What it's like to have panic attacks, depression and anxiety, and how to cope with it
I've always thought it was cool to be depressed. All my favourite writers of my early 20s had it: Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Margaret Atwood, you name it. I practically consumed The Bell Jar and saw Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters — the anthology the poet wrote about his relationship with Plath and her suicide — as a tragic, deliciously dark embrace I'd turn to every night. When I listened to Radiohead's 'Fake Plastic Trees' or The National's 'Sorrow', I'd clutch my phone to my chest, stare up into the ceiling and pretend I was in a music video where the camera would frame my vulnerable self from above, a la Mena Suvari in American Beauty — minus the roses and mainstream desirability, of course.
I never thought I'd actually end up being depressed. I was 24 and had just woken up in the middle of the night in a hotel room, convinced that I was going to die. I felt that my heart was beating right out of my chest, I couldn't hear or see clearly and I couldn't swallow my own saliva. I turned to my friend and must have repeated something along the lines of, "I can't breathe," until I managed to convince myself that I really couldn't. "Oh God, is this it?" I asked myself. "Is my life over?" I kept repeating. "In Phuket, really? How would they ship my body back home?" My mind was racing. My friend told me that I was, in fact, still breathing. I calmed down but was still terrified to sleep — you know, in case I might die or something. The next day, I looked up the Internet to find out what the heck just happened. 'Panic attack'. 'Anxiety attack'. Those words seemed foreign to my ears. When people told me they were panicking, I thought it meant they had just missed their bus or worse, seen their crush on a no-make-up day. I didn't know that the word 'panic', when escalated, meant a whole other thing, and defined an entire sickness.
I experienced panic and anxiety attacks about three more times before I wised up and went to the doctor. When he asked me point blank whether I was depressed, it wasn't until somebody actually asked those words out loud when I realised that "Hey, I'm the beautiful breakdown I always thought I'd become!" I burst into tears, and cried some more after he handed me a slip, which wrote that I had MDD: Manic depressive disorder, with a side of anxiety — you know, just for kicks. Because not only did I see no light in life anymore, I had to be panicky about that, too. I told only three people I trusted: A friend who thought I should just ''cheer up", a friend who studied psychology in school (she ended up sending me to my first psych appointment) and a friend who had experienced the same.
The year following that was difficult, to say the least. The doctor put me on the antidepressant Fluvoxamine maleate, and it was a 180-degree turn to almost every aspect of my life. For someone who was always sensitive, I couldn't feel anything — little did I know that feeling nothing at all was worse than feeling hurt.
Taking the MRT was a nightmare, and I became increasingly claustrophobic. I would suddenly cry at birthday parties, and friends would crowd around me asking what was wrong, but I couldn't say why. It felt so silly to describe what being depressed felt like, and people would have written me off as being moody, anyway. Each night before I went to sleep, I thought I was going to die. When I was in a taxi and felt it jerk, I thought I would die. I had trouble sleeping, but when I did manage to sleep, I'd wake up in a shock every few hours — each time thinking that I was going to die. Being fairly religious, I thought God had sent the angel of death to watch over me, and that it was going to strike anytime. I avoided the news because each story that mentioned any deaths would haunt me for the entire week, and that somehow that plane crash would happen to me too. I hated when the sun set as anything dark meant danger, and I hated the rain because I thought it would turn into a typhoon and I would — surprise surprise — die.
I had coping mechanisms, of course. I would phone my psych graduate friend each time I thought I was having a panic attack. I would demand another friend to meet me because I couldn't stand being alone with my thoughts. From being a person who enjoyed solitude, I would beg for my brothers to not have dinner outside and to order in instead. I would stay over a friend's house and hated the thought of going back home, where I felt nobody understood me. Each time I told my parents what I was experiencing, they would simply tell me to pray the demons away.
Each time I could, I asked for attention, even though I profusely apologised after. That attention helped. I would tell my friend — who had also gone through depression — what each panic attack felt like, and the thoughts I was afraid to say out loud. "I feel like I'm dying," I would often say. People I didn't think would understand somehow did. A photographer I used to work with held out a lifeline just by a phrase he said: "It's not a death sentence" — five simple words that would turn my life around. Depression and anxiety are chronic illnesses that, as the classification suggests, don't go away. You just have to accept that you have it and learn to live with it, just like how someone with diabetes accepts that fact too.
And live with it, I did. Ironically, like my literary heroes, the only thing that didn't take a beating to was my writing. I'm still miraculously employed all these years, conducting interviews, attending press conferences, participating in photoshoots and going on press trips — meeting fellow creatives along the way who have also gone through the same. I got off my medication about two years ago on my own accord after the symptoms subsided and my old self slowly returned. I haven't had a full-blown panic attack since 2013, though what I call 'pre-panic attacks’ often happens when I'm stressed. Now, I can identify the triggers and have trained my mind to calm the f**k down.
When people I know show signs of depression or anxiety on social media either by accident or a confession, I always reach out, because you never know when someone might need a person to listen or say something. Anything. There's so much stigma surrounding mental health — jeez guys, it's 2017 — and as someone who's felt the ins and outs of it, I want to make a difference. Without the risk of sounding like a new-age, post-Ubud backpacker who's suddenly 'seen the light', I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. I didn't get depression and anxiety just so I could shut the hell up about it.
I want to be able to say it when it's needed, and there's no better time than now: World Mental Health Day. Today, I'm asking for attention. Without selfies, without my generous boobs in your face, and without sounding self-indulgent, I'm asking you to talk to someone you trust if the demons in your head are getting a bit much, if you feel like you can't breathe, and that the world is collapsing. And stay the hell away from Radiohead.
Check out the Singapore Association for Mental Health.