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Blog | 7 Oct 2021

Vivian Cheng: My Storytelling Experience in Mental Health Recovery

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Vivian Cheng: My Storytelling Experience in Mental Health Recovery

When I was clinically diagnosed with severe Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), it was so debilitating that I was bed-ridden and unable to lead a normal life. I was told by my psychiatrist that there was a chance I could never return to work. It was devastating because I was young with a whole life ahead of me. 

MDD is a recurrent long-term form of depression which means I would suffer from episode after episode for the rest of my life. I felt very lonely and scared because people around me, including myself, did not understand what was happening and the scariest part was I struggled with the vocabulary to describe the agony I was in. There were times when the pain became so unbearable it was tough not to think about giving up. However, I refused to quit until I had tried every intervention that I could find in my research. After years of unrelenting hard work, patience, support from friends and family, and lots and lots of tears later, I picked myself up, went back to work and fully-functioning. I also learned that in addition to professional medical help, self-care was crucial. Since MDD would be a lifelong condition for me, I figured it would be wise to pick up a variety of survival mechanisms and learn to live with it. I have been successfully living with this chronic illness for over 20 years now. Unlike physical injuries like a broken arm which we can clearly see and relate to, it is not the same with mental illness. Not only is the excruciating pain invisible, it is also a challenge to explain and understand, further exacerbating the stigma. Like many who have suffered with mental illness, I grappled with the difficult condition in silence. 

Since it has been such a challenging journey, I wanted to turn it into something positive and help people. What is the best way to raise awareness and education with my experience? How about if I open up to try and normalise the conversation? Last year in June, I came across a LinkedIn post on This is Me put out by Community Business. I started my personal storytelling campaign by resharing the post with my “coming out” story. Was I nervous? Oh yes! My career and reputation could be at stake, but it felt like the right thing to do. As soon as the story was posted, my phone rang, Direct Messages filled my inbox, comments and “likes” were left. People were reaching out to me for support, sharing their stories, telling me they felt understood and less alone, I was overwhelmed by pleasant surprises. Some mustered up the courage to seek professional medical help. Appreciation for speaking up, encouragement for spreading awareness, praises for being brave and more poured in. It was fulfilling to know that this initiative was making a positive impact.I realised my stories were not only healing for others, but at the same time healing for me. I have regained my confidence, once robbed away by depression, and being able to fully express my authentic self brings me meaning and joy in life. 

I am sharing three stories from my library with you which people have found most insightful.  

Story 1: Coming Out 

I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in 2011. My first symptom wasn't emotional, I wasn't sad. I was in pain, first physical, then emotional. My stomach hurt for 5 months and no doctors were able to find out why. Finally I visited a psychiatrist. He gave me tranquillisers and my stomach pain was gone instantaneously. But my emotional pain didn't go away. Tranquillisers were then replaced by a cocktail of anti-depressants.  When I was not disoriented by the illness or side effects of anti-depressants, I would be conducting research on what was happening to me. I was sick. Depression is a medical condition, both biological and psychological. I finally accepted that I may have to be on medication for a long time, perhaps forever.   
 
I also learned that I needed to work hard to recover, so I tried every possible self-help intervention: 

  • psychotherapy  
  • get out and see friends  
  • practice yoga  
  • exercise  
  • play the piano  
  • journaling  
  • practice gratitude  
  • nature and sunlight  
  • eat a healthy diet  
     

the list goes on... 
 
Painstakingly and slowly I recovered.  #thisisme I am Vivian Cheng and I'm proud of myself.  

Story 2: Support From Colleagues 

“Hi Gorgeous and Talented!”  

I picked up my office phone to a cheery voice. It was Peter from another branch checking in on me. Every. Single. Week. Respecting my privacy, he never pried. He was always able to find work achievements to commend me on, making me feel valued and capable. Then there was Portia whose office was mobile. She visited my workplace and lunched with me religiously every week. Fogged with depression at that time, I was not a fun person to hang around with. I was not speaking much and most often I would be staring at my food with tears streaming down my face. Portia kept me company without questions, judgement nor advice. She accepted me the way I was, the state I was in, making me feel worthy and lovable. Both Peter and Portia have long retired but I could still hear “Hi Gorgeous and Talented!” ringing in my ears. I could still see Portia and I sitting at a Japanese restaurant with our udon, her eyes welled up with tears, heartbroken to see how much pain I was in. 
 
We may feel compelled to say something to someone suffering from depression but often times simple actions are much more impactful. 
 
#thisisme I am Vivian Cheng. I am forever grateful for how Peter and Portia supported me at work with consistency, love and action. They have given me so much with so few words. 

 

Story 3: Struggles of Having Depression and Being “High-Functioning” 

What does it mean to suffer from depression but “high-functioning”? 
 
During the first episode of my depression, I was a Relationship Manager in a bank. Meeting aggressive sales targets was the major part of my job responsibilities. We were “supervised” daily and if you were not at 40% of your weekly target by Wednesday morning, you would be getting a call from your boss. Stressful was an understatement. Somehow not only was I meeting targets every week, in most weeks I was exceeding my target. I was a top performer. 
 
During the second episode of my depression, I was a Learning Consultant of another bank in the regional office overseeing the learning needs of 10 markets. As a representative of the Asia Pacific region, I was leading a global project consolidating learning programmes from 80 markets into one world-class curriculum with a tight time-line. Somehow I was able to work with different levels of stakeholders in different parts of the world to have the curriculum successfully deployed in the markets I was responsible for. I was in excruciating pain but somehow I was able to function almost normally, going to work and performing well.  Between client meetings, I would be weeping in my office behind closed doors. After late night global conference calls, I would be exhausted but wide awake with intrusive thoughts. 
 
#thisisme I am Vivian Cheng. Yes I was "high-functioning", but internally I was dying fighting depression. It was real. 

The credibility and trust, cultivated as a result of storytelling, amplify my efforts in spreading awareness on mental illness and supporting people on different platforms. Knowing I am making a difference in someone’s life with my stories has been the most rewarding feeling. I am very intentional and deliberate with how I compose my stories. It is important that these stories are meaningful, purposeful, and applicable both in the workplace and personal life. Each story would serve one or more of a strategic goal to: 

  1. Raise awareness and education to reduce stigma  

  1. Create thought-provoking content that leads to positive changes  

  1. Inspire hope for people living with depression so they feel supported 

Having my stories viewed 70,000 times over the last 15 months makes me feel hopeful that many people may have been encouraged to open up about their struggles. You could find more of my stories under #thisisme on LinkedIn. 

This year, Community Business is leading the This is Me Asia storytelling campaign in collaboration with Bloomberg as its Strategic Partner. For more details, please visit this link to learn how you could get involved and make a difference. 

#thisisme I am Vivian Cheng. Last year, I was inspired by This is Me in India to tell my story. 

I hope This is Me Asia will inspire many others to do the same. 

 

About the author

Written and read by Vivian Cheng, Consultant, C&T, Community Business