Saturday, September 15, 2007

'I was a spy in S'pore'

15 Sep 2007, ST

ON THE surface, John appears like a successful young man in his early 30s.

He runs an engineering business, is married, lives in an East Coast condominium and likes fast cars.

There is just one strange thing: He has been hearing voices in his head since he was 18, and living with them. The voices drove him to attempt suicide over 20 times.

After graduation, he began his own business. Then came a major disagreement with his partners and a traumatic parting of ways.

That was when a major depression hit. The voices grew more insistent, driving him to his first suicide attempt.

Once he had decided to kill himself, he planned to do it with style, with his favourite music playing.

He chose a Sunday morning to climb out onto the window ledge of his condominium, ready to fling himself off. He looked down, and saw hundreds of people running on the road below.

'There was a freaking marathon,' he said, recalling the incident. 'I couldn't jump with all those people looking up and pointing at me.'

He decided to try again the next morning but when he woke up and opened the windows, he saw thick ropes and cables - workers were painting the building.

He decided that wasn't the way for him to go.

Next, he tried to gas himself in his car. He put a tube from his exhaust into the car. With his favourite music playing again, he popped two sleeping pills and stretched out on the back seat.

The next thing he knew, there was a loud banging on the door. He found a security guard yelling at him: 'Abang (elder brother), you want to die, don't do it here lah. You die here, I die also!'

John tells the stories of his suicide attempts with a casual self-deprecating humour. Despite the mental anguish he lived through, he can find latent humour in those situations.

He made many other attempts, before finally giving up.

Not all were as comical, he said. The last attempt made him realise that if he didn't succeed in dying, he could end up with more problems than he already had.

He had taken 25 sleeping pills. 'I woke up two days later in hospital with my wife screaming at me. Then I had three days of diarrhoea,' he said, deciding then that enough was enough.

That was when he started treatment with Dr Brian Yeo, a psychiatrist in private practice. John doesn't think the medication is effective, but because 'Dr Yeo is a nice chap', he continued seeing him regularly.

He says the voices no longer plague him. Now, he only hears one voice, that of his guardian angel.

But he still recalls days as a secret agent reporting to several countries about what goes on in Singapore.

'We met at clubs. We'd pass on information with a flicker of our eyelids. I never gave information that is destructive, only good information about Singapore.

'What I did helped Singapore,' he declared.

He has been told that all that spying was a figment of his imagination.

These days, he is busy with his business and his life in the real world - but maintains that his days as a spy remain vivid to him.


When stress pushed Desiree over the edge

DESIREE, 16, is a pretty, effervescent teen with leadership qualities.

She was thrilled when she became president of the student leaders at her school and was tasked with organising the orientation programme for newbies.

But things did not follow the clockwork precision she expected and last-minute reshuffling of programmes took place.

She said: 'I'm a perfectionist. I felt very stressed. I thought the whole thing was a flop, although the teachers praised the effort.'

Despondent, she felt unable to face her classmates or teachers and started to skip school.

As she isolated herself, her mind and emotions became more disturbed. She started hearing a voice which told her to jump off a building. 'It was a man's voice, and he talked all the time. I suspect it was Satan,' she said.

She attempted suicide by taking an overdose of gastric pills - because that was all she could find at home. Then she panicked and told her mother, who took her to hospital.

Doctors there suggested treatment at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), but the thought scared her. So she simply went home.

A few days later, she made a second suicide attempt - this time drinking insecticide. Again, she told her mother.

She said she didn't really want to die, but was driven to it by 'the voice'.

This time her elder sister, a biochemist, persuaded her to go to the IMH. She did not admit to her sister that she was hearing voices, for fear of being labelled 'crazy'.

Desiree was admitted to the subsidised ward because it cost less.

'The experience was scary. I didn't feel safe. The people there, they talked to me, but there was no link. I say something and they say something totally different. Or they would hit me.

'It was very scary and I cried and cried. I couldn't stand it.'

Her parents moved her to a private ward. Desiree found this better and quieter. 'Nurses there pay more attention to you. It had facilities like a hotel and I could rest,' she said.

After a month, she was discharged, no longer plagued by 'the voice'.

But recovery was not immediate or smooth sailing. 'I was temperamental and would scold and scream at my family. They didn't know what to do and were fed-up with me. Someone had to be with me 24/7 in case I tried to commit suicide again.'

Her pastor at church and form teacher were also towers of strength. She now appreciates their love and care.

Desiree is slowly putting back together the pieces of her life. Medication keeps her symptoms under control. She's back at school and hopes to graduate this year with enough A grades to qualify for polytechnic.

