I hatched a plan to kill myself when I was 21. This is my story of my still-ongoing recovery.
Soft truths to keep S'pore from stalling.
94 youths committed suicide in 2018, 19 of them being male teenagers — a 27-year high.
Alarmed and heartbroken by the report, my editor approached me to ask if I would be willing to write an article to detail my experience of coping with my depression, and how I convinced myself not to end my own life.
In her message to me, my editor used the word “willing”. I believe it is because she is worried about the repercussions that writing such an article will have for me — more specifically, for instance, that future employers might find out.
This used to be a concern of mine too. But thankfully, I realised that I really would prefer not to work anywhere that has such a closed-minded and uninformed perception of mental health.
What my editor doesn’t know, though, is that I felt not just willing but obliged to write this, considering I could have easily become one of those SOS statistics.
Feeling worthless and hopeless – but this isn’t normal
In his interview with The New Paper, senior assistant director for Samaritans Of Singapore (SOS) Wong Lai Chun said young people often cite being overwhelmed by “feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness”.
Everybody’s experiences, emotions and struggles are unique and cannot — and should not — be generalised. But I think what he said is a perfect summary of what I felt in the past couple of years.
I honestly do not remember the specifics. I suspect that the forgetting is intentional as I wittingly avoid thinking back to that period.
I liken my depressive episodes to catching the flu: you can never know when it will strike, but when it does, it’ll take some time before you feel like yourself again.
But the critical difference is that there are no pale lips or hoarse voices; other than the obvious change in mood — which everyone dismisses as us just having a bad day — you look and sound pretty much the same.
As per normal. But what I felt was anything but normal.
It is not normal to hate myself so much that I start devising ways to “get back” at myself for wrongs I’m not clear I did — I stopped caring about my appearance (admittedly, I am usually quite vain); I lost 3kg in three weeks because I denied myself food; hurting myself became a viable option too.
People unintentionally made things worse for me
Confused and frightened, I turned to my friends for help. I am ceaselessly grateful for the patience and support they have given me.
But – and I am probably going to sound really ungrateful here – the best of intentions can sometimes result in the greatest harm.
In a journal entry from 2015, I wrote about how people who have good intentions often inadvertently end up making it worse for those suffering from mental conditions.
They may come across as trivialising our problems by comparing them with their own.
This was, from my experience at least, largely counterproductive because it just made me feel like I was weak.
Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote back then:
Often, they only make it worse.
They trivialise your problems, by comparing it with their own — “I’ve been through worse.” — and it leaves you feeling like a petulant child. When you try to explain yourself, they suggest that you are being dramatic, because surely, it can’t be that bad. “It’s all in the mind,” they say assuredly to you.
However, you don’t blame them for doubting you because you never believed in yourself too. You convinced yourself that they were right, you were just being melodramatic; that you’re weak and you need to man up.
When a panic attack triggers the desire to self-harm
I remember coming close to hurting myself on two separate occasions, both during a panic attack.
During the first occasion, I felt a concoction of emotions trying to pry their way out of every single one of my orifices. My surroundings started to feel ‘hostile’: I felt trapped, and I was convinced the walls were closing in on me.
It is a difficult sensation to describe.
The best adjectives I can think of to explain a panic attack to others are “overwhelming” and “menacing”. I was frightened and I wanted more than anything to numb that pain with a physical one — I wanted to slash my wrist.
But thankfully, instead of turning to self-harm, I dragged myself to the A&E instead.
It was there that I was diagnosed with dysthymia, or persistent depressive disorder. My doctor said that it is difficult to determine its “root cause”, though, as my condition is the result of biology, personality and/or environment.
The times I thought of suicide
There were also several occasions where I contemplated suicide.
The closest I came to killing myself was during one of my (many) guard duties.
I went to the toilet during one of my prowls. I was sitting inside one of the cubicles with my rifle in my hand while my buddy waited outside for me.
