Trigger Warning: This story contains themes of self-harm and suicide, and may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised.
“In the depth of that loss, I found out who I really was… I began to find a genuine me that could withstand anything… When we open to our brokenness, that’s when we blossom.” — Elizabeth Lesser
What are the symptoms? According to Adriana Giotta, founder, director and consultant clinical psychologist at Elephant Therapy & Training, “depressive symptoms manifest along a continuum from the mild to the severe. A sense of meaninglessness, low self-esteem, apathy and hopelessness, often alongside suicidality are common symptoms.”
My depression, as I lived it and learned it over a period of 10 years, was, however, not only in my head. It infiltrated my heart, my soul and my entire body. To add to Giotta’s list, my depression manifested as a feeling of alienation from who I was (or thought I was up until then), a split in my personality, constant, debilitating pains and allergies. I was always ill. My constitution was under attack. In retrospect, I see now my depression was too many things to be just a serotonin deficiency and brain malfunction as they told me.
It was a wrecking ball. A disintegration of a self, a life. It was a wake-up call. It was an education. It was a teacher. It was a thief, and darkness I had never known.
My depression was a malicious storyteller whose untruths about me became my reality: “You’re not good enough. You suck. You don’t deserve to be loved.”
It was the Red Pill, a necessary detour—like Santiago’s self-discovering journey in The Alchemist—which would lead me to the person I was supposed to become. It was the end and the beginning.
Every little task became a gargantuan. Everything felt arduous. And the first step, truly, was the hardest. Waking up: What’s considered mundane and simple for most required monumental effort from me. Every morning, I opened my eyes with a nauseating dread: Another day. I’d lie in bed, paralysed by my fear of going out, of seeing people, of people seeing me. What if they saw right through my carefully constructed, perfectly coiffed façade into what I really was? I walked and talked, laughed and ate like a normal human being with a beating heart and a soul when in fact, inside, I was broken. Inside, I was a dark abyss of nothingness. Inside, I was dead, an emotional zombie.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell Sad Me: “You’re faking it so you’d make it out of this. You’re doing your best to live your life, and your best is enough. Taking that first step to hit the shower and get dressed to feel better about yourself is you trying. Trying is better than, well, not trying.
“Tell me, don’t show me”
Once, at work, someone did come close enough to witness the mess that I had made on my wrist—like a test paper angry with red ink declaring my failure. Capital F. Exclamation mark. I wished I had done a better, more artful job. But I was in a lot of pain the night before and it wasn’t exactly a “turn your pain into art” kind of moment. The pain needed to be exorcised. The pain begged to be seen. It was a cry for help.
Where was Lady Gaga when I needed her? In an interview with Oprah, she spoke about her ongoing battle with mental illness and history of self-harm. “Tell me, don’t show me,” she said. When you’re in pain, and have thoughts of harming yourself—or worse, ending your life—don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone you trust instead of hurting yourself physically in the hope that somebody might notice.
It’s hard and scary. I know. So I asked Gasper Tan, chief executive of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), for his advice. “For those who are afraid of seeking help, it may be good to first approach someone that you trust and are close to… Let them know you are struggling and feeling at a loss, and wish to have a listening ear. Bringing up the topic of suicide may cause others to be startled and even uncomfortable initially, but more often than not, they will still want to help. Let them know you want to get through this and you hope to have their support.”
“Sharing our struggles with someone can provide a sense of relief and the presence of someone being there for moral support can be comforting. There is a saying: ‘A burden shared is a burden halved.” Knowing that we are not alone in our difficult journey can act as an encouragement for us to find hope amidst the difficulties we face,” says Tan.
“I was addicted to bad feelings”
It was 2007—the year I discovered that there was a name for what was wrong with me. I was moody, irritable and volatile. I cried for reasons big, small and non-existent. I couldn’t concentrate. I felt too much. I felt nothing. I kept having these fits where my heart raced violently, my face and neck went numb, my vision turned grainy like TV static, my body trembled against my will, and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I might pass out. Or die. Turns out, they were panic attacks.
I hated myself, so I launched Mission Self-sabotage. I was addicted to bad feelings, so I made bad choices until I alienated everyone around me, emptied my life of anything meaningful and filled it up with more self-loathing. Those days (pre-Netflix) were a blur of box-set marathons of Grey’s Anatomy and Sex And The City and Criminal Minds, and a diet of Ben & Jerry’s and painkillers. One day, out of concern, a colleague, E (to whom I will forever be grateful) asked: “Karman, are you depressed? Maybe you should talk to someone.”
And just like that, because someone cared enough to ask, I learned the name of my problem, and began to get help.
