Interview with a suicide survivor

Hey guys, I recently did an email interview with my really awesome friend, Tan Meiling, who is a survivor of multiple suicide attempts. She has kindly allowed me to share her story so as to help those out there who need to hear this.

 

There are Christian elements that might not apply to all my readers out there, but I think it’s still very helpful in many areas. Read and be encouraged!


1) Tell us a bit about yourself.

Well, I’m now 28, working as a freelance writer/editor/tutor/trainer. I was trained as an English teacher, but decided to take a step of faith this year and pursue my dream of writing and editing.

 

2) At what age did you start thinking about suicide?

Around age 13. I’d just moved back to the States from Singapore, and was having a tough time fitting in at my new school and re-adjusting to American culture. I was also dealing with a lot of repressed negative emotions because I was badly bullied for an extended period of time in Singapore, just before I moved to the States.

 

3) What was/were the trigger(s)?

It was likely the slow build-up of all the emotions I was grappling with: anxiety about my new school and adjusting to a new culture, the loneliness of not having any friends, the anger and powerlessness I felt at being bullied for such a prolonged period of time, and the increasing isolation I felt because my family wasn’t able to support/understand me emotionally.

 

Eventually, everything just became too much, and I attempted suicide for the first time. I can’t even remember now what my first suicide attempt was. Between the age of 13 and 19, I think I tried to kill myself six times.

 

These attempts mostly involved trying to overdose on whatever pills I could find, though once I tried jumping in front of a train, and another time I tried jumping off the ninth story of a building. Oh, and one time I also ate 1kg of rat poison.

 

4) What treatment(s) methods did you/your family try?
After everything became overwhelming for me, I broke down and confessed to my mom that I’d been thinking about suicide. She sent me for an evaluation by a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with major depressive disorder with suicidal tendencies. They promptly put me on various medications (I can’t remember which ones now) and started sending me for therapy.

 

In the next few years after that, they changed my medication half a dozen times, increased the dosage of each medication to see if it would help, and switched therapists and therapy styles and psychiatrists just as many times.

 

By the age of 14, I think I was taking like four or five different pills every night for depression, anxiety, insomnia, and so on. Of course, the number of pills I had access to didn’t help the suicide attempts, so I think eventually they decided to give me fewer pills and instead have me refill the prescriptions more often. That way, I wouldn’t down all of my medication at one go.

 

5) Tell us about the very last suicide attempt and what prompted that?

My last suicide attempt was the 1kg of rat poison along with about 10 grams of Paracetamol (Panadol). It tasted quite nasty — I had to put the rat poison in my breakfast cereal just to get it down my throat, and to this day I still don’t like the taste of Panadol.

 

What prompted it was an extreme feeling of abandonment and loneliness. There was this huge void in my heart that I kept trying to fill; I felt like no one understood me, and I believed that those who were supposed to be there for me were never around or didn’t have the ability to truly protect and care for me.

 

The recurring thought in my head was, “I am alone. I always have to fend for myself, and no one will ever truly know me nor love me.” It was therefore not a big leap for me to start thinking, “I am a mistake. I wasn’t meant to be here in this world. I am not important to anyone. My existence is an error.” So I acted on those beliefs and tried to correct the mistake.

 

6) How do you cope with depressive thoughts these days?

By being in relationship with God and learning to love myself the way that He loves me. If I find myself sinking into a place of hopelessness, I try and get reconnected to what the God of hope is saying to me. I allow Him to love on me even in my darkest times…and when I can’t do that, the friends He’s placed in my life help Him to remind me how much I am loved.

 

Practically speaking, I structure my life so that I filter out distractions, choosing to focus on His heart for me above what all the other voices are telling me. For instance, I choose my closest friends carefully and over a long period of time; for me to consider them a close friend, they have to consistently demonstrate that they value the whole of me (and not just the part of me that lives up to certain expectations)…because God values the whole of me.

 

In turn, I do the same for them, and my close friends and I have such a strong bond that I know I’m always going to be there for them just as they will be there for me. I also live my life and order my priorities based on what He tells me, and I can see day after day how He cares for me even in the little things.

 

But honestly, even though I now feel a lot more healed and whole than I did a decade ago, there’s still a small voice inside me that wonders if I am really significant to God. Does He really think I am that special? Does He really consider me His precious, beloved daughter? Does He really know and care for the desires of my heart?

