PERSPECTIVE: "They [...] called me a disgrace for being a person with no self-control who needed to be medicated. It was as if I agreed to be crazy."
Jessica Ho lives with a combination of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), mild bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and mild psychosis.
For years, she was undiagnosed and did not know where to seek help. Once she began going for therapy and getting treatment, she faced intense judgement and stigmatisation from her family, friends, and colleagues.
Ho, Founder and Creative Director of 2baesick Studio, and a handpoke tattoo artist at Bada Bink Tattoo Firm, hopes to use her creativity to destigmatise and help others understand mental health in a different light. She also shares more about her journey on her Instagram.
This is an adaptation of Ho's essay "I Have Mental Health Issues. I Wish My Family Took Them Seriously", first published in White: Beyond Mental Health Stigma by Klin Studio.
The book, which is available for Mothership readers for 20 per cent off until Aug. 31, 2021, can be purchased on the website with the discount code TWBXMOTHERSHIP.
By Jessica Ho
Growing up, my parents would often quarrel and break out into fights. It was usual for one of them to pick up the chopper or threaten to jump off the building.
My mum would hit her hand against the wall hard enough to fracture it, or leave home for a few nights at a time. My dad would start beating up one of us or smash things in the house.
My grandparents, still alive then, were unable to hold them back or stop the fights. They often ended up with bruises themselves. A lot of vulgarities would be exchanged.
I never wanted to be like my parents
Memories such as these from when I was as young as three years old are still vivid in my mind. There were times I got so bruised that I could not go to work.
There was even once when my childhood friend and neighbour heard shouting from our flat and decided to knock on our door to protect me from my dad's beating.
I used to think that everyone else’s families were the same — it was just that they were just as good as me at concealing their pain.
My parents told me to never tell a soul about our family problems. Even when I did on social media, I got backlash from schoolmates. That didn’t bother me though, for the mess at home was worse.
I never wanted to be like my parents, but I found myself acting in ways that reflected their behaviour.
It made me disgusted. Yet, I could not stop being that way.
I felt trapped in their presence and was desperate to get help but had no idea how to. The more I rejected it, the more I was influenced.
Coped with binge-drinking, spending, and hurting those close to me
When I was around 21, I became super destructive. I threatened to kill myself, self-abused, and acted out in manic ways — just like my parents had done.
I was desperate to fix myself but I was lost. My parents and family were the only way of living that I had known.
I suspected I was depressed but I did not earn enough to afford therapy. I coped through binge-drinking, spending, and hurting people close to me. It was a time of constant bitterness, anger, confusion and sadness.
Perhaps it was the law of attraction, for my determination to get psychiatric help brought about desired change. While waiting in line to see the GP for a common cold, I was overcome with an anxiety attack.
For me, this meant a sudden surge of insistently fast heartbeats and shortness of breath. I was consumed with fear but I did not know what I was afraid of. I was fidgety and overwhelmed with too many thoughts. I was a mess.
The doctor suspected that I had a thyroid problem or anxiety. When I told him about my financial concerns, he told me that Singapore citizens from low-income families could get subsidies on psychiatric help by going to a polyclinic to get a hospital referral. Help can currently be even further subsidised from MediSave, but differs from case to case.
I was able to get a 60 per cent subsidy after submitting lots of paperwork.
Family called me a disgrace for seeking help
In my first year of treatment, I had bi-weekly, hour-long sessions with a psychiatrist and counsellor. They were patient, good listeners who worked together to examine my behaviour and provide emotional support.
I was expecting my psychiatrist to be dismissive and only prescribe medication. Instead, she advised me to learn mindfulness exercises to see how I could manage, and only recommended prescription drugs after six months.
It was a hazy period of my life. I felt really lonely. The medicine kept my emotions under control but gave me side effects like losing my appetite, insomnia, numbness and fatigue.
Things were still a mess at home. My family looked down on me for seeking help, called me crazy, and pill-shamed me. They also called me a disgrace for being a person with no self-control who needed to be medicated.
It was as if I agreed to be crazy.
I avoided going home and was mostly intoxicated — this is not something I would recommend as alcohol clashes with medication.
I was also called out at some of my workplaces for going to therapy. What made things worse were the so-called “friends” who found me too much to handle and would spread gossip about my situation.
In a small community like Singapore, this made it hard to make new connections and find jobs.
