Mental Health at Home: Being a daughter, a wife and a mother

By Clara How, Oct 07, 2020

Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of depression and attempted suicide. 

10 October marks World Mental Health Day. There is so much to celebrate in the headway that is being made for raising awareness about mental health: open a newspaper, social media app or website tab, and we see campaigns and stories of people sharing their experiences, and pointing towards the many avenues that one can go to for help and support. 

But while the stigma is slowly being eroded, many misconceptions about mental illness still persist. This lack of understanding surfaces in beliefs such as depression is “all in the mind”, or in well-intentioned advice like “just don’t think so much.” Joanna, 31, a mother of two who has been battling depression for the past 11 years, believes that this is because not many people bear witness to the reality of what it means to live with a mental illness. 

In our series titled ‘Mental Health: How are we talking about it?’, we want to hear from people who do bear witness, and paint a realistic picture of what it means to have mental illness, to be an advocate, and to be a caregiver. Joanna, who also charts her journey on Dayre on her account @joannaerin, opens this series. We hear from both her and her husband about how it takes a village to support one with depression, and what it was like to fall in love with her husband all over again.

* * * *

I had a long relapse into depression after the birth of my first child. One of my triggers is being overwhelmed, and being a new mum overwhelmed me on so many levels. Not only was I now a stay-at-home mum, we had just moved in with my mother-in-law while waiting for our flat to be completed.

If I had to use an analogy, it was as if someone kept adding fruits into a fruit basket that was already filled to the brim, and the basket overflowed.

There were so many things to learn, and I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. My head was filled with hypothetical scenarios of what could go wrong (what if I dropped my baby, or could not get her to stop crying?) and they paralysed me. My mother-in-law was working, so during my confinement I was mostly alone. Every day, I was alone with a wriggly baby that I was trying to keep alive.

When I am depressed, I feel a blanket numbness where I cannot feel emotions — not even love. As much as I wanted to bond with my child, I felt as if I couldn’t.

My parents stepped in to help stimulate my baby. They took her out, pushed her on the pram and read to her. They were a big help, especially since my husband was just as clueless as I was when it came to parenting. It was also the first time he had witnessed what depression looks like for me.

In Sydney, 2013

In Sydney, 2013

I was 20 when I found out that I had depression. I was feeling the stress over finding a career path after graduating from polytechnic, and was experiencing dizzy spells and feeling extremely down. When I Googled my symptoms, one of the possibilities presented was that I might have depression, and that was a new term to me. I asked a doctor to refer me to a psychiatrist, but I wasn’t ready to open up. I felt like I was in an abyss: I felt lost, and my parents didn’t know how to cope when I told them I went to see a psychiatrist. My father initially thought that it was an issue that I came up with. 

Two months later, I attempted to take my own life. In the hospital, I was formally diagnosed with depression, and they ran a series of tests to find out what was causing my dizzy spells. They concluded that my psychological concerns had turned into a physical manifestation of vertigo. The hospital referred me to more counsellors, but I still wasn’t ready to express myself, so once I was discharged, I went back to staying in bed. 

I was placed on medication after my diagnosis, but the side effects were so negative that I stopped taking the medication under my doctor’s advice. Everyone is different, but for me, my body did not respond well. 

I can’t remember exactly when I got better, but with my family’s help, I slowly began to step out of my shell. My mother would physically drag me out of bed, and take me out on walks to get fresh air. I also thought about my younger sister, who was 17 when I attempted suicide. She had cried, and told me: “I can’t believe you wanted to make me an only child.” Her words became a push factor for me to get better. 

On a day out with my sister and children.

On a day out with my sister and children.

Whenever I feel low, I will always think back to this moment, and know that my depression is bigger than me. It affects others as well.

The next year, I started university and things were going well at first. But I relapsed again because of stress from schoolwork, and it was as if my mind had a circuit break. I had amnesia and experienced fugue, where everything feels hazy and you miss some parts of your life. I couldn’t even remember how to tell the time. 

