You can get better: My journey to recovery.
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
My personal story of mental illness, healing and growth.
I was Five-years-old when my Mother died.
It was cancer that took her away from my Dad, myself and my then Two-year-old brother.
One day, she was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and three months later, she was gone.
I don't really have that many memories of that time, this being so long ago. In fact, it was the thirtieth anniversary of her death just last month. However, there was one memory that I still remember like it was yesterday.
It was the last day of the funeral and it was also the day we were going to bury my mother. My Five-year-old self was then feeling an immense sense of grief and dread at the idea of laying her into the ground and saying goodbye to her forever.
I remember quietly retreating away from the bustle of quiet conversations that was taking place amongst our uncles, aunties and family friends in our house. Instead, I walked down our long driveway toward the main road. As I stood alone by our house gate, I clearly remembered telling myself
"Don't cry later. Don't cry. Be strong".
I can't remember the reason for this, but somehow I had an overwhelming belief to myself that I needed to not shed any tears today.
My mother and I.
A few hours later at the burial, I stood huddled with my Dad and brother looking down at my mother's coffin that had just been lowered into the ground at the cemetery.
As the final act of sending our Mother off on her journey to the afterlife, our Christian pastor instructed us then to pick up a few stones from the ground and lightly toss them into the grave.
As my little young fingers found a small rock and tossed it into the grave, the symbolism of being cut off from the physical body of my Mother became too overwhelming for me. Whatever strength that had kept back the tears up till that moment now entirely came loose, and a flood of tears flowed out.
I bawled my eyes out in the final moments of saying goodbye.
Suddenly, my childhood life became empty and fragile.
The years that followed are hazy in my memory. All I remember was that one day she was there, albeit sick and bedridden, and the next day she had disappeared from the earth.
It's a strange thing to go from hugging and talking fondly to someone you love, and having them suddenly disappear.
Saying "I love you" to a memory or a photo isn't nearly the same as saying it to a living person. How odd too, that I quickly forget how my mother's hugs used to feel like.
A strange phenomenon began to occur over time - an empty void started to form within me.
What this feels like is hard to describe. It's like there's a little white sphere made out of nothingness that opened up deep within my soul. I can't see it nor touch it, I can merely feel its presence.
This hole seemed to grow bigger or smaller, depending on how much love I'm getting at the moment. The less love I feel the bigger it gets, and the more I feel that I am a damaged and incomplete human being.
How my dad explained my Mother's passing to my brother and I, I do not remember. He himself must have been struck by the utter, desolate grief at the very sudden lost of his wife, and mother of his two children.
However, my child mind started to come to its own interpretation of the event - mainly, that life was fragile and that people could disappear for no reason.
I started to believe in the notion that I was going to die soon.
This pattern of thinking was subtle at first.
I was brought up as a Christian, still am one this very day. My mother would pray with us when we were children, every night before we slept. After her death, my prayers slowly changed in their content. They became repetitive pleas to God to keep the rest of my family safe and alive around me.
For example, I prayed to God to keep my Dad safe when he was on a business trip. These were childish long-winded prayers - about take-offs and landings, about stormy weather. My prayers revolved around every person in my life I cared for, including my grandmother and younger brother.
I also prayed to God that if He was going to make any of my family disappear, to make me disappear instead.
This pattern of thinking grew stronger over the years. I started to believe that mortality was a wispy fog that could dissipate at any moment.
This pervaded my attitude toward other areas of my life of course, including studying. What's the point of studying and doing well on exams when there was no point to the future? All the while, the emptiness in my heart grew bigger and bigger.
My dad remarried eventually. I had a new mum and life became stable for a while.
My brother and I suddenly had a new mother. After so many years of not having a maternity figure in our lives, we embraced her with all our hearts.
We called her "mum", and she was a great one at that. It must have been hard for her to go from single, to being married with two young children. Still, she stepped into her new shoes in the best possible way.
Because of her love, patience and persistence, I went from an idle child who spent all day dreaming and doodling in his textbooks, to one who was guided to study. All the while, we enjoyed the time as a family together.
