Escaping mental illness in my family is akin to dodging a bullet. As I left my twenties I had thought that I had done just that. This was not to be. In October of 2006 my world came tumbling down in a way that I could not conceptualise until it happened.
I have been living in Singapore since 1996, teaching in a prominent international school. I was 23 at the time, having taught for two-and-a-half years before securing a post with my husband. We had bought a home in 1994 and it made sense to be able to pay it off over 2.5 years rather than 20.
I was flying high for the first ten years. There was seemingly nothing that I could not do. I became a super mum of three beautiful girls, tried to be the best wife, daughter and sister that I could be, ran a household, ran a few marathons amidst an assortment of other forms of exercise, left Singapore to travel far and wide as soon as the bell went, all whilst holding down a very demanding job. The money was fantastic, but the expectations were immense.
The only thing missing from my life to make it perfect was the person that I loved with all of my heart; the person I shared with my family for 21 precious years; my beautiful, vivacious and talented younger brother, Thomas. He took his life on Christmas Day of 1996, our first Christmas in Singapore. For those of you who have lost someone to suicide, you will know that life as you know it will never be the same. Having lived through what I have over the past 11 years, I believe that he also suffered from mental illness. Some members of my family would disagree. Suicide is prevalent among those that suffer from bipolar illness. I can understand why.
The product of a cross-cultural marriage, I grew up in South Auckland. We may not have had a lot of money, but I always felt loved. My father lived under the cloud of bipolar 1 - or manic depression as it was known then - for all of his life. He did not medicate until he was in his 50s, leaving a broken family and a path of destruction. He also left a legacy of love and faith. I have enduring memories of dad being dragged out of the house by police when there was no other alternative to keep both my mother and himself safe. I also remember him shuffling around Kingseat having been heavily sedated and given electric shock therapy. The period through the 1970’s and 80’s was not a good time to be suffering from mental illness in New Zealand.
It is impossible to be able to articulate the episodes of elevated invincibility, intense irritability, or the debilitating anxiety that comes hand in hand with my illness. I can only thank God that He has walked with me throughout it.
I have had three major episodes where my life felt like it had spun out of control, leaving me to fight my way back to wellness. The first started in April 2006 - I suffered from anxiety, an unfamiliar condition which became progressively more serious until I could no longer cope. I remember lying down in the shower in April at school, not knowing what was wrong with me. Each day became an overwhelming struggle until October, when I knew it was time that I finally let go and reach out for help. My husband and I, together with a good friend, went in to hospital where I received my first tentative diagnosis of bipolar. This was later confirmed by my psychiatrist who was to become my lifeline from then on.
The fight back to health and wellness from this episode was, in some ways, the most difficult - as I had never felt out of control before. I had to let go and trust these professionals with my life. This was no exaggeration. The depth of anxiety and despair that I struggled with minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day was excruciating. The only way that I can describe this torture is to compare it to the moment that I found out that my brother was no longer with us; only this feeling would last for weeks. I would lay in my bed with pillows over my head from the moment I woke up, praying for the relief of sleep. I would literally cry out in pain, the feeling was so visceral. I felt as though I was broken, never to be whole again. At my lowest I was tortured by the fact that all I could manage for my children was to come downstairs and kiss them before coming upstairs and retreating to the safety of my bed. I could not see a way out. I felt as though hell was above me and I was below.
But I did return to life. It took months, but I came back at Chinese New Year and finished the school year.
The next two major episodes were situational. In November of 2007 we lost identical girls, Kalea and Xian, at 16 weeks. This is devastating for any parents, but I went to a place from which I could not return by myself. The same could be said in 2011 when we lost our only little boy, Ezaiah.
Again, I had to fight through each tortuous day not knowing how I could possibly make it through. Again, I had to trust the network of people who have been given to me, my psychiatrist, my husband, my family and my helper, whom I could never repay. She looked after my children with love and kindness when I could not.
All of these people have played an important role in supporting and loving me, but it is my husband to whom I am most grateful. He suffered alongside of me. He lost babies too, he had to come home each day from school to be with my children and to support me. Sometimes, all he could do was hold me. He felt powerless to do anything else. He is the one who has to put up with my antics when I am elevated (and spending money like there's no tomorrow) or when I am in a mixed state, when he has feared for my safety. He is my best and forever friend.
One cannot ignore the importance of medication. It has been vital in restoring me to health and in stabilising me. Without it my life would be very different. Sleep is also so very important. A single night without sleep can send me on a high which takes some time to stabilise. I must exercise regularly also. Bikram yoga has played a significant role in regulating my moods.
Ultimately, it is my faith that has saved me. I became a Christian soon after I was married. My husband was invited to church by Aunty Meina, the Mother of Sir Michael Jones. If any of you knew Aunty Meina, you would know that she was a woman you didn’t say “no” to. We went along to CCF (Christian Community Fellowship) and became involved in the music ministry. My Husband is an exceptional musician and Music teacher and I sing. It was this music ministry that brought me to a point where I could deny God no longer. Throughout my illness, and often when I felt I could not go on any longer, it was my faith in God that restored me and kept me in this world. Even though I was suffering and the pain was excruciating, I always knew that I was loved unconditionally by a loving and gracious Father. He let me know that I was not alone and that I was always in the safely of his ever loving arms. I know that when I finally get to meet him I’ll have so much for which to thank him.
Whilst I freely share my experiences with my colleagues and friends, Singapore can be a lonely place to suffer from mental illness. In a local setting it is almost taboo. Singapore is a melting pot of cultures but none speak up and take a stand to publicly acknowledge and accept mental illness. New Zealand is blessed to have champions for the cause - like Mike King and John Kirwan - who have done so much in bringing mental illness to the fore. Is enough being done to help the mentally ill in New Zealand? Well, I cannot be the judge of that but I can say that it is heading in the right direction.
Bipolar does not define who I am. It is a part of me. I am not ashamed to call myself a sufferer of mental illness. I would take it one step further and call myself a survivor. It is a harrowing, debilitating, and lifelong illness but it is an illness where there is always hope. The sun will rise again tomorrow to show you that you are beautifully and wonderfully made.