Back to life, back to reality

Standing behind the grille gates of her three-room Housing Board flat, Ms Lee Aileng, 36, looks like an eager child awaiting Christmas morning to open presents.

She's welcoming her friends, two nurses from the Institute of Mental Health, on a Tuesday morning.

A wide smile spreads across her face when Ms Zhou Xinyi, 27, and Ms Lee Choon Mui, 42, appear at the doorstep of her home in the western part of Singapore.

The affectionate Ms Lee Aileng reaches out and holds their hands, saying in Mandarin: "I missed you."

Belying her exuberance is an inner turmoil - it's hard to imagine that she was once a wreck because of schizophrenia.

A few years ago, she exhibited a range of uncontrollable behaviours: She heard taunting voices in her head, tried to commit suicide and even beat her parents till they begged her to stop.

During an episode, the ardent fan of entertainment celebrities even threw away a stash of Andy Lau collectibles which took her five years to build up.

She now says she regrets jettisoning it.

"I heard someone threatening me that if I kept my Andy Lau stuff, I would be killed. So I threw away my autographed CDs and photos of him," she said.

Diagnosed four years ago at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), she was devastated by her condition.

"I hated myself, I would hit myself and bang myself against the wall," she said.

Things started to look up in 2008, when Ms Lee Choon Mui first appeared at Ms Lee Aileng's home. Ms Zhou officially took over the monthly one-hour home visits last year, when her colleague was promoted and given more administrative duties. But Ms Lee Choon Mui still attends some of the visits from time to time.

Both nurses are part of IMH's Community Mental Health Team (CMHT), which provide help to mentally-ill patients who have been discharged by visiting them in their homes.

The initiative aims to get patients back into the community and prevent them from getting readmitted into the hospital.

During their sessions, Ms Lee Choon Mui would check on Ms Lee's state and sit down with her to sort out the pills to ensure that the latter takes her medicine regularly.

For Ms Lee Aileng, though, what she appreciates most about the nurses' visits is having a listening ear - albeit it took a few months for her to open up to them.

She said: "When I'm unhappy, I can't tell my family my problems.

So I turn to my nurses for advice."

Clearly, they are an invaluable outlet for her to let off steam.

For one thing, she faces serious financial constraints: The family of four survives on her production-operator brother's monthly salary of $1,000.

Though a patient herself, she also plays caregiver to her frail elderly parents. Her mother, 55, was recently also diagnosed with schizophrenia and her father, 65, is recovering from a stroke and suffers from Parkinson's disease.

She points to a list of medicalappointment dates stuck on a glass cupboard door in her bedroom.

It's her way of remembering when to take her parents for their check-ups.

Her father, Mr Lee Ah Chai, a retired storeman, said in Mandarin: "Before the nurses came to visit, I was really worried about her keeping everything to herself.

I'm glad there is someone here to support her."

The nurses' home visits have helped. She's happier now and less easily stressed.

Ms Lee is also better able to identify signs of an impending relapse. She admitted herself into IMH last year for a two-day stay.

The bond fostered with her nurses means a lot to her.

She looks forward to every home visit and couldn't bear to let them leave each time.

She said: "Their simple greetings, such as asking me how was my day and whether I have eaten, make me feel that people do care for me and that I'm not alone.

"They are like my angels," she added, beaming.