In the still of the night, I considered putting the rifle into my mouth, cocking it and pulling the trigger, to end the turmoil I felt inside.
It probably sounds like a no-brainer to many — to choose life instead of death — but it would honestly have been easier for me then to have chosen the latter then than to continue to go through months feeing thoroughly numb about everything.
I do not remember exactly why, but I chose not to pull the literal (and metaphorical) trigger in the end. I would imagine it is because in that moment, I was paralysed by the thought of breaking my parents’ hearts.
Soldiering on, going through the motions, having the courage to stay alive
After that night, it would be months before I was able to muster enthusiasm for anything. But thankfully, NSF me soldiered on, going through each day purely with my psychomotor skills.
I am very, very grateful to my 21-year-old self for having the courage to stay alive.
This is something most of us do not do enough: to thank our younger selves for being able to continue to go to work or school, take care of themselves, get out of bed, continue to smile despite everything.
Most importantly, to thank our younger selves for choosing to live despite everything that may be telling us otherwise.
Because I chose to live, it has allowed the me today to have all the wonderful experiences I had since, as well as the chance to be with the person I hope to eventually marry.
Recovering from depression is a tricky process
I wish to take a moment to write about the recovery process, which is still ongoing for me.
Treating depression is tricky because its causes are often complex.
In his interview, Wong mentioned that many males feel pressured to conform to a “masculine stereotype”. This is something I, too, struggled with when I was younger.
As a kid, I was regularly made fun of because of my high-pitched voice and “feminine” attributes. For instance, I used to get bullied for crossing my legs, wearing clothes with bright colours and floral designs, and for the shows I used to watch (I loved “Totally Spies”).
To make matters worse, because I was once overweight at 100kg, I also constantly had my man boobs flipped.
I now understand that coping with these traumatic experiences in my formative years changed me permanently.
Till today, I still struggle with my self-esteem and identity. I continue to carry around a lot of “phantom” weight from when I was heavier — even though I’ve lost almost 30kg since.
Nonetheless, I am proud of the progress I have made as I am finally beginning to be able to love myself.
Living with depression for the rest of my life
Even though I no longer experience the same frightening dips in my mood, this condition is something I probably have to live with for the rest of my life. I will also likely have to take my antidepressants for years and continue to diligently manage my stress level.
One particular coping method I find useful is to not let others invalidate my emotions and my experiences.
After a lengthy period of introspection, I have learnt to be less affected by what others think of me, even if they may think of me as “un-masculine” for pouting my lips or wearing a floral shirt.
This was only after I unlearned ingrained biases — for example, learning that not everything can be neatly categorised into “masculine” and “feminine”.
It wasn’t easy, but which road to recovery is?
I wish I could tell you that it was, or is, easy.
But it wasn’t, and isn’t: my road to recovery has taken years and has been strewn with heartbreaks, self-hate, fickle friendships, a lot of condescension from others and myself, and worst of all, plenty of backslides.
In the process, I have done many foolish things that ended up hurting others as well as myself. (If my ex is reading this, I want to take this chance to apologise for taking you for granted.)
But I do feel extremely privileged and honoured to have this platform to reach out to anyone who is suffering right now, and to try and convince them that it can get better.
So take from my story what you will, and sprinkle it with a pinch of salt, because there is no step-by-step guide, magic pill to take or straightforward list of “truths” that work for everyone in getting better.
But what I find helpful is to remind myself of what my boyfriend said to me when I was having a depressive episode: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important,” a quote from his favourite movie, “The Help”.
And if I could add one more line, it is that whoever you are, wherever you are going through, you are loved.
Please get the help you deserve. You can speak to the general practitioners at the polyclinics to learn about the healthcare options available to you.
Also, here’s a list of helpful numbers
Samaritans of Singapore 24-hour hotline: 1800 221 4444
For SAF personnel, you can call this 24-hour hotline: 1800 278 0022
For other helpful hotlines, you can visit this link.
Top photo courtesy of Goh Wei Hao.