‘I was running on empty': Actor Adrian Pang on his battle with depression

Popular, successful and versatile, actor Adrian Pang looks like a man who is comfortable in his own skin. Unknown to many, he has gone through periods of depression so debilitating he almost could not function.

Just a few days ago, Adrian Pang came upon a Facebook post by an old friend who wrote that he contemplated suicide during a dark and despairing period.

"I was like: 'What?' You never know, you never know what somebody is going through," he says sombrely.

One could say the same of Pang, one of Singapore's best-known actors. Versatile, successful and respected, the 55-year-old comes across as a man comfortable in his skin. But he surprised many when he recently confessed on an online mental health programme that he has battled depression so debilitating that he almost could not function.

It is a balmy Monday afternoon and we're sitting on the patio of his home in the east. Staring at Tofu, his white Persian cat resting languorously on a table in front of him, Pang - who founded theatre company Pangdemonium with his theatre director wife Tracie, 53 - is talking about October 2018, when he played a rambunctious pirate in the play Peter And The Starcatcher.

The role required him to lustily belt out a number called Swim On.

"Swim on against the current, swim on against the sea,

Tho' the tide may turn against you, tho' too strong the tide may be,

Tho' each stroke, each stroke grows heavy, tho' each breath is agony,

We try, 'til we can breathe no more, to clamber up the nearest shore..."

Pang says: "It got to me every time I sang it."

The lyrics were resonant because he was then enveloped in a deep funk. He found it hard to get out of bed, cried for no reason and felt "crippled to the point of catatonia".

He was, he says, plagued by the need for validation and overwhelmed by existential issues and questions of "what if?", "if only" and more.

"Does what I do even matter? Is this all it is/I'm ever going to amount to? Was I fulfilling my fullest potential as an actor, was there somewhere I could be to pursue my career, had I 'missed the boat' which ironically goes back to the whole 'storm/swim' motif I was engulfed with in Peter And The Starcatcher."


While playing a rambunctious pirate in Peter And The Starcatcher in October 2018, Adrian Pang was, off-stage, in a deep rut. PHOTO: BERNIE NG

With the love and support of his wife and two sons, he managed to heave himself out of the deep rut by the end of 2018.

He focused on work and all was well for a year. But Covid-19 came along, pulled the rug out from under his feet and pushed him into a pit of such pain that even his family could not help him.

"Sometimes love is not enough," he says, tearing as he quotes a line from French playwright Florian Zeller's The Son, a play about mental health. "Love will not cure depression, or cancer or any other medical condition. It's a sickness and you need to seek proper help."

That was what he did.

"And not a day too soon because it was a daily battle just to get through the day."

More about that later.

In more ways than one, his choice of profession has been the proverbial double-edged sword. Acting has given him joy and fulfilment but also guilt and anxiety; it often fills him with a sense of purpose but also sometimes makes him feel like a fraud.

With a self-deprecating sigh, he says that only someone who is not right in the head would choose to prance around for public critique especially when he is already prone to insecurity, envy, anxiety and other negativities.

The black dog - a phrase popularised by Winston Churchill to describe depression - is not a new arrival in his life. Since his teens, Pang has experienced periods when he felt weighted down by distress and hopelessness.

The elder of two children of an architect and his wife, Pang was born in Melaka and moved to Singapore when he was five. He remembers being a hammy, sociable child who'd recite children's poetry, egged on by his mother, for adults. However, puberty caught hold of him in a big way.


ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

"I was terrible, awful, just the worst. I was horrible to my parents, rude and disrespectful to teachers, just a raging monster of a teenager wanting to have my own way. Thank goodness, my own two boys were not like that because it would have been karma," says Pang, who has two sons, aged 21 and 22.

At 15, he made his acting debut in the musical Oliver! when he was studying at Anglo-Chinese School. He has not looked back since.

"Prancing around on stage was a means of channelling whatever I was going through into some fictional character's life. I clung on to it as an escape from being my grouchy self," he says.

After his national service, he left for Britain to study law at the University of Keele. "It was to placate and appease my parents. After my turbulent teenage years, I was going to try and make good and pursue a respectable profession that would amount to something."

He studied hard but also went out on a limb to snag as many roles as possible in campus plays and community theatre in the nearby city of Stoke-on-Trent. When his final year of university rolled around in 1991, he found himself confronting decisions he could no longer put off.

To be called to the Bar and then to practise law was something he could not see himself doing.

"I'd convinced myself that I was not even adept at being responsible for myself so how dare I assume that I could take care of other people's problems, because that's what lawyers do, right?

"But I could see myself flouncing around on stage pretending to be someone else. It made me feel alive and had sustained me for the last 10 years of my sordid life. Surely, that's not such a bad thing?"

There were "tears, disbelief and remonstrations" when he broke the news to his parents. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he recalls: "I told them, 'I'm really grateful to you for allowing me to spend the last few years doing that but I can't see myself doing this... Please give me the chance to try this other thing."

