Month: May 2017

The IMPACT Project: Wendy Vaz

Wendy is a little ball of light. She spreads joy and happiness everywhere she goes, and I can’t think of a single time she didn’t put a smile on the face of the person she was interacting with. She is funny, she is sweet, she is strong, and she is thoughtful. I met her when we worked together on our undergraduate society’s marketing team – we bonded over our passion for blogging, and she supported all of my mental health initiatives, even showing up for a 5k run in the pouring rain.

Her story is heart breaking, honest, and vulnerable, but it also serves as a reminder that the human spirit is powerful, and can endure the toughest times. 

When Ameera first asked me to be a part of the Impact Project, I said yes without hesitating. I love the initiative. I love how her blog opens the eyes of many about mental illnesses, I want to inspire others with my story, of course I do. Little did I know that I was going to be sucked into the black hole again just a week after I said yes. This time, I drowned in depression for longer than a month. I couldn’t bring myself to function on a daily basis. I was surrounded by darkness. I couldn’t see the light. How was I going to share about my “survival story” and inspire others?

There’s a dent in my heart. It felt like someone pierced through my heart with a knife, except in this case, it was pierced by sheer nothingness. I didn’t understand why. I was surrounded by people, I was engaging in conversations, but the space around me still seem so bleak and empty. Dark water was gushing into my soul. I felt alone. Lonelier than ever. I knew that it’s coming again…

It has been 3 years since depression first hit me. It stemmed from a sexual assault on my 21st birthday. Throughout the following 2 years of university in Canada, counsellors, therapies, fitness lifestyle changes and my close friends helped me get by my self-hatred, self-pity, and self hurting actions.

Like Ameera, I was a good actress. Putting on a bright, teethy smile comes naturally to me especially when I’m in front of others. As my family was 8000 miles away in Malaysia, I avoided mentioning anything about the assault or mental illness on social media. I didn’t want them to worry, and I really wanted to graduate from university without having to spend time at home. As a result, not many know of my suffering, only the close or chosen ones know.

It wasn’t easy putting on a mask for the public while trying to be honest with myself about depression. I would drain up all my energy being around people and go home feeling like a spineless slug. There was a lot of confusion about my identity. I’d feel strong and fragile. I’d feel proud and meek. I’d feel as if I don’t know myself.

I lied on my bed, drowned in the vortex of pain and fear, wishing someone could pull me up.

I don’t see a difference in being dead or alive. Aren’t they just different stages of life? Like a party, it’s completely fine to leave early if you’re tired or sick of it. Why struggle so hard to stay when you don’t enjoy the party?

This was my first time having depression in Malaysia. I moved back from Canada to work in a city that I barely knew, my family was back in my hometown and I was living by myself. I understood the risk of relapse and got myself mentally prepared for what was coming – I signed up for a gym membership to keep myself physically fit, I learned meditation to keep myself mentally in tact, I asked friends out to keep myself socially active, I joined a new church to keep myself spiritually strong… Yet, I still felt that hollow, dark force flowing through my veins.

Then, I started experiencing physical symptoms. I started developing an allergy in which I still haven’t found the cause. I would joke to myself and say that perhaps I’m just allergic to living. I started having migraine every time I was facing multiple stressors or when I was angered. I felt sleepy and lethargic every day no matter how much I slept, which caused me to just work and go home doing nothing every day; and all I had in my mind was all the negative thoughts that can’t seem to go away.

You want to know what depression is like? It’s like dementors are under my bed, pulling me in and sucking my soul, my joy, my energy, my spirit to live on.

It took me a while to seek professional help because social stigma associated to mental illnesses is still huge in Malaysia. I was afraid of being misunderstood or a disgrace to my family. I didn’t know if I could afford treatment without healthcare, and if my employer is going to cut me out for it. Opening up to my sister pushed me to get help, and I definitely don’t regret doing so.

