It Changed My Life

Navigating life's highs and lows

Ms Yohanna, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than 15 years ago, says medication and the support of loved ones have helped her to manage the condition.
Ms Yohanna, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than 15 years ago, says medication and the support of loved ones have helped her to manage the condition.ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Ms Yohanna Abdullah, who works as a publications executive at Club Heal, a charity offering rehabilitation and counselling services to those suffering from mental illness.
Ms Yohanna Abdullah, who works as a publications executive at Club Heal, a charity offering rehabilitation and counselling services to those suffering from mental illness.ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
A sketch (above) by Ms Yohanna, who conducts art therapy sessions for patients at Club Heal.
A sketch (above) by Ms Yohanna, who conducts art therapy sessions for patients at Club Heal.ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Bipolar disorder made her life a roller-coaster ride but 47-year-old accepts her condition

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Feb 23, 2014.

Sanity and happiness, Mark Twain once wrote, is an impossible combination.

In Yohanna Abdullah's case, it is all too true. She cannot afford to get too happy because that would trigger something in her brain and make her do outrageous things.

Like sunbathing in her underwear in Kallang Park, singing, dancing and flirting with strangers in public, and even marrying a foreigner she met online but barely knew.

The 47-year-old publications executive has bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterised by severe mood swings, from depressed ("low") to manic ("high").

Ms Yohanna has been diagnosed as Bipolar Type 1, which means she is prone to mania.

"I am generally a modest person but when I am high, I'm uninhibited and say or do as if there is no wrong or right. Whatever is right is what feels right at the moment," she says.

She was diagnosed with the condition - which experts say is caused by many factors ranging from genetic to social - more than 15 years ago.

The divorcee and mother of two children, aged 17 and 19, believes it was triggered by a combination of factors: mother-in-law issues, the stress of juggling work and motherhood, financial problems and the discovery of her former husband's affair with a colleague.

Her meltdown shocked many who knew her to be Miss Congeniality, an intelligent woman with a bubbly disposition and a promising future.

Chatty and articulate, Ms Yohanna is still grappling with the condition which turned her life into a roller-coaster ride, but says medication and the support of loved ones have helped her to manage it a lot better.

She had only a brief attack last year. This was a far cry from two years ago, when she had to be hospitalised in the Institute of Mental Health on at least 10 occasions.

Now working part-time at Club Heal, a charity offering rehabilitation and counselling services to those suffering from mental illness, she talks openly and candidly about what she has gone through.

She says she has nothing to hide.

"I'm who I am. I like who I am even though I'm bipolar. The illness has given me so many insights about life and who I am," she says.

She is the second of three children of a Malay language teacher and a homemaker, and grew up in a big kampung house in Kampung Melayu near Kaki Bukit.

The former student of CHIJ Opera Estate and Tanjong Katong Girls' School had a fairly idyllic childhood, save for some tempestuous rows between her parents which rattled her.

She met her husband at the National University of Singapore and got married in 1990, not long after graduating with an honours degree in sociology.

"Our first few years were fairly blissful apart from issues with my mother-in-law who had 20 cats," says Ms Yohanna, who cut her professional teeth as a reporter with The Straits Times. "I tried very hard to earn her trust and blessings but she didn't make it easy."

After three years as a journalist, she struck out on her own and set up an outfit offering editorial and design services. Her husband, meanwhile, took a stab at various careers, from journalism to insurance, but had problems holding down a job, she says.

The couple found themselves financially stretched after committing to two properties: a four-room Housing Board flat in Yishun and a four-bedroom semi-detached house in Johor Baru.

Things came to a head after Ms Yohanna gave birth to her second child in 1997.

Servicing two mortgages, breastfeeding two babies and running a business took their toll. Then, she discovered her husband's affair.

She started unravelling.

"When I heard the sound of planes at my Yishun flat, I imagined Malaysia and Singapore were going to war. I'd pack my bags in the middle of the night and berate my husband for being a traitor to the nation and the family," she says.

One day, she shed her clothes, spun her children maniacally and tried to leave the flat. Her alarmed mother-in-law called in a bomoh, and the traditional Malay faith healer declared that Ms Yohanna was possessed. He tried to cure her by chanting, squeezing lime juice down her throat and getting her to take a flower bath.

Ms Yohanna's mother and elder sister were then living in Kuala Lumpur, and when they found out what was happening, they came to Singapore and took her to hospital. Deep in the throes of psychosis, she was convinced the world was coming to an end. She thought the ambulance taking her to hospital was a spaceship setting off for another planet.

