Last week was a heavy one. My heart sank when I read about what had happened at River Valley High School. Instinctively, I checked in with my team, friends and family who are parents, educators and youth workers. This tragedy drives home the urgency to talk about youth mental health in the community, and more importantly, how vital it is to involve youth in these conversations.
At the Tapestry Project, we’ve had a number of young people, aged 17 to 23, submit their mental health stories to us over the years. This is their way of reaching out to their fellow youths and those who are in their lives. Here’s what they have to say, and it’s time we listened.
In a raw and emotional piece, Charlynn breaks her silence on self-harm and suicidal thoughts. She writes about how accusations of being an “attention-seeker” had caused her to internalise shame and stigma. This culminated in depression and thoughts of suicide in university. Thankfully, Charlynn finally found someone who listened and gave space for her in her recovery.
In Sean’s story, he talks about how a simple act of kindness saved him from suicide. He shares some of his strategies on how he intends to keep moving forward, and his ways of making life meaningful in the midst of suffering.
Amanda reveals how the fear of disappointing her family had kept her quiet about her own struggles. She writes songs on living with an eating disorder and anxiety to reach out to others so that they know they’re not alone; that their struggles are valid whether or not there is a diagnosis.
When it comes to overcoming eating disorders, Xuan talks about how the process of recovery gave her a renewed sense of self. Her story documents her entire journey to recovery — how her school was the first to identify this need, her family’s response, and her innermost thoughts during her stay at the hospital.
In her story, Qin Xu encourages her peers to persevere through life’s ups and downs. She shares that while recovery may be a long, winding and oft-times painful road, the journey is worth it.
In Jason’s story, he lets us into his world about how depression and generalised anxiety disorder feel like to him. In his piece, he talks about how having a supportive family, albeit an imperfect one, has given him courage to pursue recovery.
Sometimes we need other avenues to facilitate that process of healing and self-discovery. Vienna uses social media as a way to express and externalise her thoughts and feelings. Through her Instagram stories, she reminds us that mental health struggles look different in everyone.
“Did you do this for attention?”
I had not prepared an answer to that question. Paralysed with fear, I stared blankly at my parents, praying they would drop the topic and just dismiss the issue. That was the day they discovered I was self-harming.
I’m not sure how it started. I was in secondary school back then, and I was always the ‘loner’. Perhaps one could say that that predisposed me to depression. Teachers tried to reach out to me, sending me to the school counsellor, and talking to my parents, but I never accepted that something was wrong with me, and delayed help-seeking because of the stigma of being ‘attention-seeking’.
Fast forward three years. I got into a Junior College, and was instantly overwhelmed by the workload and the high standards that I had to live up to. I struggled to relate to anyone as I felt isolated from my peers. I felt trapped, suffocated, exhausted. I couldn’t catch up with my studies as my mind was always clouded with negativity, and thoughts undermining my capabilities and self-worth.
I found myself contemplating suicide on numerous occasions. I still remember how intense and scary the thoughts were, almost like an irrational command that overwrites every ounce of self-control.
These thoughts increased in frequency and intensity as I entered my second year, drowning in the stress of the upcoming ‘A’ Levels. I would spend every night crying myself to sleep, trying to fight suicidal thoughts. This continued, remaining unspoken, till I barely made it into university.
In my first year of university, I had my first full-blown depressive episode. It was a dark four months for me. Every day, I would oversleep, skip meals, cry in bed, think of how my life was pointless, and have recurring thoughts of ending it all.
Some of the lesser-known signs of depression are body aches, feeling like your body is ‘weighed down’ or ‘leaden’, and feeling mentally tired and drowsy as if you have the flu, but without other influenza symptoms. It surprised and terrified me how ‘physical’ depression could get, despite it being a mental illness.
Thankfully, things took a turn when one of my friends encouraged me to speak to my university tutor, which I did reluctantly. She commended me on my bravery in taking the first step towards seeking help, and subsequently referred me to speak to a counsellor and psychiatrist. I was put on medication, which dragged me out of the depressive episode.
I am now glad to be in recovery. Although the road towards remission is long and bumpy, I have no regrets reaching out for help.
