It is okay not to be okay — a lawyer’s take on his mental wellness amid Covid-19
Suicidal thoughts surfaced in my mind recently, particularly during the circuit breaker period. It was probably the toughest period I have had to endure to keep my sanity.
If I tell my friends I felt depressed and harboured suicidal thoughts a few months ago, they would probably think I was joking.
After all, I probably didn’t look depressed, much less behaved like someone who wanted to kill myself.
Yet I cannot deny that suicidal thoughts surfaced in my mind recently, particularly during the circuit breaker period. It was probably the toughest period I have had to endure to keep my sanity.
It has not been easy. Even though Singapore is in Phase Two of reopening now, there are still many restrictions and life feels like it is at a standstill.
When it seems to be like groundhog day every day, not being able to go about the usual routine that I had been accustomed to before Covid-19 came into our lives, it feels exhaustingly painful.
Aside from work and my family, my 80-year-old mother has been driving me nuts as well.
She lives alone since my dad passed on several years ago, so I have been spending weekends with her while my son and I call her on a daily basis.
Alone and frail, she has become bitter and negative. She looks to me for emotional support and companionship, so oftentimes, she will relive her past over and over to me.
It was extremely challenging during the circuit breaker period as we could not visit her.
I told her recently if she carries on being so negative, she will probably have to bury me.
That helped a little but she still gets to me as she can be quite set in her ways.
My son summed it up best one night, as I was exasperatingly tearing up and he asked me after I placed the phone down: “Papi, why is grandma so stubborn?”
A few months ago, one of my clients said to me that he could sense that my soul was dying, as if I had lost the will to carry on.
I could go on and on about me. What's my point?
What do I do when I recognise that I am down and possibly depressed? It does not matter if I am a lawyer or a partner in a law firm as depression does not discriminate.
And this is why I want to share what I went through and how I managed — with the hope that Singaporeans can be more open about talking about depression and mental health issues.
Depression is such a taboo noun. No one likes to talk about it, not until perhaps it may be too late.
That client was spot on. And I am glad that he pointed out how depression had crept up on me almost unnoticed.
Demands from clients were extraordinarily taxing and much higher than usual.
It was quite surprising as the challenges of retail work which I chose to eschew seemed to resurface with several of my retainers possibly because they faced issues which do not arise in ordinary times.
It did not help that some of the opposing parties were obnoxiously stubborn and difficult.
There was a lot of negativity in the work environment because of a breakdown of communication and uncertainty over how I could continue with my work given that most legal services were not deemed essential services.
It is said that it is during times of adversity that you see the worst in humankind and I found that to be so true. I saw the worst in some people I thought I could count on.
As a result, I became sensitive to every word, every sound, every action someone made. It affected me so much that I started to have feelings of self-doubt and everything affected me to the extent that I became a nervous wreck.
For a while my health suffered as I stopped taking care of myself. I allowed the self-pity to eat me up and I could feel myself dying, a little at a time, as each day passed.
I was aware something was wrong deep inside but I was unable or maybe unwilling to get out of it. I could really feel my life being sucked away.
I started feeling down in March and it was only sometime in June that I was able to pull myself out of it. How did I do it?
Somehow I was able to compartmentalise the toxic negativity and recovered with affirmation and affection from people who matter and care.
The first thing I learnt was to forgive myself and to stop blaming myself for all the things that went wrong in my life.
I learnt to love myself again and revisited my self-worth and humanity.
I started thinking for myself and stopped living in the shadow of the perceptions of what others thought of me.
In so doing, I stood up to the many ghosts of my past and the imposter syndrome that had haunted and consumed me.
I started spending more time on the things and people that mattered most.
More importantly, I was constantly reminded to spend more time on self-care, to sleep more, eat well, be happy and very importantly, to be kind to everyone, regardless.
That helped me to reclaim back my soul and to live again.
I am not ashamed to admit that I felt lost and have sent out cries for help. At one point I sent a status update on WhatsApp declaring that I wanted to sleep and not wake up.
Out of the thousands of contacts in my phone list, three women (it had to be) contacted me to check on me. One was a client, one was an old friend from a long ago and the third was a classmate I have not spoken with in over 10 years.
I was quite moved that there were some people who actually stopped to ask after me. Did you see my update but ignored it?
How do we tell if someone is not in a good state of mind? Honestly, I do not know.
Even the psychiatrists I speak with in the course of my work tell me that you cannot tell just by looking.
So if you are not feeling good, please don't be embarrassed to admit it. Surrounding yourself around happy thoughts can only get you so far.
You may need help or at least speak with someone whom you trust.
Conversely it is alright to ask after your friends and brethren. When was the last time you asked after someone you see regularly at work?
The availability of real self-help is sadly quite lacking but there has been much talk about mental health in the current climate.
Many may not seek help either because they are unaware that something may be wrong or they may not know where to go for help.
The public awareness of the availability of help and welfare contact numbers to call and phone apps may be life savers in today’s “new normal”.
If you think you need help, you probably do. Please raise your hand and give a shout.
There is really no shame in seeking help to manage your mental well-being.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nicholas Aw is a partner at Clifford Law.