It Changed My Life: No paint, no gain

Single mum sought solace in painting after epilepsy diagnosis, now holds art therapy classes

Ms Noor Naserimah with daughter Nina and sons Adam (in orange top) and Aiman. Life is too short for indulging in anything negative, says Ms Noor Naserimah, whose last epileptic seizure occurred a month ago.
Ms Noor Naserimah with daughter Nina and sons Adam (in orange top) and Aiman. Life is too short for indulging in anything negative, says Ms Noor Naserimah, whose last epileptic seizure occurred a month ago. PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

One afternoon last June, Ms Noor Naserimah Nasiman found out that her life would change forever.

A neurologist at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, where she had been warded for several days after collapsing at the foot of her HDB block, told her: "You cannot drive, you should not go out alone, you must not handle sharp objects, operate heavy machinery or anything that requires precision control."

The 36-year-old had been diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder which causes sudden electrical surges in the brain resulting in seizures.

The single mother of three children was told she would have to be on lifetime medication because there is no cure for the disorder.

"The doctor also said that if my seizures got serious, I might have to wear a helmet," recalls the former business development manager.

The condition - she can suffer as many as seven seizures a day - meant that she could not hold down a proper job.

"Suddenly, I lost my financial independence, my freedom, my confidence. I used to drive, make good money and close business deals. "

The news threw her into a funk but she found hope and restoration from an unexpected source: painting.

Today, she makes more than a decent living selling art pieces and conducting art therapy classes. In fact, it has given her such positivity that she has become an epilepsy advocate and started a support group for people with the condition.

Well-groomed and well-spoken, Ms Noor Naserimah has led a life as colourful as the acrylics on her palette.

She is the eldest of three children of a businessman and a former cleaner. A self-starter, she did well in Ru Lang Primary School, and was one of the country's top 15 Malay students in her PSLE cohort.

She went on to St Margaret's Secondary School but problems at home upended her life during her teen years.

Business took her father to Indonesia where he got himself a second wife. He also disappeared for a long period of time. "I remember going with my uncle to the Indonesian embassy to try and track him down," she recalls.

To get by, her mother returned to work as a cleaner while she gave tuition. "Mom locked herself in her room when she was at home. I had to look after my younger siblings, and meet my sister's teacher on behalf of my parents.

"It made me quite angry and depressed and I had to go to a family service centre for counselling," says Ms Noor Naserimah, whose father eventually resurfaced.

Her first job after graduating with a diploma in Information Technology from Nanyang Polytechnic was conducting IT programmes for schools.

At 21, she got married to a polytechnic coursemate; they set up home in a four-room flat in Bukit Panjang.

Life appeared good.

A keen actress from a young age, she auditioned for and got a regular supporting role in 2001 as a nurse in First Touch, a medical drama series which starred Edmund Chen, Nick Shen, Amy Cheng and Wee Soon Hui.

"My character was a flirtatious one. I flirted with everybody on the show, including Aaron Aziz when he was a guest star," she says, referring to the popular Malay actor.

When she got pregnant, the producers reworked the script and her character and turned Nurse Faridah into a single mother.

Ms Noor Naserimah stayed home for a while to look after her daughter when filming ended before getting licensed as a property agent.

She was blissfully unaware that her Malaysian husband - an IT trainer with a bank - was racking up debts with his gambling habit.

"I didn't even know he had pawned my wedding ring and the jewellery left to me by my grandmother. I was in a cocoon," she says.

Her rude awakening came when there was a writ of seizure on their matrimonial home. "He owed so much money to the banks and credit card companies. He ran away and disappeared for a while."

Her resolve to walk out of the marriage weakened when he returned and asked for forgiveness. "He said, 'Let's start a new life in Malaysia since I am Malaysian and have some privileges'," she says, referring to special job and business opportunities accorded to Malays - or bumiputera - in Malaysia.

So with daughter in tow, the couple packed their worldly belongings into seven bags and took a coach to Kuala Lumpur where they set up an IT consultancy firm.

Tasked with business development, she made many business pitches where her gift of the gab came in handy.

"Many Malaysian companies needed IT training and they had high respect for Singapore companies. We didn't know anybody but we closed many deals with government agencies," she says.

The business proved so profitable that the couple could soon afford a condominium, a helper and two cars. Her second child came along not long after, followed quickly by her third one.

Although she was running a successful business, she confessed that her days in the Malaysian capital were not very happy ones. She missed her family, and was still grappling with the shock of losing her Singapore home.

She piled on the kilos and let herself go. "I was struggling with a lot of self-doubt," she says candidly.

It did not help that her husband started fooling around during her frequent trips back to Singapore for her gynaecological check-ups.

Things came to a head when she discovered his infidelity. Then pregnant with her third child, she returned to Singapore in 2009 after three years in Kuala Lumpur.

