IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Schizophrenia: A gradual ascent from madness

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 24, 2013

One night in late 2008, a young woman got into a taxi, hoping to locate a convent in Thomson Road where she could become a nun.

Miss Chan Lishan, then 24, ended up at the Orange Valley Nursing Home in Thomson. She was sure she had gone to the right place because the postal code - 298142 - tallied with a secret code, involving letters and numbers, which she believed was key to her survival.

Among other things, she made bird noises and climbed over a gate at the home - also the site of the Good Shepherd Convent Chapel - before the police arrived and arrested her for trespassing.

She was clutching a thick manuscript - containing her wildly rambling thoughts on the nature of scepticism and negation - which helped to throw light on her background.

The trespasser, it turned out, was a former Raffles Girls' Secondary School (RGS) student with a master's degree in philosophy from the London School of Economics. At the time of her arrest, she was a philosophy research scholar at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The day after her arrest, she was admitted to the Institute of Mental Health where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

That was five years ago.

"I have recovered to a great extent and got a lot of my mind back. It's such a wonderful thing to have, just marvellous and amazing," says Miss Chan, who has just turned 30.

But mental illness has changed her life forever. "I have fallen behind my peers when it comes to career, material well-being and life in general," she says candidly.

Miss Chan - who has written a book, A Philosopher's Madness, chronicling her experience of schizophrenia - hopes to rebuild her life.

She also wants to help raise awareness and get rid of the stigma attached to mental illness by being open about her experience.

"If I can do it, why shouldn't I? Since I have this experience, and it can help people, then I should," says Miss Chan, who was the keynote speaker at a regional mental health meeting organised by IMH.

With her hair cut short, and neatly turned out in a blouse-and- pants ensemble, Miss Chan has a gentle, modulating voice and gives thoughtful responses to questions.

"I've always been a deep thinker," she says with a laugh. "My friends in school used to say I think a lot, too much in fact." By her early teens, she was already chronicling her thoughts on freedom, religion and reality in notebooks.

The irony that a student of philosophy - the study of reason - should lose the faculty to reason is not lost on her. But perhaps it should not surprise, she says.

"In philosophy, philosophical problems are often taken to their logical extremes. In madness, real-life issues are taken to their logical consequences and acted upon. So is madness simply an extension of philosophical reasoning? And if so, could it be that philosophy and madness are somehow inextricably linked?" she writes in her book.

The second of three children, she spent her early years in a terraced house in the East Coast area before her family moved to a condominium in Bukit Timah when she was eight.

"As a child, I was fairly quiet. I still am," says Ms Chan, whose father is a retired engineer and whose mother runs a small printing shop.

She went from Nanyang Primary to RGS, and spent a lot of her time after school reading in libraries. One of her favourite books was The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley. It is about a chimney sweep who drowns and is turned into a "water baby" who embarks on a journey of moral redemption.

Strong in her studies and active in the National Cadet Corps, she also developed a liking for grunge and heavy metal music by bands like Nirvana and Iron Maiden, and became a tad tortured. She often dressed in black and would sketch morbid drawings and pen angsty thoughts in notebooks.

An entry in a notebook: "Socially savvy. Is this the only path we can follow? Are there no alternatives? Life is unfair, gotta accept the fact or do I? Is that self-righteousness or defiance?"

It did not help that she felt out of place at Anglo-Chinese Junior College where she went after her O levels. "I became very rebellious. I didn't like studying at all and barely made it past the first year. In fact, it looked as though I was going to drop out," she recalls.

She spent time volunteering with theatre group The Necessary Stage, and attending concerts by alternative musicians, meeting new friends at these gigs.

"Many lived in one- or two-bedroom rental flats with their family. They gave me an insight into people from different backgrounds, which was very interesting for me," she says. She adds with a laugh: "My elder sister told me I was very friendly and sociable in my rebellious phase and had a lot of friends."

But her father was worried enough to pen her a three-page letter telling her her parents were there for her if she had problems.