The turning point was when I started seeing a new doctor, and began to go for more therapy. I felt like this was the first therapist who really understood me, and he taught me how to identify my triggers and learn coping mechanisms. He was the one who told me about the analogy of the fruit basket, and that I needed to be aware before the fruits start rolling off. 

I met my husband, Kevin, at a point where I was doing well in my life. The first time we met, he said that he saw a spark in me. I did share my journey with depression, but I didn’t give too many details because I didn’t want mental illness to be all that I was known for. My depression isn’t all there is to me.

Kevin only discovered the reality of my depression after the birth of our daughter. It was scary for him, and he didn’t know how to cope. For a long time, he didn’t understand what I meant when I said that I “wasn’t feeling well”. He thought I was just making excuses not to go out with him, which led to misunderstanding and frustration on both ends. 

To not have my husband’s support pushed me further into my rut — while in hindsight I know that it wasn’t fair to expect him to suddenly know what to do and how to take care of me, but at that point of time I just felt bitterness. He grew up with tough love, and he tried to bring me out of my depression by telling me to snap out of it, but these methods didn't work for me. 

I would roll my eyes whenever he tried to do something nice for me, which only upset him and made him wonder why he was even trying so hard. But I was so used to arguing and feeling hurt that I couldn’t just change my feelings overnight. 

It took five years of arguments, resentment, and things being swept under the rug for us to reach a place of understanding. He said that he was tired of telling me how he would change and would just show me through his actions, and that was what he did. I saw that he did all the things that he promised to do, such as becoming more involved with housework, taking me on dates, and being gentle in his words when I told him that I’m not feeling well. He really proved himself.

Because I had been feeling so numb, it felt like I fell in love with him all over again.

As for motherhood, being a mum while battling depression is one of the hardest things you can do. It is very easy to stay in bed, but at the same time, you don’t want to succumb because that would mean not spending time with your children. It’s a vicious cycle: when I need self-care and want to rest and sleep, I feel guilty for not seeing my kids. Then the guilt sets in, and I can’t get out of bed again. But I tell myself that as long as there is a shred of willpower, there is hope.

My first-born, Valerie.

My first-born, Valerie.

Everyday I force myself to get up, wash up and change, just to feel human. I tell myself to take my children to school and have breakfast, and do simple things like cuddling with them on the couch. When you are depressed, it feels like the hardest thing to even want to hug your child. Hugging your child should feel natural, but it’s a struggle for me at times. Not feeling that draw towards them is the saddest thing in the world.

My beautiful children: Isaac, 2, and Valerie, 4.

My beautiful children: Isaac, 2, and Valerie, 4.

So even though it’s a very painful struggle, I try my best not to fall into that pit. I summon every willpower that I have to tell myself that I love my children, and I need to get out of bed for them.

It was counselling that gave me the key to recovery. I felt like I was finally being heard, and I learnt active coping mechanisms from professionals who were there to walk step by step with me. I have been undergoing counselling for 11 years since my diagnosis, and over the years, began to learn what my triggers are and how to preempt them. For example, I learnt to recognise signs: when I start feeling more frustrated, or when I start losing interest in things and feeling numb. I can’t prevent external circumstances from triggering me, but I can train myself to be self aware and mentally prepare myself. 

When I feel like my basket is reaching the brim, I do something I enjoy. I go for a walk, meet my sister, or my husband takes me out on a date. I try not to make each relapse last for longer than two weeks, because one day feels long enough as it is. 

I am blessed to have a strong circle of support. It took years of trial and error for my parents to learn how to be caregivers, but now they are fully supportive. There are so many misconceptions about mental illness, such as that it’s all in our head, that it’s something that we can control and can be wished away. My mother joined a support group for caregivers of people with special needs, which includes those suffering from mental illness. She began to understand that my behaviour isn’t my fault, but that it’s depression that’s making me feel this way.

But the biggest gift that my family has given me is their time.

