“How are you, my good friend?” When the familiar voice of Dr W greeted me one night at my home, I knew that I was done for.
Then 18, I had just completed my ‘A’ level examinations. In the post-exam euphoria, about 20 of my junior college friends and I — idealistic young people on the cusp of adulthood - wanted to know more about the social conditions in our land. We were an altruistic bunch, combining our abilities to enter a Commonwealth essay competition. We managed to visit two social service agencies and held discussions on issues of the day. And of course, we talked about faith and religions, for among us were Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and free thinkers, of which I considered myself. Our efforts paid off. The $500 we won, back in 1974, was a handsome sum which we used to buy books to donate to our college library.
This heady atmosphere, combined with hormonal changes in a young woman-to-be, led me to think and talk non-stop with friends and family. Specifically, my erudite Papa, who tried to answer my bewilderment as to why the Bible said that only Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He wrote me a two-page note in Chinese, the crux of which was to advise me that it is more important to live out the tenets of one’s faith than follow the forms of a religion.
I badgered Papa, even when he came home after a long day at work and a longer night of business entertainment. Apparently, after three continuous sleepless nights, Papa realised that something was wrong with me and called in Dr W, who used to be Mama’s psychiatrist, and who now greeted me with those same six words. I had accompanied Mama for consultation before, and knew the familiar refrain from the grinning doctor, whom I never considered a good friend. That fateful night in early 1975, I was straightjacketed, knocked out with a huge syringe, and sent off by ambulance to Dr W’s nursing home. Subsequent accounts from my family said that I had served tea to Dr W with a cup on a saucer — an empty cup! That sealed my fate for life, with the label of being a bipolar patient.
For the next few months of my stay in the nursing home and subsequent follow-up at Dr W’s clinic, all thoughts of God, Jesus and questions of faith and belief fled my mind. It was, now that I think about it, a ploy by the forces of darkness, to deter me from pursuing the most important question of my life: to whom should I owe allegiance, who should be my guide, who should be my leader?
At the age of nine, I had read my uncle’s textbook on religious knowledge and come to know the person of Jesus Christ, His life, His death and His resurrection. Even at that young age, I knew in my little heart that I was a selfish creature. Every night I would go to the sock drawer shared with my siblings and pick out a pair that had the best elastic band, and stuff that into my school shoes. I felt that the good name of Jesus would be besmirched if I became His disciple, so I never claimed Him to be my saviour and my Lord. Of course, I had my theology wrong!
"I felt that the good name of Jesus would be besmirched if I became His disciple, so I never claimed Him to be my saviour and my Lord. Of course, I had my theology wrong!"
When I reached 18, I was again seriously questioning the purpose of life, the meaning of faith, AND having sleepless days and nights. That triggered the first episode of mental illness in my life.
After about six months of treatment that included ECT* and anti-psychotic medication, I recovered sufficiently to further my education at the University of Singapore. Before my illness, my aim was to study law and become a ‘swashbuckling lawyer’ to see justice done and bring evil to its knees. Somehow, this thought was thrown out of the window when, while flipping through the prospectus, I discovered that Social Work was also a course of academic pursuit, and not just an outworking of do-gooders. It was an eye-opening course into the underbelly of social issues in Singapore. I stopped visiting Dr W and all medication by October 1975, just about nine months after the first diagnosis of my illness.
Looking back, I can only thank God for leading me to pursue the major subjects in Social Work and Sociology. Many of my classmates in the small Social Work class of 30 were Christians. They did not influence me one way or another, but after my father’s sudden death in 1977 when I was in the midst of my third year, the Billy Graham crusade was held at the National Stadium and they brought me there. My tears flowed freely… I did not know why. Neither did I respond to the altar call. A few years earlier, my three sisters had all come to faith in Jesus in their teens. Subsequently, my youngest brother too. All of my siblings and friends never once forced Christianity down my throat.
The next six years went by in a happy blur — through the years of study, entry into the exciting work life in a newspaper group, and eventually finding my life partner in my Social Work classmate. But the birth of my first child, a boy — much treasured in my parents-in-law’s traditional thinking — triggered the second episode of my bipolar condition. I remember, strangely, singing “Amazing Grace” continually to my baby as I fed him.
Sleepless days and nights of trying to attend to every need of my new-born once again led to Dr W visiting me and I was whisked to his new nursing home. Thankfully my husband was alert enough to seek a second opinion and I was transferred to the care of Dr T at another hospital. Nine days away from baby-care, good rest and the constant support of my family saw me back to “normal” again.
Once more, I started on oral medication for a few months and discharged myself when I returned to work. All seemed well, and God was far away from my mind.
In May 1987, a major event at the national level saw some of my friends being arrested under the Internal Security Act which allowed for indefinite detention without trial. Two days after that, my daughter was born, two weeks early. It was probably the anguish of seeing my friends being maligned and losing trust in the system that I had believed in, that brought on the premature birth. I turned to God for succour, coming to believe in His perfection that I could not find in mankind. Subsequently I left the corporate world to find more time to read the Bible and be with my young children. But the rationale, I emphasised to people who lamented the ‘waste’ of my education and earning power, was always first to know God better, and next be a homemaker.
God heals, this I fully appreciate. Not necessarily physically or mentally. Over the next two decades, I had been on and off medication (and now on) to balance my moods and help me not get into too drastic episodes of highs and lows in my life. But I know that even with medication, if I had not claimed Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, the manifestation of my bipolar condition would not be controlled. And my family and friends, with whom the Lord God has surrounded me, are my constant barometers to keep me in check. For Him, for them, I thank Him.
*Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure, done under general anaesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses.
Chan Wai Han worships with the congregation at Living Sanctuary Brethren Church. She is a grandma of three little ones and enjoys singing Cantonese gospel opera, especially to the elderly.
This testimony 'How are you, my good friend?' was featured in Feb/Mar 2018 issue of IMPACT magazine. Subscribe today.
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