Many of us think of mental health as all-or-nothing, whether we have mental health or not; whether we are resilient or not, whether we’re “recovered” or not.

This mindset can lead to a divisive “us vs them” complex which entrenches stigma – “I’m not sick, they are!” or “I don’t need help, they do!”

But the fact of the matter is, we all experience mental health struggles at some point to varying degrees along that same spectrum of health.

This is why we do what we do at The Tapestry Project. We do our best to share a diversity of mental health related stories that are real, relatable and responsible.

Telling our Tapestry story is not about happy endings, but more of what it means to be human – a work-in-progress.

Other stories you might like

In Vivien’s story, she describes how depression can bring about a bad case of imposter syndrome – that sense of never being good enough no matter how well we performed. Depression, like a faulty sound dampener, filters out the musicality of success and validation, and allows in the noise of failure and self-condemnation instead. As Vivien accurately concludes in her story, depression lies.

In Joe’s story, she talks about their journey with obsessive-compulsive behaviour. One of the phrases that stood out to me was “to develop a healthy relationship with OCD”. Often, we think of mental health conditions as “the enemy” and something to be fixed. But realistically, we all might have to live with them for a season. Accepting the condition for what it is, working with it instead of against it, is such an empowering stance.

Anuradha likens her journey with depression and anxiety to dancing. For her, it is about learning the ebbs and flows of our condition, like learning to read a tide before a surf – knowing when to swim, and when to just ride on the crest. Her story sheds light on the overworked Singaporean’s anxieties of crashing and burning. Indeed, it does make one think – what happens when we run out of steam? How do we deal with burnout?

In Cheryl’s story, we join her journey of finding a suitable therapist. What does “professional help” look like? She once said, half in jest, that finding a good therapist is like finding a life partner where you’re constantly going on blind dates. In her story, she talks about working with the practical aspects of finding a therapeutic match, weighing out things such as cost, time, availability and rapport. Her persistence paid off, and she eventually found “the one”.

When I read Kenneth’s story, I’m reminded of the fact that workplace culture and management styles can have a direct impact on a person’s mental health. You’ll find his story has a deep sense of personal insight and candour about work, depression, attempted suicide and eventually, recovery.

There are days when I’d feel overwhelmed at the trust and courage these writers have placed in me and the Tapestry Project. It is a privilege to be able to share these stories with the world. I hope that through our lived experiences, people would see that it’s truly okay not to be okay, that hope is real, and recovery, however we define it, is possible.

Vivian’s story

Microphone
Image source: Dreamstime

Depression is a bad friend.

The kind that sticks around and pours poison in your ear. It follows me to work meetings, Friday nights with friends, back home in bed and most recently, it followed me to a gig.

You see I’m a singer-songwriter, and sometimes I get asked to perform in public.

Music has always filled me with unbridled joy – I love it to bits. On stage, plugged in and mic’d up, I talk about my heartbreaks, I taunt my bullies, I laugh at myself. People laugh and clap, depression can’t touch me, I feel safe.

It all changed a few weeks ago.

I was in the midst of a depressive episode. It was three weeks in and every day felt like I was swimming through a haze. I wasn’t eating much, I was having nightmares and on occasions when I did get some sleep, I would wake up with a sickening, familiar sense of desolation.

But I held on to a sliver of hope: The stage was waiting for me! Everything would fall right into place the minute I stepped on to the stage.

Nope. Life isn’t a movie, and I was wrong.

The day of the gig, I didn’t want to leave the house at all and I was worrying so hard I had a headache. I was so convinced that I hadn’t rehearsed enough and was going to forget how to play my guitar on stage (note: that’s not possible).

I reached out to a friend in panic, and she asked me, “Is there any way you can cancel? You’re not feeling well.” I said I couldn’t cancel. I wouldn’t want to trouble anyone, plus it wasn’t like I was sick. So I forced myself up on the stage, hoping for the best.

It was terrible. The voice in my head was right. The applause sounded like pity. My walk out of the performance area felt like a walk of shame. I was shaken by the thought that I sucked at doing the thing I loved. Even when I received positive feedback from people who had watched me that night, I didn’t believe them.

But here’s the thing I’ve learnt about depression. Depression lies.

It took me a few days to climb out of the hole I dug for myself after that “disastrous” performance, but once I did, I became aware of how badly I treated myself.

I refused to accept compliments from people even though the speakers were facing outwards and they were the ones who could actually hear me. I refused to give myself a break and call in sick for the show when I clearly wasn’t well enough to take to the stage. I let anxiety and low self-esteem build up an exaggerated version of reality so terrifying that it took a toll on me for days.

It isn’t easy. I was already getting professional help when this happened. But I am comforted by the fact that I now know depression can take things like pride, validation and happiness away from me.

I use this knowledge to remind myself that depression lies, and that I should take care of myself even when I feel like I don’t deserve it.

Joe’s story

Abstract art
Image source: Unsplash

I am 23 years old and I am an OCD-Warrior.

As far as I can remember, I’ve battled obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was 9 years old.

It started out with me having to do things repeatedly in school. I felt I had to do things perfectly; but it was more than doing it perfectly, it was doing it perfectly over and over again.