We stay at their home every Friday till Sunday, which is a huge help. I know that it is very tiring for two retirees to take care of young children and don’t want to impose, but they always say that we are family, and if they don’t help me who will? Before the circuit breaker measures, my mother and I used to go on on mother-daughter dates every Wednesday when the children were in school.

I am also part of a programme called Temasek Foundation Cares Kids Integrated Development Service (or Temasek Cares KIDS 0-3). It was piloted in 2014 in a partnership by KK Women's and Children’s Hospital (KKH), Temasek Cares, and AMKFSC Community Services.

I was recruited because I was already a patient receiving counselling care at KKH. The programme supports vulnerable children between the ages of zero to three and their mothers, and focuses a lot on community care. We are assigned a Community Health Visitor that sees us through the three years. She comes by every month to check on us, and has been a huge help in giving me parenting tips and advice. 

It was my Community Health Visitor who picked up on my most recent relapse, which was during the Circuit Breaker measures. She sensed from our call that something was wrong, and immediately called my emergency contacts, who were my husband and mum. She helped me get an urgent follow-up session with my psychiatrist, and got my kids back into school for safety reasons. To have this support is truly by God’s grace. 

If you’re not sure about how to support someone with mental illness, there are many little things that you can do. We don’t want your sympathy; sometimes, all we want is for someone to listen without judgment, or ask what they can do to help. If we’re feeling overwhelmed by housework, you can help us organise a part-time cleaner to come by, or take our kids out to the playground for an hour. My neighbour, who is aware of my condition, often asks if I need help with buying food. Sometimes, I don’t have the energy to shower, so my husband helps me wash and dry my hair so I can go back to bed with clean hair. These things don’t take a lot of time or cost a lot, but they are greatly appreciated. 

To know that I’m not an island anymore has really helped in my recovery. There is so much that family can do, but there is also a place for professional and third party intervention and there is no need to shy away from this. Help is everywhere — if you need it, you can find it.

There are days where I still struggle at times, but thanks to the support I have received, I now know how to manage.  Depression is just like any other illness, and I’m happy to share my journey because I’m not ashamed of it. I look back on the last decade, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

* * * *

During our conversation, Joanna told us that it was imperative that we speak to caregivers, because she believes they are the ones who can paint a clearer picture of what it is like to live with someone battling depression. This was how we met her husband, Kevin. 

Kevin was honest in sharing that he was not always understanding of Joanna’s condition, and at times, wanted to leave the marriage. It took five long years before they reached a place of mutual trust and understanding. In his words, Joanna and him have “come a long way”.

* * * *

Before meeting Joanna, I did have some experience with a childhood friend who also struggled with mental health, and was aware that it is an uphill battle.

I wasn’t a direct caregiver, but I grew up with him, and understood the frustration that his parents faced. At that time, I didn’t know depression was a spectrum, so my experience was limited to my friend. 

When Joanna had her first relapse after our daughter was born, it felt as if she took on a different personality.

She became withdrawn and started snapping at me, and it was a 180 degree turn from the happy-go-lucky person that I knew. I began to realise that what I experienced with my friend was truly surface level, because I could always walk away. But you can’t do that when it’s your wife.

I was so worried about what she might think or do, and wanted to always be around to talk her through it. 

When you get to know a person with depression, it feels like no matter how logical you are, they might not be able to see your point of view. I couldn’t understand what was going through her mind, or get through to her. In frustration, I said many hurtful things, such as shouting at her to “snap out of this nonsense”, or “don’t you have better things to do?” 

I was a new father and the sole breadwinner. It was a very stressful period, and I almost wanted to walk away from the marriage. I felt like I couldn’t tell my friends because they wouldn’t understand. Perhaps it’s a generational thing as many of them are in their early 40s, and mental illness isn’t something they are comfortable in discussing. I kept thinking, what have I gotten myself into?

It was my love for her that kept me going, and our children. I had always told myself that if I have a family, I would want to hold us together.

