'I felt there was no future for him'

PHOTO: 'I felt there was no future for him'

SINGAPORE - Her life is punctuated with constant worry for her grown-up son, who suffers from bipolar disorder.

As a caregiver for her only child, it is a ride of constant anxiety, whether he is super-bubbly or super-sad.

When he is in a maniac state, he can go without sleep for two to three days, giving her sleepless nights. And when he is depressed, she frets over whether he will turn suicidal.

So, whenever he suffers relapses, she suffers along with him.

And each time her son - who is in his 30s - asks her why he suffers from his condition, her heart breaks.

Mary (not her real name) says: "He keeps asking me this question, and I don't know how to answer him. I feel very helpless."

The administrative assistant in her 60s requested us not to identify her or her son for fear of him being ridiculed.

The first signs of trouble came 12 years ago, when he was doing national service (NS). He was having relationship problems with his then girlfriend, who wanted to break off with him.

Says Mary, in Mandarin: "It was a big blow to him, and he became depressed. He even wanted to commit suicide. He was also having delusions of camp officers wanting to catch him."

He was admitted to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) to rest for two days. She says: "There's no family history of mental illness, so the doctor concluded that he was under stress."

With medication, he recovered and completed his NS. But he had his first relapse two years later, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

She says: "I was very sad. I felt there was no more future for him. Because of his mental illness, I didn't think he can get a job or start a family. I felt hopeless."

During his first relapse, he was in a maniac state, a stark contrast from the first onset, when he was depressed and suicidal.

She says: "He was very high. He didn't sleep for a few days and listened to music at full blast."

In five years, he has had seven or eight relapses when he stopped taking his medication.

She says: "Initially, he was under the impression that he can get addicted to the pills. Plus they have side effects. So whenever he felt okay, he'd stop his medication."

But the relapses returned each time to haunt him and his family.

Describing one of the relapses, she says he was very depressed and contemplated jumping down from the 10th storey.

They live in a two-room HDB flat.

Another time, in a manic phase, he made a scene in public. Ask him why he made a scene, and he cannot remember.

Then there are the nights when he cannot sleep because of the energy he seems to experience.

Those nights, he takes to the streets, often walking around aimlessly.

Once he walked from Kallang to the airport and back within one night.

Often he will also not respond to her frantic phone calls. Luckily, so far, he has always returned home safe, albeit in the wee hours of the morning and sometimes, close to dawn.

While he has not been violent, he has a temper, and will shout if she moves his things without telling him first.

She initially did not want to acknowledge the problem, refusing to send him to a psychiatrist because she was afraid the diagnosis would destroy his life.

He blames her for taking him to the hospital.

She says: "No mother will want their child to be admitted, but I felt that he should be treated.

"I don't know how to handle him."

Her son once could not complete his diploma course because the company that was supposed to accept him for an internship would not take him in. Despite clearance from IMH, the company's doctor would not clear him for work.

It is especially hard as she is the sole breadwinner in the family. Her husband died of an illness four years ago.

Now, on her salary of about $1,500 as an administrative assistant, she has to feed both of them. Half of the money goes for her son's medications.

She says: "That's why, I don't have much savings."

She is grateful for Medifund, which helps with the medical costs.

At 62, she cannot think of retiring.

"I'm not sure if I can ever retire. As long as he is still not financially independent, I have to support him. As long as I can work, I will; at least, I can support myself."

Once he was over-generous with his friends and incurred a one-off debt of $2,000, which she had to repay.

Now, all this mother wants is for her son to be able to look after himself.

She says: "I'm training him to be independent. If I'm not around, there will be problems, unless he has a wife to look after him and support him."

This article was published on April 27 in The New Paper.

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