Shame Off You

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) 

Instagram: @morganharpernichols, @sophia_roe, @_drsoph, @mndflmeditation,

@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

Work it Out

Oh, lethargy!

Unlike my dear, super-enthusiastic friends over at lululemon Singapore, #thesweatlife has never come second nature to me. Every email or conversation is always peppered with, “Wanna do yoga with me?” or “Let’s do a spin class!”

They walk the talk, is what I’m saying.

I guess that’s why it’s called a work out, because if it was anything less than that, it’d be a chill out. -_-

I recently found myself feeling really disconnected from my body and it was only after a restorative yoga class did I realise it was because I had spent too much time in my head, running around with meetings, and too little time in the quiet or on the mat.

We talk about grounding or centering but what does that really mean? When I feel like things are swirling about in my head or that I’m faced with dead ends and no way to progress, I’ve found these things to be helpful:

  • prayer & meditation
  • listening to music (I brought my Airpods to yoga and listened to Raura’s Crystal Singing Bowl Solo Collection album before class which seemed to slow down my beating heart)
  • doing something physical (go for a swim, a walk, jump on a trampoline)
  • adding a sensorial component – or in my case, I brought my crystals, Flow Elixir and Afterglow Elixir to class with me to layer the oils on my feet and heart. They both have complimentary citrus top notes but are grounded in ouds, so it really was the perfect combination of essential oils to help me get in the right headspace. I swear I’ve never felt so calm & euphoric after.
Yin essentials: Flow Elixir, crystals and anything meditative on the Airpods

It’s so funny how often we can talk about things like self-care and mind-body wellness, yet forget that coming back to yourself is actually so simple.

In an age that has completely packaged and commodified self-care, here’s a reminder that:

  • self-care is not to be confused with self-indulgence
  • self-care is about creating a life you don’t need to escape from
  • self-care comes in all forms and is very often the things you don’t want to do/feel like doing in order for you to be or go to the next level. For instance, it’s about confronting gnarly feelings instead of burying them or allowing yourself to be distracted by other things. It can also be about exercising restraint when you want to go on a shopping spree because you know all those bills are going to give you anxiety later
  • when you feel out of it and disconnected from your body/spirit/mind, it’s as simple as doing the thing you’ve been avoiding. There are times to be still and silent. But if you’re feeling ungrounded and needing to restore equilibrium as a result of overthinking things, it’s about actively pursuing peace or balance through movement, touch, and all those other sensorial elements we take for granted.

Upgrading to Serve Me Better

Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.”

– Albert Camus

Is that Ok?

My 3 year old said she wanted to be an astronaut, and I said she had to study hard, go to collect, learn a lot of science, and take a physical fitness test, and she shrugged and said, “That’s just 4 things.” So she’s basically a nonchalant motivational speaker.” – Jennifer Dziurza

Tokyo, Melbourne… I’m not sure about you, but I wake up every day wanting to break free. Spend some time on an island, learn a wellness course in the mountains somewhere. I think I just might be an escapist at heart.

The hardest thing after a trip whether for work or play, is getting back into the grind. Try imagine returning to the gym after a 4 week absence and you’ll get what I mean. People say the grind is where the magic happens, but on days where I’m at a loss for inspiration (or rather, motivation), the grind is what it is.

I suppose it’s about firing up the momentum again and giving yourself grace when you’re anything but enthused about life. It’s been a full-on couple of months behind the scenes at Mmerci Encore – and it’s felt like with every project or plan, something comes along to set us back a week, half a year… Projects or tasks that seem so easy and banal on paper (“it’s just four things!”) but are far more complicated in practice.

Momentum is described as mass in motion, so I guess I have to put my mass into motion. Some days though, when operating at maximum capacity, I think: how much more? When I was younger, I couldn’t help but think perhaps these challenges, tests or hardships are preparing us for an extraordinary destiny. I still do, in a way, but how much more do we need to give? What is ok?

While in Japan two months ago, we lined up for a whole host of small but exquisite hole-in-the-wall (read: unbookable) restaurants. Like many others in line with us, a 50 minute wait time in the dark, rain, or cold didn’t seem to deter us as we were determined to try the sweet fruit of patience, be it uni bowls or yuzu-infused ramen.

Perhaps in a huffy/efficient Singapore-inspired moment I thought, why don’t they take reservations? This literally seats 8 people here, why aren’t there more tables? Why don’t they have more branches? But it only takes one mouthful of food to realise they don’t because it’s the only way to keep to a high standard of food and service; to really respect what they’re doing, and be all in, in that moment.

I left a little bit more inspired and encouraged by that. Growth is great, progress is amazing, but at what cost to quality and presence?

As Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco Partners puts it: “There’s no such thing as perpetual growth. Yet that’s what traditional business people crave. But what is growth meant to achieve? If Oxford University is so successful, then why isn’t there a branch in Washington, D.C.? If a symphony is successful with 120 musicians, why not even more so with 600? “To grow bigger” is not much of an effective business strategy at all.”

I am an Ok person, giving it her best, and that’s enough for today. x Alli

Broken Hearts & Breathing Spaces

Originally published as a Mmerci Encore newsletter, sign up to receive your periodic dose of fresh inspiration x

Last year, the year before I turned 30, I surpassed my financial goals and got a space to make into my own art shed. It, too, was the year my mum survived cancer, and my sister became a doctor. Blessings upon blessings. More notably, it was the year I had my heart very broken.

It was one of those relationships where you come out not very much like yourself — more numbed than saddened, confused, insecure, and to be very honest, damaged. It made me very sceptical, to the extent of wondering if the universe is a loving entity at all for putting such hurtful people in one’s way. I stopped working for a month to regain my bearings. The pain and guilt, however, lingered and demanded to be felt.

Life is trickled with triumphs and ordeals, of good and bad intentions. One thing that’s true is that you get to decide what happens next. You always get to decide. With such a realization came better questions to ask myself. It was no longer “Why did this happen to me?” or “How do we scrub off pain and suffering from our lives so that we only have happiness?” but rather, “Now that we have nothing, what do we give ourselves? How can you be, through it all, your own best lover and healer — your own person?”

I started my recovery by reverting to frequent meditations, even though it was painful because it can have me reliving memories and eventually bawling on my knees. I’d keep at it regardless because, as they say, it gets worse before it gets better. I’d diffuse some lemongrass and cinnamon during my sessions — one is to stimulate the senses; the other, to soothe distress. Heartaches from bad breakups can numb you and depression can make breathing such a chore. It was only when I meditated with oils and reached those deep points of my aromatherapy-infused in-breaths that I was able to feel something good again. The more I get a whiff of that scented air, the more I savoured every breathing moment.

I looked forward to diffusing. One day, I felt like an 8-year old eagerly and carefully lining up my tiny bottles of essential oils on my dresser: ylang ylang, rose geranium, jasmine, lemongrass, lavender, lavender asia. I had with me an aromatherapy chart. “What to smell today? What would feel good right now?” I learned that a great deal of self-care is just giving yourself what you essentially need at the moment. Aromatherapy offered that opportunity for me to choose and create a sensorial experience that matched my mood/vibe. After a while, I’d forget I was hurting, for I was now like a god playing, alchemizing oils into aromatic galaxies and letting them have their way with me and elevate my meditations. Aromatherapy reminded me that we ultimately possess the power to conjure atmospheres — one that is sensible and most assistive to our healing and becoming.

One way or another, my oils kept me alive. Instead of being consumed by anger, grudge, and confusion, they made me open, playful, lit, relieved, and most of all — present.

I don’t know how long it takes to completely heal, but I do know now that happiness and peace begin here — in the little ways you decide to show up for yourself and do what feels good and aiding to your mind, body, and soul. It begins the moment you realize your power to create space and make the air around you a little more breathable.

Sofia for Mmerci Encore
Sofia is Manila-based designer and artist who occasionally writes about meaningful business and self-care. We collaborated with Sofia to write letters for Mmerci Encore.

About Mmerci Encore

Mmerci Encore is our riff on the French phrase ‘thank you again’ and we’re all about celebrating the small things. We’re an artisanal aromatherapy label offering self-care products for skin and psyche. The line includes aromatherapy perfumes, blends, and body products. Our intention is to create goods that help people pause, rebalance, and come back to themselves.

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a healing modality that captures the life force of plants, flowers, roots, bark, resins and more to promote physical and emotional well-being in the form of essential oils.

Why essential oils?

Essential oils can be diffused alone or blended together, offering a plethora of health and wellness benefits. The action of the oils on the limbic system and the adrenal cortex work rapidly when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. We recommend 3 to 5 drops in a diffuser. As our essential oils are very potent, never apply them on the skin neat. Remember to blend them into a carrier (or vegetable-based oil) such as coconut, grapeseed, or jojoba if you’d like to wear them on your skin.

Bergamot busts lethargy and overwhelming feelings of sadness. SHOP

Rose Otto and Chamomile (found respectively in our Moon Phase PMS Trio) is already blended in Jojoba and can be used to anoint over the heart and sacral areas. These exuberant oils celebrate self-love and self-confidence.SHOP

Ylang Ylang when used in small doses is an aphrodisiac and helps you unlock or rediscover your sensuality without shame or guilt. SHOP
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