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The years following her diagnosis were trying.

Her husband took the other woman as his second wife.

"I had to decide whether to leave him or to carry on, but I decided to try polygamy. I told myself if he could love me and that woman, I would not be jealous," she says.

After four years, she decided to go on an umrah, the minor pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims can undertake at any time of the year.

"I wanted to ask God if I should divorce him," she says.

Before she left, she asked her husband to write a letter, saying what he felt about her. "I showed it to my religious teacher who told me to divorce him. It was clear he wasn't in love with me. He didn't want to divorce me but if I wanted a divorce, he would give in to me," she says.

She went on pilgrimage, and started behaving strangely when she could not find her medication. When she arrived in Istanbul after Saudi Arabia, she took off her head scarf, sang and danced openly and started flirting with men in public.

Although she was supposed to visit Egypt too, a tour leader cut short her trip and escorted her back to Singapore.

Her manic behaviour whenever she has a relapse leaves her mortified afterwards, but she has learnt not to beat herself up over it.

"In Islam, there's a clear state of insanity where you are excused from all your misdeeds - you are not being judged. God knows you're not in your right mind," she says. "I'm siao lah, so I'm excused," she adds with a grin, using the Hokkien word for "mad".

After her divorce in 2002, she worked at several places including the Muslim Converts' Association of Singapore, an art gallery and a madrasah.

Laughing, she says most of her former colleagues liked her because she was jolly and would say the darndest things. But her condition made it difficult to hold down a job for long.

Ms Yohanna, who writes and blogs about her condition, describes the last 15 years as a journey of highs and lows.

In one essay, she wrote of her relapses: "The episodes have been so dramatic that I feel that my life history has been defined by them rather than the periods of wellness."

In one of her more bizarre episodes, she lived on the streets for three weeks with a less-than-stable man nearly 20 years her junior whom she met in a cafe.

They slept along the corridors of blocks of flats and public parks, and bathed in public toilets. At night, they would rummage through things people threw out to find items to sell at the Thieves' Market in Sungei Road.

Another time, a change of medication brought on particularly acute attacks. She married a Bangladeshi merchant she got to know on the Internet. He flew in the day before their marriage was solemnised here, and flew off the day after.

"We've been married two years but in that whole time, we just spent three days together. I went to hospital many times after we got married but he never once came to see me. Now, I don't trust myself with men," she says. She believes the man married her because he thought she could be his business partner.

She has since cut off all contact with him and has taken steps to get divorced.

Her mother, Madam Hasnah Hanipah, 73, says she and her husband were against the marriage. They gave in because their daughter was adamant that she wanted to marry.

"Because he took the trouble to fly all the way here, we thought maybe he was genuine. But the day after he got married, he just took off. Luckily, she did not go with him," says Madam Hasnah, adding that she has shed many tears over all that has happened to her once quiet and pleasant daughter.

"I don't know how many police reports we have filed because she would sometimes go missing. But I am not ashamed of her. I know she is sick, and she is not herself when she has an attack."

Quietly, Ms Yohanna says one of the regrets she has about her illness is the hurt she may have inflicted on her parents and children.

Her 19-year-old daughter who lives with her is studying at an arts college, and her 17-year-old son, who lives with his father and grandmother, will soon begin his polytechnic course.

"My children did not grow up with an ordinary mother. Thankfully, they are so supportive of me. My daughter will be the first to warn me to be careful if she feels I'm getting high," says Ms Yohanna who has her own happiness scale to rank her mood, ranging from 0 when she is depressed to 10 when is "ecstatically mad".

Now working on the script for a 10-part documentary series on rice in Asia, she takes stabilisers daily and has a monthly injection to manage her illness.

"The injection is slowly released into my body and lasts four weeks. It's additional back-up," she says.

Joining Club Heal - formed by general practitioner Radiah Salim two years ago - was the best thing she has done for herself.

She was one of the first to sign up for its day rehabilitation centre. Today, she works as the group's publications executive and runs workshops including art therapy for other patients. She is also a regular speaker at public talks on bipolar disorder.

Coming forward to be the face of the mental illness was not a decision she agonised over.

"I learn what I can from what has happened to me and live in it. I accept everyone as they are, and the public should understand and accept those who have mental health issues too," she says.

"They go through different trials and tribulations, and they should not be judged."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg