“I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder Type II in 2009. Prior to that, I was diagnosed with other mental illnesses such as OCD and Anxiety. But after being observed by my psychiatrist after a while, I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder.
I was diagnosed in 2009, but I suffered symptoms since I was 12 years old. The symptoms were mostly unexplainable mood swings. I was not able to pinpoint the reasons why my moods would change. It would always catch me by surprise. Other than that, I also felt anxious for no reason. Usually, we would know why we feel anxious, like maybe the nerves of an interview or before a presentation, right? But the anxiety I felt was something that attacked me at inappropriate times, even when I’m hanging out with close friends. Suddenly I would feel strange, as though I did not recognize my friends, and from there I feel anxiety and that’s when it attacks.
How did you seek help?
I was at university at the time. I was having problems with my anxiety and my mood swings, and I realized I couldn’t control myself. I then decided to see a GP at the campus clinic. My family too has a history of mental illness: I’ve seen symptoms in my mother. So when I saw symptoms within myself, I thought, “wait, this isn’t normal, I should seek help.” At the time, the GP told me that I had Social Anxiety and OCD, so he prescribed me with Xanax (an anti-anxiety medication). But as a result of the medication, it affected my studies. It made me feel very sleepy. I decided to see a psychiatrist after that as I didn’t feel satisfied. I wanted to see someone more specialised in that field.
What changes did you notice in yourself when you first got diagnosed?
I had a lot of mixed feelings. Because at the time I still thought that those with mental illnesses were crazy – I believed in that common stigma. So when I was going through that, it really felt like a death sentence to me – was I crazy? But I felt that after my diagnosis, I could at least put a name to this thing that has been bothering me. I was relieved and grateful, but it was confusing at the same time. I tend to take a more intellectual approach towards things, so I read books to learn more about mental illness, to understand, and to monitor myself as well. This diagnosis changed my perspective in life, as I had to learn how to break my own internal stigma against mental illnesses. My previous perspective has since changed as it’s now on me. If I want to be able to move forward in life, I need to break that stigma within myself.
What is your personal progress in dealing with your mental health?
Naturally, I’m an introvert. I was always very private and I tend to keep things to myself. Throughout the years, I learned that I needed to open up more. I’m now more open in sharing about my feelings, emotions, and struggles. The way I view mental illness has also changed. I see mental illness as one of the difficulties that God has given, but the silver lining is that there are a lot of lessons behind it that we can learn from. Today, I can see it as a positive thing, something I can use to further improve myself and utilise my experience to help others.
What is your everyday routine?
The mood swings and anxiety has become a part and parcel of my life, so I still have to deal with them. It’s also interlaced with different responsibilities, like looking after my mother since my father had passed away quite recently. Other members in my family were also diagnosed with mental illness, so I also play a role of a caregiver to them. I also juggle between studying and volunteering at MIASA. I take part in web designing for MIASA.
Have you had any suicidal thoughts before?
I used to have suicidal thoughts back in 2014. It was a major event, as it went from suicidal thoughts to planning how to execute it. But what stopped me from taking action was spiritual coping. In my religion, taking our own life is a huge sin. We can’t go back from that decision. We can’t ask God for His mercy. It was a reality check, reminding me that I cannot go through with this decision. I have learned to live with the pain and face it head on.
Are you on medication?
Not anymore, but I was on medication from 2009-2014. I was on 3 different medications at the time: anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, and a mood stabilizer. There were a lot of side effects – I don’t think anyone is able to escape from that. It affected my skin, hormones, my thinking. I felt that my cognitive function slowed down a bit. It also made me feel blurry. The blurry part was the side effect I struggled with the most because I am an active person. So when I was in that state, I wasn’t able to make decisions and that hindered me from doing a lot of things.
I stopped my medication in early 2015. I had a discussion with my doctor about it, and she said this has to happen slowly. I couldn’t just stop all medication immediately. I had to monitor my symptoms. It took me about a year to stop medication. I did experience side effects: the condition of my skin worsened, breakouts. I had a lot of friends who also wanted to stop medication but they went cold turkey. I know that for some anti-depressant medications, you will feel agitated if you stop taking it. I’m openly sharing my experience so that people could discuss more about this option with their doctor if they are considering to stop medication.
How much did therapy cost you?
It used to cost me a lot when I went to a private hospital. Later I was transferred to a government hospital, and now I pay the basic fee (RM 5). At the private hospital, I think the consultation fee itself was over RM 200 – and that did not include medication. If you include the cost of medication, it could easily add up to RM 1000.
What is the biggest misconception the public has about mental health?
I think the biggest misconception is what I believed in prior my diagnosis: that having mental illness equated to being crazy. I think this stigma stems from people viewing mental illness from the extreme end of the spectrum: schizophrenia, erratic or abnormal behaviors. The fact of the matter is that mental illness is very common. For example, Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses. Schizophrenia is what people think of most when it comes to mental illness, but the reality is there a smaller percentage of the population that deals with schizophrenia.
Should suicidal thoughts be discussed?
For general awareness, yes. But we should also take into account the sensitivity of people. This topic could trigger some people, so we should be careful to protect people who may be vulnerable to the topic. Maybe suicidal thoughts can be shared in a safe space, not too publicly? And if spoken about publicly, maybe don’t divulge into too much detail?
What makes someone afraid to seek for help?
I think it’s the stigma. Because even when we seek help for stress, people may think that we are weak or we can’t control our own mind. I think that’s the big misconception which prevents us from seeking help. In Malaysia, we don’t talk about our feelings a lot. We tend to censor it. Taking this into consideration, we should create a safe space for people to share about what they are going through (e.g support groups). If people know that it’s safe to seek for help, we can change the statistics of the prevalence of people suffering from mental health issues in Malaysia. Otherwise, the numbers will continue rising. I hope something can be done. Maybe if we were a more compassionate society, this would help.
What do you hope for from your family and friends? What do you expect?
I hope they can accept that I have a mental illness, without limiting me from doing the things I enjoy doing. I’m an active person, I’ve always enjoyed being involved in activities. But when my family knew that I had a mental illness, they blocked me from doing certain things because they were worried I would relapse. I do have the capacity to monitor myself. Though I do miss out on the signs sometimes, I am still able to learn from the symptoms when they happen.”
Photostory by Divaa
Edited by Win Li
Photo by Aiman