Issue #27: Mental Health

Never thought we will come to this topic. But the recent tragedy in Singapore got us thinking and talking, so we decided to explore our experiences around Mental Health.

[Daryl] Honestly, my experience with mental health has been sparse. However, I learnt a lot from the few years I taught in middle school, which enabled me to better relate to Rosslyn’s situation. I hope my essay will be of help to anyone who isn’t sure of how to be while relating to anyone who is suffering from mental health issues.

[Rosslyn] As a writer, I feel the struggle between writing what wants to be read and what needs to be said. Here, I share a slice of my story, in hopes that having another voice on mental health issues could help increase awareness and acceptance, and reduce the stigma.

Here are our explorations:

  1. Poetry // De·pressed // by Rosslyn

  2. Essay // I’m coming out // by Rosslyn

  3. Essay // It’s All in the Everyday // by Daryl

May you be compassionate towards yourself and your fellow beings.

Rosslyn & Daryl

POETRY // by Rosslyn


The wind picks up the sand and debris
only to deposit them on the southern end
where ragged pieces of fabric hung between poles
outline the perimeter of this dust bowl.

A barren zone, activity is subdued,
the occasional fluttering of the bunting
gives a glimmer of hope
but without irrigation of grief,

sowing is futile.
The scorching heat of truth
ruins any chance of flowering,
adding waste to the land.

Any traces of life, extinguished;
the body’s learned resolve to contain
the aggression, incinerating the insides
while holding a smile on the outside.

ESSAY // by Rosslyn

I’m coming out

I lost my Mom to depression before I turned 15. Did she show signs of depression? Not that our family knew before she succeeded in her suicide attempt. She did however subscribe to Buddhist teachings in the 1-2 years before she left. I wonder if she was suffering in her mind and tried seeking solace in that. Alas, it brought her nowhere.

I whined about how terrible my life was at 16. I was not depressed. Not yet. 

2013—I visited a psychiatrist. My first attempt reaching out to a counselor redirected me there with a referral letter which contents I boldly and uninvitedly perused. The only word that stood out from rows of big cursive handwriting, searing deep into my memory—“dysthymia.” Foreign vocabulary. Unlike most new words which I have to use a few times to remember their meanings, this was special. It took only one reading and no usage.

The psychiatrist did not tell me what I had caught. Did my mind catch the flu bug? Did my heart suffer a fracture? He did not even mention that word in the letter, and of course, I couldn’t ask either for that would give me away. He was gentle and fatherly and expensive. At $280 each visit for a 10-minute consultation, I only allowed myself to see him twice in total. At our last meeting, he revealed that I was suffering from a double depression (i.e. when a depression overlaps with a prior long-term mild depression, creating a major depressive episode.)

You know, I struggle with where to take this piece. There is so much, and also, so little, then I find myself turning to this song…

“When you feel my heat, look into my eyes
It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide
Don't get too close; it's dark inside
It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide”
Demons, Cover by Gavin Mikhail

It is one of my deepest desires to be seen. For who I truly am. Yet I’m terrified that you’ll see only the demons in me, so I hide. Behind an awkward smile, I hide. Behind busyness, sleepiness, and my creative excuses, I hide. Because I’m afraid you’ll desert me.

Talking about depression is like coming out of the closet for me. I can casually tell people I’ve had episodes of it, and that’s where I stop. Unlike the culture in America where it’s increasingly accepted that people work with therapists to heal from traumas, it remains a stigma in Singapore around mental health issues. To many from my generation and before, they associate mental illness with insanity: losing one’s self and falling into a state of madness.

They view the asylum merely as an institution to house people who are mentally ill. It’s true but there’s more to that. Asylum also means “shelter or protection from danger.” At the rate society is moving in Singapore, we are reading more cases of younger adults and children taking their own lives or acting out of their norms. These people are in need of shelter too, from their own troubled thoughts sapping their lives away. In fact, there are days we each need an asylum either within ourselves or another to return to.

We need to broaden our minds to look at things in their spectrum, not their extremities. Like how trauma exists on a spectrum. On one end are the intense experiences we could not process alone as kids; on the other, PTSDs.

Trauma is any event that’s stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, overwhelmed and often profoundly unsafe. Trauma exists on a spectrum; it is the most intense form of stress we can experience.
~ David Treleaven

During my double depression episode, I was a wreck internally despite being highly functional at work. I was drowning—spinning out of control—pouring long hours of myself into work (where I felt alive), then driving home in the wee hours hoping to get into an accident so my life could end there and then. And when it didn’t, gratitude did not arise. I made it home safely onto my bed where I drenched my pillow as I soothed myself to sleep. I could not get out of that painful, manic cycle, and I didn’t know who to turn to for help. I was alone. Which in hindsight reflects pretty much my experience as a child.

Mine—a case of mild yet prolonged depression—is like living under the shadow of a ghost every day and not seeing the light. Does a ghost have a shadow? Good question. And perhaps it’s all made up in the mind. Perhaps the mind is weak-willed, yet, the experiences are real. Have compassion, I pray, for who knows how many out there like me became closely acquainted with their weakness, instead of their strength, at a young age.

On days when I’m caught in the vortex, my senses are dull, my heart, numbed, and I’m disconnected with my body from neck down. Often, I’m not aware of how and when I had slid into it. I could open my eyes in the morning to feelings of soul-crushing defeat. Did I have a bad dream? I wasn’t sure what happened; before I even got up standing, I’m already limp on the ground. That’s why self-care practices are especially important. For me, not eating or sleeping well will not cause depression but puts me in a state where I can be sucked into it easily.

