I had schizophrenia when I was 25
By Lisa Twang, Jul 11, 2019
Lishan Chan is a writer and biographer. As a young adult, she earned a Master’s degree in History and Philosophy of Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and took up a research scholarship at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She loves creating art, expressing herself through poems, essays, drawings and paintings.
In 2008, Lishan had an episode of psychosis, and was arrested by the police for trespassing. She was warded at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for six weeks, and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Initially in denial over her mental illness, Lishan gradually accepted treatment and made a full recovery.
Here, she shares the story of her journey with her friend @lisatwang - her descent into madness, her path to sanity, and how she became a mental health advocate and writer, publishing a book about her experiences.
My name is Lishan, and I am many things: an author, daughter, friend, music groupie, and a mental health advocate. I had schizophrenia, and am telling the story of my experiences to help others understand what it’s like to have a mental illness.
In the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’, the brilliant mathematician John Nash suffers from a mental illness: paranoid schizophrenia. The story is told from the perspective of an external observer, but what was in John Nash’s inner world — what were his thoughts like?
I think mental illness is mysterious because it’s hard to imagine what goes on in the mind of a mentally ill person.
Losing one’s mind causes one to experience what must be so terrifying to many — the loss of memories, and cognitive ability. Not being able to read, to understand others, to carry on a conversation easily — these are some consequences of damage to the brain, which occurs when there is mental illness. It’s a starkly bleak event to happen to a human being.
I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in my mid-twenties, about 11 years ago. My schizophrenia came in the form of psychosis: I was out of touch with reality.
Honestly, this happened so long ago that I can no longer fully recall how I felt at the time: some of my memories are now fuzzy. Because I didn’t want to forget my experiences completely, I wrote them down and published my book, ‘A Philosopher’s Madness’.
To tell my story, I’d like to go back to the beginning — to my childhood days.
My childhood was a normal, happy one. I’m the middle child in the family, with an older sister and younger brother. My mum used to boil delicious Cantonese soups for us, so I remember waking up to the comforting, smoky smell of the charcoal fire every morning.
I was also close to my father. Once, in primary school, I had to write a poem about myself, and my father helped me with my homework, as parents sometimes do. He wrote this for me:
“I am a quiet girl
And when I do things, I must be very sure.
I like to think a lot
To be sure I won’t get caught.”
I was certainly a quiet girl who would “think a lot”. Too much, some would say. It’s typical for people with schizophrenia to have a more distant personality, and be more prone to depression. Some friends thought I was aloof, and said I used to walk around in a daze in Secondary 3.
Perhaps there were undercurrents of mental illness, even then. But how could I tell? Every teenager goes through a lot, so I’m not sure if I was just having normal teen troubles, or something more serious.
When I entered junior college, I lost interest in my studies and joined the underground arts scene, spending my time on theatre, working in a music shop, writing zines and making friends from diverse backgrounds.
I almost didn’t make it to university, but my JC teacher encouraged me and set me on the path to the University of York in the UK, where I studied Philosophy, Politics and Political Science. I had fallen in love with philosophy, and was fascinated by logic and methods of reasoning.
Later, I did my Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science at LSE. After graduating, I came back to Singapore to do a second Masters in Philosophical Logic.
A lot of things happened at that time, which led to my episode of psychosis in 2008.
When I think about what caused my schizophrenia, the easiest way to understand it is that firstly, I was born with a predisposition to mental illness, and secondly, I was also under stressful conditions that caused me to develop my mental illness.
Perhaps, if I hadn’t been born with this genetic predisposition, or been under stress, I might not have developed mental illness. But that’s just how things happened.
I was very passionate about philosophy, and would ponder the meaning behind the great philosophers’ writings very deeply. I began to take the philosopher Descartes’ advice to “doubt as much as I could” to an extreme. I would doubt every possible statement and thought, including whether I should take the next step when I walked.
I fulfilled all my required courses, but stopped attending optional talks and events, which was uncharacteristic of me. If I wasn’t ill, I believe I would have taken advantage of the lively philosophy scene at NUS.
I withdrew from my fellow classmates, as I had started to become paranoid towards others, thinking they were insincere and wanted something out of me.
My mind truly began unravelling when my supervisor posed me a philosophy puzzle to solve: Raymond Smullyan’s proof of the existence of unicorns. It was a riddle concerning existence which I became obsessed with, and I would work on it day and night.
I was under immense pressure to solve the unicorn puzzle. My supervisor said, “If you can’t solve this problem, there’s no hope for any other problem in philosophy. Drop everything and nail this bastard.” If I did, he said, I’d begin to learn the true meaning of solving a philosophy problem.
At the time, I believed my supervisor told me not to read any books and to keep away from everyone, so I could focus on my work. I can’t prove that this is what truly happened, but I did become isolated from others as a result. This led me further down the path of madness, and eventually, into schizophrenia.
