Trigger warning for suicide, institutionalisation and psychiatric violence.
Words by Nora Juma’at. Illustration by Chiharu Ishibashi.
The first time I realised there was something different about me was when I was twelve.
I used to ride the feeder bus to school. I’d board it at the bus stop near my house, and one of my best friends would sit next to me when she got onboard later. Some days, she’d greet me excitedly. We’d spend the next twenty minutes chatting away, laughing over innocent things only a twelve-year-old could relate to — things like crushes or teachers or homework. Other days, she’d sit next to me in silence. I didn’t understand why, so one day I asked her.
“It’s just that some weeks, you’re extremely happy to see me, and on others, you’re so cold and sad that I don’t dare to talk to you,” she said.
“Guess I’m just a very emotional person.” That was the excuse I gave that day, and for the years that followed.
I didn’t think much of it then, but I realised there was something peculiar about me only years later. I was more than just a very emotional person.
All my life, I’ve been a rather flaky person. It’s a trait I have difficulty getting rid of. However, I never realised how detrimental it was to my life until the day I went running to my local GP, begging for them to give me something, anything, to calm my racing heart. I confided in my GP about how going to work made my heart palpitate faster than a race horse, and how the tips of my fingers and lips would become numb whenever that happened. I confided in him about how I had a difficult time trying to focus whenever my thoughts began to race, like a dysfunctional film reel projecting a hundred images per second. It wasn’t until the words “I think you might have some sort of anxiety disorder” left my doctor’s lips that I realised I was different. At the age of twenty, my struggle finally had a name to it - some sort of disorder. He offered to book me an appointment in IMH, but I said no. I still chose to ignore him out of fear. How can I be ill? I’d wondered. Doesn’t that mean I’m crazy?
Years later, after I had graduated from polytechnic and begun working in the teaching industry, things worsened progressively. My emotions had evolved into something oddly erratic, and soon, so did my attendance at work, productivity levels, and social life. I started becoming extremely impulsive and did things without considering their consequences. I remember how I could spend hundreds of dollars on a day when I was in an over-the-top good mood (I’ve now learnt that this is my manic state), and would be irritable despite my good mood. The good moods would last several days to a week, and then drastically switch, leaving me wallowing in pity and self-loathing. Then came the racing thoughts, accompanied by thoughts of extreme sadness and suicide. I started missing work whenever my emotions became too overwhelming for me to handle, and was eventually let go because my boss didn’t understand my condition. Hell, even I didn’t understand my condition. I tried to read up about mental illnesses online, but when I realised how a lot of the symptoms seemed to apply to me and my experiences, I shunned the idea of ever being mentally ill. I couldn’t be.
Things didn’t improve for a few years because I was in denial.
It came to a point when I felt so suffocated by my constant switch of emotions that I eventually gave in to my demons and attempted suicide. It failed and I got warded for a drug overdose in a general hospital. I remember a doctor coming to my bedside and asking me, “Why did a young girl like you try to kill yourself? I don’t understand people like you—people who aren’t grateful about living”. Imagine hearing that from a doctor. I was too weak to explain myself, but it taught me a great deal about how ignorant and unkind society can be.
I was whisked off to IMH moments later, and only then did I realise the gravity of things that had been happening to me. I was warded against my will and promised better treatment, so I tried to accept my admission. Only then did the things my friend used to tell me in primary school click. Only then did I realise I had some sort of mood disorder; I just didn’t know which one.
“Judging by your behaviour in the past two weeks, I believe you have depression,” said a man in an office attire and glasses too big for his face. He was a case doctor who helps determine the illnesses warded patients have.
“But I think—” I tried intercepting. I think I have a mood disorder.
“I’m quite sure I’m the specialist, and I conclude you have depression. That is all. Nurse, please bring in the next patient.”
The two weeks of being warded in IMH passed very, very slowly, but as soon as it was over, I was scheduled to go to Clinic B every week. Clinic B is where outpatients go to for appointments with a doctor and to retrieve medication. I went through doctor after doctor, all of who believed the diagnosis Mr Glasses had given me—that I had depression and nothing more. None of them gave me a chance to explain myself.
It was only recently that I met a doctor who could really understand me.
“Sometimes I get extremely energetic and happy. When that happens, I start to behave impulsively—doing things like shopping beyond my means. It’s so extreme. And then a week or more passes and my mood dips severely. All of a sudden I’m sad and suicidal. It’s not always triggered by anything in particular.” I didn’t realise it but I had started crying, and my new doctor handed me a box of tissues.
“I’m sorry if this conversation is making you sad. I hope you know I’m here to help you get better, even if the process of recovering might reopen old wounds.” The doctor began to read information that previous doctors had written about me on his computer. “Seems to me that what you’re experiencing is a disorder called ‘bipolar disorder’.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone.”
Now, I’m no doctor but I know myself best. I was sad that no doctor had given me a chance to explain myself until this doctor came into the picture. He helped me recall my experiences and explained to me how each experience could be connected to the illness. Suddenly, everything made a lot more sense.
“I’m here to help. Let’s adjust your medication until it’s right for you. Let’s hope that eventually, you won’t have to rely on medication at all.”
The point of my story is this—recovering definitely isn’t an easy process, especially since talks of mental health are still taboo in Singapore. It’s a tiring, frustrating and far-from-straightforward process, but please don’t give up. It took me more than a decade to get a hold of my illness and seek treatment for it, and I have hope that perhaps one day, it will get better. I have hope that one day, you, the reader who might be battling with your own demons, will get better. I know how hard it can be. I was in denial for years, but accepting my illness really took a load off my shoulders. It’s an illness; like every other illness, it needs time to heal. In this unforgiving society, it’s important we accept ourselves first, before pining after society’s acceptance.
Let’s heal together, okay?
Nora is just your typical everyday 24-year-old, hoping to help us heal one step at a time.
Harumaruchi is an eggshell breaker by day, cocktail heartbreaker by night who currently sips her way into solo living life in the rising sun. She just moved out from constant monsoon summer to be with her birth place. Her moniker, ”harumaruchi” is a clever wordplay of her name, combining “Maru” which means circle. Sometimes she is also known as the “monorail” that says “yes” twice. Website: be.net/harumaruchi.