'I wished she was dead': Living with my daughter's bipolar meltdowns

SINGAPORE - Every time her mobile phone rings and a strange number flashes on the screen, Madam Cheong Eng Kheng's heart races with fear.

"What did she do this time? How big is the trouble now? These are the questions that'd run through my mind as I answer the call," she says in rapid Cantonese.

Madam Cheong, 62, who works as a part-time contract cleaner in homes and a temple, has had her share of bad days.

Especially after her only child was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And whenever fresh news reports emerge of the condition, Madam Cheong tries to hide them from her daughter.

Like last week when the Law Society handed a letter to the High Court from lawyer M. Ravi's psychiatrist, who assessed his patient to be medically unfit to practise.

Dr Calvin Fones, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said Mr Ravi was having a relapse of bipolar disorder.

In response, Mr Ravi said in a statement on Friday that he will issue a letter of demand to the Law Society of Singapore.

Also called manic depression, bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings that can cause irrational behaviour.

"I'm afraid that it'd just lead to my daughter's mulling over her condition," says Madam Cheong as she recalls the day the hard truth hit them.

With a face devoid of any emotion, she adds: "It was only a week before Lui Lui's (Cantonese for daughter) 21st birthday.

"And we were happily planning a little birthday party, the first she'd ever have."

That party, nine years ago, did not take place in the end.

'Do you know how many times I wished my daughter was dead?'

Madam Cheong says: "How do you celebrate life when your world has come crashing down?"

Her 30-year-old daughter, who is sprawled on the sofa in the living room of the three-room HDB flat in Marine Terrace, breaks into laughter.

When she realises she has caught our attention, Wendy covers her mouth with her right hand and blurts out in English: "Oops! Sorry. (It's the) TV. Not you, Ah Ma."

Madam Cheong has asked that we do not use her daughter's full name.

She explains: "Lui Lui has been trying to get a job and I don't want this (story) to affect her chances."

For mother and daughter, a day without incident is "a day of peace earned".

"It's easier now that Lui Lui is more obedient and takes her medication regularly," says Madam Cheong.

They spend about $1,500 a year on consultation and medication.But it wasn't always like this.

Madam Cheong became Wendy's sole caregiver when her husband "just disappeared one day", when their daughter was just three years old.

Madam Cheong makes it clear that she is not out to get any sympathy.

"I can share what it's like to live with and take care of someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, but please, don't feel sorry for me," she says.

"I don't want pity. I just want my daughter to get better."

She smiles, then adds: "See, I'm not even confident enough to say 'recover fully'."

It's easier now, she reckons, to talk about her feelings. A contrast from what it was like up to three years ago.

She says: "Do you know I've lost count of the number of times I wished that my daughter was dead? Scary, huh, for a mother to even think of that?"

Losing it

But it's a fact, she adds. "And let me tell you, I've even wanted to kill her with my own bare hands.

"I felt that it would put Lui Lui out of her misery. I felt that if I was suffering, she'd be suffering twice as badly."

Things came to a head when Wendy, who had just got a job as a part-time data entry clerk after being unemployed for seven months, suffered a relapse at work in 2009.

Wendy interrupts and steps forward to sit with us at the small dining table. She smiles at her mother and says: "That time was terrible.

"I don't really know what happened, but I was actually quite happy at work. It was a small firm, but my colleagues were nice and friendly."

She shrugs her shoulders and adds: "One minute, this colleague was telling me how I should key in the information and the next I knew, I was accused of biting my boss.

"All hell broke loose. But I think they were more taken aback that after I did that. I just sat on the floor crying and crying non-stop."

Madam Cheong recounts how she "really lost it" that night.

The psychiatrist, whom Wendy had been seeing, recommended that the distraught mother place her daughter in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

"Here I have the doctor advising me to do so. At the other end, I have Lui Lui pleading with me to give her another chance," she says.

"It was hard for Lui Lui because she had been in and out of IMH. What's worse, I knew deep in my heart that the stay would help Lui Lui's condition."

That night, Madam Cheong wanted to end it all.

"I climbed over the window ledge and tried to pull my daughter over with me," she recalls with a shudder.

"All the time, Lui Lui kept promising me that she'd turn good, she'd behave and she'd not allow herself to go mad again.

"And there I was, crying and saying, 'No no you won't be able to control yourself. It's not your fault. It's your mother's fault for giving you this disease.'"

The 20-minute ordeal came to an end only when Madam Cheong's tenant returned home.

In a separate interview, Mr Leonard Koh, 45, recalls: "I was so shocked to see Madam Cheong sitting on the window ledge, pulling the right arm of her daughter, who was half-kneeling and half-squatting on the floor."

The technician, who is still renting a room, quickly separated the pair.

"I held on tightly to Madam Cheong because I was so worried that she may just jump."

He later called his older sister, a nurse, for help.

Madam Cheong says: "If not for Mr Koh, I dread to think what would have happened today."

Wendy admits that the same incident made her realise she has a part to play in keeping her illness under control.

She says: "I had dreams... beautiful ones... of going to university and studying to be a journalist."

But she started to suffer bouts of depression just after her A-level exams.

Says Wendy: "I don't really know what happened, but suddenly, I had these bouts of depression for no reason. I thought I was going bananas."

By the time she got her results - 3As and 2Bs - her condition had deteriorated.

"One minute, I felt on top of the world and the next, I felt utterly in despair. It got to a point where I felt like I couldn't breathe," adds Miss Wendy.

It didn't help that the self-confessed introvert did not have many friends she could confide in.

"There was only this one friend, but she started to keep a distance (from me) because she said my depression made her depressed. She didn't like that kind of feeling."

Other incidents "that were totally out of control" made it harder for Wendy.

Torture to continue living

Like in one instance, when she was waiting at a zebra crossing on her way to a job interview.

"A car stopped. One minute I was walking across and the next, I had walked over to the car and drawn long lines across one of the doors with my house keys," she reveals.

"Another time, I was just chatting with my new colleague during lunch, talking about some movie, and I ended up crying and laughing at the same time.

"It became a torture to even want to continue living."

When she was finally diagnosed and sent to IMH for two months, there were times when she "really hated Ah Ma", Wendy admits.

"I didn't understand why she gave up on me," she says.

"It was only much later that I learnt I had to forgive myself first before I could forgive Ah Ma or even that one friend who abandoned me in my times of need."

Now, Wendy hopes to find a job, one that can also allow her to be upfront about her condition.

"I really wouldn't ruin that chance, if I am given one. But it'd be good if my boss knows that anything can happen and is willing to give (me a) chance when it does."

Madam Cheong says she is comforted by her daughter's attempts to get on the road to recovery.

"I know that it's not easy for Lui Lui and I also know she is trying very hard," she says.

Madam Cheong, who earns about $1,000 a month, adds: "It's not how much Lui Lui's job can pay her, but the sense of responsibility and trust that she would get can help her to regain some confidence."

Ask her if this is her biggest wish, she says: "No. My biggest wish is that my daughter dies before me.

"Otherwise, there will be no one to take care of her."


This article was first published in The New Paper.