The assumption that individuals who self-harm and attempt suicide are ‘attention-seeking’ is unhelpful and stigmatising. We should instead provide support to individuals in distress by directing them to seek help early instead.
Sometimes, a simple “Would you like to talk to someone about this?” can save lives.
I still remember the fateful day I wanted to commit suicide. I felt empty, alone and hopeless. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt took over.
Thoughts such as: “I hate myself”, “I do not deserve to be alive”, “I really, really want to die” were frequent. Eventually, I would learn that I had dysthymia – a mild but chronic depression. The cumulative stresses of life led to me wanting to jump off a nearby bridge. Thankfully, I did not.
The few people who found out about my condition would often ask me the same question: “why?”. To be honest, I don’t know. Psychiatrist Siow Ann Chong explains it better: sometimes it starts “insidiously” and eventually one feels like it takes “overwhelming effort” to go through the “minutiae of daily existence”.
“At 7pm, I will do it. I will die”. That was the plan.
But an unexpected message put a dent in my plans. One of the two girls I met at an internship, which I had just completed, said she wanted to pass me something. I felt I had nothing to lose by meeting with her. So I did.
Upon seeing her, the thick fog of despair that had enveloped me began to clear up. It was replaced by a heart filled with immense gratitude. I was given this enormous farewell gift that these two girls got for me: a gigantic Pikachu plushie.
I had expressed my love for Pokémon to them during my internship. Never did I think that they would buy something like this for me as a farewell gift.
Although this plushie may seem innocuous and unremarkable to others, it was the spirit of this gesture that warmed my heart.
Dostoevsky said, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings”. I wanted to live my life in a way that was worthy of the pain that I was going through. To that end, I determined to set a few goals for myself:
First, I would seek proper treatment. I started to visit the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and went for counselling sessions with a private psychologist. Such specialised treatment helped me better cope with my condition.
Second, I would volunteer more regularly. Volunteering helped me feel a sense of purpose in life. I slowly learnt about the needs of other individuals and felt fulfilled when I was able to do my part in alleviating their struggles.
Third, I would inculcate routines in my life. Daily, I would look in the mirror and repeat positive affirmations about myself. Also, every morning, I would write down three things that I was grateful for. Gradually, these exercises helped me become more positive.
When I look at myself in my mirror, I see someone who is alive, grateful, and happier. Instead of recurring negative thoughts, I think thoughts such as: “I am so grateful to be alive”, “I am loved and deserving of love.”
The small act of kindness that my friends did for me made me remember that I am loved and deserve love. It made me begin to search for my own meaning to live and to tame the “black dog” of depression.
If you are facing your own mental health struggles, do not despair. Even in hell, hope can flourish.
I am fearful of disappointing my family.
Unlike most people who have an official mental health diagnosis, I do not have one. But I do struggle with mental health issues.
I have lived with an eating disorder and anxiety for almost four years.
Today, I am here to share my story as I get many unsupportive comments from people who know about my condition.
People tend to say, “Oh but you are not diagnosed so you cannot assume that you have a mental illness.”
Not being diagnosed does not mean you are not suffering from mental illness. In fact, undiagnosed people like me suffer equally as well. The loneliness we feel because we do not have anyone to talk to.
I am here to tell people like me that you are not alone.
Suffering from an eating disorder all these years has made me addicted to it. So how do I cope with it? I write songs and poems. Never would I have thought that writing songs could bring me such relief. It has helped me greatly.
Here is an extract of a song I wrote during a very tough period. This is dedicated to my family.
Every 11:11, every shooting star
I beg for life to be okay
would just be enough
at 17 years old
here I am
writing this song
wishing I wasn’t dead
cause of u.
I hope that through my story, I have spoken up for people like me. I also hope people can see a better way of coping with problems. I really hope that my poems or songs could comfort someone or at least tell them that they are not alone. And I hope to continue writing songs and poems for people.
Four years ago, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. For 16 years, I had been working towards the goals of being the perfect daughter at home and the perfect student in school.
What everyone did not know was the challenges living up to that (self-imposed) expectation. I lived like a duck: while seemingly calm above the waters, I was peddling desperately beneath to stay afloat.
