This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Jess Ho is a Singaporean creative director who owns a small design agency called 2baesick Studio that dabbles with branding and content creation. Outside of work, you can find her busy exploring other art forms such as songwriting, tattoo design illustration, silkscreening, photography, and so on. She has been vocal about her personal experiences with mental health issues in a country like Singapore, where the stigma against them is still high.
It’s sometimes hard to realise that you might have mental health issues. The symptoms are not tangible or obvious like the flu. Over the last five years I learnt that I have a combination of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mild bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and mild psychosis.
I didn't even realise that I was disruptive, hurting the people around me and negatively affecting every aspect of my life. The reason is very simple: my conservative, conventional Asian family saw mental health as a taboo. We were unaware of our problems.
It’s not just me. According to the Singapore Mental Health Study, one in seven people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. It’s best for them to seek help, but they may be dissuaded by society. I only realised this after finally leaving my abusive family and saying goodbye to toxic relationships, something I recommend everyone to do.
I come from a violent family – both verbally and physically – and experiences of this from as young as 3 years old are still imprinted vividly in my mind. Growing up, I thought that these experiences were normal, and everyone else was as good as me at concealing their pain. My parents told me to never tell a soul about our family problems, but the internet eventually became my outlet to rant about troubles at home. I got backlash from schoolmates about my openness with my issues, but that never bothered me as my mess at home was worse.
I knew I never wanted to be like my parents. They were full of self-pity and blame. Never planning for a rainy day, just drifting through life, accepting their sad fate. Unknowingly and slowly, I started to pick up these traits. The more I rejected it, the more I was influenced. It was not a sudden thing. It was something built inside me since I was a baby. The constant trauma broke me. At around 21, I became super destructive. I threatened to kill myself, self abused, and went manic. Looking back, I was just imitating my parents’ behaviour.
I suspected I was depressed. I was desperate to fix myself but didn’t know how. My family is poor, and even with full-time jobs I wasn’t earning enough to foot a few hundred dollars regularly for therapy. Instead, I spent my money on random shopping sprees and getting too drunk to care. I was super bitter, sad, angry, and confused. I hurt everyone close to me and had problems at work.
Despite those roller coaster rides, I was always determined to eventually get psychiatric help. The world works in strange ways and the law of attraction might really be a thing. My chance came on an insignificant visit to the general clinic for a common cold. As I was waiting in line to see the GP, I had an anxiety attack — a sudden surge of insistently fast heartbeats and short breaths. I was consumed with fear of something but I did not know what I was scared about. I was fidgety and overwhelmed with too many thoughts. I was a mess.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The doctor suspected that I had a thyroid problem or anxiety. When I told him about my financial concerns, he told me that Singaporean citizens from low-income families could get subsidies on psychiatric help by going to a polyclinic (government-subsidised medical health centres in heartland areas) to get a hospital referral. In my case, I was able to get a 60 percent subsidy, but that was only after submitting lots of paperwork.
In my first year of treatment, I had bi-weekly, hour-long sessions with a psychiatrist and counsellor. They were patient, good listeners who worked together to examine my behaviour and provide emotional support. I was expecting my psychiatrist to be dismissive and just prescribe medication. Instead, she advised me to learn mindfulness exercises to see how I could manage, and only prescribed medication after six months.
Even after one and a half years of therapy, I still felt like life was a mess. I felt super drained. I was getting lots of side effects from the medication and could barely manage any expressions. I told this to my psychiatrist, who then suggested that it might be time to see a psychologist instead of regular counselling.
I was blessed with a psychologist that I really got along with. For the first time, I felt that someone actually understood me – my thoughts, behaviour, doubts, and darkness. Talking to her felt natural and I could really be myself. I could spill my secrets and speak my mind without fear of being judged or backstabbed. She highlighted my strengths and helped me work on my weaknesses. She never told me that what I felt was wrong and agreed that I have the right to feel a certain way due to the circumstances.
She suggested I find creative solutions to my problems. Because I like gaming, I imagined my life as an RPG where I had to battle monsters and beat bosses to survive. If I win, I will gain enough experience points to move on to the next stage. If I happen to lose one boss fight, I will have to assess why and keep trying until I succeed. She also taught me about how the human brain works and got me into psychology!
I was improving, but my home life was not any better.
My family was the worst during my first two weeks of therapy. They looked down on me for seeking help, called me crazy, and pill-shamed me. Being overly stressed eventually led to me experiencing dissociative identity disorder.
One time, after hitting my head against a wall at home, I snapped to an alter-ego — another me took over. I have close to no memory of what happened but when I regained consciousness, I was surrounded by four police officers trying to calm me down. My head was bleeding, but my parents were calling me an attention seeker and told the authorities to send me to a mental institution. They seemed to have forgotten — or chose to deny — that they bruised me before I went ballistic. They blamed it all on me and played the victim.
Looking back, I think it was their way of getting back at me for times I called the police as a teen when their fights were out of control. One time, my childhood friend and neighbour heard shouting from our flat and decided to knock on our door to protect me from my dad's beating.
I have friends who chose to believe in me and love me for who I am. They gave me the support system that I did not have at home, but some are not as helpful. While this was all going down, what made things worse were the so-called “friends” who found me too much to handle and spread gossip about my situation. In a small community like Singapore, this made it hard to make new connections and find jobs.
Sometimes, I was so bruised that I could not go to work. This only stopped when I finally left home at 24 years old. My mental illness did not just go away when I moved out. I struggled financially and had lots of breakdowns. I contemplated ending my life. Some people think suicide is a one-off event. It's not. For me, it was a constant spiral to my demise — hallucinating scenes of my own death, then plotting how to get them done in reality.
But I am blessed because I survived. Instead of beating myself down for "failed" suicide attempts, I now see them as chances to live better. It happened really slowly, but my outlook changed.
I know I may never fully recover — my mental issues are genetic and my situation at home made them worse. I want to live, but I am also scared that I’m a ticking time bomb. But it is important to realise that mental illness is common, and just because someone doesn’t have a diagnosis or medical prescription, does not mean their problems are any less important or real.
I was an outcast when I was young. My parents were not educated enough to understand the importance of mental health, or realise that they were had mental issues too. They told me to suck it up, but now I believe in getting our voices heard. By doing so, we can help spread the message that taking care of the mind is just as important as taking care of the body.
If you are or you know someone affected by mental health issues, please connect with one of these hotlines.