I used to wonder, “Was this supervisor a good guy or a bad guy?” In order to solve his unicorn puzzle, I was under extreme stress, to the point that it led me to develop my mental illness. However, after all this time, I’ve concluded that he was probably not seeking to harm me. It was just part of an unfortunate series of events that led me to develop my mental illness.
I started having strange habits, such as blacking out my windows to keep the sunlight out, and covering my computer monitor and my head with a large, thick scarf in the NUS graduate room, so I could work in darkness. I also knocked on peoples’ office windows to talk to them through their windows, instead of coming to their doors.
Later, I was told that I had taken off my clothes in the graduate room. But I wasn’t ashamed of my actions, because I was not conscious of their inappropriateness when doing so. By the time I was reminded of what I’d done, I was well enough to understand that those were things I did when I was “not quite myself.”
When I was mentally ill, what made perfect sense to me seemed like nonsense to others.
For instance, an essay I wrote was dismissed as “using philosophical terms, but not in any reasonably intelligible way.”
My head also felt heavy all the time, like there was a rock tied to it.
I grew increasingly delusional, and started believing there was a secret Code of letters and numbers I needed to learn, to communicate and survive. It was a complex system I came up with, but it made logical sense to me at the time. At the time, the Code made logical sense to me, but it was really part of my delusions.
One day, based on the Code, I followed the postal code 298142 to seek a church, where I could become a nun. It turned out to be the address of the Orange Valley Nursing Home. The staff must have realised something was not right about me, though they were very kind and gave me food and water. I don’t remember the exact course of events, but the nursing home staff called the police, who arrested me for trespassing.
I refused to have my thumbprint taken and struggled with the police, so I was handcuffed. I still remember the pain of the handcuffs, grating against my wrists, very clearly.
I spent that night in a police lock-up, which was really terrifying. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong — if I had been in a clear state of mind, I could have simply cooperated with the police and explained myself, but I wasn’t capable of doing so.
I never thought I would end up in a police cell, with a urinal in the corner that stank of urine. It was completely curious and dream-like.
The next day, I was taken to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), where I spent six weeks. Here, my family learned of my mental health problems, and my mother would come and visit me there, taking me for relaxing walks in the garden.
It was my mother who really helped me in my recovery. She had a good head on her shoulders, and saw straight away that I had a problem that needed to be solved.
I had refused medication, but she would secretly put it in my meals (something I only discovered years later).
My father believed, as I did at the time, that there was nothing wrong with me, and that it was a huge misunderstanding. Looking back, the whole experience must have been frightening for him. I imagine it must have been very hard to accept that his daughter had a mental illness.
At IMH, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Back then, I hated living in IMH, because it felt like a prison. Twice, I was tied to my bed by my wrists and ankles, for refusing to obey instructions.
The first time, I was tied up because I had been wandering from my bed to lie in other empty beds. My siblings happened to visit me when I was tied up: my sister burst into tears when she saw me in such a weakened state, but remained as composed as she could. My brother was also very much saddened to see me tied up.
The second time this happened was when I refused to take a nap in the afternoon, wanting to go to the sitting area.
I was tied to the bed for at least 14 hours, though it felt like forever. I struggled so much that my legs were weak, and I collapsed to the ground when I was untied later. I was placed in a wheelchair and showered with cold water, which made it worse. The whole experience was deeply unpleasant and traumatic.
Later, when I became a mental health advocate and told the story of how I was tied up, the CEO of IMH called for a staff meeting to review procedures to ensure that patients would not have to face this trauma again. I was very touched by this, and it made me realise how important it was for me to share my story to help other mental health patients.
While I was hospitalised in IMH, I was still a graduate student at NUS. After being discharged, I went back to NUS to submit my dissertation, but it was deemed “unsatisfactory.” Because I had not met the requirements for my degree, my scholarship was terminated.
It was very obvious that something was wrong in my life. Besides losing my scholarship, I also lost friends (I didn’t speak to people for about a year), missed a good friend’s wedding, and turned down a chance to visit my grandfather’s village in China.
When I isolated myself from friends, I was neither giving nor receiving love and friendship. Making deep connections with other people is necessary for well-being and happiness, and I missed out on this during this time in my life.
The mind has the ability to find plausible and convincing reasons for why things don’t happen the way they ought to. So, it is very difficult for the mind to comprehend that one is experiencing a mental illness.
Accepting that one is diagnosed with a mental illness is a bit like a maze; a labyrinth one must escape from. One needs to journey past the stage of denial, through the confusion, and into acceptance.
I grew to accept my mental illness through a wonderful doctor, Dr Celen. She was so logical and explained everything to me so clearly, and I was taken by her gentle manner.
