“Do you love me enough that I may be weak with you? Everyone loves strength, but do you love me for my weakness? That is the real test.”
— Alain de Botton, Essays in Love
Ever felt depressed or battled a mental illness? While it’s non-binary and feels different for everyone, it’s a reality for over 300 million people globally. Myself included. I wish I could be more crisp and eloquent but the truth is, taking this vulnerable moment feels almost too terrifying and raw to share.
When I was 13, I secretly consulted a local GP after school. Picture 13 year old me in my mum’s red hoodie (we didn’t wear school uniforms), alone in a doctor’s office on a freezing cold North Melbourne day. Nobody else knows this.
“Think I might be depressed,” I whispered, embarrassed and confused. I had no vocabulary to express my overwhelming circle-the-drain anxiety, cousin of depression. I didn’t realise how abnormal it was to be an insomniac because you were kept up with worry-on-loop. I didn’t understand my spectrum of intense brightness and levity to almost instant darkness.
“You can’t be,” he shot back. “You’re wearing red.”
And with that, I was written off as another angsty teen and sent home with a narrative that had played over in my head for the next decade and a half. I can’t be depressed, I have a ‘great’ life. I can’t be depressed, I have a glamorous job. I can’t be depressed, I post positive memes and am spiritual and think life is a gift. I have a roof over my head and I’m not escaping from a dictatorial regime, I don’t have a right to be depressed! Cue all the things you do to keep feelings of shame, confusion, and anxiety at bay. That’s not to say my feelings of joy or happiness were fake and put on—they’re definitely authentic. I just did a better job at hiding the dark and shadowy aspects of myself to (myself) and everyone else. It was safer that way, I believed. Perhaps to some extent, we tell ourselves that we can only be loved and accepted if we’re whole, positive, and unburdened.
And so I genuinely thought that I was fine and ‘normal’ (whatever that means, which is to say—nothing), till I was at a local doctor’s office in Singapore, at breaking point over a fantastically toxic situation which I had no control over. Too exhausted to pretend, I simply said: “Look, I’ll just say I have the flu and you can put that down on my medical certificate. I just need a mental health day.”
Sensing there was something more (thank God for intuitive doctors!), she readily wrote up an MC and said, “I can’t be sure… but to me, it sounds like you are depressed and that you might want to speak to someone about this,” she said before referring me to a psychiatrist who later diagnosed me with clinical depression. This is a great video to learn more about what we call the black dog of depression.
I hadn’t expected that answer. I had braced myself for judgement or at the minimum, her indifference. I believe her reaction and sensitivity saved or rather, extended, my life that day.
I can’t say therapy or medication is for everyone. I’m also not here to go into the politics of what privilege and having access to these resources means, but I do believe a combination of factors including cognitive behavioural therapy and incredible partner, have been a lifeline in the past year.
Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. And if you or a loved one suffer from mental illness, you’ll know that it’s a daily challenge. Some days you’re ok and others… well, the bottom drops out. There are days where the thought of washing your own hair is exhausting. Or when you think you’re great and some trigger brings back the grip of past trauma and you’re drowning again. I get the moments of panic and spiralling. Where you only have enough energy to whisper “God” in both question and prayer. “God” has been my one-word prayer many a time. While I cognitively know He’s closer than my very breath, I sometimes wonder if He is still here, if He is still good.
We talk about ending the stigma of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses and it really begins here. Here are the scars to my beautiful, as it were. For this, I’ve asked some friends who serve as endless inspiration…
Alli: Not everybody has a mental illness but they do have mental health. What is mental health to you?
Karman Tse, founder of Wear Oh Where (@thisiskarman): “There is so much to be said on this subject. A little background: When I was in my late 20s, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. When that happened, my whole world, my life, my self, as I knew it collapsed, and broke into a million little pieces. I no longer recognised the me I was becoming — I was a walking cocktail of profound sadness, anger, hopelessly, fear and self-loathing. I was overwhelmed, exhausted and confused by feeling everything and nothing/empty/hollow/numb at the same time. I sabotaged my relationships. I stopped showing up for Life. But life had to go on, so I made someone up and pretended that was me: Functional, normal, and as perfectly put together as I could help it because the world can never see what lurked inside of me. That was over a decade ago.