 

This small, nagging voice may always be there until after I meet my Father face-to-face. “Then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known,” after all. But instead of focusing on that small voice, I’m choosing to maintain an awareness of my Father’s heart for me instead. That way, no matter what adverse circumstances come my way, I am more aware of His heart for me than I am of that little voice that tries to steer me off course.

 

7) What would you like to let friends and family members know about someone who has suicide ideation?

If your loved one is struggling with suicide ideation, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t rush to fix them. And definitely don’t tell them that the solution is to “rejoice always” or “count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.” Validate their feelings, however extreme or drastic they may seem to be.

 

Be present with them in the moment. Sometimes that means simply embracing them and crying with them.

 

Other times it means listening to them pour out their hearts, not trying to hand out quick fixes so you can move on. Seek to understand their hearts, and seek to love them well. (By the way, if you think you’re loving them well but they don’t feel loved by you, it may be an indication to re-evaluate what you’re doing.)

 

That suicide ideation is a mere symptom; the real problem lies deeper within. For me, it was an overwhelming sense of being unloved, unsupported, and alone. There were many lies I believed about myself because of the things I went through, and it took time and a lot of love to unearth those beliefs and replace them with the truth.

 

For others, it may be that they’ve just lost their jobs, and they’d tied their whole lives to their careers. They’ll need time and a lot of support to regain their footing and develop a new, more secure sense of themselves that is not tied to something external.

 

Be patient with your loved one, and always endeavor to listen and understand what their hearts are actually saying. (The words that are coming out of their mouths are a good indication of what their hearts are feeling, but words can’t tell you the whole story.)

 

Lastly, if you have a relationship with God, find out what our loving heavenly Father thinks about them! It will change the way you relate to them. It will change you. And in time, it will change how they see themselves too.

Interview with someone with an anxiety disorder

This is an email interview I conducted with Justina, my friend who has an anxiety disorder. 
1) Tell us a bit about yourself. 
Hi, I’m in my late 20s. My hobbies are reading and playing videogames. I have worked full time since graduating from polytechnic and consider myself very fortunate that I have never needed to be warded. 

2. How did you realise you suffer from anxiety?

I have been timid, shy, a worrier and socially anxious since childhood. So much so that I and everyone just presumed it’s my personality.

I managed to get full-time jobs as a graphic designer and web developer that are all quite “back-end” in nature. However I joined the civil service, and for the first time in my working life, I had to regularly answer my phone, go to meetings, talk at meetings and socialise with colleagues at staff events.

I had a lot of trouble. My colleagues realised that “small” things such as speaking up at a meeting made me extremely nervous, and that my face would go pale with anticipatory anxiety at the prospect of a meeting. They also noticed my anxiety over making phone calls or picking up the phone. One day, they confronted me in the lift and I tried playing everything off as “just shyness and introversion.” 

“That’s not introversion, it’s something more” one of them replied, and I knew he was correct, because my introverted colleagues were quiet, but NOT anxious about everything like I was.

I ended up googling “anxious in social situations” and as I read the criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder, it made a great deal of sense. Still, I wanted to be sure so I wrote down a list of situations in which I had anxiety, and how it impaired me socially and at work. It was quite a long list.
3. How did you decide to see a psychiatrist for it? Do you go to a public hospital or private clinic? Why?

While I suspected I had social anxiety, and because I realised I needed to heal it in order to perform “acceptably” at work, I was afraid to see a psychiatrist. I did a lot of googling and hoped that brief counseiing would be enough.

I looked at polyclinics and at that time, NHG Polyclinics had a “health and mind” clinic where a family doctor would assess you for mild depression and mild anxiety. I made an appointment.

I saw a family doctor and brought in my list of symptoms. He questioned me, and gave me a diagnosis of “Generalised Anxiety Disorder. He also sent me to the in-house psychologist for “a few sessions” of counselling. I saw the counselling psychologist for 4 sessions spread out over several months. I was extremely visibly anxious in all my sessions and despite rehearsing the relaxation techniques learned in counselling, taking up exercise and working through a Cognitive Behavioural Thearpy (CBT) self-help book that I found on my own, the psychologist deemed I was worsening and that I also fit criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder.

He said I needed psychotherapy and likely medication so he sent me back to the family doctor for a referral to a hospital psychiatrist with a confirmed diagnosis of “Generalised Anxiety Disorder” and a provisional diagnosis of “Anxiety Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified” (although they strongly suspected Social Anxiety Disorder).
4. How did you start seeing a psychotherapist? Is it in a public or private setting?