It was, and still is, something that sits uncomfortably with him. It explains why he makes it a point to thank his parents profusely regularly over the years.

"It's not something I've ever forgotten."

After spending a year at the now-defunct Artts International, a television, radio and stage training centre in Yorkshire, he headed off to London to "seek his fortunes". Just three weeks after moving to London in 1992, he landed a role in a touring production of A Christmas Carol.

He got his Equity (a trade union for actors) card and an agent, and over the next nine years, regular work on stage and television as well as in films. Among other roles, he played a CIA agent in Spy Game (2001), headlined by Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, and a triad boss in Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999), which starred the late singer-songwriter David Bowie. Occasionally, he came back to Singapore to appear in plays and even a dance movie, Forever Fever (1998).

It was not all hunky-dory. Readily admitting that he is plagued by insecurities, he sometimes did not take rejections well, and would castigate himself for being "a short ugly actor with a useless law degree", uncastable and unlovable.


Adrian Pang had recently confessed on an online mental health programme that he has battled depression so debilitating that he almost could not function. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

There were also times when Pang - who worked as an usher and telemarketer when there was no acting work - fretted over money to pay the rent. But in saner moments, he would count his blessings.

"I'm one of the lucky ones; 96 per cent of actors are out of work at any one time," he says, adding that he did well enough in London to get married, buy a house and start a family.

One day while he was shooting Spy Game in Oxford, he received a call inviting him to join a new TV station, MediaWorks, in Singapore. Tracie - whom he calls his "boss" - thought it was not a bad proposition, especially since there would be a steady pay cheque and Singapore was a good place to raise their two boys.

And that was how he ended up on local television. When MediaWorks folded in 2004, he moved over to Mediacorp, where he stayed until 2010. Those nine years - "things seem to always happen in nine-year cycles for me" - were unusual. For one thing, he found himself working often in Mandarin, a language he was, and still is, not fluent in.

He did not just act, he also hosted and presented. Variety shows, game shows, soap operas, sitcoms - you name it, he did it. Professional fulfilment, however, proved elusive. Playing a "menagerie of caricatures" also zapped his soul and chipped away at his sense of self.

So in 2009, when the world was still reeling from the effects of the financial crisis, he and Tracie bit the bullet and started Pangdemonium to tell "stories that we want to tell".

Since then, Pangdemonium has established itself as one of Singapore's most versatile and edgiest theatre companies. Subjects it has tackled include dementia (The Father), mental health (The Son) and autism (Falling).

He says: "Pangdemonium strives to tell stories on stage that make us question all our assumptions of our shared human experience, and hopefully make us take action to live more meaningful lives.

"And if through the work we do, I can impact one person in the audience to make them understand their life a little bit better, that's me doing my job."

When the black dog threatens to bite, he would tell himself that life is good: he loves what he does, is reasonably good at it, makes a decent living from it and can use it to make a positive impact on those around him.

However, Covid-19 affected him in ways he didn't know how to shake. He worried about the survival of Pangdemonium, which now employs 14 staff.

"I'd also fallen into the trap of defining myself as an actor. When the pandemic hit and I couldn't do that any more, I quickly lost all sense of my own identity. Literally, it was 'Oh my god, if I cannot act any more, then what the hell am I?'"

It's a warped perspective, he concedes.

"I know I'm more than that, I have a family, I'm a husband, a father, a son and there are other things going for me."

Summoning the courage to acknowledge his demons was brutally difficult, an irony not lost on him as Pangdemonium has staged several plays dealing with mental health, including The Son (about a father trying to help his depressed son) and Next To Normal (about a woman battling bipolar disorder).

"At the end of these plays, I would go on stage and tell the audience: 'It's a real thing, don't be afraid, please seek help'. But I wasn't practising what I preached."

He finally saw a therapist, and describes these sessions as "huge cathartic experiences". Medication, which he is still faithfully taking, also helped him mend.

"It's still a struggle but I'm in a much better place," says Pang, who makes it a point to give himself a lot of self-care with pep talks at the start and end of each day.

He has reconciled himself to the fact that the black dog may hang around for a while, so he wants to put a muzzle on it and send it to obedience school rather than let it attack him.

His advice for people battling depression?

"Seek help. There's nothing to be ashamed of."

  • Helplines

    • National Care Hotline:
    1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

    Mental well-being

    • Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline:
    6389-2222 (24 hours)

    • Samaritans of Singapore:
    1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)

    • Singapore Association for Mental Health:
    1800-283-7019

    • Silver Ribbon Singapore:
    6386-1928

    • Tinkle Friend:
    1800-274-4788 and www.tinklefriend.sg

    • Community Health Assessment Team:
    6493-6500/1 and www.chat.mentalhealth.sg

    Counselling

    • TOUCHline (Counselling):
    1800-377-2252

    • TOUCH Care Line (for seniors, caregivers):
    6804-6555

    • Care Corner Counselling Centre:
    1800-353-5800

    Online resources

    mindline.sg

    My Mental Health

    Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service

    Tinkle Friend

    Community Health Assessment Team