PERSPECTIVE: “What if what we define as ‘Mental Illness’ is just like any life experience? And if accepting “here” with gentleness and kindness can teach us to love ourselves as we are?”
Singaporean Tan Kai Hiang is by all societal definitions, a successful female entrepreneur and boss lady.
She is the founder of an international community – ONEDrop – that's close to 50,000-strong, and champions whole living – to create a natural balance between the body, mind, and soul – through essential oils and nutrition.
Tan is also a wellness coach, and partners with Young Living Essential Oils in the promotion of its products.
In her 2021 essay "Unashamed", Tan writes about her struggles with anxiety and depression, her own healing journey, and owning her "badge" of mental illness.
Tan's essay was first published in The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet? Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 55 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
By Tan Kai Hiang
I woke up this morning and braced to do battle; a fight I have gotten acquainted with these past two and a half years.
From the time I open my eyes, it is a sprint — zero to one thousand in what feels like a nanosecond.
My thoughts, assaulted — they’re messy, fearful, accusing, defeating — saturating the morning with bullying ideas that I was undeserving, unworthy and incapable of receiving any kind of goodness this day.
Better for me to cancel my activities, hide in bed, refuse the world and accept eternally that I am useless.
Some days, I muster up enough to reach for the anxiety medication to arrest the racing heart, which will in turn, press in on the brakes to the influx of thoughts.
Some days, I give up the fight and pull the sheets over my head and stay in bed until 4pm.
Today was one of the better days — I pushed back. I willed all of what I could gather and jumped out of bed for the bathroom.
I loaded my ammunition — a pair of ear-pods — into my ears.
Symbolically, I locked them out, the mind critters that were scuttering out from deep crevices I had tucked in me somewhere. Then I turned up the music to drown out the mindless chatter, that I imagined is now barred by unseen gates.
A daily battle
As I hovered over the wash basin in the bathroom, a familiar wave of nausea sweeps over me, choking me up, from the gut to my heart.
I needed to bend gently over with my eyes closed, listening to whatever random YouTube video that was blasting in my ears and just allow my body to curl and retch, purging the death-grip of nervousness out of me.
There is a silence knowing that I’ve had it worse; this too shall pass.
By the time I have washed up, I would have ritualistically overcome what seemed like the nastier part of the day.
One in three hundred and sixty-five. Checked.
An illness unseen
I used to cry through these mornings.
I would stare with bloodshot eyes at my own unrecognisable reflection, feeling angry and depleted.
Are we there yet? Are we done yet?
Will I ever recover from depression and anxiety and be done with this nightmare that has usurped me from my own body?
By the world’s standards, I am a fairly successful 46-year-old woman.
I am an entrepreneur.
As a person, I am sprightly, love what I do and am eager about life. Well, until my marriage fell apart almost three years ago, triggering a cascading melt-down that ripped apart what seemed like a normal life.
When I first experienced all the above symptoms, I was only willing to accept that it was grief. Nothing more.
Everyone comforted and reassured me that time will heal the brokenness, and grief will lessen its grip in time to come. I had little mental and emotional capacity to process what has just transpired in my life. I was losing more and more sleep to the point of dysfunction.
One day, I was jolted awake in the early hours of the morning. 3am.
I was covered with cold sweat. The very sensation of my own skin against the sheets sent ripples of immeasurable pain throughout my whole body.
I tore myself up from bed and rolled edge to edge; my body shrivelled and contorted within this unfamiliar form that no longer felt like it was mine.
My soul and body felt disjointed. It was excruciating.
I finally surrendered and agreed to seek help. I was medically diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
“Am I there yet?” I had repeatedly asked this question of myself throughout these past days, months and years.
As a desperate former-achiever, I needed to know I was getting closer to "THERE" — a final destination that would mark my recovery.
I set timelines. I hurried myself from therapy to therapy, exploring healing modality after modality.
I read books. I asked doctors and those who went through the same what the process will look like, what markers do I look out for, how best can I move forward?
I wanted to apply the same resolve I had for my life up until then, to my very next goal — to arrive at Recovery.
But everything I have learnt in my life about "getting there" could not and would not apply to this new thing in my life.
Nothing was linear. Everything was fluid.
I would find myself working up to a perfect place of "feeling better"; and then in the very next moment fall through a trap door and find myself back at the beginning or worse off.
I began to freak out. I was losing control.
Learning to wear the badge of mental illness
Then one day, when I was fully exhausted from trying, my gentle god opened up my previously tightly clenched fist.
“Do we need to be there?”
I didn’t understand.
“What if it’s okay to be here?”
I wear the badge that I suffer from a mental illness.
And ever since I have worn this name tag, I have felt that the world looks at me and people like me, with a blend of judgement, awkwardness, assumptions, pity, and impatience.
And as I released my fighting fist, I realised it was I who looked at myself with judgement, awkwardness, assumptions, pity, and impatience.
What if what we define as ‘Mental Illness’ is just like any life experiences? And if accepting “here” with gentleness and kindness can teach us to love ourselves as we are?
I woke up this morning repeating some of the daily battles that I have gotten acquainted with these past two and a half years.
But today, instead of comparing myself to a future idea of who and what I needed myself to arrive to be; I sat down with me.
Here. Now. And just am.
Top images courtesy of Tan Kai Hiang's Facebook and Instagram