By Serene Goh Jin-Hong
This world has no signposts. We navigate by birth luck, by trial and error, or by some great wind carrying us across the sky, as an indigenous Ojibwe would say. Coping with our complex city lives in Singapore requires more than just an unpredictable wind. From a mental health perspective, coping skills can be categorised into rest, relaxation and routine. Rest is sleep hygiene. Relaxation of the mind can mean counting backwards, or doing a noodle dance to loosen up the body. Routine is a simple discipline that can straighten up the rest of a messy life. What does Singapore do with its youth mental health problem? It sets up a signpost Creative SAY! a drop-in centre for Sports, Arts and Youths, where I am currently a programme executive. It doesn't say mental health, because people read "mental health" and understand "mental illness" all the time. We are trailblazing into preventive work, and the undiagnosed will not step foot on the territory of the ill. But vitamins and drugs are not the same.
My husband and I come home one day and find my mother-in-law's room cleaned out. Bedsheets gone, our Samsonite suitcase from the storeroom missing, her toothbrush and toiletries taken from the shared bathroom. On her bedside table are Singtel phone bills, multiple bank loans marked out in red, Uber login details and a note about where her car can be found. Forgotten fears from when our rented apartment got splashed with paint by loan sharks quickly infiltrate this new home we've placed our hopes in. Was it not just months ago when my mother-in-law cried on my shirtsleeve, begging to be forgiven, wanting to stay?
My husband rests his hand on the bedpost, heaving. He doesn't touch the documents, only the car key, which he picks up and flings against the headboard. A car is a luxury he cannot afford. He hasn't any words except, "I can't take leave tomorrow. Can you?"
"Is she gone? Where did she go? Didn't she want to stay with us so badly?" I know it would be me to take the urgent leave tomorrow, to find this car and return it to Uber. I know, because I work for a charity and earn only one-third of my husband's government salary.
"Can't you see?" He picks up the bills and loan documents, slapping them hard onto the bed like a corporate director dissatisfied with the monthly sales report.
My husband pays up for his mother and I return her rented car. It is no longer about prevention but diagnosis and treatment. To what extent has our mother revealed confidential information to strangers? The police take our testimony, one among many. They give us nothing but their number on speed-dial, in the event that we get harassed again.
A 10-year-old girl shares her wish for Singapore with me, as National Day approaches. "No more loan sharks," she says, as I sit with her at the drop-in centre, while her trembling subsides. Her parents had a fight and she decided to run away.
The two empty rooms in my apartment mock me. Why plan for children if I'm still afraid of loan sharks coming to splatter paint on my door? I go to work instead. For the future of the children I desire.
They enter Creative SAY!, mother before son. She is seeking, well-dressed. He follows, nonchalant, a hole in his shirt, some stains making it his. Depressed, anxious, maladjusted, looking for somewhere to "get better". They enter too, the group of secondary school students still in uniform, rowdy, tentative, brave. "What's this place?" A boy eyes me, considers trusting. His companions toe his line, their attention venturing beyond, into the music corner, the gym, the coloured walls, the pantry. I recite the menu, a buffet of visual arts, performing arts, water sports, land sports, individual mastery, team play. She likes drawing and he wants to be a singer. Rock climbing sounds cool.
He enters, a gentleman tanned, nobly built, speaks broken English with Bahasa accent. A very nice watch. You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation. He tells us about his daughter. He loves her very much. She's beautiful, perfect normal, once upon a time. Now she hears people talking behind her back and doesn't want to go out. They fly from Jakarta to Singapore twice a month for better psychiatric treatment. The hospital recommended us. "Money no object," he says, long before I share our monthly charges. I write a note on our flyer addressed to his daughter. He doesn't stop thanking me.
Is the help we seek vitamins or drugs? Drugs have side effects like Risperidone, medicine for schizophrenia, which also causes photosensitivity, involuntary muscle twitches and weight gain. I look around the centre, lively like a colourful bottle of Vit-C gummy bears. It's a shame people don't pursue their hobbies as they do addictions such as gambling. Use no, risk all means necessary to stay at the table. A group of youths jam together on donated guitars, a keyboard and a couple of cajones we bought. "You shoot me down, but I won't fall, I am titanium." David Guetta's fight song. Connection, laughter, life satisfaction. Community is formed. A girl looks away into the distance. I come up to her and sit beside. A side-hug, searching eyes and then two grateful smiles. She unsuspends my weary heart.