Because I have had my brush with mental illness, I now know how much my life depends on my mental health — so I take care of it, heart, mind and soul. I don’t always succeed, but I try, every day. To be honest, I have only just begun on this journey of re-discovering and rebuilding my self, putting the pieces back together one by one, day by day, breath by breath.
So, what does mental health mean to me? In this moment, it means asking a lot of questions, educating myself on depression, human psychology, and spirituality. It means doing the inner work every day to sharpen the tools I already have and to acquire new ones that will help me (and hopefully help me help others) cope with my emotions, the anxiety and days when the depression returns. It means being brave enough to confront the dark stuff — the past, the triggers, the wounds, and talking/writing about them — the goal is to make peace with them. It means defining happiness and success for myself and having a healthier relationship with myself. It means a lot of me-time (aka saying “no, thank you” to anything and anyone that is not right or good for my energy — without feeling bad about it.), nature time, picking up the language of positive self-talk. It means not stressing out over things I cannot control, and saying it’s okay to be imperfect and flawed, to fail — because who isn’t? Who doesn’t? It means being honest with myself. It means slowing down, cloud-watching, meditating, being with a good book, watching Netflix, hanging out with my best friends, doing work that is meaningful and in alignment with my purpose, staying in the present. It means to live with kindness and gratitude. And when shit happens, it means I have the power to choose to see the potential and the lesson instead of the problem. Allow me to wrap up with my current favourite words from Billy Joel’s Vienna (Have you watched The Politician? Please do):
“Slow down, you’re doing fine.
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Slow down, you crazy child
And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile
It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two”.”
Alli: What do you do when you’re feeling down/depressed or like your mental health isn’t great?
Norman Tan, editor of Esquire Singapore (@musingmutley): “Either hit the gym while blasting a high energy track (currently hooked on Higher Love by Kygo and Whitney) or listen to an audiobook while going for a walk in the evening.”
Karman: “There are many shades of blue, but no matter how dark it gets, I eschew medication. Journalling has been a life-saver. Other than that, I meditate, go to a yoga class (actually, the first step is to convince myself to get into my yoga clothes). I put on the diffuser with my favourite essential oils (lemongrass / May Chang / Lavender), do slow, deep belly breaths and sigh loudly, visualising that I’m releasing all negative energy. I take myself out to a movie, go to a bookstore. I’ve recently learned to reach out to friends to ask for help. In extreme cases, a plane ride and a getaway. EFT (a tapping technique). A good cry. Sometimes, unfortunately, nothing helps. So I just let myself be depressed and take a “mental health day”, and know that I can and will try again tomorrow.”
Sher Reen, architect (@sherreenl): “This is a very bad habit but for years I would reach out to my ridiculously supportive friends and family to ‘dump’ in exchange for almost-immediate support and comfort. This year, I have become more conscious of/been working on boundaries and growth…so I am learning to first sit with said feelings, process them, journal, yoga and/or meditate. And then talk to friends and family when things or feelings settle.”
Mike Nguyen, designer (@mikenguyen): “I definitely try to step away from all the noise of the world and meditate to some calming music. It gives me the opportunity to assess everything and put all my worries into perspective. I also turn to incredibly empathetic friends in times of need. Sometimes a simple smile and good hug really helps lift my spirits. But I also feel like vocalising your worries to someone can really help, rather than building it all up inside–which can often lead to a big emotional breakdown.”
Alli: “It’s important to know your triggers. When my energy is extraordinarily low (because of not enforcing boundaries, or being too harsh on myself) or I’ve because exhausted myself by obsessing over certain thoughts at night, I’ll know the day is a write off. I have also in time, learned to recognise that my anxiety sometimes manifests as irritability and I’ll withdraw to regroup because I don’t want to hurt the ones I love. I’ll just try to be as gentle and non-critical with myself as possible. I try to turn down the voice in my head that says I’m only valuable if I’m productive and ‘out there’. My psychologist likens depression to your mind having the flu, which puts things in perspective. You wouldn’t be mean to yourself if you have the flu or a broken nose… you just have to breathe, and ride it out because all that anger and hostility isn’t going to help you heal any faster. So I like to take what my doctor calls ‘psychological rest’ and be ok with it. If you need to take time away for yourself, do it. The ones who truly love and understand what you’re going through will respect your boundaries without guilt-tripping you or personalising your need to withdraw. Mental illness is a trapdoor, sometimes. I tell myself I’ll try again the next day.”
