It’s not a difficult thing to head into town in Singapore. Singapore as a city is largely divided into four major portions. The urban center lies more or less at the southern tip of the island, with suburbs all around. The major industrial zone to the west of the island city-state and the world-renowned airport to the east of the island make up the other two major zones. It takes no more than a bus ride and at most an extra half hour hop onto one of the multiple metro lines to head into town.
But for someone with a mental health struggle, that bus ride and metro ride can end up being a living nightmare. However, I decided that for the sake of self care, I would head into town recently. I wanted to physically step into a Christian bookstore, and grab a couple of new Bibles for my kids. Their old ones have been well used, and are heavy. It would “do me good” to get out there, stretch, look at healthy stuff to buy, and breathe.
I could not have been more wrong.
I think I did well enough to travel down to the city center, remembering to research the transport options I had, even if I’d made this trip multiple times before. It’s part of the struggle of having an overactive mind – I need to rehearse the path in my head, and test it to see if I will feel distressed even considering the action or actions that I will need to take along the way. If I do feel distressed, identifying why could help me take preventative, corrective actions ahead of time.
It was raining when I stepped out of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station, and I offered to share my umbrella with a well dressed gentleman who was obviously waiting for the lights to turn green before crossing in the downpour. He declined politely, and on the next crossing, I offered yet again, the dubious shelter of my brolly to a lady who was waiting to cross. She happily took it up, and politely said her goodbyes once we had crossed. The gentleman from earlier though, who had actually crossed without the benefit of waterproof protection, zoomed past me – “You’re a nice guy!”
And what was a normal day started to go downhill.
My inner critic has been more active recently, and the moment the nice words were said, as the gentleman disappeared into the distance, my fingernails started to dig hard into my palm. I started to recite a litany of how wrong he was, how undeserving I am of any compliments, how horrible a person I am, how much a hypocrite and liar I am. At the same time, my mind was trying to point out that I was simply sharing what God had given me for times of trouble – an umbrella. Sharing His gifts is a good thing that I don’t deserve any compliments for – I was simply doing what I should do. Fingernails, dig harder! I need to remember that I’m NOT deserving of any compliments, and I need to be punished.
Through it all, a smaller voice piped up. I didn’t have to offer the umbrella. Even if the Spirit had prompted it, I had chosen to obey and offer the umbrella. I was on my way to do something nice for my kids. I wasn’t being entirely selfish even as I was trying to engage in self care by distracting myself going to town.
The critic promptly took over with constant screaming (“You suck, don’t lie to yourself”, “You terrible person, none of this makes them proud”, “This is you NOT EARNING ENOUGH FOR YOUR FAMILY”, “What a waste of a good umbrella”, “That guy would hate you if he knew you”). By the time I got to the bookstore, my mind was awash in bad stuff.
A good Christian at this point, would immerse themselves in God’s word and God’s environment, but it was all I could do to hold the critic at bay and focus on what I wanted to get done. I chose two nice Bibles, and looked at a few others because I wanted to improve my Bible reading habits. I left the store after adding two Bible atlases to my shopping because I wanted to become a member, and well, the atlases were interesting. My critic was already berating me because I would probably leave the atlases off to one side and not read them, unless or until I needed them because I was leading Bible study again.
Like that would ever happen.
As I headed back to the MRT, I remember looking into the face of a Japanese lady who was crossing at the junction with me. I could only marvel at how high her cheekbones were, and how ugly, fat, and dumpy I am. As we stood at the junction, I looked at the oncoming traffic, and had to firmly remind myself that I had to bring the Bibles home.
As I walked on, safer now that no junctions were to be crossed (hello underpasses), I visited the supermarket section of the mall I was passing through to get to my bus. The supermarket caters to a higher end clientele, so I wanted to look around to see what was interesting. After a while, my critic’s voice got to me, reminding me that I wasn’t earning a cent. I don’t deserve any good stuff. I don’t deserve to have any of this. Instead of looking at the stuff on display, my mind started to detach and I became uninterested. I looked without looking. My emotions were put away into a little bag, and I felt numb.
Eventually, I couldn’t bear to hear much of the noise in my head any more and I felt like I had to leave as soon as possible. I moved quickly out of the mall, avoiding eye contact with anyone, moving as quickly as I could. I managed to get to the bus stop, and by the time the bus arrived, my brain had calmed a little – enough for me to read half of one of the atlases on the bus ride home.
Why did I choose to write this… unamusing little anecdote of one of the days of my little life? I’m nobody, and I won’t ever be somebody. Who would be interested in what I have to say? Well, here’s the reason – if you’ve stuck around long enough to read up till this point.
One of the biggest challenges in mental health advocacy – and living with the condition in the glare of social media and the awareness of “well-meaning friends” – has always been a lack of understanding. By this, I don’t mean the lack of knowledge on how to relate to friends with mental health conditions. For that, it’s always okay to ask what can be done, and to listen. I’m speaking more of those who assume things from their own perspective – and openly wonder why it’s so difficult for those who struggle. Why can’t these people, they muse, obey the imperative of the healthy perspective? Why can’t you just.. stop? Why can’t you just… learn? Why are you so negative? Why are you abnormal and persisting in being abnormal?
Why is it that we cannot simply choose to do what is right and healthy? Why must we always choose to overthink? Why do people with social anxiety withdraw from society, instead of facing up to their fears and trying to meet up in small groups first? Are Christians even allowed to get depression? Does the Bible not say “Do not fear”? Why do people with anxieties give in to fear? Why do some strugglers cling on to what people think about them? Have they not heard “Fear God, not Man”? Why are you so oversensitive? Why do you ignore all the good that is in your life? Why can you not let go of your past?
I wish a lot of things in my depression. I wish pain was not so painful. I wish God would take away the curse, and I have prayed this desperately before. I wish the past could be forgotten, if not released. I wish I knew how to forgive better and easier. I wish I could fight the compulsions. I wish someone had pat me on the back when I was younger, rather than have (seemingly) everyone pick on my differences to make me comply with their ideas of society.
I wish I had learnt earlier how to deal with negative feelings rather than pretend they don’t exist. I wish someone had taught me gently that repressing my anger led to me raging at all the wrong times at all the wrong people. I wish someone had identified my social withdrawal and rage as symptoms of depression much earlier. I wish someone could have told me that I’m not abnormal, that I’m just struggling while trying my best. (I also wish I could believe it when someone tells me, they see me trying my best.)
I wish people could understand better that in most mental health struggles, when the compulsions come, they’re called compulsions for a reason. I wish they knew that most strugglers fight the compulsions, as best they can. I wish strugglers too, would always remember that their struggles give them no reason to hurt others in their pain. If anything, the learning of pain should teach us to avoid inflicting that pain on others – we have no reason to blame the innocent. And no, even if “society” is “at fault”, it doesn’t give us the right to strike out at people around us because they are part of that “society”.
So I write this, to let someone know how it can be in a somewhat less normal day in the mind of someone struggling with a mental health condition. I speak only for my own experience, though I know many peers would also struggle with the many opinions in their own heads, even as they struggle to keep themselves safe. I know too, that they struggle with daily activities, even those who are able to work regularly. And I know how much one single change in the day’s routine can cause a huge pileup in the traffic flow of the mind, with the resulting casualties being the ones we love around us, and ourselves.
So I write this to seek understanding from all sides – and also to plead for patience with those who’re struggling. And I thank you, for reading.