Dr Celen prescribed a course of medication: I am still on a minimal dosage now, and will probably be on it for life. However, I’ve accepted this — people with physical conditions like diabetes are also on medication to manage their disease, so this is no different.
It was only with the passage of time, and through small progressive steps and successes, that I was able to get past the sadness I felt towards what happened to me.
A big boost to my confidence came when I completed my master’s degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in 2017. I felt like I had gained some closure in my academic life.
It’s hard to say when I truly recovered— it was such a gradual process! My recovery happened through the mending of broken relationships that were important to me, and re-learning social and cognitive skills. It is only now that I’ve been able to pick up significant life skills, like cooking and driving.
Finding jobs was not always easy. For many jobs in Singapore, applicants must describe their medical history on their application forms, and disclose any history of mental illness to a prospective employer. I was always honest in my application forms, but once I shared my history of schizophrenia, I often received no interview or reply, which was very disappointing.
Still, I did not want to keep my history of mental illness a secret. I applied to private-sector companies, whose forms did not always require me to disclosure my mental health status, which led to some success.
Stigma in the workplace for people with mental health problems is real, and can result in these people being treated negatively. But it is not impossible to find professional work even if you disclose your mental health condition. Be patient: there are enlightened employers out there willing to give opportunities to people with mental health issues.
I held down jobs in writing and communications through the years, even though I had not fully recovered. After all, I was essentially functional and competent, though I struggled with EQ and leadership skills. Over time, I found conversations easier, and getting along with others was more productive.
I am grateful to my employers for believing in my potential. I was happy to find meaning in my work, and to have the freedom to support myself financially.
I published ‘A Philosopher’s Madness’ through Ethos Books in 2012. I was surprised by its positive reaction. The book led to a series of speaking engagements, and generated interest in talking about mental health. It also started my career in mental health: later on I became a manager for Mental Health Public Education at the National Council of Social Service, in the Services Planning and Development Group.
Last year, I travelled to Bangladesh to become a writer-in-residence and Director of the Writing Centre at the Asian University For Women. There, I led a team of fourteen to run the writing centre successfully, and also taught undergraduate courses and worked on a creative writing project.
I went to Bangladesh specifically to work with marginalised young women from Bangladesh and the region. I worked closely with students who were recruited from the garment factories, as well as refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar. These students were simply incredible: Driven, smart, and brave. Through my interactions with them, I came to know them well. I feel like I gained so much from my year in Bangladesh.
Right now, I’m working on my second book, a biography of the Singapore performance artist Lee Wen.
I want people to know that if they, or their friends and family, are diagnosed with a mental illness, it is definitely possible to recover. It’s a matter of being patient, and finding the right combination of self-care and medication.
I’m a living example of that, because I’ve made a full recovery.
If you observe that a loved one is unusually withdrawn, or is reacting very strongly to what is said in conversations, let him or her know you care, and have observed a change in behaviour recently.
Express your support and openness, and lend a listening ear. You can also suggest joint activities that you enjoy doing together previously, to spend quality time together.
If your loved one indicates that he or she would like to seek help, suggest that she see a counsellor.
I used to fear a relapse, and worry about having another episode of psychosis, but my condition is now stable, so I no longer worry. I also see a psychiatrist every six months, just to check in and make sure everything is fine.
Through the concern for me shown by friends, I’ve gained a different perspective on the world. I’ve found that people are kind by nature, and want to be helpful. Confucius in ‘San Zi Jing’ (Three Character Classic) was right: “Man, at birth, is essentially good.”
One friend wrote me a thoughtful letter on philosophical explorations after receiving a copy of my book, and I was touched by how he treated me as someone capable of deep thought and logical thinking, despite my diagnosis. Another friend living in England saw a news clip on my recovery story, and encouraged me to focus on what I had gained through my experience with schizophrenia, which made me a more resilient and interesting person.
Both these friends saw beyond my mental illness and reached out to me, which I was very grateful for.
I’m extremely fortunate to have recovered fully, mostly because of the support of my friends, family, and mental health workers. I am also blessed with a loving partner — we love to cook together, and go on long nature walks. My family and I remain close as well, though my father has since passed away.
It is ironic that chasing philosophy and logic led me to become mentally ill. I am much happier now, surrounded by my loved ones whom I reconnected with. As John Nash said in ‘A Beautiful Mind’, “What truly is logic? Who decides reason? It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found.”
This story was told by Lishan and written by @lisatwang. For more on Lishan’s journey, visit her personal site at lishanchan.com.
Lisa also shares more about her friendship with Lishan in her personal Dayre post: @lisatwang:110709.
For more on how to support your loved ones, check out a mental health agency, like Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) (www.samhealth.org.sg) or contact 1800-283 7019. You can also visit the Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) Hub for a free assessment at www.chat.mentalhealth.sg, or contact 6493 6500.
Pictures provided by Lishan Chan.