Felt drained and struggled with side effects of medication
The combination of stress from these events eventually led to me experiencing dissociative identity disorder.
Once, after hitting my head against a wall at home, I snapped into an alter-ego and another me took over. I have close to no memory of what happened but when I regained consciousness, I was surrounded by four police officers trying to calm me down.
My head was bleeding, but my parents were calling me an attention seeker and told the authorities to send me to a mental institution.
They seemed to have forgotten — or chose to deny — that they bruised me before I went ballistic.
I still felt like a mess and was really drained after a year-and-a-half of therapy. I was getting lots of side effects from the medication and could barely manage any expressions. I told this to my psychiatrist, who then suggested that it might be time to see a psychologist instead of regular counselling.
Psychologist gave support I needed, but not a straight path forward
I was blessed with a psychologist that I really got along with. For the first time, I felt like someone actually understood me — my thoughts, behaviour, doubts, and darkness.
Talking to her felt natural and I could really be myself. I could spill my secrets and speak my mind without fear of being judged or backstabbed.
She was not condescending but not overindulgent either. She highlighted my strengths and helped me work on my weaknesses. She made me feel respected.
It’s a warm feeling of someone who wanted me to work hard and get better — one I never found in my family nor friendships.
Things did change for me. I found new friends who created a safe space that was helping me through the process slowly. I quit my full-time job and moved out.
Finally leaving my abusive family and saying goodbye to toxic relationships was another step forward.
But this did not mean that my mental struggles had disappeared. I struggled financially and had lots of breakdowns.
I contemplated ending my life. Suicide is not one-off as one might think. For me, it was a constant downward spiral towards my demise — hallucinating scenes of my own death, then plotting how to get them done in reality.
But I am blessed because I survived. Instead of beating myself down for "failed" suicide attempts, I now see them as chances to live better. It happened really slowly, but my outlook changed, especially after I started practising mindfulness from therapy to understand my behaviours better.
I have been with my psychologist for about six to seven years now. Currently, I am working with her to unlearn the negative things that I was taught, and relearn a more positive approach to every situation.
Advice for helping yourself
It’s sometimes difficult to realise that you might have mental health issues. Unlike physical conditions like the flu, the symptoms are not tangible or obvious.
Till I sought help, I didn't even realise that I was disruptive, hurting the people around me and negatively affecting every aspect of my life.
Some advice that I have for people who want to help themselves is to try not to take yourself too seriously and lower your self-expectations. I know it is hard but it will help bring your nerves down.
You can also try thinking about the recovery process like a game or goal in life to achieve in small milestones.
I play it like a real-life RPG game. If I relapse, I remember that there are checkpoints and I will try again. Everything that happens to me only takes my experience up a notch.
Another way to cope with my emotions and anxiety is to understand them as passing clouds. I can’t do anything about them but I can acknowledge them without ignoring or acting on the emotional impulses, and perhaps I could make a joke like "I see you!".
I try to sit and meditate with discomfort.
Being patient with yourself is also key to recovery.
Supporting your friends
For those who want to support their friends, please be mindful of what you say. Language, when used loosely, can hurt.
Educate yourself on mental health issues and conditions, and don’t treat your friend differently. Overcompensating with excessive worrying (like texting them every day) can end up being stressful for them.
Instead, you can check up on them by talking about other things like movies and videos that you found funny.
It’s important to let them feel safe. Only talk about their issues if they talk about it. When they do open up to you, be a good listening ear.
Recognise that everyone differs in terms of their strengths, abilities and limits. And always ask if you are unsure. Don’t assume.
It is important to remember that just because someone doesn’t have a diagnosis or medical prescription does not mean that their problems are any less important or real.
We all have factors that affect our mental wellness, even if it’s not apparent on the outside.
Therapy is not just for people who are suffering from disorders. Rather, it can also be a directional guidance, like a life coach. We need to normalise how therapy is viewed, instead of thinking: "I'm going to therapy because I have mental health issues."
I was an outcast when I was younger. My parents were not educated enough to understand the importance of mental health, or realise that they could have mental issues themselves. They told me to suck it up.
Having lived through that, I now believe in getting our voices heard. By doing so, we can spread the message that taking care of the mind is just as important as taking care of the body.
White: Beyond Mental Health Stigma is a collection of personal narratives, critical research, and community work that reframe the way that mental health is looked at.
Top photos courtesy of Jessica Ho.