Ms Valerie is a Peer Support Specialist (PSS) with Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH). As a peer specialist, she reaches out to those suffering from mental illness by sharing her recovery journey. She also speaks frequently at outreach events to raise public awareness about mental health. Today, she sits down with us to share about her experiences living with her Schizophrenia.
1) How did you first find out that you had Schizophrenia? How did you feel at the time?
I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia about 10 years ago, when I was in my 20s. It started gradually because I had symptoms but I didn’t know they were early warning signs. I was studying in Perth and I thought people were following me and wanted to harm me. I couldn’t control my actions and movements- at times I would walk around my neighbourhood barefoot and at other times I thought I was a deity. I started having a lot of negative thoughts and suspicions and didn’t know where they were coming from. I couldn’t communicate with people anymore and couldn’t get up from bed. I felt like I was going insane and I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Eventually I was caught for obstructing carparks. I was wandering around and my relative was afraid someone might bang me down, so she called the police. I was referred to see a psychiatrist and it was then that I was told I had schizophrenia.
2) How did your life change post-diagnosis?
My life went from an exciting adventure to a very closed-up one. I was always filled with anxiety and hid at home, not wanting to talk to anyone.
The sensitivity and suspicion were so real. There were voices in my head telling me to do things I shouldn’t do, like go and harm others. I thought it was the neighbour talking to me and disturbing me on purpose. I was so scared and I didn’t know what to do- I ended up taking a sharp object and going to confront them. I knew it was wrong but there were too many things- it was overwhelming. Luckily, nobody was at home at my neighbour’s house. Other neighbours saw my actions though and called the police.
I became fearful of a lot of things- walking along the road, taking a plane, the slightest negative news- I think I was scared it would trigger the voices to come back.
3) How did others react?
Only my family knew about it and thankfully, they were supportive and understanding. I kept it from my friends and the public. I didn’t have the confidence to speak to my friends and was worried they would stigmatise me, which would make things worse. If they couldn’t accept me I would not be able to accept myself.
It has only been recently that I publicly posted about my illness on Facebook. I felt that it was time for me to advocate for mental health now that I had recovered. I was tense and didn’t not know what to expect but surprisingly, everyone was very supportive and there was a lot of encouragement. Looking back, a lot of my fears were all in my own head-I should not have assumed what others would think.
4) What are some of the challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?
During the illness, my mind decompensated a lot. I lost the skill of speaking to others as my mind was always so cluttered, I was fearful that people would judge me and that what I said might be motivated by the voices and not myself. Fortunately, I began to work in a Voluntary Welfare Organisation as part time receptionist and re-learnt communication and interaction skills.
I also lost the motivation to care for myself as my thinking and movements were slowed down and I always felt tired. Some days, I would not even be able to get out of bed or go to work. To improve my mental speed and memory, I had to join rehab activities, like cognitive remediation and pottery classes. To improve my physical stamina, I forced myself to exercise. It took awhile, but now my memory and fitness is better and it boosts my self-esteem as well.
I also struggled a lot with medication. I would stop taking the medications when I thought I was ‘well’ but each time, I would relapse.
"It took me awhile to accept that my illness could not be controlled by willpower alone. Schizophrenia is due to chemical imbalances (like dopamine) in the brain and I am not weak just because my brain cannot produce certain chemicals in the right amount."
Now I accept that I have to take medication for a lifetime and take them regularly. The medications help because there are no more voices in my mind and I am able to think clearly.
5) What has been helpful and why?
My family, especially my mum, ‘holds the hope’ for me and guided me in recovery. Because they believe in me, I believe in myself too.
I am also thankful to be part of an inclusive environment where there is care and concern. My colleagues all know about my illness but they include me and accept me for who I am. It was with their support that I was able to get better at communicating with the clients and because they are so understanding of my illness, I have always felt comfortable asking for help.
Meaningful work gives meaning and purpose in my life, allowing me to be independent and give back to the society. As a peer specialist, I reach out to those suffering from mental illness and share my recovery journey.
"I joined as a PSS because I want to live my life in a light- I want to show people that you can recover from mental illness."
Most people will hide their illness but when you talk about it, you feel that your burdens are lighter.By sharing, you can help others and encourage yourself at the same time.
6) How has this journey changed you as a person?
It has been a blessing in disguise as my lifestyle has changed from one of clubbing, drinking, smoking and abusing substances to that of a healthy lifestyle.
I was abused when I was a child. At first my mother didn’t believe me and all the hurt, resentment and everything just buried inside me. I felt I had lost my voice and tried to put up a front instead. Since I already felt dirty, I tried to be the most notorious person in the world, by mixing with the wrong company and abusing substances.
Thinking back, what made me stop was I felt very terrible when I had this illness. The symptoms of schizophrenia were similar to when I abused substances but this time round I totally couldn’t control my actions. My family was also very supportive of me and I didn’t want to let them worry about me anymore. I realised it could be very detrimental to my mental health if I continued my unhealthy lifestyle- I wanted to get better. So slowly, I changed my lifestyle. It’s been a long journey- 10 years from start to end, but I have been free of drugs for 5 years now.
"I am also thankful that I have this illness because I can help people in a way that others cannot. For those that have a mental illness, it is our strength that we can share our recovery journey."
7) Is there anything you would like to say to those suffering from the same condition as you?
Be positive with an open mind and open heart. Exercise, maintain your wellness, be strong, and take medicine regularly- there is light at the end of the tunnel. I know it is not easy but that does not mean it is impossible.
Begin by accepting yourself despite your illness. You can try to share with your family and friends but be prepared that not everyone will respond positively. Slowly, you will regain your confidence.
8) What would you like to tell to those who know someone suffering from this condition?
Hold the hope for them, be there for them, don’t judge them and be patient with them.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!
Thank you for taking the time to learn more about mental illness- please help spread the word!
The team at Mental Muscle
“Let’s change the way we view Mental Illnesses today!”