S’pore woman reflects on ‘gritty reality’ of schizophrenia & living life again after treatment

Chan Lishan was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2008. After undergoing treatment, she returned to university to complete her creative writing degree in the UK. She is currently a PhD student based in Honolulu.

Mothership | May 15, 2022, 10:25 AM

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PERSPECTIVE: At the age of 25, Lishan Chan was hospitalised for six weeks at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). 

A research scholar at the National University of Singapore at the time, her episode of psychosis was an unexpected descent into madness. 

Chan was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia – a serious mental illness where one experiences a fragmentation of mental processes.

Here, we reproduce excerpts from her book – A Philosopher’s Madness – in which she details a personal and philosophical account of schizophrenia. 

Published in 2012 by Ethos Books, the book reveals the “gritty reality” of living with schizophrenia, and explores the issues around mental illness that many face every day. 

We also interviewed Chan briefly about her life today, 14 years on from her diagnosis.

By Chan Lishan

Experiencing a different reality

After staying in the police lock-up for one night, I was admitted to hospital the next day.

For a while, I didn’t understand why I was in hospital. I did not believe I was ill. I thought this unfortunate set of circumstances had happened because I had attended a series of opposition party meetings when I was seventeen.

At the hospital I stopped taking my medications, which was a mistake. But even though I was deluded, this did not mean that I felt distressed or unhappy.

There was a sense in which being ill seemed better than being my normal self.

For a time I was more talkative and seemed to be more opinionated — this I enjoyed.

I also experienced more vivid perceptions during my stay in the hospital.

When I lay down on the mattress, I saw the shadows of pipes appear to me as if they were the hands of a clock that gave me the time.

The shadows of the fire detector appeared to me as a heart-shape.

I experienced a kind of manic joy when listening to music. I could listen to the same songs over and over again and waves of emotion would sweep over me.

I also experienced a sense of joy when looking at paintings.

In one of the wards there were a number of pictures. Two of them were paintings of flowers, one a bud and the other a full bloom, while another was a poster of a jetty leading out towards the water.

I was excited when I saw the paintings and felt as though I had won the lottery.

Staying in a psychiatric ward

I stayed in three wards over a total of six weeks.

The first ward had twenty or so beds and there was a day room where we spent most of the time.

Some of the other patients behaved as if they were in a scene of a zombie movie. One kept spitting on the floor, while another kept pretending to faint.

For a short while, I became friends with the one who kept pretending to faint. She was short, white and stubby.

She wore dark blue rubber slippers with the word ‘Safa’ on them, and we became friends by listening to the Backstreet Boys on the CD player. We amused ourselves by chanting ‘Safa’ continuously for long periods.

I don’t remember much of the second ward. I do remember that it was cleaner and that conditions were a little better than the first.

After a while I was moved to a third ward, at my mother’s request. This was the Sayang ward.

‘Sayang’ means something like precious in Malay, and it was supposed to be the best ward, since there were only two of us to a medium-sized room.

In comparison to the previous wards, it was like living in a hotel.

We had the privilege of going in and out of our rooms as and when we liked, and had wholesome meals served to us.

But how I hated living there. The windows were barred, a reminder of why we were there. We were not allowed to go out of the day area or living/dining room.

Essentially, it was still a kind of prison.

Meeting Dr Celen and getting well

After I left the hospital, I still wasn’t taking any medication.

I was deluded enough to think I was well and that even if I did have something wrong with me, the illness would somehow go away by itself.

Yet the strangest impressions were coming to me. For instance, I felt irritated at dresses with frills and at colourful prints on fabrics. My eyes could only handle black and white colours — anything else seemed a little too much.

I told this to a lady, who advised me to see a doctor.

By this time, I had various experiences of people telling me something to this effect.

This made me doubt myself, and I thought that I should perhaps listen to the advice I was getting.

This was when I met Dr Celen. By this time, at my parent’s request, I had gone through a number of doctors.

I was still not taking medication and I still believed that I was not ill, but that my parents were over-worrying and unduly influenced by the people back home.

I explained to Dr Celen that I felt good about myself, but that a group of doctors back home had diagnosed me as having gone through psychosis.

I said I had planned to become a social worker because by then I had been fired from my research contract at the university and seemed to know only people in psychiatry.

I thought that it would be great if I could become a social worker and help others. I felt not only that it was a noble ambition, but that I had insight into the profession, since I had been hospitalised and had experienced the other side of the relationship.

