And this too shall pass

Note: I wrote this about a week ago, and it’s just been sitting in my ‘Incomplete Writing’ folder since. It’s something that I’ve been quite afraid to post (as explained below) because I don’t know the repercussions of doing this but I think it’ll be wrong if I just stayed silent. 

When I was younger, I found this anthology of local stories – I think the title of the anthology was ‘Crystal is Waiting’ published by the now-defunct company, VJ Times. The first story ‘Off the Record’ was one that really stayed with me. (Note: In italics I’ve tried to recreate some of the writing, the lines that stayed with me. But they’re not exact replications of course, I haven’t read the book in years.)

 It’s written in the perspective of a Singaporean psychologist at some unnamed hospital. The hospital director approaches her and asks her to have a chat with his son, off the record. It turns out that the son drugged one of his mother’s prized pugs with sleeping pills, used his dad’s surgical tools and dissected it on his mother’s bed. (Mom and dad have an unhappy marriage and sleep in separate rooms. The son sleeps in the same room as his mother.) The psych speaks to Sebastian over a series of sessions. She expected some brash loud teen, ready to brag over what he did. She found someone who was intelligent, mature and sensitive. She couldn’t understand why and how he could have committed such a violent act. After a while, Sebastian seemed to thaw out. He got his own room after the dog incident because his mother was afraid to sleep in the same room as him. There’s some mention of his mother calling him abnormal because he masturbated – I think the author was trying to do this reference on growing up and sexual awakenings. His dad congratulates the psych and says that his son appears better adjusted after he started to see her.

 

Eventually, things get “better” at home, which means Sebastian went back to sleeping in the same room as his mother, and his mother starts talking to him again. And then he started becoming quieter, more sullen again. After the last time he saw her:

And then he left the door, and gave me a smile. It was a little older around the mouth, and a little younger around the eyes, the way Sebastian was, really. 

And the ending that stayed with me for the longest time. Again, I don’t have the book with me now but I’ll try to reconstruct it.

If I could have said something to Sebastian that would have helped, what I would have said was this: Everything may be overwhelming now, but you’re fourteen, and in ten years, you will be twenty-four, independent, your own person. Everything will pass, even if everything feels like it will last forever when you’re fourteen.

 

It stayed with me, but when I did try to kill myself when I was fifteen it wasn’t like that. It felt like it couldn’t end – it was a system that I was raging against.

I saw life quite simply. It was

take PSLE -> get to good secondary school -> O Levels -> get to good JC -> A Levels -> get into university -> get a degree -> get a good job

The usual stuff parents, elders and society pushes, and I swallowed it down whole. It was what motivated me to study hard from a very young age without any kind of prodding from adults. I didn’t need my parents to tell me all the above, I knew it, and lived by it.

At a certain point though, I started to break down. I saw my brother two years ahead of me, and it didn’t look like the work ever got any easier, it didn’t look like there was ever going to be a breather. And I guess it got worse because I didn’t have very many hobbies apart from reading and writing, I didn’t socialize much with other people, didn’t have a support community outside of school. (I’ve noticed most people have church friends.) It was like there was nothing to do but work, and the future didn’t appear to offer any kind of alternative. So I wanted out of the rat race, I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

And you know how people always call suicides ‘selfish’? That was another system I was fighting against – that my life wasn’t mine, but was controlled by other people, and I had to be considerate to these other people even though I didn’t know a thing about them. I didn’t care if my relatives would be sad; I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me, which meant whatever ‘love’ they had for me or whatever ‘sadness’ they would feel would be based entirely on familial ties. We would be strangers if it weren’t for an accident on birth and to me, that was nowhere near reason enough to stay.

I was fifteen when I tried to kill myself. I took about 140 Panadol pills of just about every variety in the fridge – acti-fast, menstrual, chewable strawberry tablets for children, anything I could find, along with some other kind of medicine. (The pills were an accumulation of buying Panadol when out of the house whenever someone got a headache or cramps, bringing them home and sticking them in the fridge, and repeat.) I started throwing up about three or four hours after taking the pills. I was still throwing up even after the contents of my stomach had been thrown out completely and there was only stomach acid, but I was still retching uncontrollably every few seconds. It was like my body was trying to get rid of everything unclean.

My parents took me to the hospital, and I spent the next eight days on a drip. It turns out that there’s an antidote for Panadol overdoses, so they didn’t have to pump out my stomach or anything, just hook me up to the antidote, some kind of standard anti-oxidant thing. My liver was in terrible shape, I couldn’t stay awake because it turned out that the other medicine I ate induced drowsiness, and I couldn’t stop retching whenever I was conscious. Then there was a child psychologist who came by to talk to me, and a psychiatrist every night. When I was discharged from the hospital my parents made me go to this psychologist, until I said no after a couple of sessions. They said that they’d get into trouble with Social Services because they’re not doing the necessary follow-up, and I told them that I tried to kill myself largely because of grades and money. Going to a psych regularly would take me away from studying time, and would cost my parents ridiculous amounts of money. I didn’t need it, or want it. And a lot of the time, I felt like a failure for not being able to kill myself successfully, but I couldn’t work up the courage to try again. 

