatar of Singapore's mental health scene," he adds of the reason for creating the four-hour video.

The intense high and the feeling of being a ball of "pure energy" was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. "I didn't sleep for four days," he shares.

In the clip which he has since removed from YouTube, Kevin filmed himself burning his A-level certificate in his room, and scrawling in red paint "grades will not define me" on his bedroom wall.

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Even more extreme was a part where he danced in his mother's nightgown and re-enacted a segment from reality television show Man vs. Wild, where he "drank [his] own pee and ate dog s***".

Unsurprisingly, the video went viral, and "people really thought that I had lost it", says Kevin in a recent podcast where he was a guest. And as a result of the episode, Kevin says he scared some of his friends away, for which he takes full responsibility. 

Rewatching the video as an adult (he still has a copy saved somewhere) however, Kevin points out that the person he sees in the video is not completely unrecognisable.

"It seemed like I was possessed, but it was still me, just that my traits were amplified," reflects Kevin of the manic episode. For fans of Spider-Man, he likens it to when the superhero is taken over by Venom, the alien symbiote that wreaks havoc after binding itself to a host.

It took Kevin another six months before he "came into balance", and he credits his parents and mentors in his life for the adjustment to mental well-being.

"My parents are the closest thing to love I've experienced in my life. They empathised and they never judged me. They gave me the emotional support and space that I needed."

Despite the hurtful comments he received from his schoolmates then in response to the controversial video, looking back, he has gratitude for the criticisms as "it's also what made me who I am today".

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"It allowed me to build resilience, and allowed me to process my pain."

Believing that it's only natural to be motivated "by our private voids", for Kevin, it was this pain and the perceived lack of empathy in society for mental health issues that ignited a fire in his belly to try and make a change and help others be understood.

Becoming a speaker

Kevin shares that in the decade that has passed, his moods have not come close to the low and high that he experienced during that period from 2013 to 2014.

And while the intensity of his fervour to share his message on mental health has abated, it is still the path that he has chosen to tread, albeit "in a more balanced way".

For the record, he eventually did graduate from university, getting into Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information through discretionary admission. With a singular focus on setting up a training company, Kevin used his final-year project as a testbed for his plan.

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"At the core, I still had the desire to build a compassionate and resilient society," he states.

Kevin now speaks publicly about his experience through his social media platforms and the business he started, delivering lessons on resilience to schools here.

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His talks aim to help students cope with the inevitable stressors of life, although they're no magic pill.

"I can't prevent people from going through struggle, but what I'm trying to do is to prepare them for it," he says, stressing the difference between prevention and preparation. "I'm not protecting them, but preparing them for when it comes."

However, he recognises the irony, "that I'm advocating to prevent the very thing that has made me who I am".

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We ask if he fears losing grip and slipping into depression or mania again someday.

"I don't necessarily fear it, but I've been very humbled by the experience, and I know that I'll never be complacent and will always prioritise my mental health," he replies simply.

Kevin lets on that some followers on Instagram have questioned if a recent challenge that he took up on social media to be a "homeless hiker" for three days was a sign of instability.

In a series of Instagram Stories last December, Kevin documented himself walking from Bedok to Woodlands, sleeping outdoors and subsisting only on the kindness of strangers or discarded food.

Sharing that he took up the challenge because he's someone who "needs discomfort to grow", the effort was also in part to help raise funds for Project Green Ribbon, a non-profit organisation that helps disadvantaged communities in Singapore.

He adds: "I wanted to do it to let people see that there's more to life."

Aside from chomping on strangers' leftover food [Covid-19!], the experience was also an eye-opening one for himself, thanks to some helpful and colourful individuals whom he met along the way.

One of them was a Rolex-wearing octogenarian with whom he struck up a conversation at the Marina Bay Sands foodcourt.

The elderly man treated Kevin to a plate of economic rice and gave him $10, but not before chiding: "You must be struggling to make money. No woman will want you."

Rather than be offended, however, Kevin was intrigued.

"He told me he is a rich man and he's not in touch with his kids, and that he has a girlfriend whom he buys condos for," Kevin recounts.

"His whole paradigm about life is measured only by his wealth and his things. I find it so fascinating that at 80 years old, he is still adamant that this is how he lives his life and he will die happy. It was very eye-opening for me, because I never thought an old man would think this way."

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Sharing that his mental health journey has made him redefine success, he admits that he has had to let go of his past ideals in order to move on.

"What I want people to know is that the greatest reward for success is not what I get from it, but who I've become through it and what I give back to others.

"I was born with nothing, and leave with nothing. There's nothing to lose and everything to give."

It's a line that has become his mantra of sorts, and something that he turns to whenever he feels lost or anxious in life. 

Pointing to the sports medals adorning his bedroom wall in the background of our Zoom chat, Kevin shares: "At the end of the day, nobody cares [about them].

"What remains are the memories you treasure, the character that you've built and the lives that you've touched."

And his message to others is not to let one event define the rest of your life.

"If that's the case, then there's no point doing anything else. The fact is, life is a series of events, and how you choose to respond to them is what makes your life."

SINGAPORE HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
  • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
  • Shan You Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 6741-0078
  • Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: www.eC2.sg
  • Tinkle Friend (for primary school children): 1800-2744-788

candicecai@asiaone.com