That empty, little sphere in my soul slowly and quietly seemed to close up.
The years went by and I was doing decently well in school. We even had a new little sister introduced into our lives. I love her with every bit of my heart and tried to be the best brother to her.
She went into my nightly prayers too.
However, I still maintained this nagging belief that I was going to die soon. For some reason, it became more concrete as time went by, and I subconsciously came to believe that the end of my life would come when I turned Twenty-one years old.
Despite this, I continued to live life as I was supposed to - studying, playing and meeting up with friends. I even dated a little, though the early relationships seemed nothing but play.
It was when real relationships developed that problems arose. You see, because of that empty void within me, I had such a deep yearning to become connected and loved. Yet often, the irrational fears of these relationships ending and the consequence of being abandoned (again) overwhelmed any form of happiness I gained from them.
Thus, often times, I sabotaged my relationships early, ending it before I was in a vulnerable position again.
In a way, I hadn't changed since that day at my mother's funeral. Even though so many years had passed, I was still afraid of feeling deeply painful emotions.
However, know this, my persistence in avoiding emotional pain through my relationships had a compounding effect. It just made me feel even lonelier, and I would feel the same sense of emptiness I felt as child begin to regrow.
Somedays it became unbearable, the pain of being an empty human felt too much to handle. That's when I fell prey to self-harm, wanting instead to feel a pain that was more tangible.
The scars from those times seemed to have faded away, but if you looked closely enough, you could still see self-inflicted cigarette burns on my arms and a cross cut into my left shoulder.
My parents brought me to seek help - I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression and Anxiety.
These were the years I was still serving my National Service - I was downgraded to being a store-man of course.
The therapy helped immensely. To some extent, so did the medication. I went through many sessions with a clinical psychologist, called Danny, who was a big factor in my getting better. It was in those sessions I was re-exposed to the trauma of my early childhood, which had all but been repressed away.
I remember him talking with me and easing me into bringing up fond memories of my mother, and eventually, memories of her passing. I couldn't help but cry in the therapy room, an eighteen year old boy-man who wasn't prone to crying. Yet that was okay and good, because it led me down a path of healing.
It was through therapy that I learned to handle the workings of my mind better. I shared with him my troublesome beliefs and thoughts, and he devised strategies to counter them.
I got better day by day.
However, it was my mistake that I didn't tell him everything that went on in my mind. Then three years went by and I turned twenty-one, the year I was supposed to die.
I fell into a Major Depressive episode.
I was enrolled into University in a random course, a Bachelor of Commerce. I say random, because I never imagined that I would get to the stage where I had to think about a career.
I failed half my modules in my first semester because I didn't have a reason to study. It felt entirely forced. The next semester I switched to a Biomedical Science course - again I failed miserably.
The meaninglessness went by and I grew more and more empty again. One night, out of rashness and emptiness, I swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills with some whiskey. Luckily, my dad was around and he could take me to the hospital for treatment.
Thereafter, I came to realisation that I had to be absolutely truthful and honest if I really wanted to get better. I went through more therapy to address these deeper and darker hidden thoughts. Meanwhile, I also switched to yet another university course - thankfully this time around, it was Psychology.
My path to becoming a Psychologist.
I didn't know it at first - but Psychology would come to save my life. If you studied Psychology, you know that the early modules are usually quite foundational - about human perception, statistics and the like.
It was when we went into studies of the abnormal mind that the knowledge began to illuminate my life. Here I was, studying the development of mental processes that created who I was, and formed the context of my mind.
I started to do tremendously well at school - being intrinsically driven by the knowledge of my studies.
It was there that I envisioned myself becoming a Clinical Psychologist, wanting to help people the same way I was helped. I pursued it all the way, obtaining a first class honours and finally landing myself a spot in a Doctorate of Clinical Psychology.
Winning the best paper prize at a Psychology conference.
Then came a fork in my life's journey.
We're nearing the end of this article now, but one of my biggest regrets in life was leaving my Doctorate studies.
One-third of the way through, I began to have doubts about whether I really wanted to spend my entire life in a therapy room. I also doubted my own capabilities, was I well enough myself to help people?