This was especially so in the months leading up to the diagnosis. Due to my declining energy level and susceptibility to even the slightest cold, I shuffled between school and doctors.
As my physical health deteriorated, my mental health suffered. My mind was constantly preoccupied with food and whether I had had sufficient exercise for that day. I recalled intentionally distancing myself from my closest friends.
The “I’m fine”, uttered with slight annoyance in response to every and any concern. built an impenetrable wall alienating me from everyone.
Then came the mandatory school checkup. After being marked as ‘severely underweight’, I was referred to the polyclinic where the doctor arranged an expedited appointment with a pediatrician.
The day of the appointment coincided with my oral examination. I recalled travelling by train and walking quite a distance before reaching the clinic. Little did I know that was the last trip I would take for the next few weeks.
After running a series of tests, the doctor requested a private session with my mum. I was in denial, insisting that I was not thin enough to ‘qualify’ and possibly have recovered from the months of shuffling between clinics.
My only concern was to leave the hospital immediately and try to make it for my exam. After what seemed like an eternity, the consultation ended. In my mum’s eyes, I saw confusion and apprehension. Despite that, she gave me a comforting smile. This pretense weighed down on me. It dawned upon me that I had failed as the perfect daughter.
Everything that happened next was agonising. I was deprived of my freedom of movement, including going to school, walking, and even showering. Determined to return to school, I psyched myself up into being the most cooperative patient so I could be discharged soon. I overestimated my abilities.
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If losing this freedom was gruelling enough, I was forced to relinquish all control over my diet. Control was what anchored my entire life. Without it, I felt I was reduced to an infant incapable of making simple decisions for myself.
The first few nights were exceptionally painful. For one who could barely recall when she last cried, those nightly tears were my companion through the lonely nights.
The period of recovery was one of the darkest periods of my life. As much as I hated being controlled, I complied as I was determined not to burden my family, financially or emotionally. Although this was not the most ideal motivation, it got me through.
While being stuck in the hospital, I had time to reflect. Although I have yet to uncover the underlying cause of my eating disorder, I consider this episode my form of rebellion against societal and self-imposed expectations.
From my academic and non-academic aspirations to beauty standards, my perception of perfection has always been set by others. For 16 years, I had never truly lived. My fear of meeting or failing to meet expectations had defined my life.
Four years on, I would still not comfortably declare myself completely recovered. The little monster pops up every now and then and it is not every time that I win. In any case, the dark phase would certainly not be just a thing of the past.
Even as my body heals and the scars on my wrists fade, the invisible markings serve as a permanent reminder to never come back to this.
To my future self and anyone in a similar situation: Life is challenging and will always be. There are always other alternatives to seek the respite we crave. We are stronger beyond our imagination.
Hurting ourselves only pains us and those we love. For girls who are facing what I have been through, I encourage you to embark on recovery no matter how hard the journey might be.
Remember, we deserve to be loved unconditionally. Even if no one is giving us this love, we give it to ourselves.
Qin Xu’s story
Having battled with different mental illnesses ranging from anorexia to depression since the start of my teenage years, I have learnt that mental health is just as important as physical health.
And like any physical illnesses, it is possible to recover from a mental illness with the appropriate help and support. I am thankful and privileged to be blessed with a strong support system that made recovery much more manageable.
However, we all know that recovery is never linear and at times it can be really hard to continue and push on with recovery.
As someone who has reached a point in her recovery where I can safely tell my story and hopefully empower others without risking a relapse, I am here to tell you that recovery is always worth it.
I believe that many have heard this quote “your worst days in recovery are and will always be better than your best days when you are deep in your mental illness”.
Yes, there will definitely be days when you feel like giving up, when you feel like everything you have done is getting you nowhere and you are just stuck forever, and the thought of just giving up on this whole fight is very tempting.
After all, if recovery were that easy, we would all be cured within days.
The journey of recovery is harsh, yet essential.
If you are struggling to find reasons to recover, recover for yourself. This is your life and you deserve to be free from the mental struggles you face on a daily basis. If you feel like you don’t deserve recovery, then recover for the people who love and care for you.