I’ve never been officially diagnosed by any medical expert. I think that’s why my family still blames the breakup I had shortly before I tried to kill myself. Yes, I guess that played a part in my decision at that point, but it was a lot more than that, and I think they still don’t understand that until today. Maybe because they didn’t realise how stressed out I was before that, and how afraid. It was fear of everything – my grades, school, the future, money – I was terrified my parents’ business would go bankrupt when news of the recession just hit. It was the idea I was stuck in a rat race, a system that governed the world and that I couldn’t get out of.

I think my family thought it was growing pains, or adolescent angst when I was younger. But from the time I was eight until I was sixteen I thought constantly about death about the ways to kill myself.

A few years ago I found the diary I used when I was eight. It was a ring-bound book with a furry zebra-patterned cover. Its contents frightened me though – a constant mantra of I want to die I want to die. There was constant emphasis on how I was a failure at everything I did, that I couldn’t write, I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t play the piano, I wasn’t athletic – and everyone around me seemed to be good at least at one thing – and I was useless so I might as well die. And even in those entries when I seemed happier – that is, no mention of death – life still didn’t seem all that compelling. I don’t know what triggered all this, because I know I was a happy child before all that started.  

 I guess I’ve been self-medicating since. I used writing and drama to channel the depression into something, but it wasn’t until I got into debates I think I’ve perked up some.  

I think the last time suicide ever crossed my mind was after I got my O Level results. It’s hasn’t exactly been completely smooth sailing since, most definitely not. But I’ve stopped thinking of jumping off a building the second things get bad, and I’ve stopped regretting that I didn’t die back then. I consider this huge progress.

Sometime after leaving the hospital, I decided that I wanted to become a clinical psychologist after that. I wanted to make sure no one felt the way I did; that they were completely alone with no way out. I didn’t want to feel helpless anymore, when someone who needed help came to me and I would not have the words to give them to ease their pain. I wanted people to know that it was possible to feel all that and get through it. (But even then success stories don’t work right a lot of the time. They just pressurize people under depression that they’re weak for not being able to get through it themselves.) Later I thought about specializing in drama and writing therapy since the two have always helped me.

I’m fine now. I’ve made it to university, I’m doing the classes I’ve wanted to do, or at least close enough. Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to take subjects that I actually have interest in. I’ve fallen in love with a new art medium – makeup. I still write, I still draw from time to time, I think I’ve gotten better at singing. My liver’s perfectly healthy (it is an amazing organ) and I’m no longer unhappy all the time.

I’m still more than a little scared writing this because I don’t know the implications of it. I’ve always hesitated telling people about my suicide attempt – there’s the idea that you’re mentally unbalanced, that you’re nuts, that people don’t know how to handle thinking it. I do know people who would avoid anyone who seems like they come have a ‘troubled’ family or background, because they’re needier, they’re not normal, I don’t know. It doesn’t help that people think those who attempt to commit suicide are just attention seekers (yes, because you would swallow over a hundred pills to get attention, I’m pretty sure there are other ways to go about doing that). I don’t know what posting this will do for my job or future job prospects even though I’m fine now, but some people may not understand, or may not believe that.

If nothing else, I hope this reaches at least one person struggling out there. Whatever you are struggling with now, it is temporary and it will pass. If you can’t handle it on your own speak out and your family and friends will listen. If they don’t, I will. 

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6 Responses to And this too shall pass

  1. Rachel says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. This post only makes me (and others, I’m sure) respect you more. It shows that you’re an amazing, brave, intelligent and articulate person ❤ I also want to tell you that I understand how all that feels – the stress and the depression, especially in a society like Singapore. But you're right, it's possible to get through even the darkest moment. I'm glad you didn't succeed in your suicide attempt (sorry if that sounded weird), and I'm sure you'll keep doing things that make you happy and make your life worth living.

  2. Sher says:

    Thank you so much for writing this, Nat. In a way, I think I needed to read it. You are the most courageous person I know. I’m glad you’re okay now and I hope that you will always be.

  3. silver says:

    Thank you for writing this. It helps to read about people who’ve sort of overcome depression even without being “officially diagnosed” with it. Also, overdosing on painkillers is the only suicide method I might attempt, but your less-than-pleasant description of it managed to dissuade me somewhat. (Sorry if that’s TMI.) You won’t remember me – you used to coach me in debate for a while – but I just want to let you know that you’re a pretty awesome person and an amazing debater, and I’m so happy you’re still around.

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