Dr Celen explained to me that I was indeed ill, and then she explained to me what psychosis was.

She drew it as a fuzzy line of thinking and described it as ‘scattered thoughts’. I had indeed felt that my thoughts were scattered, so I believed her.

This was when, to my parent’s relief, I accepted the idea that I should try taking medication to treat my condition. And that was when my delusions and ‘eccentric thinking’ stopped.

The path to recovery

I’d like to emphasise that getting well is a process.

Initially, I took Olanzapine and then Risperidone, and it was a while before I found Abilify, the medicine I take now.

The medical team worked together to analyse the patients — I remember being visited by quite a number of different psychiatrists.

I had to try out different medications to find one that worked for me. The first couple I tried had terrible side effects. Blurred vision was one, and it was particularly unbearable.

It took a while before I found a psychiatrist who gave me the confidence to believe that I was ill.

Some psychiatrists simply asked me to take medications without explaining that I was displaying the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Even while in hospital, I was told to take medications without even knowing my diagnosis.

Of course, it didn’t help that I did not wish to speak to anyone at the hospital.

But I could still have been told my diagnosis, or that I was severely ill.

It was only after a year or so of taking medications from Dr Celen that I found out about the Singaporean psychiatrist’s diagnosis of schizophrenia for my case.

Under Dr Celen, I was diagnosed as having schizoaffective disorder.

Q&A with the author

We spoke to Chan to find out how she is doing, 14 years on from her diagnosis. Now based in Honolulu, Hawai'i, she shares more about facing the world again, and reflects on her journey of recovery.

How did your life change after you were diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2008?

I was a research scholar in the Philosophy Department with the National University of Singapore, when I had an episode of psychosis in 2008.

When I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I was told by mental health professionals that I would have to reduce my expectations for my future.

My research scholarship was terminated, and I was told to do something else with my life. I also found it difficult to find work— my first job was in customer service at a shopping centre, giving directions to customers.

It’s been 14 years since your diagnosis. Do you consider yourself fully recovered now? What is “normal” life to you?

Just like everyone else, “people with schizophrenia” is diverse— you can’t really say what is “normal”.

I enjoy walking, going to the beach, and catching up with friends, while other mental health advocates I know are enthusiastic about exercise, or cooking and baking.

I consider myself fortunate that I am able to read and write again, which was something I was unable to do during my episode of psychosis.

After my diagnosis of schizophrenia, I was able to return to university and complete my creative writing degree at the University of East Anglia with distinction. [In] Norwich — UNESCO City of Literature! It was a dream come true.

What are you doing now?

Today, I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

I teach writing courses in the English Department, and am a Grace Abernethy Fellow with editorial and publishing duties with the University of Hawai’i Press.

Prior to this, I was Director of the Writing Center at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong from 2018-2019.

I’m also the author of A Philosopher’s Madness, Yellow Man, and Searching for Lee Wen: A Life in 135 Parts.

I no longer feel that there's much difference between me and "normal people".

I'm also no longer interested in proving myself to others in order to fight discrimination.

Instead, I hope to live fully and do my best to be kind to those around me.

You mentioned in the book that you fear relapse. Are there other fears you still hold about schizophrenia, or how have you overcome them?

I wish I could say that I’ve overcome my fear of relapse.

No, it hasn’t gone away.

Another fear I have is of dying twenty years earlier than my peers, which is a statistical probability.

What would you say to your 25-year-old self who was diagnosed with schizophrenia?

Be less afraid of letting go.

Do the things that make you feel alive.

Experts are sometimes wrong.

Spend time with people you like, and forgive those who fail to understand you.

What are some common misconceptions that people have about schizophrenia?

That people with schizophrenia are violent, unpredictable, and neither competent nor capable.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yes, I'd like to say that when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2008, there were many mental health professionals and people I met along the way, too many to name, who worked hard to support me and care for me, whether as a psychiatrist, social worker, counsellor, or mental health provider.

Others have been part of my journey in recovering from psychosis, whether as employer, colleague, friend, peer, even conference organiser.

Their support has helped me greatly over the years.

So I want to say to them: Thank you very much for everything you have done for me.

It has been a true honour, pleasure, and a privilege to have you in my life.

Excerpts from Chan Lishan, A Philosopher’s Madness (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012).

A Philosopher’s Madness is written by Chan Lishan and published by Ethos Books, and you can get a copy of it here.

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Top images via Chan Lishan