Real Talk

When Battling Stigma Is Tougher Than Depression

Ironic as it sounds, the key to beating depression is to acknowledge and even embrace it. Hear it first-hand in this first of a three-part mental health special.

When Battling Stigma Is Tougher Than Depression

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The day I received a letter from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, I finally tipped over and succumbed to depression.

In 2005, my sister Sally, a bubbly music teacher, passed away from colorectal cancer. Mad with grief, I decided to use my writing skills to pen a book of inspirational stories as a tribute to her. This humble project soon snowballed into The Cancer Warriors Project, which comprised a book Cancer Warriors: Tales of Courage and Hope, and a music album. I was even awarded a Young Changemaker’s Grant and received other sponsorship to help cover costs.

Just before my book launch, however, I had my own cancer scare. I kept it from my parents when I went for my colonoscopy, for fear of upsetting them so soon after they’d lost a daughter. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. But when another sister was diagnosed with cancer, I grieved afresh and couldn’t help feeling guilty… Why was I spared when my sisters were not?

In 2006, The Cancer Warriors Project launched and I embarked on a whirlwind publicity tour and was featured on the radio, TV, newspapers, magazines and websites. As readers spread the word, many started sharing about their own struggles after losing loved ones. One lady in Japan emailed me multiple times a week: “Today is Saturday and I’m so sad because my sister died on a Saturday…”

I was 29, barely coping with my own grief and in no position to counsel anyone else. But I couldn’t say “no” to or ignore my readers: they were as broken as I was. I was at the peak of my career as a magazine editor but, emotionally, I was drowning under the stress. So, why did PM Lee’s letter tip me over into an abyss?

As unbelievable as it sounds, I felt like an imposter. I never meant for the project to be so successful. I did it while juggling my day job. I worked all day, wrote all night and through weekends, and stayed in the recording studio till the wee hours. Unknowingly, I’d fled into the mind-numbingly hectic schedule not just to fulfil my sister’s dream but also to delay my grieving.

Doctors and counsellors pointed it out to me but I refused to listen. That’s how depression works: it blocks you from seeing reason. Eventually, I avoided talking about my project.

That very sweet letter from PM Lee, who wrote that he was touched by the stories about the cancer warriors, broke me. If I was truly as good as they said, why did I feel so terrible? I lost 10kg. A foodie all my life, I lost interest in food and just about everything else. Insomnia kept me up at night. I’d fall asleep at the wheel. At work, I operated on autopilot but would sometimes blank out over the simplest tasks, like filling out a leave application form. I was engulfed by sadness. My body finally gave in to the delayed grieving and fatigue.

When I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I felt so ashamed. I’d always been that outgoing, gung-ho girl. How did I end up with depression?

I suffered further bouts of guilt when my colleagues had to take over my work. Every time I returned to the hospital, my medical leave was extended. “I just want to go back to work!” I remember almost yelling at my doctor in frustration, who threatened to hospitalise me if I refused to rest.

Compounding the stigma of depression was the horror of being hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. I tried to become the model patient (like my sister). I religiously took all my medication. I reported side effects and switched up my cocktail of drugs. I took sleeping pills so my weary body could rest and recover. I willed myself to get better and resume regular programming.

I thought if I worked hard enough, I could beat it — but no.

“Do you have suicidal thoughts?” That was one of the first questions my doctors asked me. To be honest, I did. I had lost all interest in life but I simply had no energy to kill myself. Instead, I wished somebody would do me a favour and just do it.

Then, I found out that I was 13 weeks pregnant. So I stopped taking my antidepressants (even though my doctor said we could try other pills proven to be safe for pregnant women). But I felt I’d given my child a bad start so I stopped going to the doctor. I convinced myself that I was probably suffering from pre-natal blues. On the plus side, having a life growing inside me helped pull me out of that suicidal black hole.

After I gave birth, I juggled the insane workload and being a new mother. My mental health was the last thing on my mind. To spend more time with my son, I quit my job to part-time as an adjunct lecturer and freelance writer. Professionally, I was thriving. Yet whenever I had some hard-earned time off, my mood plunged. I couldn’t get out of bed and stopped eating. My mind felt both empty yet pounding with looping thoughts. Then, suddenly, I’d feel better and get out of my funk.

This became a recurring pattern of behaviour over the years. That’s another lie that depression tells you. It seduces you into recognising a darkness. “I’ve been here before. I can’t fight it. I just have to wait it out.” When I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel — I don’t know how or why, I just suddenly feel better — I’d be so thankful.

That was when my mind would respond with another lie: “You’re fine! That was a one-off, you’re not depressed!” And when you feel fine, why would you go back to the psychiatrist? Looking at my jovial ways, no one suspected that I was battling depression. Instead of getting it properly treated, I was relying on my own mental strength.

In 2015, a horrific accident landed me in hospital and chronic pain pushed me back into depression. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I finally sought help from a psychiatrist. Initially, I hated having to take medicine, and would plead with my doctor to reduce my meds every time I saw him. He’d then remind me how I’d suffered needlessly for the last 10 years.

I have grown to appreciate that meds help to balance my moods while regular psychotherapy sessions help me unpack my emotions and be more vigilant about my pain points. Five years on, I still faithfully take my meds. I no longer need to see a psychologist or counsellor, but I feel more assured of my mental well-being than I’ve ever been.

With one in 16 people in Singapore having depression at some point in their lives, we cannot afford to sweep it under the carpet. You are not weak if you have depression; you are strong because you chose to seek help. If you need meds, think of it as treating a physical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Acknowledge, even embrace, your illness — it helps you look out for changes in your mood. And the faster you detect the danger signs, the earlier you can seek support. Stay the course, keep following up with your treatment and trust your doctors.

Don’t waste 10 years of your life like I did.

This story first appeared in the April 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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