A new life for 'sleeping beauty'

A PHILOSOPHER'S MADNESS, BY CHAN LISHAN

Ethos Books, 2012, $18.08 inclusive of GST.

Available at Kinokuniya main store and online at www.ethosbooks.com.sg

From hospital to home

The first few nights were the most difficult. I felt that there were too many objects in the room and I began to see patterns in ordinary everyday objects. For example, I noticed a large wall hook with five smaller hooks on it and immediately reasoned that it had to be five hooks because there were two ceiling lights with three smaller lights attached to each light, and two plus three equalled five.

I got ready to throw out even more of my belongings. When I unlocked the door to throw the items into the garbage chute, my mother screamed in frustration and pain. She did not know what to do or how to handle such a situation.

Apart from throwing out my belongings, I resumed the practice of trying to gain inner peace with my thoughts and myself. So I hid in the wardrobe (reminiscent of the famous one in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe) but I did not visit another world through it. I hid in the darkness for peace and quiet.

At the same time, I had found logic to the prices of the books that I was buying. If a book cost $5, that made sense because it was the same figure as the number of hooks behind the door.

I was reading a book on the topic of truth and it had a light blue cover, so when I saw my dad wearing a red T-shirt, I felt that it must be a mistake. When he wore a light blue one, I felt he was doing the right thing.

One day, I asked my parents if I could buy some new clothes without going to the shopping mall. This was because the shops in the mall were irritating to my eye. The variety of colours and patterns were too much for me. There were too many people and I could not cope with it.

We finally went to a clothes shop that sells abayas - the United Arab Emirates' national dress for women. I demanded to have a set of white praying clothes instead of the black abayas because I believed that by then I had been enlightened or cleansed in a particular way. I was therefore morally or perhaps spiritually better than others.

Take your meds

The most difficult part is coming to terms with the medical diagnosis. Had I accepted the biochemical diagnosis from the start, it does look as though I would have made a much speedier recovery.

On the medical view, it is not primarily stress- or psychosocial-related issues that have caused my illness but a chemical imbalance of the brain, or a change in the structure of the brain. So the easiest way to treat the illness is through medication, not through psychotherapy, or reducing stress levels.

The second most difficult part of being mentally ill is living with the condition. There is definitely a stigma in relation to mental illness. Mad people often don't have a life of their own - they are prisoners of illness. Some people think that as a consequence, we shouldn't be able to vote or to make decisions for ourselves or for others.

Would you live with me if you knew that I was ill? In addition to not having many friends, I wonder if I can have a relationship with another person. The person would have to accept my condition. But why would anyone accept a partner with such a condition? First, because it is believed that mental illness has a hereditary basis, a sufferer's children are predisposed to mental illness. Second, he has to live with his partner's constant suffering from having to take the drugs. Life is complicated enough as it is. It would be odd if someone did NOT mind their partner having such a condition.

After a while, I found that my worries about friendship seemed unfounded. Once I had gathered the courage to tell my friends about my condition, I found that they were supportive and encouraging. It was only in my untreated state that they had seemed alien and unfriendly. Perhaps, when I thought people were unwelcoming, it was my mind playing tricks on me.

I am also able to have a relationship with a man. We have good times and bad times, as other couples do. He calls me his "sleeping beauty", since I tend to sleep a lot, an effect of the medications.

So far, I seem to be able to lead a "normal" life, in terms of human relationships. In my stable and treated condition, I am certainly not treated as an alien species, or as an untouchable.

I cannot emphasise enough the benefits of taking medication.

It was only after I started medication that it became apparent that I was getting better and not worse. And it was only after I had seen several doctors and tried different medications that I found the doctor and the medication that was right for me.

I strongly encourage those who have problems with the side effects of medications to consult their doctors or psychiatrists regarding the drugs they are taking and the dosage, and explore different options to find out what works for them.

The future

My condition has stabilised but I am nevertheless afraid that I will suffer from a relapse. There is always the possibility that the medicines will work for a period of time and then stop working as the body adapts to them.

For a while, I tried applying for various jobs in Singapore, but did not receive a single job interview. This was because there was a clause that asked, "Have you ever had a mental illness?", or something to this effect, and I answered truthfully each time.

This made my parents worry that I would never get a job in Singapore. It was fortunate that my father was working in the Middle East. I could get a job there and no one would ever know about my illness. This was my parents' plan, and it seemed to work.

I got a job while I was in Dubai. My salary was twice my stipend, and I greatly enjoyed the increased spending power. It felt great to be working in Dubai, paying for my own accommodation and living expenses, and being financially independent...

For me, a meaningful and satisfying life is a life where I can use my skills and abilities. For example, I seem to be able to write and I like to read, so it might be possible for me to try the publishing industry as an option, if I do not continue and resume my studies in philosophy.

The point is that there are many options in life and we should not be blind to the many possibilities of things that we could do. If we do not succeed in one field or endeavour, it is not the end of the world.

I still struggle with my feelings of rejection at having underperformed at work but I seem to have a fighting spirit and will not give up.

I hope that I will one day rebuild and resume the life I have always wanted - a life that is challenging and enriching and where I can be intellectually fulfilled.

stopinion@sph.com.sg


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