51. Being a Book

15th Jan 2018

I received an email in December, where there was a call for volunteers to be a Book as part of a Human Library event. I’ve wanted to share about depression, so I agreed to sign up. After submitting my information, I was called for an interview towards the end of December, where they spoke to me to assess whether my story was relevant, whether I could tell my story convincingly, and whether I was suitable for the event as a whole. The event was organised by the Etch Empathy Task Force, together with the Youth Corps Singapore, in collaboration with Temasek Polytechnic as part of their World Issues module.

The interview went well, with the youth volunteers telling me that service would be the theme of what the Library would emphasize, as this was what the lecturers at Temasek Polytechnic had requested. I’d never been to such an event before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Conversely, as part of my depression, I also didn’t want to expect anything.

In the midst of my struggle with therapy, I would not have foreseen that the event would fall on the same day as a writing workshop I’d signed up for some time back. I was worried, of course, that I won’t be able to cope. I had to wake up early for the workshop despite my low mood, and then head directly to Temasek Poly right after the workshop. If I’d known how far the polytechnic is from me, I might have balked even more. As it was, I went blithely unaware, though I prayed for strength and safety along the way.

When I got to the venue, I got to meet the rest of my fellow books for the day. The books were a mixed lot, and I didn’t really feel like socialising, but there were a few mental health advocates like me, under the IMH umbrella, so I spoke to some of them for a while. There were other really interesting stories as well, including a hypnotist, some social welfare workers, volunteers for life, etc. I felt quite overwhelmed, and I did feel fraud-ish. But since I was there, I might as well try to make the students’ time worthwhile.

The event went well, but with some hiccups, largely to do with time management. We were told that we had about 20 minutes with each group of students, and there were a total of 4 sessions where the students would come to our area to “borrow” us. We didn’t have clarity on when we should start, but there would be someone banging open the door to tell us when we had five minutes left. That usually kicked us off our flow if we were in the midst of our stories, so it wasn’t entirely helpful. If there was someone in each room to guide students, and manage the stop and start times, that would have worked much better.

The students were a mixed bunch. Groups ranged from 5 to 8 students, and they had chosen my book beforehand. It was all I could do to tell my story, so I didn’t strike up much conversation. I put on my cap and huddled down, but I’d ask the students why they chose me as a book, and whether they had any questions which I’d try to answer through my story. Most of the students were there because it was “kind of compulsory” for them to be there, which really wasn’t an encouraging thing. A few of them had experience with depressed friends before, so that made me feel a little better.

Regardless, I promised myself I’d do my best to talk about my experience so that the students would have something to take away. The most unnerving part of the experience was when I’d finished my story, and asked for questions. Out of four groups, I think I got a total of 5 questions. When there were no questions, and I’d run out of stuff to share, I simply could not muster the strength or creativity to come up with conversation starters. So I just gave up and stared at my feet. I did warn the students though, that I’m still recovering, and not to expect me to be interesting.

Let’s discuss.

My story basically revolved around the start of my journey, highlighting my GP, Regina from NTFGH who picked up my call when I called them, and the road to my suicide plan, until I got warded. I also gave a quick primer on how to help someone with depression, and a brief into the three questions to ask to gauge someone’s suicidal tendencies. A couple of students who’d had friends who had attempted suicide successfully did tear a bit, but otherwise, I had a rapt audience. I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or not, but I didn’t ask.

The way the timing was arranged, we had 2 sessions from 1 pm to 2 pm, and the second block started about 4 pm. That broke the energy a little, as I think most of us would have prepared to continue telling stories given sufficient water, and at most a half hour break. I kind of lost my favourite water bottle along the way, so I took the long break in between to go try and see if I could find it. I couldn’t.

We had a debrief, where one of the volunteers raised the idea of having a call to action after the event, where interested students could further contact and talk to the books. I’m of two minds about this. The concept of the Human Library is pretty precise – to allow others to listen to stories to correct their misconceptions and prejudices if any. I felt that it was precisely this low barrier to entry that encouraged me to be a book. If there had been more, I might have been put off – I volunteered for this just to let others hear my story and learn something from it. I felt quite put off by the volunteer’s statement that volunteers put in their time to see if there can be more follow up after that, or it’d be a waste of our time. I had no agenda in volunteering, and I don’t think there should have been. But I guess that’s the reality of volunteering? I’m not sure.

At the same time, I’m happy enough that some extra people have heard my story. Hopefully it’ll help them along their way in life, or help them to help others. Empathy starts by recognising that there’re hidden stories behind everyone, and with that recognition, even if one doesn’t volunteer or actively put in effort to help others on a big scale, the difference they make to even one person in their lives will matter. I really got put off by one remark from one of the books that “empathy is fine and all, but if there’s no action, it’s a waste of time.” That is so patently untrue – empathy will result in action, but by necessity, most people will take small actions first. What’s wrong with that?

That’s also the gospel after all. We’re not told to tell others about Christ in big ways alone, but to live it out, and in small ways as well as big.

I hope the students were enriched by their experience. I didn’t feel like I’d done much after the event, though I was tired. The trip home took an hour plus including dinner at Chinatown, so if any other events are held there, I might think twice. My wife was proud of me, but I told her I don’t feel particularly proud.

But I don’t regret volunteering for this at all.

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