Now I go to a public hospital, due to the polyclinic referral. The psychiatrist assessed me as having Social Anxiety Disorder and referred me to the clinical psychology department. That’s how I started seeing a psychotherapist. I also started medication, but only after some reluctance, after a staff event where people noted my hands shaking. 
5. What do you usually do in your sessions with your therapist?

I had CBT with a clinical psychologist for a year. With CBT and the relaxation techniques I learned from counselling and self help, my functioning at work improved really well. However, I still struggle in my personal life because of emotional issues.
So she referred me to her colleague who does ACT (which focuses on Accepting your emotions), mindfulness, and schema therapy.
My current therapist and I work together on mindfulness and grounding exercises. I find mindfulness very good for calming me down when I am anxious.
Currently, my therapist blends ACT and schema therapy.
6. You have an app you use to manage your anxiety. What is it called and how does it work?

I use 2 apps, both recommended by a friend. They are “Stop, Breathe and Think” (free) and “Calm” (free and paid version). They are both guided meditation apps where you can choose different meditation tracks. 

SBT has a “emotion check in” so you can select how you feel and it will then suggest several guided meditations for you. 


Calm is sorted by effects that you want – eg improve focus, sleep better, reduce anxiety. Calm also allows you to select from several background “scenes” which play different ambient sounds and music such as rain falling on leaves or waves on a beach.
7. What other coping strategies do you have?

I use a lot of mindfulness and cognitive strategies learned from CBT and ACT as well as relaxation exercises.
8. How does anxiety affect you at work and at social situations?

At work, I am much better now — I am now able to do things I have never dreamed of, such as lunching with colleagues as a group or with one or two others. I am far less anxious in work meetings and staff events, and have received comments that I’m “a lot less shy” now, as though I had a “personality change”. I believe that it’s really the “real me”, no longer hampered by crippling anxiety.
Socially, I am still working on it. I am able to hide my anxiety much better, but socialising is a lot more complex and scary than working for me. I work in IT as a project manager, where introversion is common, talking is task-focused, and there is little pressure to be chatty and outgoing.
9. What would you like to say to people who suffer from anxiety?

I would encourage people with anxiety to seek professional help if self-help is not working for you. Very often, people think “everyone has anxiety in social situations” or “everyone worries” but if it is impairing your life, it is good to seek help. 
Other conditions such as PTSD, OCD, agoraphobia etc are also treatable even if you have comorbid diagnoses which complicate things. 
Stories in the ebooks by IMH and the books by Club Heal, and stories from other peers will show you that you are not alone.
10. Do you take medication for anxiety? Why or why not?

I do take medication. For example, I am on a low dose atypical antipsychotic which augments my antidepressant and reduces my racing thoughts. My brain is literally “quieter” and so it is easier to implement coping strategies such as mindfulness.
My antidepressant boosts my mood, as depression is common when you have anxiety disorders.
I am also on a low dose of a benzodiazepine to be taken shortly before high stress situations at work such as a meeting with senior management.
I feel that medication is one leg of the chair which supports me, and the coping skills I have learned being another leg. Lifestyle such as a good diet with enough sleep etc is another leg.

I plan to reduce and stop medication if possible, but am okay if I can’t as long-standing anxiety (more than 2 decades before treatment for me!) may be chronic and may reoccur over the lifespan.

On meeting a random stranger who reads my blog 

So someone recently contacted me to ask if she could meet me after reading my blog. She told me that reading my blog makes her feel less alone. Yay. Objective achieved. 

Truth be told, I’ve only met a grand total of 3 people who’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she is the third. I can see why she’d like to chat with a fellow survivor. 
We traded war stories like seasoned soldiers and laughed at the many things we had in common. Running around Singapore when manic and spending the day sleeping when depressed. So happy to finally have share similar experiences with me! 🙂
Chatting with her gave me several new ideas for future blog posts so keep your eyes peeled!
So glad my blog is reaching its intended audience. Do continue to share my posts and follow me!
Cheers. 

