Hana Yan has lived with depression since she was a teenager. She writes about the ups and downs after her diagnosis, and how she had recently come to terms with her mental health condition.
“It started surfacing when I was 15. Constant diarrhoea, weight loss, disturbed sleep and uncontrollable crying spells.
I thought it was the bullying that was going on in school at that time, but it didn’t cease even after I moved on to another school after my O-Levels. A new environment meant the promise of building myself up again, but that phase just didn’t end.
Most of my 17th and 18th year was spent polyclinic-hopping for MCs to skip school. Had it not been that one of the doctors found shared medical records of me consulting for ‘period pains’ every other week, I would not have been compelled to explain that I just haven’t felt well for a really long time.
‘What do you mean when you say you ‘haven’t felt well’? When did it start?’
‘That’s the thing, I don’t know. It feels like I’ve had this for a long time. Everything makes me feel sick. I can’t keep food in my stomach, and my hair has stopped growing. I can’t go to school because the lights scare me and the sound of people breathing unnerves me. I hide under my own bed. It drives me crazy.’
‘Have you, perhaps… maybe, thought of ending your own life?’
‘Would it be the same as desiring to never wake up?’
’Well, another doctor will be able to provide you with a better answer.’
4 hours later, I was on an ambulance to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) to see my very first psychiatrist. After a 2-hour session, I was clinically diagnosed with depression.
Hearing it was an underwhelming ‘Ah…’ moment to me. The news of my depression was a lot more shocking to the people around me.
My parents freaked out, and started blaming each other, themselves and, at some point, me. And my brothers, who used to be quite detached from me, became more involved in my life.
Most of my friends avoided me and threw me away like a dirty old diaper. It felt like I was being decluttered by my social circle because I didn’t spark joy.
In hindsight, it’s all quite amusing. Tell people you’ve got a chronic illness like hypertension, and everyone sympathises. Tell someone you’ve got a chronic mental condition, and you are faulty.
All that said, I did have people reaching out to me. During this period, I solidified my friendship with a few of my best friends, and also found good ones from those that used to sit on the fringe of my social circle.
After a period of hospitalisation at IMH, my family had to renegotiate our relationships with one another. For my sake, they learnt different ways to care and express their love. And I, eventually, grew to understand them. Things at home are pretty good now, and I am grateful for them every day.
Like anyone with a chronic illness, my energy is limited. Frequent psychosomatic symptoms like fevers, body aches, and wheezing add on to the problem. On most days, getting out of bed can be a huge feat.
I have been unceremoniously dropped out from group projects in school because of my physical absence. Even though I was less present than others, I do my best to submit my work to my project team on time.
During that semester in poly when I was hospitalised, I had two separate project teams kick me out and submitting my part of the work as their own. It was only after I was discharged (and deadlines were over) did my lecturers finally find out why my submissions were missing.
The saving grace in all of this is that my lecturers gave me an opportunity to work on those projects on my own. It hurt me and felt really unfair at first, but I cherished those chances. I did better than my ex-teammates for those assignments.
Applying for jobs later in life became an issue, because declarations of existing or past illnesses are almost always required. My psychologists (plural) told me I don’t have to.
Not once did I get a job when I declared my illness. The go-to reason for my rejection was that they are ‘worried’ I couldn’t fit into their company’s culture. All the jobs I got, I got from hiding my condition
It makes me feel like a fraud. I can’t keep regular attendance at work or school, and need a lot more downtime than others. It’s never the work, but being around people that drains me. I take at least one to two days off per month on average, with MCs and my annual leave.
In some parts of the world, you can take “mental-health days” off from work. Since we don’t have them here, I call these “work from home” days.
During such days, I never truly stop working. In fact, my best work has always been done on these off days.
My medical appointments can be frequent, depending on the state I’m in. Eventually, with all my treatment sessions, I had to come clean to my bosses regarding my condition. I’m always mentally-prepared to resign if I sense any discomfort from them. And I was fortunate to have bosses that didn’t think lesser of me. Can’t say the same of my colleagues.
All of these made me think that I would be better working alone from home, on a freelance basis. This is not the opinion of a defeated person, but that of one who finally figured out the best arrangement for herself. I thrive when alone and doing things at my own pace. This is what I intend to do once I leave my current job.
For others, this is not an active choice. It’s a consequence of societal exclusion.
This is beyond anecdotal. A 2016 study by IMH revealed that around one in seven people experience—diagnosed and undiagnosed—mental disorders. What’s more troubling than that is this: over 50% of people are unwilling to study, work or live in the proximity of someone with mental health conditions.
Last December, my best friend and I had our annual date to discuss New Year’s resolutions. It’s our personal tradition.
My friend went first. He rattled off a bunch of stuff he felt he didn’t do well over the year (he did!), and the things he wanted to work on for the next year (not knowing he excelled in them already!).
By the time he was done, my own list was faced down on the coffee table.
‘I’m disposing my list because I’m having an epiphany right now.’
’You spent a lot more time describing the things you did badly than well. It’s screwed up because most of them aren’t true. Those that were true, you did enough to make up for it. It made me think… what if this lack of objectivity is true of me too?
And when you were talking, I started reflecting on my life so far, and how I played the cards dealt to me, and you know what?
No matter how bad it turned out, how hard it was, I continued playing. All that matters is I’m still here, which probably makes me more resilient than I had thought.
So my evaluation of this year, the years before and perhaps my entire life—the darkest times included—is that I’m… OK. I’ve always been doing OK. Even the parts that weren’t fantastic were OK because I always learn from them. Being mentally ill is OK because it made me who I am. My resolution next year, call it my executive decision, is to enjoy being completely OK.’
He was proud of me. Since that day, I’ve stopped having problems getting out of bed.
The symptoms that characterised me as a person with mental conditions still exist, no doubt about that.
What changed was that I stopped thinking that they were bad to have.
They were things that exist in my reality, no less or more important than others.
To romanticise: I imagine my mind as a garden, and my mental conditions as weeds in this garden. Every healthy garden will have some.
Their appearance or persistence does not render a garden entirely hopeless, or a gardener lousy.
This doesn’t mean the gardener shouldn’t try to keep things under control. It also isn’t shameful to reach out for help to manage your garden when you’re tired or at your wits’ end (weeds’ end? Hahaha).
The combination of a lot of professional help, strong support systems, emotional and intellectual labour, and faith, went a long way for me reach this conclusion. It’s all self-care. What’s most important is to stay around and remember to admire the beautiful flowers sharing the same fertile soil of your mind.
And you’ll realise you’ve always been OK.
Writer’s note: For Jo, who lives on in my garden. And Sok, a flower in her own right.
If you have concerns about your mental health and need help with finding the right resource that’s within your budget, try CHAT – the Community Health Assessment Team by IMH. It’s available to those between 16 to 30 years old.