She bucked up, and did well enough to enter the University of York in England where she studied philosophy and politics.

"I just wanted to study something which would allow me to know more about the world when I graduated," says Miss Chan, who earned her master's degree when she was just 23.

She returned to Singapore in 2007, and became a research scholar in philosophy at NUS.

Her "descent into madness", as she puts it, began about six months later. She believes it might have had something to do with difficulties adjusting to life back here. By then, her parents had moved to Dubai, where her father had a job.

Trying to find a place to live was hard; she had to move several times because of problems with fellow tenants or landlords. At one stage, she stayed in cheap hostels - favoured by prostitutes plying their trade - along Middle Road.

Then she started getting paranoid. She would cover the windows of her room with thick sheets, wear ear plugs and a hoodie and drape a cloth over her computer while she was working.

She imagined there was a special form of communication - which she called The Code - which she needed to master to survive.

Her condition affected her studies; she failed a module, something which had never happened in her university career.

Until her arrest, her family and friends did not know what was happening to her. "I hadn't been in touch with my siblings," says Miss Chan. Her elder sister is an art teacher and her younger brother hopes to start a business dealing in bicycles. "And I had quarrelled with some of my friends over ideology."

She stayed six weeks at IMH.

Ms Ang Su Ying, senior case manager at IMH, recalls that when Miss Chan was admitted, she avoided eye contact and talked irrelevantly.

Once, she tried to climb a wall after being fascinated by a picture she saw. Gradually, with medication, she got to a stage where she could discuss with doctors the side effects of her medicines.

"She even debated the concept of mental illness and whether she had the illness," recalls Ms Ang.

After her discharge, she went to live with her parents in Dubai. She was refusing to take her medication because it made her tired and drowsy, but her mother would slip it into her food without her knowledge. Her behaviour was still erratic.

"On one occasion, I somehow persuaded my parents to send me to a mosque. I stayed (there) nearly the whole night praying. I felt that I had done wrong and my parents had done wrong and I felt very repentant," she says.

It took many pleas from her family and friends before she finally agreed to see a psychiatrist in Dubai who convinced her she had a problem and needed to take medication. She began mending and returned to Singapore in early 2010.

Her mother encouraged her to live on her own so she could be independent. But trying to live a normal life proved difficult.

Her studies at NUS had been terminated, and her request for a meeting with the department head to discuss resuming her studies was turned down.

She tried applying for a job in the public sector but got nowhere.

She tried the private sector - where many companies do not require applicants to declare if they had suffered from mental illnesses - and was a lot more successful.

Leading consulting firm Accenture offered her contract work as a technical writer. A stint as a waitress followed before she found full time work as a communications officer with Swiss think-tank Future Cities Lab. Although the firm did not ask, she decided to tell her boss her medical history a few months into the job because her book was being released. "It was not an issue," she says.

Although happy, she quit after a year because the job was not what she wanted. She has just finished a six-month contract teaching communication skills at Singapore Polytechnic, and is looking for a new job.

Miss Chan, who recently ended - amicably - a one-year relationship with a teacher, admits candidly that her illness brought many changes and losses.

"Because of anti-depressants, I was unable to shed a tear for two whole years. For a while, I lost my ability to read and to write. Because of the seriousness of my condition, I was unable to process text, which previously constituted my world."

Stigma, she says, robbed her of the opportunity to further her studies in philosophy, a subject which absorbed her. "But my identity has strengthened rather than weakened after schizophrenia," adds Miss Chan, who now takes half an anti-depressant a day and sees a psychiatrist every six months.

Ms Ang is happy that a recovered Miss Chan has stepped forward to become a public face for schizophrenia. "She has been active in our department's public awareness work and is also involved in group work with the Early Psychosis Intervention programme," she says.

Miss Chan says her condition has made her less self-centred. "Slowly but surely, I have been able to use my experience for the benefit of others, as I regain confidence and trust in myself, in others, and in the world. In hindsight, psychosis is an experience that I wouldn't trade for the world."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 24, 2013

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