I spend six months trying to get a signpost erected where the road turns a corner to Creative SAY! We launched the same year Singapore's Prime Minister announced a special fund for mental health initiatives. There are so many levels of government Urban Redevelopment Authority, town councils, Housing & Development Board. They have all just approved my request, but I must find my own contractor to make the signpost. Who makes these things? What started out as kindness becomes a complicated web of political considerations and social implications. The best audit is competition between parties. Integrity over efficiency anytime. Strawberries bruise easily, and nobody knows with certainty how to increase the resilience of the strawberry generation, but suggestions abound. The old guards created this entitled generation. We prescribe.
Just like the fertility doctor I see. She presumes to know all about me because I walk through her doors. Problem: no baby. Prescription: make baby. But I would like to conceive via natural means please, in an embrace and not a test tube. Can you help me still? Comes her soliloquy on probabilities and window periods, making me wonder if I should seek help from a spiritual director instead. Yes, children are gifts and not entitlements. Yes, I have sought medical advice, from doctors with walls full of red stamps and proud acclamations. No, I haven't found the help I need.
One year ago, Prime Minister cried out, "Please have more babies." This cry can actually be traced back to the year 2008, when he detailed in his National Day Rally how we had gone from six children per woman in 1960, to 2.1 children in the mid-1970s, to 1.3 children. This year, it is officially 1.16 children. "Each time there is a crisis, people put off having babies. Crisis passes, numbers bounce back up, but never quite go back to where they used to be," I remember him saying. It was the same year I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, whom I had expected to start a family with. That boyfriend had said, "I'll give it up for you. I'll join government service for the stability we need." But I would not let him quit his pilot dream. Instead I allowed the long distance to get between us, and was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. What happens when crises become life's norm?
Then two years ago, Prime Minister mentioned "disruptions" during his National Day Rally speech. "Old models are not working, new models are coming thick and fast, and we're having to adjust and to keep up, because of technology and globalisation," he had said. Technology and globalisation. Even loan sharks use technology to bait unwitting customers these days. An incredible loan offer came unsolicited via text message. My mother-in-law replied. It's the easier option than to ask her only son for money. No one likes being scolded or nagged at. And when the going gets tough, globalisation means she can withdraw credit to escape to Japan.
It's not that the old models aren't working. Marriage is old, about 23,000 years old since humans started to grow their own food, settle into communities, organise families and codify this normalcy into law. Even the idea of social support is old. Research can be traced back to the mid-1970s, when a series of articles were published, examining the association between psychiatric disorders and factors such as change in marital status, geographic mobility and social disintegration. Social support moderates life stress, brought about by "disruptions" that cause people to lose jobs and social status, becoming irrelevant in the economy, forgotten by society.
She comes in to see me, a single mother with three kids under the age of 16. In a span of two years she has lost her husband and father-in-law to illness. Soon she might lose her flat, the only home her Singaporean children have known, because she herself is Malaysian. I ask about her extended family and she talks about her husband's family policemen, teachers and lawyers mixed in the lot. "Will they not help you out?" I suggest. No help from them, she says, because they think she is bad luck and would have nothing to do with her. Instead, her children's school counsellors, as well as my colleagues and I, listen to her vents and buy her groceries so she and her children would not have to rummage through rubbish bins for food.
What makes a person choose left over right, marriage over companionship, children over freedom? Are the signposts we follow accurate? Viktor Frankl believes all men search for meaning, Sigmund Freud says we seek pleasure and avoid pain, William Glasser posits our choices are driven by five genetically-driven needs: survival, love and belonging, freedom, fun, power. I think we navigate by birth luck, by trial and error, or by some great wind carrying us across the sky. It is the great wind I often pray for.
The depressed, anxious, maladjusted son sits among the rowdy, brave, school- uniformed youths. I tell them an Indonesian girl may be joining us soon. She speaks better Bahasa than English, so I appoint a Malay boy and a Malay girl to be her first friends. They are excited to have an overseas visitor. I too wonder if she will end up helping us more than we help her. Her father's watch tells me he could solve some of our centre's funding needs. My compassion for her becomes impure. I struggle to purify intentions, and then wonder what difference it would make to the quality of help I provide. A boy bursts out of the art therapy room, comes up to me and says, "Ey 'cher, can I use the treadmill?" He's on the edge. I say OK. Maybe I'll use it too when the workday is ended.
"She always comes back," my husband says of his mother, with a snigger. "But when she does, I will not let her stay. This was the last straw. I will remind her that it was her own choice to leave." His words are hard, but his eyes, just barely glazing over, and the tremor of his hands, tell me he wants her back. He wants his mother back.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020