Depression can also present itself as a general loss of interest in life. A disembodiment —I am disconnected from the reality of my experience. The body that’s supposed to be my safe temple from which I interact with the world becomes a place unsafe to be in, so I flee into my head or out of my body (i.e. dissociate.) When that happens, guilt weighs heavily on me because even with the supportive and loving presence of my husband, I couldn’t muster the strength to snap out of it. There are moments, thankfully, when that veil of despair is lifted. From slivers to windows, these moments have been growing since I began my inner work and practices, especially inquiry and writing. Without them, I would not have been able to even reflect and explore my terrain of depression.

We can look at depression as the opposite of aggression. When a person denies her own aggression and represses it (imagine pushing down your life force, denying your own life’s energy,) it develops into a depressed state of self-loathing and hopelessness. I say “repress” because it is an automatic act that has become unconscious due to long-term suppression. Mental illness is neither a choice, nor a disease. But it can be prevented. With support, one can learn how to better cope, and eventually, recover from it.

Depression can be found in fits of hysterical crying, self-inflicted injury, extreme mood swings, or serious anxieties. And it is also often found in the cracks of smiles and the strange quietness and the absence of aliveness. If we are to encounter someone in any of these, please reach out to help. We don’t need to do anything. We can lend our presence as support and be the empathetic witness for this person through moments of suffering. An empathetic witness is somebody who can mirror, validate, and accept the feelings and emotions of another. It goes a long way. We might save a life without even knowing. We all need each other in this journey of life.

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.
~ Peter A. Levine

By the time the [stressful] event happened, the child already knew that they were alone, helpless, and without support.
~ Gabor Maté

Everybody carries a story unseen and unheard. When in doubt, be kind.

Perhaps, a call-out here too, to anyone who might come across these words and in need of support, here’s a fellow pilgrim who’s been in the trenches.

ESSAY // by Daryl

It’s All in the Everyday

I used to teach in middle school and, thinking back, the education landscape has certainly changed since the days when I was a student. Back then, there was little to no awareness of pedagogy or learning difficulties on the teachers’ parts; if a student did not perform in school, he must have been lazy or talkative (I’m very guilty of these two) or just outright stupid (even though I now know better, there were moments I wondered if I was.) Boy has the climate changed. Now, we’re expected to factor in the myriad learning styles in our curriculum planning, while remaining aware and open to the possibility of our students’ learning difficulties.

This shift is not accidental but a natural consequence of the Zeitgeist’s evolution from rugged individualism to equitable progress for all. And although I personally feel the pendulum has swung too far to the latter (that’s a story for another time), this shift was necessary to ensure a certain degree of fairness for all. Now, I see my students striving against the hand fate had dealt them: attention deficit disorder, autism, dyslexia, and the like. For once, there is an explanation beyond mere weaknesses of character or intellectual ineptitude for why they’re having such tremendous difficulties performing on par with their peers. And although they’re still frustrated by the additional hurdle they have to surmount, there is a sense in them that the gradient they have to climb has been eased by the strategies and aids put in place for them. Despair is somehow held at bay, if ever so slightly.

Watching my students strive in all their little ways inevitably affected me. On my most jaded days owing to the endless wasteland of minutiae I had to tend to, seeing my students giving their best despite their circumstances nourished me and reminded me of how meaningful my vocation as an educator is. Why should some people be held back just because nature was tough on them? Supporting them through those aspects where nature faltered gives me a renewed sense of purpose.

I also developed patience and humility. It is always so easy to get frustrated with students who don’t ‘get it’ within a few tries. But that only happens if I assume that their difficulties make them anything less than, for lack of a better word, normal. But normal is an arbitrary standard determined by convention; all who do not meet that standard are deemed abnormal. But didn’t I mention earlier how nature faltered; why should their condition still be considered normal? A valid question but it lacks a critical distinction: did nature deal them a bad hand in an essential sense that detracts from their humanity? The way I see it, them striving in the everyday makes them more human than ever. The human condition is one of overcoming, and those who overcome the greatest are most in touch with their humanity because they experience the weight of their human existence most acutely. One who had not struggled and overcome the self lacks a certain gravitas in their being. They are unable to appreciate the sweetness of life that those with difficulties had to wring out with every ounce of their efforts. For me to recognize their monumental feat requires me to set aside the perspective gained from my life-world (Lebenswelt) in favour of what they describe based on their life-world. To paraphrase Brené Brown, empathy emerges in the moment we are willing to believe someone’s experience as they saw it. It’s not whether the event actually happened but how the other experienced the event that matters.

This is why I have immense respect for Rosslyn. Her depressive episodes can be really tough on her. Those are the days when the inertia for her to move is so immense she can’t find the vitality within her to even confront the everyday. It’s so easy to dismiss those episodes as mere slumps she could simply overcome if only she would apply her will or mind to it. The brute fact is she did but what she has to overcome is not the same as what we have to overcome. Even the roughest days at work don’t come close. And while I feel the pain from seeing her live through those difficult episodes, I don’t pity her for her ‘condition’. On the contrary, I am heartened by her relentless courage in sticking it out. But this would not have been possible had I not accepted her struggles as part of the human condition we are all in; it’s all grueling no matter who experiences it.

I have said quite a bit but I’m sure I’ve barely done her (and my students’) experiences justice. But that’s ok. It’s neither a competition to win nor a report card to show. The content of life is filled by the ways we respond, and I choose to respond by seeing every single day as an opportunity to learn from, with, and about her.

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