Alli: What’s the single most healing thing a friend/loved one could do to support you when you’re going through a dark or rough patch?
Karman: “Wow, I still haven’t really figured that out. I guess, just being there for me, being honest with me (I’d rather hear ugly truths than be mollycoddled — that’s what friends are for, right?), and maybe feed me. :)”
Norman: “Positive, powerful prayer.”
Sher Reen: “Give me a big hug! And be present with me throughout said patch, not necessarily engaging/offering input but reminding me that they’re there should I need or want it. Holding space.”
Alli: “It’s a huge thing for someone with a mental illness to be brave enough to reveal their truth with someone, and we don’t because of fear of judgement or fear that we’ll be thought of as defective or dramatic and needing attention. The most healing moments have been where I’ve been honest with my mental state, and have been met with “me too” or “I’m here for you if you need”. No judgement, no ‘let me fix you, just get over it’ solutions, nobody making it about them and invalidating your feelings or gaslighting you out of how you actually feel… just friends literally listening, and saying in their own way: I love you. Shame OFF you. Shame OFF you. Condemnation OFF you. Shame off you if you need to seek counselling. Shame off you that you are battling this. Shame off you if you’re needing to be on medication. I also listen for when people are genuinely asking, “So how are you, really?”… People who are really invested in the answer. That to me halves the burden.”
Alli: Share some of your favourite resources for mental health support
Karman’s epic list:
Podcast: Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and goop are my go-to’s. Also, On Being and Gurls Talk
Books: Gosh, too many. Off the top of my head, The Wisdom of Sundays (Oprah), The Path Made Clear (Oprah), Lost Connections (Johann Hari), The Book of Joy (Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu), A New Earth (Eckhart Tolle), The Seat of the Soul (Gary Zukav), Anatomy of the Spirit (Caroline Myss), Inward (Yung Pueblo), The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
@Apps: Insight Timer (Teachers: Sarah Blondin, Tara Brach, Davidji and Annemaree Rowley), Happy Not Perfect
Soul Asylums: Como Point Yamu (Phuket), Absolute Sanctuary (programmed retreat in Koh Samui), Auriga Spa, Paris (this is a very personal choice — in Paris I found myself. Cliché but true.)
What else: EFT (Emotional Freedom Freedom Technique — a tapping exercise), Kundalini (The Yoga School), Crystal bowl sound healing (Space 2B), Trinfinity8
Norman: “I feel that actively seeking a family member or friend for a talk is best. It can be easy to focus on the problem and therefore amplify the negative emotions. I’ve learnt to get up and get going. Do what you know that works for you… be it exercise, watching a movie or catching up with others. Take a proactive step to get out of the funk.”
Sher Reen: “…to be honest, until very recently, it wasn’t something I consciously looked out for? I’ve been listening to a lot of yoga/meditation music on Spotify, and meditating with an app called Insight Timer.”
Alli: “Through journalling, I pose questions to myself and fill them out, and it’s a really revealing and meditative exercise for me. Colouring-in isn’t my thing but words and definitely sensorial things like touch and smell such as getting an aromatherapy massage helps. I think sometimes the very act of diffusing something into the air changes the energy in the room. And when I can, I try to move or travel and try to be excited by life again.”
If you’re feeling mentally distressed and struggling to cope, please reach out to a trusted loved one or medical professional.
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Some days I sit in the clinic and observe the other patients. While we know that statistically women are more prone to mental illness than men, it’s definitely true to say that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. To your left is someone who has flown in from a neighbouring country to literally see the therapist (you’ll know because they’ll buy 3 months worth of medication before their same-day flight back to London or Indonesia) and to your right is an everyday uncle who also needs treatment. Young students, retirees, entrepreneurs, male, female, LGBT non-binary folx, people in Audemars Piguet watches and Birkins, people wearing Crocs. There is no one ‘way’ mental illness should look and we all need a break sometimes.
Thank you to Karmen, Sher Reen, Mike and Norman for sharing their hearts and for Mark, Drs Charlotte, Francis and Jamie, and friends who have lifted me up especially in the past year x