Growing up with a schizophrenic mother meant that Elaine* (not her real name) quickly learnt how to be independent beyond her years.
“From the time I was four or five years old, I was helping my two older sisters look after our mum. We’d take turns buying food for her and drugging it with her medication to keep her sedated. While she could function on a daily basis, she suffered from hallucinations and often talked to herself. She also needed regular treatment at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH),” she said.
Self-reliance soon became second nature to the young Elaine, as she observed how her father and sisters each tried to keep up their daily routines to maintain a semblance of normalcy. She explained: “We fulfilled our responsibilities, like school and work, but we never talked about how we felt, or communicated with one another. We simply assumed that ‘switching off’ emotionally was the best way to help keep the household afloat.”
In hindsight, the media specialist (now in her 30s) admitted that this “dysfunctional” situation meant that none of them knew how to support her mother in the way she needed, or thought to seek intervention from mental health professionals.
After several unsuccessful attempts, her mother eventually committed suicide when she was 18. But it wouldn’t be until Elaine tried to take her own life that she realised how much emotional pain she herself had been suppressing all the while.
At 25, she moved to Europe with her then boyfriend, who himself had a troubled past. When he started therapy, she became “one of the things he needed to cut loose because when together, we wallowed in depression”. For the sake of his mental health, the couple called it quits, and it was around this time that her stoic emotional veneer began to show cracks.
Shortly after, Elaine made her first suicide attempt, but her ex-boyfriend swiftly stepped in and took her to see a psychiatrist. After only a couple of sessions, Elaine chose to return to Singapore. By this time, she had gone completely off the grid, having deleted all her social media accounts and cut herself off from everyone else.
A few weeks later, she flew back to Europe, checking into a hotel with a balcony on the highest floor, where she took the day to carefully plan for her second suicide attempt. At sunrise the next day, Elaine climbed onto the ledge of her balcony, tied a noose around her neck and jumped.
Six weeks later, she woke up in hospital, having undergone four surgeries that involved removing a kidney to stop internal bleeding, clearing a brain infection, and having metal plates inserted along her spine and in her pelvic area.
“When I woke up, I couldn’t even remember my name, let alone walk, because I had been sedated for so long. Later, I learnt from the doctors and nurses that the rope I’d tied to the ceiling of the balcony had snapped, causing me to land on the driveway of the hotel, where I was found unconscious with a noose around my neck,” she said.
After being repatriated back to Singapore, Elaine began six months of painful physiotherapy to help her regain her motor skills, and spent another few weeks undergoing therapy at IMH.
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When asked about her family’s reaction to her suicide attempt, Elaine said that when her sister visited her in the hospital, the first thing she asked her was how she could have been so selfish, and that if she had died, “it would be the rest of the family who suffers”.
While she could understand her sister’s sentiments, accusing a person who survived a suicide attempt of being selfish was hurtful, because Elaine had been battling deeper and more painful emotional issues.
“For most people, depression still isn’t acknowledged as a real, complex illness. Unlike a fever, for instance, where the cure is to see a doctor, they think the quick fix for someone struggling with depression is to ‘get over it’. Looking back at my own family situation, I realise the problem was that none of us thought it was necessary to seek professional help, even though we clearly needed counselling or some form of support to help us process what was happening at home,” she emphasised.
And contrary to what some people might assume, she added, those who want to commit suicide “don’t really want to die; rather, it is our way of taking back control of our lives – the last thing we still have control over – when we’re feeling hopeless and adrift”.
She explained: “During my time in Europe, I had no job, no daily routine to hold on to. When my relationship ended, I felt like I’d lost my only anchor in life; I no longer had someone to talk to about my feelings, and that’s when I realised how acute my loneliness was.”
What helped Elaine most on the road to recovery was her determination to pick up the pieces of her life by making efforts to reconnect with her friends and former co-workers, as well as creating new routines to anchor her.
Due to her self-sufficient growing up years and her own “drifter ways”, Elaine admitted to not having many friends. The ones she keeps close, though, have been a great source of comfort and support – by giving her a safe space to talk and be vulnerable.
One of them even introduced her to the Catholic faith, and while Elaine confessed to not being particularly religious, having the weekly routine of going to church during her initiation course gave her something to hold on to. “I didn’t have time to wallow in my memories, and the more I interacted with people, even if they weren’t my close friends, the more compelled I felt to continue my recovery. Even now, after a stressful work day, I’d sometimes visit a church to sit alone with my thoughts.”
When she felt more emotionally stable, Elaine also got back on social media and started catching up on her friends’ lives. Seeing how far they’ve progressed in life made her realise how much she’d given up in the last two years, and made her want to push herself to get back on track, too.
Three years ago, the savvy businesswoman started her own company, one of the “small wins” in her life that not only gave her a work routine to focus on, but also became an immeasurable boost to her sense of self-worth.
Today, apart from her day job, Elaine is a volunteer helping teens who are undergoing treatment at IMH. “Whenever I share my experience with them, they mistakenly think that I was ‘brave’ for having gone ahead with my suicide attempts. But I tell them, ‘No, you’re the ones who are braver because you have the courage to live through your problems’.”
Even though she had long since received an official discharge from IMH, Elaine still sees a counsellor once a month just to talk – a practice she advises adopting for anyone in need. “There’s really nothing to be ashamed of in seeking a professional listening ear whenever you feel troubled, or simply need someone to hear you out,” she pointed out.
In fact, Elaine herself occasionally plays the role of compassionate counsellor, too. “I have a friend who suffers from schizophrenia, and sometimes she tells me about the voices she hears. I never dismiss her ramblings; instead, I listen and ask questions. The last thing anyone in an emotionally disturbed state of mind wants is for you to tell them they’re crazy”.
Learning to have hope is also something Elaine said has helped her embrace life again. “I try to give myself goals to reach for all the time. The other day, I was telling my colleague that I’d like to take a sabbatical in two years to pursue my MBA. Whether I end up doing it or not doesn’t matter; what matters is that these big dreams give me a reason to move on with life.”
Samaritans of Singapore
If you, or someone you know, is feeling distressed, contemplating suicide, or grieving over the suicide of a loved one, there’s always someone around to help you through tough times. To reach out for support, contact the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) via their 24-hour helpline at: 1800-221 4444, or email: [email protected]
For more information, visit the website here.
Helplines for those in need:
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788