Initially, I did not know what OCD was, and did not think much of this behaviour. In fact, perhaps having this condition helped me in certain ways, as everything I did was perfect and organized.

However, it quickly started to affect me negatively as I would do something simple like ticking off an item in my diary over and over again, so much so that my diary was filled with ticks and holes in the pages from me writing over each tick mark many times.

One of the most difficult encounters I remember was when I spent five hours checking items over and over again. Things had to be in a proper place, done in a proper order and proper way.

And when a slight doubt appeared in my mind– no matter how irrational the thought was – the ritual begins again; anything to make me feel at ease. But of course, this ease was always temporary.

Sooner or later, something else would pop up and the vicious cycle would start anew.

For now, I can never say my OCD is gone. I’m constantly in a battle against it, hence the term “OCD-Warrior”, but am glad that I am starting to be able to talk about it now.

I have neither received a proper diagnosis, nor taken any medication, nor gone through any therapy, but from my experience taking the first step and talking to someone else might reduce the anxieties and dampen the triggers.

I constantly seek to develop a healthy relationship with OCD, setting realistic boundaries for myself. I also use creative methods and ways to help me deal with the rituals and cope with the compulsions.

What helped a lot personally was an OCD support group I joined when I was studying overseas. For the first time, I met others like myself and no longer felt alone.

Through sharing our experiences, I’ve learnt more about this condition, different treatment methods and how to live with it.

I know that there are people out there that may not know what they are going through and are scared of facing it alone. Sharing my story is the first step to reaching out to other OCD-Warriors.

Anuradha’s story

Dancer
Image source: Pexels

I’m a dancer.

Because my body is looking for cues to guide its movement, I pay more attention to the underlying beat in a piece of music than the average person. Music with a steady beat is easier to move to, the patterns easier to anticipate.

But what happens when you live life against a score with a constantly changing tempo? To me, that’s one way of trying to explain my experience of living with depression and anxiety for the past seven years.

If I were to say that depression involves incredible amounts of inertia, most would agree. They would think of the effort required to start moving, to get out of bed on hard days, to somehow stand up despite the pile of rocks on your chest.

And they would think that once you manage to take that first step, and do the small things, and get some momentum going, it’ll be fine for a while. At least until the next depressive episode.

But, my experience isn’t characterised by periods of smooth sailing interspersed with low periods. For that would mean the presence of a constant steady beat at least during the “good” periods with it slowing down massively during the “bad” periods. It presumes that inertia only works one way – that it takes effort for a stationary object to start moving.

But inertia works both ways. It takes effort to bring a moving object to rest too.

So when I’ve finally gotten out of bed for a few days in a row, and I’ve started getting the small things done – I know what’s coming next: A relentless drive for constant productivity, regardless of how tired I am.

I also know what awaits at the end of this productive cycle: the inevitable slump into a depressive episode.

And so I stay busy all the time, as much as possible, beyond what I humanly should, just to stave off the next “down” period.

Even when I want to take a break and rest, I can’t. My brain is already on high alert and constantly running; I don’t have enough energy to slow it down to a more manageable pace.

Frenzied activity builds, the drum beats speed to a frantic crescendo. Then silence. I am in free fall. Down to the depths of the next episode. I hit rock bottom. Then a lone drum beat sounds. Another and another. Individual beats spaced so far apart that it is barely recognisable as a tempo, sounding out into the void. I begin the slow climb back up again with a constant cycle of drum beats ringing out; the tempo starting from zero, exponentially accelerating to the asymptote of infinity before there is once again silence.

This dance never ends.

I’ve learnt not to fight the free fall, to accept it is happening and prepare for the immense energy I will need to expend to build up momentum again. Slowing the crazy buildup to something more manageable, so that going off the cliff does not need to be a part of the cycle, is still something that I am working on.

For me, the day my life is accompanied by a steady comforting anchoring beat, is the day I know I will finally have won my fight.

Cheryl’s story

Growth
Image source: Dreamstime

“You are in shock,” she said gently.

I let the words sink in and found myself speechless. A wave of relief washed over me; I felt the familiar tightness in my chest followed by tears rising predictably in my eyes and flowing down my cheeks. I had promised myself I wouldn’t cry.

Malini was a homely looking lady with the kindest eyes – she looked like she belonged in the kitchen instead of this shoebox of a psychotherapist’s office in the heart of the business district.

Two years after a traumatic loss turned my world belly up, I found myself still struggling to manage the grief that was threatening to engulf me.

Feeling embarrassed to impose on my well-meaning and tirelessly patient family and friends, I walked on thin ice every day, alternating between hardened resolve one day and anxiety-filled hysteria the next. I soldiered on.

“Time heals all wounds”, “be strong” and “accept and let go” were the mantras I repeated to myself. Yet the grief still cut deep and, even years later, I would find myself sobbing inconsolably and without warning – sometimes while having a shower, driving or even mid-conversation.

I knew that I needed help but had resisted the idea of therapy for a long time. The word “therapy,” or worse, “psychotherapy” filled me with fear. Where would I begin? How would I trust a stranger to understand and help me?

