The first time psychosis happened to me was in 2013. I was a graduate student then, back in Singapore for a short holiday. I was quiet and withdrawn. But no one thought much of it. It quickly spiraled into unexplained guilt and anxiety, such that I could not sleep. It went downhill all the way within days. Delusions of people harming me, stealing my identity, and having me under surveillance crept insidiously into my mind. I was scared, paranoid and full of delusions.
My poor family—they were at a loss, desperate, so much so that they sent me to the emergency room of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), despite having misgivings about “the mental hospital”. The wait at the emergency room was probably the worst experience in my life. I could not respond to people, I could not walk and talk. I was too caught up in the dramatic delusions unfolding in my mind: I’m waiting to see a judge for my sins, I’m going to die so that my sister could live, I’m putting up a show for the best actress award.
Little did I know that going to IMH was the start of my recovery. Even in that dark valley, I was making my way toward getting the help I needed to get well. I was referred to the Early Psychosis Intervention Program (EPIP) and received quality medical and psychosocial care.
After a season of rest, I went back to grad school. I want to tell you that I kept psychosis at bay; that it did not return. But due to the mounting stress and pending deadlines of defense and thesis writing, I soon started to lose touch with reality again. The delusions were coming back. The line between what’s real and what’s not began to break down again. My thoughts were all over the place.
It helped that I had a doctor at the University Psychiatric Clinic. She picked up my call on the third ring. I found out later that she already knew that I was unwell when I talked to her on the phone. She had a team mobilised, ready to meet me during my consultation with her. At my vehement objections to hospitalisation, she sent me home that evening to rest after giving me some medication. I went back to her the next day and was given three weeks of medical leave. With the support of my family, friends and medical teams, I completed my thesis and defended my doctoral research work. I still look back in awe of how I managed those days. There may be some truths in the Permanent head Damage title.
I moved back to Singapore in 2015. Bright-eyed and willing, I found various job opportunities ranging from science writing to teaching to social service. I landed a job as a peer support specialist in 2016. I thought it was a dream come true. I found so much meaning in helping others with a similar psychiatric condition as me. Yet, it burnt me out quickly as I ran too fast, too far. I fell into a third relapse last December. To be honest, the hardest part of it all was that self-stigma. As I struggled with my mental health, I questioned if I was really unwell or was just seeking attention. I was well physically, but why can’t I sleep, eat or concentrate?
I am thankful to have supportive colleagues and family that tide me through that period. I took a leave of absence from work. As I rested, I turned to writing. It was a cathartic and healing experience for me. The burden of the burnout seems to melt away with every word that appeared on the word processor. Soon, I went back to work, and transferred to another department. Clinical work has taken its toll on me. For now, I am happy to relish in the backend research, and hone my skills as a wordsmith.