Dhaniah Suhana was 10 when she lost her mum to cancer. But she didn’t just have to deal with the grief of losing a parent— as the eldest of four kids, she was also forced to grow up overnight.
“My sisters were nine, eight and one. I definitely felt responsible for them,” says the 32-year-old. “In fact, in my mother’s last letter to me, she said it was her wish that I take care of them.”
“I was old enough to understand the gravity of the situation, but I didn’t really know how to express myself or process my feelings. I’d cry quietly in the backseat of the car without anyone noticing.”
Her father then moved her and her sisters to Malaysia so they could be looked after by their grandparents. But life didn’t necessarily become any easier.
“We had to take the school bus in the wee hours of the morning just so we could get to school in Singapore on time,” she says.
When she was 14, her father brought them back to Singapore to live with him. But he would either come home very late at night or not at all.
As a result, Dhaniah had to fulfill duties such as cooking for her sisters and picking up the youngest from school— all while trying to maintain good grades. At one point, she was under so much stress that she developed trichotillomania (a disorder where one pulls out their own hair as a coping mechanism). She still has a bald spot on her scalp to this day.
“I actually ran away from home a couple of times when the going got really tough,” she says. However, she always went back, and upon completing her O-Levels, she took it upon herself to make a sacrifice for her family.
“Even though I did well enough to go to a JC, I was expected to start working as soon as possible to ease the family finances, so I went to a polytechnic instead,” she says. “I also gave tuition, did web design and even sold books for a publishing company, among other things. And I ate mee rebus throughout poly because it costs just over a dollar.”
After she graduated, she worked at a TV production house for a while before enrolling at the National Institute of Education to become a teacher. It was after making this career switch that she decided to pursue a university degree.
“The pay gap between diploma and degree holders became apparent to me though the workload is the same,” she explains. “So I decided I wouldn’t let my education stop there and enrolled in a part-time psychology programme.”
Since she had to juggle work and studies, Dhaniah took seven years to finish her degree and only graduated last year. But she has no regrets.
“Those years were totally worth it. They were character building and taught me not to give up because there were times when I really wanted to,” she says.
She’s currently a part-time research associate working on a two-year psychology-related project and also a part-time scriptwriter/producer for children’s TV programmes. She’s also the co-founder of Interfaith Youth Circle (IYC), a non-profit organisation that aims to build bridges between different religious groups in Singapore.
Dhaniah may have had a pretty rough start in life, but she didn’t let her unfortunate circumstances get in the way of her interests and ambitions.
“It took me about a decade longer than average to get my degree. But no matter how long it takes, if that’s what you need to achieve your dream, then it’s worth it,” she declares.
“Keep putting in the work and you’ll get there in the end. Success is relative and your end goal will keep shifting, so the most important thing is your mental and emotional well-being. Enjoy the crazy ride.”