'I'm happy because nobody's controlling my mind anymore. Before, I would cry every day. Now I feel happier. I play badminton. I'm training to play for the school.

'I want to take up more activities, and I want to lose weight,' said the slightly chubby teenager.


Learning to live within his limits

WILLIAM has a master's degree in engineering.

He now works as a draftsman, earning about $2,000 a month. He is content with what he's doing and earning.

But it took him many years to accept that he has a serious mental illness and to learn to live with his current level of abilities.

He does not dwell on how he might have turned out, if he had continued with his treatment that started in his second year of university. He doesn't think of how he might be better off today.

'I've learnt to look to the future. Not look back at the past,' he said.

William had all the typical symptoms of schizophrenia 10 years ago during his second year at varsity: he suspected people were talking about him behind his back, so he could not make friends.

He was suspicious of his own family, and would shut himself away from them.

He was irritable and quarrelled incessantly with his father. When his father watched television, he would turn it off because he was sure the people on TV were spying on him and that his father was helping them.

He wouldn't allow his younger sister to turn on the radio, no matter how softly, because it disturbed him.

His schoolwork suffered. From straight As in his first year, he got Bs and Cs.

He started seeing a doctor and taking medication, which controlled his symptoms. His grades improved, allowing him to graduate with a second upper honours degree.

William thought he was well, and stopped seeing the doctor and taking the medicine.

Things remained fine for a while, but he had to struggle to get his master's degree - when study used to be a breeze for him.

Soon, his paranoia returned and he had difficulty sleeping.

Armed with a master's degree, but hampered with his schizophrenia, he took on lowly jobs, as a cook, a cleaner and assistant librarian. He didn't last long in any.

He went back to the doctor and resumed medication. As he got better, and at the urging of his doctor, he took on a job as a draftsman.

He is a trained structural engineer, but has no plans to find a job that matches his qualifications.

He said: 'I'm afraid I can't take the responsibility. An error can lead to very serious consequences.'

He tells himself that he chooses to be a draftsman because it is an easy job he can deal with. 'If I want to, I can do more. It's just that I don't want to,' he said.


Mum spotted the warning signs in time

KUM Loong had just started his second year at polytechnic.

His grades were good and he looked set to becoming the first graduate in the family. His mother, Madam Tan, was justifiably proud.

But two weeks into the term, her nightmare started. Her son told her he could read people's minds and communicate with some of them through telepathy.

The next day, he warned her that people were observing him. He would laugh uproariously whenever watching television - when there was nothing funny at all. Then he began to see flashing red lights.

Fear gripped her. He wasn't the sort to play practical jokes or fool around, so she knew there was something seriously wrong.

She asked Kum Loong's close friends if they had noticed anything different about him. They had. Instead of being attentive in class, his mind would wander. And once, he stood up in the middle of a lecture and just walked out.

Then, one night, he disappeared.

Hours later, she found him wandering around near their block of flats. When he saw her, he told her that he had called a locksmith to open the door to a flat (that belonged to someone else) because he wanted to live there with his girlfriend (he didn't have one at that time).

The next day, Madam Tan took her son to the Institute of Mental Health. 'He had a mental problem, this is the place that specialises in such illness,' she said in Mandarin of her decision.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His doctor wrote to his polytechnic to let him defer his studies for one semester so he could have time to recover in an unstressed environment.

His medication cost $9 a pill, twice a day. 'It was too expensive, I could not afford it,' recalled Madam Tan, a housewife. She applied for financial help and received it.

Medifund, the Government's health safety net for the poor, pays out more than $10 million a year to needy patients at the Institute of Mental Health.

Said Kum Loong: 'I still don't know what the illness is about. I don't know why it happened.'

But he is one of the lucky ones. Because of his mother's quick action, he received treatment early. Doctors think this makes a huge difference in a person's ability to reintegrate into society.

Madam Tan has a friend whose daughter had similar symptoms. Instead of seeking medical aid, the mother brought in mediums to exorcise the 'evil spirit' that had taken over her child.

It's been a couple of years now, and the girl has stopped schooling. She stays home, helping with housework and talking to herself, says Madam Tan.

Kum Loong, on the other hand, is back to his normal self. But the risk of a relapse stalks him. He is on 'maintenance' medicine, and needs to take it for at least two years before his specialist will consider taking him off.

At that point, he and his family will be counselled to watch out for recurring symptoms. If they occur, he has a hotline to his case manager.

Some patients continue to do well after they have been taken off the medicine. Others relapse, either immediately, or over time.

After a semester off, Kum Loong returned to the course and did well and is now waiting to go to university.

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