Not knowing where to turn, I sent a desperate text to a friend, a strong advocate for therapy as she herself had benefited from it.

She forwarded Malini’s email address to me and encouraged me to reach out to her. Malini had responded very quickly but she had an extremely tight schedule and was not sure she could accommodate me for the long term.

She was, however, willing to see me and we could see how things panned out. Although tempted to give up, I grit my teeth, moved my schedule around and confirmed the appointment.

And so there I was, ensconced on her bright yellow sofa, a box of tissues placed strategically on the side table. Next to it, a small clock trying its best to look inconspicuous. The session went swimmingly, and I was eager to make my next appointment.

Malini was apologetic but firm: in her opinion I needed one to two years of therapy and she would only take me on if I could commit to her only available slot – an early weekday morning.

I couldn’t do it as it would mean adjusting my work schedule. It wasn’t going to work out and I felt defeated. She promised to send me the names of a couple of other therapists after checking on their availability.

There would be two more therapists before I found THE ONE.

With hindsight, it was very much like going on blind dates, looking for that chemistry and connection, not knowing what to expect.

On one occasion, I knew immediately that it was not the right match when I found the therapist justifying her exorbitant fees unprompted.

It took three sessions for me to decide not to continue with one of them – some things just can’t be “forced” and I felt that I was putting in too much effort.

Of course, there were also more practical concerns: therapy is notoriously pricy, and I had to find one that met my budget. If it reached a point where I would be viewing minutes as dollars, constantly watching the clock, how would I be able to focus on putting my heart and soul into the sessions?

Thankfully my search ended when I met Julia. A lovely, calm and spiritual lady, she knew exactly how to gently prise out the tangled mess of emotions I was carrying around while giving me much needed validation for the way I felt. I am very much still a work in progress but feel confident that Julia will hold my hand as I continue working on my “masterpiece” – me.

Kenneth’s story

Looking ahead
Image source: Dreamstime

On 27 Feb 2018, I attempted suicide.

Back in Aug 2017, I joined a new company after spending four wonderful years at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). In the nation’s flagship hospital, I was given numerous opportunities to work with some of the brightest healthcare professionals, administrators and IT engineers in the industry.

I debated with a system specialist on the best way to improve our electronic incident reporting system, supported a committee of super senior doctors, and also sat beside an ICU pharmacist to review a medical error.

My director and manager gave me the autonomy to make decisions at my level as a junior administrator. In my fourth year, I oversaw a junior executive and associate. I was confident that I would be promoted in a few months if I stayed on.

Despite these opportunities, I tendered my resignation.

Fast forward to Oct 2017, the new portfolio was nowhere near the way I envisioned it to be. I was having difficulty adjusting to the new work environment and culture.

It was micro-management at its best. For example, a simple spreadsheet report that normally took around ten minutes now took ten days due to multiple levels of clearance and still got stuck in my inbox because the manager didn’t have the confidence to make minor decisions.

I also had a senior who “taught” me on how to send supposedly proper emails. That I should add “Regards,” on top of my signature footer, and respond with “Noted with thanks” whenever I receive things from people in order to “sound more polite”.

Once, he showed me examples of “Noted with thanks” from colleagues in the same department, and asked me how many I had sent so far.

SERIOUSLY, WHO CARES ???

Face-to-face conversations with them failed to address the problems. I felt so suffocated that I resigned after three months without securing another job even though it was only a year to my wedding and BTO key collection.

Then came the downward spiral.

I noticed that getting out of bed to maintain personal hygiene was becoming a significant challenge. Days would pass before I had a meal. I would stay shut in my room for most of the day, waking up just thinking about how I could fall back asleep just to numb myself from all the anxiety. When I tried to take afternoon naps, they would last no longer than 15 mins (Yes, I timed them) before I woke up wracked by fear.

I knew something was not right.

On 8 Jan 2018, I managed to get another position in the same industry, thinking that getting a job should help “cure” all these issues. However, the condition was full blown. I was absent more than 50% of the time.

On the days when I managed to drag myself to work, I had difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and accomplishing the simplest of tasks. I noticed that my colleagues were completing their work much faster than I could.

Mental fog made it very difficult for me to function. It felt like my mind was hijacked and “it” was leading me towards destructive thoughts and actions that I had no control over.

On the fateful day, I texted my colleagues and loved ones that “I was feeling terrible” and to just “let me go”. I left my phone in my bedroom before wandering out of my home.

Eventually, I climbed to the top of a multi-storey car park. I didn’t make the jump because I thought about all the things which were waiting for me in the future: My wedding, the BTO and marriage. All coming in the later part of the year.

The police arrived. After taking my statement, the officer called an ambulance to take me to the A&E department of IMH. I was diagnosed with depression. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be admitted. I resigned a few weeks later to focus on recovery.

One month after starting on a drug used to combat OCD, my sleep and energy improved significantly.

I started reading materials on depression, especially stories on how patients cope with their mental illness. These resources gave me the tools and strength to fight the demons from the past.

As I type this, I really hope to get back to the workforce with a strong sense of identity and confidence.

Read more of these stories on The Tapestry Project.

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