Although she wanted a divorce, her mother told her to hang on. The couple officially broke up three years later in 2012.

For three years, she lived with her mother and lived off her savings. But when her divorce came through, Ms Noor Naserimah started rebuilding her life.

FarEastFlora hired her as a weddings and events consultant.

"I remember handling an Indonesian couple who spent $30,000 on flowers alone for their wedding reception at the Ritz Carlton," she says.

This was followed by a short stint helping her father with his furniture business before she went back to FarEastFlora, helping to set up sub-brands for the company.

For a while, things were good, at least on the professional front. She got herself a four-room flat in Yew Tee, and could even afford a car. Her mother moved in with her to help mind her children, now aged between six and 13.

Alas, there were storms ahead.

She had started experiencing occasional fainting spells. They first struck during her last two pregnancies. Medical tests - including a full body MRI scan in 2008 - did not throw up any serious problems.

The collapses occurred more frequently but she lived with the unexplained bruises and bumps on her head.

Last year, the full force of her health woes came down on her.

"I started getting lots of panic attacks. I would cry in front of my computer for no reason," she says.

Her erratic behaviour so alarmed Mr Ryan Chioh, managing director of FarEastFlora, that he told her to seek professional help.

In March last year, she drove herself to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

"But I couldn't bring myself to go in. I thought to myself, 'I'm a professional woman. I have a good job. I can't be crazy.'"

She managed to make it to the nursing station before she dramatically collapsed.

After undergoing tests and being warded for a day, she was told that she was suffering from depression.

She was prescribed anti-depressants but suffered an unfortunate side-effect: She started having suicidal thoughts.

To compound her misery, she was finally diagnosed with epilepsy in June.

After a particular severe collapse which left her unconscious for many hours, doctors at KTPH administered the pain threshold test, where they induced pain to see her nerve response.

"They did the most painful thing but apparently I did not respond. They thought I was brain-dead."

It took several days and multiple tests - from X-rays to CT as well as MRI scans - before they told her she had epilepsy.

The months that followed were debilitating. There were frequent attacks and she once woke up to find teary relatives surrounding her, reciting passages from the Quran.

"I lost my job, I couldn't function," says the single mother who sought support from Fei Yue Family Service Centre, which helped with her medical bills and her children's school fees.

Mr Chioh says: "Unfortunately, we could not continue our engagement with her due to her illness as her role was a very active front-line role. We did try out some work- from-home options, but that did not work out well too."

It is a pity, he adds.

"When she is fine, she is a very responsible worker. She has a pleasant personality and works very well with customers. In fact, she gets quite a lot of compliments from her customers for good service rendered."

For a few months, she was beset by frustration.

"The medication came with a lot of side-effects. One made me sleep for a very long time. Others made my hands tremble. I also have memory and hair loss," she says, grasping the ends of her long hair and grimacing at the paucity.

One day, waving aside her mother's protests, she took a bus and a train to City Square.

"I just wanted to prove that I could be independent and alone. I felt so free. Watching people doing ordinary things like walking to the market made me realise how much we take things and life for granted," she says.

An art supplies store in the mall caught her attention. She went in and emerged with bags of canvases and acrylics.

A couple of weeks later, she opened up her purchases.

"I have no background but I started paintng. I started writing motivational words on my paintings like 'I am beautiful' and 'I'm worthy'," she says.

She started posting her works on Facebook and, before she knew it, they were snapped up by friends.

Ms Yohanna Abdullah - who suffers from bipolar disorder and who works at Club Heal, a charity offering rehabilitation services to those suffering from mental illness - then contacted her to conduct art therapy classes for its clients.

The feedback was extremely positive.

"It calms them down and helps them to express their emotions and it also helps me because I feel useful contributing to society," says the artist, who now ties up with two restaurants, Fika and Fleur, to offer art therapy sessions.

These new developments made her snap out of the blues; she decided her illness was not going to get in the way of living life to the fullest.

She has set up a website ( not just to peddle her artworks and art therapy classes but also to blog about epilepsy.

With the encouragement of her neurologist, she set up a support group, Sg E-Brain Warriors, on Facebook. More than 50 people have come on board, and she hopes to start organising activities for it soon.

"I will continue to spread public awareness on epilepsy till I die. It's not weird. It's just a neurological disorder," says Ms Noor Naserimah, who even took on the lead role in a Malay telemovie called Terjalin Semula (Interwoven Again) last year.

Her entrepreneurial bent has resurfaced. She will be collaborating with a Malaysian company to bring into Singapore a range of beauty products.

Ms Noor Naserimah, whose last seizure took place a month ago, says: "I've had a few near-death experiences. We have no control over when we will die.

"I want to do whatever is possible and I don't want to indulge in anything negative. Life is too short."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'No paint, no gain'. Subscribe