It’s your journey
Everyone who has battled with, or is battling depression, experiences it differently. When I asked Cheryl Tan, executive director of the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, about hers, she told me: “I never understood what was wrong with me, only that I needed to constantly run away and hide from the pain and anguish that threatened to overpower my senses on multiple occasions. A lack of self-confidence can drive me deeper into depression.”
She also shared the practices that have helped her manage depressive moods and suicidal thoughts. “Yoga philosophies and tools, and therapy. They helped me to stay with the discomfort of being in my own body and mind, to find healthy ways to support myself during those tough periods. I have learned to see that creating spaces in between for myself during those tough periods aren’t about running away, but it’s to give me time to digest the situation and cope with the discomfort from a place of kindness for myself and others.”
Seeking help is an act of courage
“We need to stop trying to muffle or silence or pathologise the pain. Instead, we need to listen to it, and honour it. It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source—and only there, when we can see its true causes, can we begin to overcome it.” — Johann Hari in Lost Connections
There are 264 million people around the world who suffer from depression—that the World Health Organisation (WHO) knows of. In 2015, Singapore was reported to have the highest rate of depression in Asia. Yet, depression still feels incredibly lonely.
Although there are more conversations and advocacy around mental health these days, there is still much destigmatising to be achieved.
Truth is, depression does not have a look, and it doesn’t discriminate. Anyone could have it. It could lurk behind the smile of someone who often seems cheerful or the perfect façade of one who seems to have it all.
There’s no shame in asking for help. It’s the first step to recovery, and an act of courage.
How and where to find help?
Ms Giotta’s advice: “Joining a support group or a support system of caring and competent people, even online, could help to break the initial hesitation and developing familiarity with the idea of being worthy of help and happiness in life. We are all worthy of thriving in life, therefore we all worthy of a sound therapeutic process.”
How can therapy help?
“The focus of therapy is on identifying maladaptive coping behaviours, on developing a strong and caring healthy adult that can meet core emotional needs such as those for self-acceptance, self-kindness, meaningful and authentic connection with self and others,” says Giotta. “The therapist also supports these processes and aids the processing of traumatic past experiences to eventually break negative life patterns and facilitate the befriending of the body such that the client can feel safe therein.”
Outside of therapy, she also suggested that we try “unconditional service and support for other people, planet Earth and animals, physical activity and exercise, especially yoga, pranayama breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation” to turn our mood around and keep depressive thoughts at bay. “Developing one’s spiritual dimension is paramount as an integration with psychotherapy in order to experience stillness and peace from within.”
It’s okay to not be okay—and talk about it
Many celebrities are talking, writing books, interviewing one another on podcasts and YouTube about their mental and emotional struggles (hello, Oprah. Hi, Gwyneth, Selena, Cara. And thanks.) TV shows, such as 13 Reasons Why, are addressing and portraying mental health issues with more heart and nuance, encouraging us to speak up. Curate your feed mindfully, and Instagram could be a wonderful space to find supportive communities, advice, wisdom and personal stories from a plethora of poets, artists, life coaches and psychologists. I wish I had the likes of Morgan Harper Nichols (MHN) and Cleo Wade to turn to sooner.
The more we talk about it, the more we make it okay, normal, and empowering for others to talk about it, too. To quote Nichols, “Tell the story of the mountains you climb, and your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.” #YouAreNotAlone
The Anti-depressant May Not Be A Pill
i am not fully healed / i am not fully wise / i am still on my way / what matters is that / i am moving forward — yung pueblo
One morning, some time after I had decided that I’m done with doctors and SSRIs (memories of those initial unpleasant reactions to anti-depressants and the side effects afterwards haunt me to this day), I woke up to a little voice saying: “I don’t want to live like this anymore. I want to live. Go, try everything you can to get well. Everything but medication.”
Since that morning in 2017, I have been trying and practising various healing modalities and activities from yoga to meditation, sound and energy healing to reiki, and journaling and gratitude exercises. I’ve been reading and studying ways of recovering from past traumas. I am un-learning old habits and thought and behavioural patterns that no longer serve me. I have learned forgiveness. I have learned to listen to my heart and my gut (aka the “Beyoncé chakra”). I am learning every day to treat myself with kindness, compassion and love. I’ve learned to observe my thoughts and feelings, and choose my response. I have learned to create my own moments of joy every day. And I have learned that life, actually is full of beauty and magic—if we choose to see it.
Wherever you are right now, just close your eyes, take a deep breath and know that you have the power to choose another thought.
You are not alone. If you need to talk to someone, call: Institute of Mental Health (6389 2222); Samaritans of Singapore (1800 221 4444); Silver Ribbon Singapore (6385 3714); Singapore Association for Mental Health (1800 283 7019) and TOUCHline (1800 377 2252).