Local comedians share about their battles with depression

Local actress-turned-director Michelle Chong
PHOTO: Local comedians share about their battles with depression

Behind the wisecracks and cheers, there can often be depression and tears.

News of Oscar-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams' apparent suicide yesterday shocked the world, drawing tributes from fellow actors and fans.

The much-loved 63-year-old star had been battling with depression before his death, and had previously struggled with alcohol and drugs.

What is it like to live a public life so brightly while hiding a dark side?

Home-grown talent Michelle Chong knows.

The versatile actress, who has won many fans with her comedic impressions on local TV show The Noose, has had her own battles with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Not everything about Chong is as chirpy and quirky as her portrayal of Sarong Party Girl Barbarella, which has since become a household name.

The 37-year-old had been diagnosed with clinical depression since she was 17. And the more depressed she gets, the more she buries herself in work.

She occupies herself with hosting gigs, film-making, managing her artist agency Left Profile and more.

But Chong said the success from her multiple projects does not help her in coping with her feelings.

EXPECTATIONS

"People expect me to be bubbly, funny and chirpy all the time; it's like I am not allowed to have a bad day.

"When the negative thoughts hit you, there is nothing much you can do."

For Chong, the few years before the success of her directorial debut Already Famous in 2011 were the toughest. She would burst into tears uncontrollably during media interviews and found little meaning in life.

"It was a very low point in my life. I dreaded going to work the minute I woke up. I just wanted to sleep all the time. There was very little joy in everything. I felt that even if a car knocked me down at that moment, I would be fine with it."

Chong sought help from professionals and took anti-depressants, a move which she said "helped improve the problem to a small extent".

She recognises that the problem will "never go away" but she has since found ways to cope with it.

"I felt like there was a void within me when I was in front of the camera.

"I realised much later that I enjoy the creative process a lot, and I was not getting it from the end of the production process as an actress. I wanted to have a creative outlet.

"Sometimes, people need to take a step back and see that what they are good at is not always what makes them happy. They have to take the risk and give up doing what they excel in if it is making them depressed. It involves a lot of sacrifices.

"I did that by choosing to go behind the scenes and staying out of the public eye, slowly but surely."

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KEEPING BUSY

Another way Chong deals with her struggles is to maintain a very hectic schedule.

She is currently busy filming the movie Our Sister Mambo, as well as directing and acting in her own film, Lulu The Movie. Both local productions are slated for release next year.

She said: "When I am very busy, I've no time to look at my inner demons. Giving myself a lot of distractions and having things to look forward to all the time are very important in helping me cope."

Even other local comedians who have not battled depression before admitted that their job is not an easy one.

But positive thoughts, they said, help move them along.

Local entertainer Hossan Leong, 45, said: "I am an optimistic person. I try to avoid negative talk because I get affected by it. It's all about finding the balance in life.

"I also think it's important to have the ability to say no to work, especially when I am feeling physically and mentally burnt out."

Local funnyman Chua Enlai said: "Reading awful things about myself online or in print is something that no one can deal with easily. I guess we put ourselves out there, but it's also about putting on an armour.

"I remind myself that people are very much entitled to their own opinions. Different strokes for different folks, I am just not their stroke."

'Comedians are the saddest people'

Looking at Irene Ang's successful career, it is hard to imagine that she had tried killing herself three times in the past.

The 45-year-old, whose long list of occupations includes being the CEO of talent agency FLY Entertainment, said: "I attempted suicide and I failed.

"On my last attempt, I had a revelation: 'If I have the courage to attempt suicide, then why shouldn't I have the courage to live to fight another day?'

"From then on, whenever I run into difficult times, I refuse to give up."

Ang's dark days were in the 1990s, before she landed her iconic and successful role as Rosie Phua in the popular sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd.

She agreed that being a comedian is tough, as people expect her to be happy all the time.

"They often say comedians are the saddest people in the world, because everyone wants you to make them laugh," she said.

"People on the street talk to me like they've known me for very long. There is no barrier. It's nice but sometimes, I just want to be left alone. It can be very tiring."

Over the years, Ang has found various ways to cope with her low points.

"I own a bar, so I drop by for a glass of wine to chill and unwind sometimes. It's also important to have a strong support group of close friends whom I can confide in and talk to," she added.

"Focus on solving problems one at a time instead of lumping them together. When you focus on the positive stuff, things start happening for you again."

Ang also believes in paying it forward, saying that she uploads only positive stuff onto her Instagram account @flyirene.

She said: "Many people message me privately and tell me that my positive messages were what they needed to hear.

"Now I constantly scour the Web for such quotes and post them so that I can continue to influence people positively."

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'I became vulnerable'

Home-grown film-maker Jack Neo may have achieved plenty of commercial success with his films, but the 54-year-old had a rough start during his early days.

This was particularly so when he performed as the cross-dressing Liang Po Po in local variety show Comedy Night in the late 1990s.

"It was very tough and pressurising. I constantly had to think of good punchlines and jokes, and had to think about having breakthroughs every week.

"I became vulnerable and easily depressed. Sometimes, I became very negative and would think: 'I make people laugh all the time, but if I am not happy in real life, then what's the point of being alive?'"

These days, Neo believes that his religion and his family help him through the difficult times.

He also immerses himself in work, deriving satisfaction when the audience enjoys his performance.

The father-of-four said: "I felt the happiest when my kids watched my Liang Po Po skits from the past and told me that they were very funny. It feels good to have that kind of validation."

'I didn't dare confide'

Veteran actor Chen Tianwen was recently seen on the big screen in comedy The Lion Men 2.

But just a few years ago, the 51-year-old was going through a minor crisis in his career.

He revealed: "There was one year in which I was offered only one TV show to act in, and it was for a bit role. I felt down and cooped myself up at home.

"I watched a lot of TV and surfed the Net to pass time.

"As I am a public figure, I didn't dare to confide in too many people. It's worse if I poured my heart out to the wrong friends, who might say worse things and make me feel more depressed."

Luckily for Chen, his role as a retrenched father in Anthony Chen's award-winning movie Ilo Ilo (2013) last year turned his life around.

Not only did he start bagging more roles, but he also got married a few months ago.

He said: "Having a companion to talk to makes me feel a lot better, as I no longer have to deal with the problems myself."

HELPLINES:

Care Corner Counselling Centre Hotline (Mandarin) : 1800-353-5800

Website: www.carecorner.org.sg

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) Hotline: 1800-221-4444

Website: www.sos.org.sg

Institute of Mental Health Hotline: 6389 2222

Website: www.imh.com.sg

This article was first published on Aug 13, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.