Giving to Others Saved Her Life: Sharing the Weight of Depression
At age 15, she wanted to end her life. Now, she does all she can to improve the lives of others. Charmaine (not her real name) has battled eating disorders, depression and anxiety for nine years. She has since become an active volunteer, reaching out to others through community service programmes within and outside of University-YMCA. She shares her personal journey with mental health and volunteerism.
“I did not believe in ‘recovery’. I did not think there was anything to be fixed.”
As an avid dancer since Primary 2, Charmaine was conscious about maintaining her weight so she could excel at dancing. She described herself as “a chubby kid” compared to her peers and began an extreme diet by skipping meals and eating very little. She continued Chinese Dance in secondary school, where she felt even more pressure to lose weight.
“The first time everyone put on our dancing clothes, we were reminded to manage our weight so we would look good on stage. I have always been a bit of an over-achiever and I took it very personally. I became obsessed with my weight,” said Charmaine.
The “constant feeling of self-doubt, self-hatred” and “feeling not good enough” manifested in self-harm. It was only discovered by her family after three years, when her father saw the scars on her wrists as she was doing the dishes.
“My father shouted, like ‘what’s that?!’ and I ran to my room, crying. My mother’s first response was to scold me, which is a very Asian thing, because she was so concerned about it,” said Charmaine. Her mother recognised self-harming as a symptom of mental illness and forced her into treatment.
“I didn’t want to go at first as I didn’t believe that there was anything to be ‘fixed’. Thinking back now, I’m so thankful she forced me into treatment before it got worse,” Charmaine shares.
“The first thing I did when I got home was to put myself on the weighing scale.”
The road to recovery was not easy. After about a year of consultations and visits to her doctor and a dietician, Charmaine was admitted into a hospital for her eating disorders. There, she met others who had “even more extreme eating habits”.
“There were girls who would sit at the very edge of their beds or keep standing so they could burn some calories. Some even kept bits of food from their meals in their cheeks so they could puke them out when they visited the toilet,” she said.
She did not feel motivated to recover, but instead to leave the hospital. As such, she abided by her doctors’ instructions. When she was eventually discharged, she realised that the first thing she did was to check her weight on the weighing scale and that her condition had not improved.
“I became very suicidal. I had to rush home everyday and meet my mother because if she wasn’t around, I thought I might jump out a window.”
Despite treatment and a hospital stay, Charmaine’s condition worsened. She informed her mother and they admitted her for an emergency stay at a hospital.
“There, they really took everything away from you. Even if people gave you balloons, or if you had a pen, they would take it away. I realised that there were so many ways a person could commit suicide. The medical team was really amazing, following my journey from the start, monitoring me and being able to understand when I was getting better, or not,” shared Charmaine.
After the stay at the psychiatric ward and a month of intensive therapy, she was given the opportunity to go for an Overseas Community Involvement Programme to Thailand with her school. Her doctors advised against it but she convinced her parents to let her go.
“They were worried for my safety, but I promised that if my mental state worsened, I would let them know and they would fly me back home immediately,” said Charmaine.
She was there to give, but instead gained a new perspective that changed her life. She said, “For the 10 over days I stayed there, nobody cared if I looked skinny or fat. There were no mirrors and nobody was there to judge you. There’s nothing to think about except how to help them and make them happy. I realised that I really liked doing volunteer work, giving to others and the connections you make, and that it helped me feel better. My doctor encouraged me to do more of it when I returned”.
“We need to be able to talk about it openly and comfortably, so more people can understand it and those who need to can reach out for the support they need.”
The recent YMCA Conversation Series, exploring mental health as a social issue.
Charmaine’s journey with mental health has been challenging. She shares that some friends she made during her stay at the psychiatric ward eventually committed suicide and point out that many struggle with these difficulties alone.
“I am very lucky to have a supportive partner, friends and family. I know many whose family do not even believe in mental illness, thinking that people do it for attention or that they don’t need professional help. Mental illness affects everyone differently and it is important that we discuss it and raise awareness about it,” she said.
“I hope that one day, we can talk about mental illnesses just like any other physical condition. People need to understand that it is normal, it is real, and that you can get medical help for it,” she said.
On 21 September, Charmaine gathered with some 70 youths and mental health professionals at the YMCA Conversation Series 2019 to discuss mental health.
The YMCA Conversation Series, organised by University-YMCA, serves as a safe platform for students, youths, and industry professionals to conduct open dialogue about issues close to their hearts. This year, it featured a human library segment. Four industry professionals participated, including Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) Youth Support Worker Ms Hamidah Otheman, Peer Support Specialist Ms Lee Zhong Yi, ACC Institute of Human Services’ Counselling Practicum Clinic Student-Counsellor Mr Joseph Quek, and polytechnic lecturer, counsellor and life-coach Mr John Chng.