This World Mental Health Day, John Lim of Live Young and Well wants you to love yourself and lean on the power of friendships. 

Content warning – this profile piece discusses the subject of suicide that may be sensitive and potentially triggering. Reader discretion is advised. Information about seeking help is available at the end of the post. Stay safe.

“Growing up, I was always known as the ‘sensitive guy’. My story starts off with me as an 18-year-old who took a fancy to a classmate in junior college, only to be rejected. That rejection was so painful that I lost my appetite and lost 5kg in a single week.

When I sat in front of my A-Level notes to do my revision, I couldn’t work through a single problem set. Sometimes, the grief felt so physical that it seemed like someone had stabbed me, and forgot to pull the knife out.

Being that ‘sensitive guy’, friends would tell me things like, ‘There are other trees in the forest. Why are you so hung up on her? Why don’t you stop thinking about her?’ I had no answers. Yes, I was 18, and it looked like puppy love. One-sided, puppy love.

But the sensitivity to the emotions within me just wouldn’t go away. Unbeknownst to me, the seeds of depression had started in my heart. It exacerbated, following the release of my A-Level results which were below expectation. I wanted to be a doctor, but I couldn’t. 

During my two years in the army, I thought about the Discretionary Admissions Scheme. By doing extraordinary community service, I thought the medical school would have no choice but to select me, despite my A-Level results.

So for the next two years, I volunteered to organise large-scale charity events. It started off with a camp, and I gradually moved on to organising Family Day for 320 people. Later in September 2015, I called the medical school to try my luck once again.

When I told them what I had done, they still said that the basic requirements to qualify were grades. Cold, hard grades. I was crushed, and I started actively thinking of ending my life. If I couldn’t become a doctor, there didn’t seem to be any real reason to continue living.

In the lead up to Christmas, I took a chair up to the highest floor of my apartment building, stepped on it, and wondered if I should flip myself over. Fortunately, I didn’t, or I would have been ketchup instead of sharing this with you today.

I ended up in the A&E at the Institute of Mental Health, after a GP referred me there. I thought this was the end of my career. Now that I have a mental health record, what would that mean for my future?

I fell deeper into depression. My coping mechanism quickly became food, and I stuffed myself with more and more food to fill the emptiness within me. In a month, I grew by 8kg.

Recovery came through tutoring. When the army ended, a friend told me that his mother was hiring tuition teachers. Having nothing to do, I accepted it. I taught 9-year-olds basic math. More than anything, it changed my life.

These kids actually took something away. It rebuilt my confidence and helped me see that I had something left to give to the world. If you’re struggling today, perhaps it would help to find someplace where you can contribute to the lives of others, however small. 

Someone also introduced me to a therapist. During our first session, he asked me to write a love letter to myself. I wanted to laugh. A love letter? Are you kidding? I’m not a kid! ‘Just write it,’ he said.

And when I wrote the letter to celebrate my qualities and how I had displayed them in the past, I teared up. I saw how I had been so strong to keep pushing, even when I could have given up. Try that. Handwrite a letter to yourself to celebrate yourself.

When I look back upon my mental health journey, the one incident that stands the most was the day I decided to end my life. I typed a WhatsApp message to my friend, and told him that it was nice knowing him. He told me to relax and talk to him.

I put my phone down, and brought the chair near the parapet of the HDB once again. I removed my shoes, felt the weight of the chair, and stepped on it. I felt the wind whipped across my face and wondered whether it would be any different at the bottom.

Strange, eh? The things you think about before you die. I stepped down. I didn’t know whether I had the guts to do it, and suddenly, my friend appeared at my door. ‘Hey John, let’s go for breakfast,’ he told me.

It was a beautiful, poignant moment. Because even when many had rejected me, and even when I had rejected myself, my friend didn’t. And many other friends didn’t. They still went all the way for me, and they were with me till the end of the line.

The biggest source of my recovery was relationships. We often treat friends as nice-to-haves, and we take them as low-maintenance cacti that we can return to when we have time. We don’t intentionally cultivate them. 

And perhaps this World Mental Health Day, it’s remembering that it’s not really just the experience of your painful emotions that matters. Yes, it’s painful, and yes, we would rather have it go away.

Trust the relationship with yourself, that you will one day make better friends with these painful emotions, and trust that you will have friends who will make the pain worth going through.” – John Lim

Story Submission by John Lim

Edited by Arman Shah

John is the author of Take Heart, a book he wrote for young adults to better care for their mental health, and runs content agency Live Young and Well.

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