Recover for the future for there is always hope; hope that one day you will no longer have to fight the demons in your head, hope that one day you will look back on your journey and be proud of how far you have come and how your struggles have shaped you into a stronger person, hope that you will be glad that you have taken the brave and large step in choosing to recover.
Recovery is an essential process for one to be free from mental illness. It is a process with many ups and downs, many smiles and tears, many proud moments and relapses; but at the end of the day, it is a process of growth and strength. I came out of recovery stronger and much more ready to deal with any challenges life may throw at me.
Even if you did not give your best shot at recovery today, know that you are still taking small steps in the right direction and there is always time for you to try again.
Make a conscious choice every day for recovery is worth it, it will always be.
It’s been a tough journey to recovery. I was clinically diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety disorder in late 2017.
I self-harmed, which in hindsight, stemmed from having been bullied in the past; being looked down on, insulted and abused. This also was triggered by the passing of some people whom I was close to.
My relationship with my family can be unstable, but they are supportive and we are learning to face difficult situations together.
Even though I’m still a student, I am making plans to work part-time to support my family as my mum has cancer, while my grandmother has dementia.
Some friends found out I had mental health issues because of the scars on my left wrist. They then spread the news that I was clinically depressed. As a result, I lost trust in people. I internalised my feelings, and didn’t express myself or reveal my feelings to anyone long after I was diagnosed.
But I’ve since forgiven them and appreciate that they too, like my family, are there for me.
The first step to getting help is to gain the courage to speak up and share with a psychiatrist or counsellor, even if you don’t feel like it.
You’re not alone in this and the people around you will be there for you too and they’d want you to recover.
So how do I cope? For me, it is also important to do what I love to keep my mind off from the negative thoughts. You can try sports, hanging out with friends or family members, going for night walks with a friend, reading a book or listening to happy music.
Even though I’m battling depression and anxiety disorder, I’m not giving up. If I can do it, so can others going through the same thing. I’ve always known that I’m not alone and I’ve friends around me to support me. They never gave up on me.
Relationships are important for our recovery. Thank you for reading my story and I hope this encourages someone out there.
I don’t remember much of what I went through from around April 2018 to August 2019. But I knew it was a dark period. My life’s calendar felt like it was partially erased and blanked out. Like flipping through those old-school tear-off almanacs, the ones with red and green Chinese characters, and then finding chunks of missing pages.
Usually when you find missing pages of a calendar or one that doesn’t tell you today’s date, the calendar is deemed irrelevant. Those “extra” pages are crushed and torn away. But I choose to keep these incomplete calendars of the past and tell you about them.
During that period of time, I used Instagram stories to document a lot of my daily thoughts and emotions. Things like:
“I fell into a hole.
I landed somewhere.
But after a while, the ground caved in and I fell again.
Landed somewhere and fell again.
And I just keep falling.”
“It’s a lift full of people.
No one got out, no one had wanted to go out at this level.
No one came in either. No one could go in.
I stood outside the lift and watched as the door closed. I waited for the next.”
“Hot showers don’t work anymore.”
“Yesterday was sitting in the middle of the road and watching cars zoom by. Or standing in the middle of the Shibuya crossing, or something, and watching people zoom past.
Today is sitting by my bedside, hugging my knees, in a dark quiet cold room. Staring out of the window at the moon in the sky, with faint moonlight streaming in the window as the only source of light.”
Perhaps some of you resonate with what I felt or have experienced some semblance of it.
Maybe you can’t relate, or think what I wrote was gibberish. Then, perhaps, this is a strong argument for how mental health is different for everyone.
Doesn’t breathing feel different, changing from one day to the next? It does at least for me.
So when someone comes to you and tells you about their bad days, listen. Listen attentively, like the way you had just read every syllable of this story, even if you may not be able to understand or relate to my experience.
For those of you who have stayed on to read until the end, I’d like to leave you with a song lyric that I personally like: The sun will rise and we will try again.
I hope you might remember this tiny quote whenever you have a bad day.
Read more of these stories on The Tapestry Project.