Sitting across from me at café, sipping on a coffee and her eyes twinkling as we speak, you’d never envision the tumultuous year Niki Torres has had. At the start of the 2020, the 34-year-old director never thought she would be losing the job she had just taken on due to COVID-19. After spending 12 years in Singapore, a place where she now calls home, she then had 60 days to work out her plan for the immediate future or fly back to her country of birth, the Philippines.
“I was so anxious every single day; my heart was constantly racing,” says Torres. While she has managed to sort out her visa to stay in Singapore, she still has fears about embarking on this new path and “mental health is an ongoing journey”. According to JobStreet, one in four Singaporeans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. For Mental Health Day, Torres shares her struggles over the last few months, and how letting her loved ones into her life has lifted her along the way.
Tell us more about the job you had, before you were let go because of COVID-19.
I was a director of growth at a travel telco startup, and my role was to grow revenue and users, primarily in the travel industry. When they announced the travel bans in March with COVID-19, the following week was when I saw all of our growth plummet 80 to 90 percent. It remained that way for a few months and I’d seen big companies like Agoda and Klook all let go of people, and here we were, a small company trying to keep afloat. I had a conversation with my boss and told him, “Hey, we don’t have deep pockets—if we need to do the same, you can let go of me and my team.”
I didn’t feel like sugarcoating things just to keep my job. I know how much my team and I were being paid. Seeing the numbers, there’s no growth to be had because no travel is happening. Even if they gave me $6 million, there wouldn’t be any growth.
How did the whole retrenchment process happen?
It happened two weeks after that conversation with my boss. Even though I saw it coming, when it actually happened, I was like, “Man, I wish we could have done something.” It was hard but it was the way [the company] treated me after they let me go that was not ideal.
They broke the news to me online, and the person who told me wasn’t our CEO, and he didn’t even have his video on. During the conversation, we talked about a succession plan and a proper handover. But immediately after we hung up, I couldn’t log into my emails. That was it. I had no access to anything.
How did you feel after you were let go?
For a week, I was angry. I was having all these discussions with my team but at some point I realised I needed to figure out my next steps. I’m on an Employment Pass in Singapore, which means I only had 60 days (30 days as part of her notice period and the government’s 30-day policy to leave the country after) to craft a plan. I had to make a tough decision to either keep looking for work, but not knowing if I could find something within the time, or start up my own company to maintain my visa. I was hedging my bets, because even with the latter option, I could get rejected by the Ministry of Manpower. There was so much uncertainty.
How did that affect your mental health?
I was so anxious. My heart was always racing. The first thing I thought of every morning was, “My world is crashing.” I needed to do something daily just to keep me from spiralling, whether it was exercising, cooking, or being on my laptop even if I wasn’t doing anything. My boyfriend said I was constantly short-tempered, annoyed and didn’t have the emotional capacity for anything else. Everything he said, I thought, “That’s so trivial to what I’m going through right now.”
“I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I just want this all to end. Even if I died right now, maybe that’s better”
I remember one Sunday after we had an argument, I went into the kitchen and started crying. He thought I was mad because of something he did, but I realised it was the entire situation weighing down on me. I said, “I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I just want this all to end. I don’t care if I have to go back to the Philippines. Even if I died right now, maybe that’s better.”
Tell us how you managed to pick yourself up after that.
I had been seeing a BetterHelp therapist online last year, but the irony is when I needed it most, I couldn’t afford it—even though they did offer me a discount. But it helped that I already had a therapist, because I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. In that kitchen when I broke down, I realised I needed my loved ones. I’m a feminist—I’ve been independent for so long and never had to rely on anyone. Just having my boyfriend say, “I’m here for you, let me know what you need,” was life-changing. Accepting that helped to release a lot of tension and break down the walls that I had built to protect myself. I had to let him into my life.
What would you say to someone who was going through the same thing as you?
Just ask for help. It’s hard as hell, but that’s really just it. Lean on those people who are there for you.
Where are you at right now in terms of figuring out what next for yourself?
I’ve always been the kind of person to grab whatever opportunity is in front of me. I founded Chief Best Friends last year—a podcast series about women and female friends who collaborate with each other. I felt like there was an ugly side to the conversation about diversity and inclusion—and that was tokenism. Women always see each other as competition, because if there’s a token scene, who’s going to compete for that? We need to show people that there’s a lot of successful women who manage to work with other women, which inspired these podcasts. I took a break when I got the job at the startup, but I’ve just started the second season of Chief Best Friends and the response has been great.
And how are you feeling right now?
Mental health is an ongoing journey. Even though things are settled now in a sense with my Employment Pass, there’s always something to worry about. Where do I get revenue from? Can I really do this? Should I just go back to a traditional job? I’m having a confidence crisis, and I have no answers to the things going through my head.
“Just ask for help. It’s hard as hell, but that’s really just it. Lean on those people who are there for you”
But one thing I’ve been doing since the start of the year is to write 750 words daily, after Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal. I am on a 230-day streak now and it has helped me declutter what is in my head. When I got laid off, I was literally screaming as I was writing. It was very cathartic.
I don’t feel like it’s over. The initial hurdle is done but I’m getting ready for the next sprint.
Find out more about Chief Best Friends.
You are not alone. For mental health support in Singapore, visit the Singapore Association for Mental Health. For mental health support in Malaysia, visit the Malaysian Mental Health Association.