10 October is World Mental Health Day. For some, this is a day dedicated to creating awareness of mental health and advocate against the social stigma of mental illness. To others, it is commemorative of personal self-care and actively choosing mental wellness.
Personally, mental health carries particular importance. It was a tough few years for me to come to terms with the notion that mental illness does not discriminate or choose its victims—that one day, you too can suffer from it.
I was unaware of the state of my mental health or the extent of its severity. Lulled into a false sense of conditional assurance that I was okay, I began a year of juggling work and school. Every time I felt myself falter from tiredness, I would tell myself that this would all pay off eventually.
I spent countless nights assuring myself that waking up in the middle of sleep in a state of panic is a necessary measure of success—that the busier you are, the better you will be. It would have worked out fine too. Undeniably tough but manageable.
Around the same time, someone dear to me was diagnosed with agoraphobia—an extremely irrational fear of an unfamiliar place. Suddenly, the role of caretaker and nurturer fell on my shoulders.
It was crippling for me to be in the position of sufferer and carer at the same time. How do I even begin to juggle my practice of self-care while extending empathy to someone I love and care for?
How can I see the glass as half full when, without warning, I can’t even see the glass at all?
It has been two years since the ordeal. I have always wondered if things would have been different if I had heard of the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) earlier. I began recounting diary entries of the events of two years ago and told my editor and friend that I would be calling in to the SOS hotline and using details from that time as a guide.
What would the response be? Would it have made things that much clearer had I called in earlier? The intent is clear: if SOS could offer me some respite in my time of need then, could others benefit from their help too?
The following is a transcript of the phone call.
Jenn: Hi, this is SOS. How can I help?
Syakir: I’m sorry. I don’t know where to start. I just want to talk to someone.
Her tone was crisp and professional. I felt intrusive and was quickly reminded of the only harsh Reddit review of an unhelpful volunteer. Will I also be told that my problem was a waste of time?
J: Yeah, you can talk to me! I’m Jenn. How can I help?
Her voice softens significantly. I immediately felt more assured.
S: I’m just going through a lot. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, worried about everything. I study part-time and work at the same time. Normally, I can manage both. But sometimes, everything just clashes. I’m not sure if this exactly counts as a crisis? Am I… wasting your time?
J: No! You’re okay. You’re not taking up anyone’s time. You sound like you are going through a lot.
S: Yeah, something happened today that triggered this, I think.
J: Oh, what happened today?
S: I have a close friend. He was diagnosed with agoraphobia and panic disorder. Thing is, you cannot tell that he’s depressed. If he hadn’t had his panic attack today, I wouldn’t have believed him too.
J: Oh dear, is your friend okay?
S: Yeah, I think he’s okay. We were catching a movie that had lots of lights in it. I think the flashes triggered him. He started saying he cannot breathe and his hands became so cold.
S: He took his medication, and he seemed better. I brought him home but all I can remember was how his body doubled over. I regret all the time I told him “it is all in your mind”. I just feel… helpless.
J: It must’ve been traumatizing having to go through that. Is your friend seeking help? How is his family taking it?
S: They are not taking it well. I think they’re ashamed that their son is suffering from this. You can see it in the way they would act around him.
J: Mmhm. How so?
S: They don’t go to his doctors’ appointments or ask him if he is feeling better. I mean, he turned 21 inside IMH, and I was the one who fetched him home.
J: (pauses) It must’ve taken a lot managing this with everything else going on. Do you have anyone to help you?
S: I try not to talk to my family and friends about this. It feels like a very privileged problem to have. I can almost hear them saying: “At least, you can go to school, have a job, and a relationship.” I’m usually the rock that people lean on. I mean, I just don’t think my problems are big enough of a burden, really.
J: Okay, but what do you think your friends would say if you do talk to them about this?S: I know some of them would listen. I’m not sure how my friends can help me, to be honest.
J: Maybe your friends can help you with some clarity, or add another perspective to your problems. Or maybe, they can even help? Even if they can’t, it feels good to speak openly about what you are facing, yes?
S: Yeah, I actually feel a bit better talking about it.
J: I’m glad to hear that. If it feels like too much, and I am not saying this to get you off this call, you can always call us at SOS. It might help you, or others who feel better talking to strangers about their problems.
S: Thanks, Jenn. I just feel overwhelmed sometimes. I do want to be there for my friends, but sometimes, I don’t think I have the right mental or even emotional space to be there? It feels selfish, even saying this.
J: Hmm. How about looking at it this way instead? You’re a person too. You are worthy of taking the time for yourself, and to recharge yourself so that you can be a better help for the people you love. In a way, this rest is a service for your friends.
This was the clarifying moment in the conversation. I have never looked at self-care as an act of service. Instead, to me, self-care was a new age self-serving mantra of the twenty-first century. But the way Jenn explained self-care had a particular kindness to it. Help yourself so that you can help others better. Hearing it from someone else, gave it some justification it needed.
S: But how do I tell my friends that I need some time for myself?
J: The same way you are telling me everything. Just take a breath, sit them down and tell them about how you woke up panicking in the middle of the night. Tell them about how you worry about your close friend and how you would need their help too. If they love you, I’m sure they’ll understand.
S: But what if my friend really needs help, and I’m away?
J: Then tell him to find us too. He can reach us at our hotline at any time of the day. I am sure our volunteers can assist him in some way, or another.
S: Thanks for listening, Jenn. It’s assuring to have someone on the other end of the line who is willing to talk.
J: You’re welcome. We’ve talked about a lot of things for you to think about. Remember, you can call back whenever you need to. We’ll be right here.
We spoke at length for 45 minutes which was a decent amount of time to spend listening to someone else’s problems. This act of selflessness in my case could have helped me come to terms to be more forgiving to myself. For some, this hotline could have been the fine line between life and death.
The truth is, this phone call is not an advertised post or a story too good to be true. If anything, it is anecdotal to the support and kindness I could have been afforded by the kind strangers at SOS. Back then, I remember feeling lonely and had to go through an entire semester of juggling work and submissions alone and at the same time helping my friend on his feet.
To you, I hope you understand that you are worthy of care and assistance. Take care of yourself and your loved ones to the best of your abilities. For when you can’t and for when it is too much to bear, you could always call for help.
This time, SOS would be there to answer.
The names in this article have been renamed for anonymity. If you find yourself or someone you love, in need of emotional assistance, you can reach out to SOS at their 24-hours hotline at 1800-221-4444 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org