At 16, I checked myself into the Institute of Mental Health
Tiffany Ethel Tan // October 4, 2017, 6:31 pm
“Maybe I could pretend to fall onto the road …”
“Maybe if I jumped down …”
“Maybe if I got some pills …”
I was ready to die. The thoughts that haunted me everywhere I went weren’t decisions of life or death – but rather where, when and how to stop living. My suicide notes sat together with my study notes. There was a rock concert coming up in a few weeks; I’d attend it before I said goodbye forever.
At barely 16 years old, depression had consumed my life – I felt like I was slowly drowning, and although I could see everyone above the water, no one could see me.
The water levels had started rising more than a decade before. My dad was a taxi driver and my mum started her own business. I was therefore left to the care of a domestic helper for most of my childhood.
As time went by, my dad started coming home later and later, reeking of alcohol and making a ruckus in the wee hours of the morning. He’d complain about how my mother wasn’t contributing enough to the family, how he was working so hard while my maternal grandmother added to our financial burdens.
They slowly grew more apart and started to sleep in separate rooms.
One day, my father came home in a rage and a violent quarrel ensued. As his beer mug shattered on the ground in his fit of anger, so did their marriage. Their divorce was finalised two years later and he moved to Bangkok, leaving me and my brother with my mum.
The first time I tried to kill myself, I was only 8. I had a very bad relationship with my younger brother, who had ADHD and anger management issues. This resulted in constant fights, where he would claw at me, pull my hair and dig his nails deep into my skin till he drew blood.
I remember grabbing a chopper in self-defence during one of his outbursts, desperate enough to throw myself out of the kitchen window to escape the torment. If my aunt hadn’t come in to stop me, I would have jumped. This is when she started taking us to church.
In Primary school, I was a timid child. My grades were good and I excelled in sports and art, but my classmates would tease me about my weight, and a suffocating fear of rejection followed me. I was increasingly conscious of how I looked in the eyes of others and it made me withdrawn and detached.
The social anxiety was so crushing that despite an excellent PSLE grade for my mock exams, I dropped almost 20 points in the actual national exam. It was another blow to my identity, and I couldn’t go to the “better” schools that I had initially considered.
I struggled to fit into the Secondary school I was posted to. The culture was very different and most of my classmates spoke in Mandarin or dialect, which made it even more difficult to connect with them.
For a while, things looked up when I made a new friend, who became my boyfriend. He was depressed and suicidal, but I was so desperate for us to “click” that I gradually found myself mirroring his attitudes and behaviours.
My parents’ divorce, my academic disappointments, my loneliness – I amplified these things in my head and convinced myself we were partners in pain. I picked up his habit of self-harm. I cried about the injustice in my life, although I previously never had.
Eventually, he broke up with me over a silly bet with a mutual friend, leaving me with my self-esteem shattered and arms covered in self-made scars – he won $50, skin and ego intact. He always knew when to stop cutting before it was too late.
I, on the other hand, didn’t.
“Honestly, I would have less financial burden if you didn’t go to university.”
My father only contacted me from Bangkok during the release of my school results. This time, he was livid to hear that I wanted to go to a Polytechnic instead of a Junior College. He had called to tell me that at the rate I was going, I wasn’t going to have a future and would become useless to the nation.
Following the breakup and my continued isolation from my peers, I was barely surviving in school. My grades were at an all-time low and I couldn’t keep up with the speed at which the curriculum was taught. Despite having tuition lessons every day after school, my mid-year results showed that I didn’t even qualify for a Polytechnic, much less a Junior College.
My life was a wreck. I had nothing left. No happy family. No friends. No relationship. No achievements. Only this tsunami of disappointment and failure crashing over my head day after day, test after test. Thoughts of ending it all started overtaking my mind, so much that I couldn’t sleep at all.
I told Him, “God, I’m going to give my life one last chance.”
Every night, waves and waves of tears would flood in as I tried to sleep, worn out from dealing with the depression and anxiety. At most, I would be able to sleep for an hour or two. The pain I was in was close to unbearable. That is when I started writing my suicide notes and planning to take my own life.
But somehow, God reached out and caught me in the midst of what I thought would be my last days on earth. We’d had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years. The weekend before I was to attend this rock concert – the only thing I had to look forward to before I died – something clicked inside me.
I don’t fully know why I changed my mind, but I told Him, “God, I’m going to give my life one last chance.”
That day, I walked into the emergency room at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and was later diagnosed with severe depression, dysthymia, adjustment disorder and social anxiety disorder.
The junior ward at IMH is like a jail for children. Because I was suicidal, I had to be admitted under suicide prevention and was put under 24/7 surveillance.
We couldn’t bring anything with us into the ward. Before admission, there was a body check to ensure there were no prior injuries, blades, strings or anything hidden on us. All our belongings, including our phones, were confiscated.
If we wanted to go to the toilet, we had to ask the nurse to unlock it for us. There was a limited amount of time to shower, and just enough soap to wash ourselves. At mealtime, we were only allowed to eat with spoons, even if they served noodles. No forks, knives or chopsticks. The windows had three layers of grills.
Lights out at 9PM. Lights on at 7AM. During the night, nurses would come and take our blood pressure.
There were people as young as 11 years old there. I discovered that most of us – many who were girls my age – were facing the same struggles: Suicidal tendencies, low self-esteem and depression. I wasn’t as alone as I thought, but the evidence was more sobering than consoling.
The irony was, a part of me still wanted to die, but this lifeless prison wasn’t the place to do it. By the following week, I managed to convince the medical team that I was better and got discharged – just in time for that concert.
This is how I know God was out to save my life: Death didn’t come easy.
Whenever thoughts of death threatened to take over, things just never worked out. The roads would be particularly quiet, the pharmacy wasn’t selling what I was looking for.
Just before I could finally take my leave, now that I’d gone to that concert as planned, someone in church encouraged me to go for 21project, a youth leadership training conference happening over the following week. Again, I don’t know why I signed up on impulse. What’s one more week, right?
I heard it loud and clear. “You’re done with depression.”
But on the second day, as a powerful word on courage was preached, I felt the urge to go up for the altar call. Standing in a sea of over two hundred young people, we were led to let go of all our past hurts, guilt and shame, and to step into the destiny God has in store for us.
As the speaker, pastors and church leaders prayed over us, I felt a transparent box around me shattering to pieces. It was like being broken out of a tank full of fear, anxiety, doubt and every negative emotion that had been drowning me for so long.
A still small voice stirred in my heart, and I heard it loud and clear. “You’re done with depression.”
For the first time in years, I could breathe again.
Today, I walk with a newfound lightness in my soul and courage in every step. Things look a lot different outside of depression’s box. Even my friends who don’t know what happened that day have been pointing out the changes they see. I like to call them joy and peace.
But a sadness remains in my heart when I think of the girls I met during my stay at IMH. And I know God is calling me back to them. Like in Isaiah 6:8, He is asking, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
I don’t know what lies ahead, walking away from the aftermath of 8 years of suffering. But here I am Lord, with what little I have to offer – here I am, send me.
If you’d like to speak to Tiffany on her initiatives for those who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, you can reach out to her at email@example.com. If you know anyone in distress or contemplating suicide, call the SOS hotline at 1800 221 4444, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also seek help at the following numbers:
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283 7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389 2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800 353 5800
Tinkle Friend: 1800 274 4788