I struggled with this for a while before finally deciding to opt out. Instead, I finished off my university with a Masters of Organisational Psychology. I convinced myself, hey, at least I'm helping people at scale right?
The first few years were fun - I was working on interesting projects like improving the culture of safety at mining sites in Western Australia, developing wellbeing programs for employees at huge companies, and running clinics and focus groups to speak to and understand people's issues at work.
FYI up to here, this still wasn't the fork I was referring in the above - the real change in my life's direction was this. I began to lose sight of the intrinsic pleasures of my work, namely the innate enjoyment of seeing people become happier, and got caught up in the extrinsic ones.
I was still pretty green in the corporate world - my goals naturally changed to climbing the career ladder. My personal values of doing good and helping others became befuddled by the mask of corporate politics, promotions and earning a bigger paycheck.
I eventually learned there was this new fashionable thing called "Data Science" that could shoot you up the societal ladder. And so I went for it.
Values suppressed leads to emotions repressed. And then comes Depression.
I became a Behavioural Data Scientist. These were still jobs that allowed me to apply my knowledge of Psychology here and there, but my purpose in life became obscured by my own personal and career growth.
Still, I blindly pushed on because it was what I came to believe was an important goal for most people. At least, that was what the people I was surrounded by were doing.
Little did I realise, doing this was the same exact thing I did a long time ago. That young me who simply went along with what everyone else was doing.
One of the biggest blessings of my life was meeting a beautiful girl, who eventually became my wife two years ago. Our wedding day is one of the greatest joys of my life and I'm incredibly thankful that she is my wife.
My wife and I on our wedding day.
It was the absolute worst timing that I had a relapse in Depression soon after. It came by so very slowly and subtly, like a little gremlin that crawled in through an opening in my skin and began to reopen the empty hole that had been closed away so long ago.
I never imagined I would fall prey to mental illness again. I battled with it day in and day out. All the while my dear wife suffered alongside me. I was harsh on myself, "Aren't you a Psychologist? Why can't you fix it!".
Pride got into the way and I suffered for many months. It was my wife's urging that I finally relinquished the struggle and sought help from another Psychologist. Speaking to somebody always helps. Just like Johari's window suggests, we humans are walking blind spots, especially when it comes to ourselves.
It was only through this that I saw what I couldn't see before - I was so caught up in struggling with my pain that I didn't see the lesson hidden in it.
I was running away from the things I cared about the most.
All roads lead back to the present.
These days, I've never been happier in my life. The only people making life complicated are ourselves. I spend my life simply now, enjoying the time with my wife, alongside our two beautiful dogs. In my free time, I volunteer with the needy and elderly, and do my best to outreach to people struggling with mental challenges.
It's all part of who I am.
Values cannot be hidden away. It's like locking away your true self, throwing away the keys and convincing yourself to be someone else. Yet there it is, caged up inside you and pleading with you to set yourself free.
It's the reason why I've decided to pursue my studies and now practice as a Counselling Psychologist again. I also started this blog to reach out to people, like you, who are experiencing difficulties with mental health like I did.
It's also why I believe so fervently in this two value-centered psychological practices that I share in this blog:
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy - learning how to handle difficult thoughts and emotions, while opening your life up to your true self and values.
Positive Psychology - the science of making each day of your life worth living, by building it around meaningful people, positive habits, and finding your meaning in life through your values.
I hope you can join me on my journey, and allow me in on your journey too.
You can get better too.
In closing, when I think of my Five-Year-Old self, I really wish I could embrace him and tell him this:
That your life ahead is not going to be easy. You will be hurt plenty of times. There will be especially painful times and sometimes it might feel unbearable. Yet don't worry, because eventually you'll learn to open up yourself to the pain, instead of running away.
Why is that important? It's because the things that hurt us the most, are also the things we care most deeply about.
And it is this journey through the hurt and into a life of living your values that you will find happiness, along with a beautiful wife who loves you unconditionally. Keep on living.
Thanks for reading through my long story. Whenever you need me, I'm just an email away. Thanks, Hernping