An unexpected discussion on suicide

I attended cell group last night and was thankful that as we broke into pairs to share about our individual encounters with God, that someone finally shared that she once had suicide ideation. 
I’m thankful because it gave me permission to share that two weeks ago, I had similar thoughts and for all the many good friends I’d made in church, I told not a single soul. Only my partner knew. And it was only because of the impact it would make on my students and on my partner that I resisted throwing myself off a building. 
After talking through it, I feel much better this week and am able to identify the triggers. I’m also glad that my sharing in cell group was met not with platitudes but with understanding nods from someone who’d been through it and who sometimes still encounters dark periods where the temptation to end it all rears its ugly head. 
Suicide is a topic that should be openly and frankly discussed considering how Singapore can be a stressful city to live in. Teen suicide is a big deal and not enough discussion is taking place. I believe that education on this issue is sorely needed in schools, workplaces and churches. Frank and honest sharing help people obtain tools to come with depression and life’s stressors. 
I just read a study on suicide research in Singapore and it was woefully short and lacking in data on teen suicide. But one thing it did mention was that for those aged 24 and below, examinations and boy-girl relationships were stressors and potential triggers for suicide.
I tried to download an suicide-prevention app called “Stay Alive” but was unable to do so. It’s developed in the UK and seems really useful. Anyone who’s used it do let me know more about it? I think the Singapore Health Promotion Board would do well to develop something like this. 


If you’re feeling suicidal in Singapore, do call the Samaritans of Singapore at 1800 221 4444. 


Your life is precious and I hope to meet you one day. 



P.S. Sorry for the scattered thoughts. Just thought I’d put this out there. 

Dealing with the death of a friend

In the wake of the suicide of my ex-manager, I decided to talk about it with my friend Michelle who’s a counsellor. She gave some useful advice about dealing with grief and I thought I’d share it here.

 

1. Talking and remembering the friend

As I walked away from temple where the wake was held, my ex-colleague and I talked about how surprised we were at the sudden death. Then we reminisced about the good times we used to share with him. His cheerful disposition. How hard he worked. The end-of-term meals he cooked for us. Because he’s gone so suddenly it’s hard to believe that it’s true and talking helped me process things a bit better.

 

2. Don’t suppress your emotions

That night, I cried myself to sleep. Okay I didn’t, after sometime, I actually got up and played my guitar to distract myself. It wasn’t really just his death that triggered my floodgates but a confluence of factors. But Michelle said that we shouldn’t suppress our emotions. I guess crying is healthy. So is being sad. We don’t have to feel obliged to put on a happy front. After all, someone close has died, it’s alright to be upset about it.

 

3. Find support

To fully recover from the death of a parent or spouse takes a whole 2 years. As he was a colleague, we were not as close, but it would still take some time to get over this. Finding support is essential. Having a listening ear from a friend or a family member, in my case Michelle and my sister respectively, allows me to share the burden with.

 

4. Understand the stages of grief and don’t attempt to skip them

There are 7 stages of grief and one usually has to go through them before full recovery takes place. We often attempt to jump from the Stage 1 of shock straight to Stage 7 of acceptance and hope, bypassing the other stages but that’s not helpful.

 

I’ve included a chart from Social Work Tech and you can click on the link to find out more.

 

Social-Work-Tech-Seven-Stages-of-Grief-1024x791.png

Image taken from: http://www.socialworktech.com/2012/11/13/the-seven-stages-of-grief/

 

I hope this was helpful. Take care my friends.

Reflections on a suicide

On Christmas Day, I attended the wake of my ex-manager who killed himself. It came as a quite a surprise as he has always been a very cheerful and friendly guy. I’ll always remember him cooking for the end-of-term parties we’d have at the centre I was in. He was a brilliant chef and took great pride in his cooking.

 

Like a pebble dropped into a placid lake, his death will, and already has, created ripples beyond the initial drop. His elderly mother mourns for him, a son most obedient. His family mourns for the loss of a father, a husband. As colleagues, we mourn the loss of a friend, a manager, an excellent worker.

 

What will we tell the children? Those he met every day in the centre, those who call him Uncle Kenny? Will we shield them from the truth? Can they handle it? But how long can we hide it for? It was after all, front page news. Word will spread. This is a small country.

 

The overarching theme of my reflections today was wondering how it was, in the company that employed almost 200 people, most of whom he was on extremely good terms with, that there was not a single one of us that he could have reached out to in that time of crisis.

 

But perhaps there is no one to blame. In a moment of great distress, there is no telling what one might resort to.

 

I pondered upon a post my friend put up on Facebook shortly after the news was announced. I agree with her. It is so true that whatever we put our hope in is so important. Because once that hope is taken away, our life shatters.

 

A violent death this Christmas season from someone so utterly unexpected. My mood is sombre and contemplative. I don’t quite know what to say. We can only be here for one another in this time. And I pray that will be enough.