Because I was finding it difficult to get through to her, I realised that my two kids were the answer. They are very mature for their age, and even though we have not explicitly told them the situation, they are empathetic and know when their mother is not herself. So I would encourage them by saying, “Mummy isn’t feeling well, let’s show her some love and care.” They would coax her out of the bedroom, and we would celebrate this little victory by cheering and eating together.

My in-laws were my lifeline. They were the only ones who really understood what it was like to live with Joanna, and how to help her. Her mother suggested getting Joanna her favourite food, or taking her out on dinner dates, because it wasn’t something we did often as a couple. Her father shared with me Biblical verses that were very encouraging. They reminded me to have patience, and it helped me regroup, and ground myself.

Joanna also shared her Dayre posts with me, where she had been documenting things that she found difficult to say verbally to me, but was able to let it all out online.

When we had cold wars and ignored each other, reading her thoughts on Dayre made me realise what it was like from her perspective. I was able to better understand what her world was like. 

I thought: this is the person I married, and whom I’m going to live with for another 40 years, God willing. I made the choice of learning how to cope, so we can have an enjoyable future together.

The other thing that motivated me, other than my children, was that I knew that Joanna was still fighting. During the rare moments where we were able to connect with each other, I saw that there was still light in her — the same flicker of light that was there when we first met.

It took a lot of time, but today our relationship is so much better in every way possible. We are more conscientious of what we say to each other, because we see now that words can hurt, and break trust. The bottom line is to know and recognise each other’s triggers.

Joanna now opens up to me, and warns me if she’s not feeling well. I also see little signs, like if she isn’t eating well, or stopped doing housework. I know it is time for me to step up and say that I will take over. I tell her, “I can do 99 per cent of the housework, you just need to focus on the one per cent, which is your laundry. But if you can’t do the one per cent, it is also okay.” You can’t have the mindset of blaming the other person, or wonder why this is happening again. I think of housework as my own therapy, and I know that when she wakes up and sees a clean house, it stops her from going into another episode of feeling guilty. 

If anyone reading this is a caregiver, I know that it is a really tough journey. If it is your partner, you will need to understand and accept that this is the person you have chosen to be with, and you cannot give up. If it’s hard to communicate, encourage him or her to write out how they are feeling. Don’t lose yourself in the process, and spend time on self-care — I try to keep myself fit, also because I knew that between us, one of us had to be healthy.

Speak to like-minded people, and if you really need help, holler out. It is a huge help to find someone to talk to, whether it is family, a support group, or a religious community. The more you hold it in, the more caregiving can feel like a very lonely battle. 

I want to show Joanna that through love, we are all worth her fighting. We also want to show our children that depression is not an illness that is incurable or something to be ashamed of. It can be defeated, and they will be able to see that as cliche as it may be, love trumps everything. You can go through the hardest thing imaginable, but if there is someone who loves you, that is enough. 

The original version of this story stated that Joanna was assigned a social worker as part of the Temasek Cares KIDS 0-3 programme. The term has been corrected to Community Health Visitor, whose role is to deliver an integrated system of health and social care through home visits that support the child’s growth and potential. From July 2016, the programme has also received funding support from the Early Childhood Development Agency, to enable more children to benefit from the home visitation programme.

Photos provided by Joanna. You can also read more of her journey on the Dayre app at @joannaerin.  

This is the first part of our series, “Mental Health: How are we talking about it?”. Check in next Thursday, 15 October, for the second story about how mental health is addressed in the workplace. 

If you or your loved one is in need of support or a listening ear, you may contact Samaritans of Singapore (www.sos.org.sg), Silver Ribbon Singapore (www.silverribbonsingapore.com) or Singapore Association of Mental Health (https://www.samhealth.org.sg/). For caregivers, you may find resources and support at Caregivers Alliance (https://www.cal.org.sg/). 


Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. I’ve opened about my struggles with anxiety and mental health, my journey in seeing a counsellor, and how I’ve been establishing a support system of my own. 

Join me and 15,000 other women on Dayre who share the big and small moments of their life with a supportive community. We write about the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and we encourage each other when the going gets tough, and occasionally ugly. 

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