COMMENTARY: At the age of 21, Goh Wei Hao hatched a plan to commit suicide. As he reflects on his journey with depression as well as the ups and downs of the recovery process, he said:
"I am very, very grateful to my 21-year-old self for having the courage to stay alive."
This is an updated version of an article first published in 2019.
Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day.
I first wrote this article in August 2019. That year, the government reported that Singapore recorded a 27-year high of male teenage suicides in 2018.
Heartbroken by the report, a Mothership 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.
Seeing that World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10) was fast approaching, an editor once again reached out to ask if I would be willing to work on an updated version of this article with her.
Like the editor before her, she used the word “willing”. I believe it is because both of them are concerned about the repercussions that writing such an article will have for me — for instance, that future employers might find out.
Since this article was published, I have been asked about this during past job interviews. To date, I have not been turned down for any positions because of my depression. Admittedly, I would not be too upset if I was as I would prefer not to work anywhere that has such an uninformed perception of mental health.
It is heartening to see that since this article was originally published, the conversations around mental health have increased. Not only are more government agencies, private organisations and politicians speaking up about mental health, individual voices like mine have also been amplified by social media.
Multiple government agencies have also come together to organise a month’s worth of activities around mental health awareness.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, I believe that mental disorders are still stigmatised in Singapore. I still hear stories of friends who delay or deny themselves treatment for their disorders because of fear of repercussions from their employers, family or peers.
There is also a sense of helplessness amongst my peers with depression as they believe that medical intervention will not help them.
Two years on, rather than just feeling willing, I feel obliged to share my story because I am luckier than most. I have a supportive family and partner, a capable doctor and this platform to share my story. I owe my recovery not only to myself, but everyone who has shown me kindness.
I am aware of how privileged I am in my recovery than most, so the least I can do is to share my story in hopes that it might be useful in someone else’s healing.
Even when I am recounting my story to my friends, I would always give a huge disclaimer at the start: Please take my story and ‘advice’ with a pinch of salt as mental health is deeply personal. Everyone experiences and copes with their issues differently.
What I am writing is definitely not a manual for depression. Instead, what I hope to achieve is to use this wonderful platform to reach out to others who are suffering to let them know that whatever they are going through is important and value, and that it gets better.
Feeling worthless and hopeless – but this isn’t normal
In the 2018 The New Paper article that kickstarted this article, Wong Lai Chun from Samaritans Of Singapore (SOS) said young people often cite being overwhelmed by “feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness”.
As mentioned, everyone’s 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.
But what I can recall is that there are periods, some stretching across months, where my mood dips drastically and I lose motivation to do most activities, even the ones I enjoy.
I liken these 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 I had no pale lips or hoarse voices. Other than the obvious change in mood, which everyone dismissed as just me having a bad day, I looked and sounded pretty much the same.
As per normal. But what I felt was anything but normal.
It was not normal to stop caring about my appearance (admittedly, I am usually quite vain); to lose 3kg in three weeks because I stopped eating (I usually eat a lot); to have thoughts cutting myself (I am deathly afraid of pain).
When a panic attack triggered 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 surge of emotions trying to pry their way out of every single one of my orifices. I became hypersensitive to the sights and sounds in my surrounding. And as ludicrous as it sounds, I was convinced the walls were closing in on me.
It is a difficult sensation to describe but you can never forget the sense of helplessness that you feel at the moment. 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” as depression can be the result of biology, personality and/or environment.
The times I thought of suicide
I also remember several instances where I thought of killing myself.
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 to have chosen the latter then than to continue to go through months feeling thoroughly numb about everything.
Because what happened after I put down the rifle was no fairy tale ending. Instead of instant relief, life only got tougher as my condition worsened.
Soldiering on, going through the motions, having the courage to stay alive
After that night, I became a shadow of my former self. 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. To thank them for the little things like getting out of bed and going to work or school.
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, and for the many that have yet to come.
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 have to live with for the rest of my life. I do not believe depression and the accompanying trauma is not something that you can fully ‘recover’ from.
To use a layman medical analogy, recovering from depression is not the same as getting better from a runny nose or a headache. Instead, it is closer to recovering from a badly fractured leg and needing to learn to walk with a limp for the rest of your life. It changes you forever.
For instance, I have to actively manage my stress level as stress is a huge trigger for my depressive episodes and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
I also learnt to become hyper-aware of changes in my mood, and I had to develop different coping mechanisms to prevent myself from downward spiralling. One particular coping method I find useful is to not let others invalidate my emotions and my experiences.
More importantly, treating depression is tricky because its causes are often complex.
Even after so many years of ruminating over my condition, I am not able to identify a root cause. Was it because I was bullied in school for being overweight? Or was it one of my breakups? Or was this condition something I was born with?
I’ve come to accept that I will never have an answer. And I am okay with it.
Because I realised that what was most important for me in my road to recovery is not assigning fault, but acknowledging that I am suffering from depression and taking substantial steps to improve my condition.
It wasn’t easy, but which road to recovery is?
I wish I could tell you that getting better was easy.
But it is not. It is filled with self-doubt, condescension from others and myself, and worst of all, plenty of backslides.
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".
For me, this quote has taken on a new meaning this year as it reminds me to take time out to take care of myself too. It is easy to be consumed by the injustices and tragedies facing us this year – and rightly so – but please do not forget that you are just as important too.
And if I could add one more line, it is that whoever you are, whatever you are going through, you are loved.
Please get the help you deserve. I highly encourage speaking to a doctor about the healthcare options available to you. If money is a concern (I know private psychiatrists are really pricey), you can approach your general practitioners at the polyclinics.
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.
Have an interesting perspective to share or a commentary to contribute? Write to us at [email protected]
Top photo courtesy of Goh Wei Hao.