I chose to meet a psychiatrist instead of a counsellor or psychologist, and it felt weird when I was finally, officially diagnosed by a doctor and given medication. I knew that was what I needed despite knowing the potential side effects of antidepressants. I started off with mild dose of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) and increased the dosage eventually. The side effects hit me hard initially, I was constantly drowsy, nauseous, and I had this weird symptom that made me yawn excessively to the point my jaw hurts. It’s weird, I know. And because it usually takes about 1-2 months for the drug to be effective, I actually felt way worse when I started medication.

As the side effects subside and my brain got used to the chemicals, probably 3-4 weeks after, I started feeling better. I never knew a simple task like doing my laundry can give me such amount of satisfaction until the day I did my first load of laundry after having it piled up for a month. You can only imagine how messy and dirty my room was. I also finally opened up to my parents (about depression, not sexual assault, I’m not ready for that yet), who were really calm and understanding, and they supported my decision to quit my job and rest for a bit.

A lot had happened in the past few months – I started SSRIs, opened up about depression, quitted my job, moved back home, and now I’m sitting here reflecting about it. The first two weeks of joblessness had been good to me. I started doing things that I was passionate of but stopped doing – blogging, reading, and making YouTube videos. My 10-year-old niece told me she’s happy that I’m smiling more than 50 times a day now (she noticed I’ve been smiling too much lately, and started counting). Having a huge downfall allowed me to appreciate all the simple, little things and it inevitably made me appreciate life even more.

It may sound like good news that I’m recovering and feeling better, but it’s not really a happily ever after. Last week, I met up with a friend who does insurance for coffee, and was told that because of my record in the Psychiatry department, there is a high likelihood that my application to sign up for a medical card would be rejected. I was also warned by an ex-colleague to not let Human Resources know about my depression, because it’s worse than having “underperforming” on my employment file. There’s only so much money I have to support myself while being jobless. Soon I’ll have to stress about my career again, and I think it will be harder looking for my next job than before.

I actually had a choice to go back to Canada to work, but I chose to stay back and fight the social stigma instead. If I, a privileged girl who has a Bachelor with Honours degree from abroad can’t fight with the stigma, how are those who are not so lucky dealing with it? I want to start the conversation in Southeast Asia or even Asia, to let those who are inflicted with mental illnesses know that it is a disease that can be treated, that they have options and are not alone. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but I know this is the choice that will make my life fulfilled. Ameera has definitely played a huge role in inspiring me to do this, and I can’t thank her enough for being the strong and brave soul that she is.

So… To answer the question, how did depression really impact me… Well, when I was severely depressed, I couldn’t see the light in living. I felt powerless, helpless and hopeless. But after I opened up and accepted the fact that I am sick and not weak, I found myself on the journey to recovery. It made me realize that I’m never alone in this, that there is light at the end of the tunnel and it IS possible to get there. I can be fragile and strong at the same time. Yes, I may have a lower stress threshold now; yes, I may be socially disadvantaged because of the stigma; yes, I may be depending on pills every single day; but I fought the desire to end my life and I’m still standing tall – how can that not make me strong?

Thank you so much for reading till the end. I hope it helps you a little in understanding how depression is like for me. I’ll keep you updated about my journey in defeating mental illness stigma in Asia, and I’ll end this post with one more quote from my journal when I was severely depressed:

I used to think hell is filled with fires and flames and it’s in the hue of red; but now I know it’s not. All that I’m going through is living hell, and there’s no flame at all. Not even a tiny spark.

I’ve been to hell and back, in fact I have a living hell suppressed in me, surely there’s nothing I can’t do right? 🙂


The IMPACT Project: Brittany Danishevsky – aka Kim Possible

Brittany Danishevsky is an avid advocate for mental health; an active member of Guelph’s chapter, a Jack Talks speaker, a Jack Summit alum, and a two-time intern. Aside from speaking about her own mental health and how to take care of it openly in front of large audiences, she is also a master of starting conversations on a smaller scale, which often have a greater impact. Brittany and I met while interning at, and I always admired how she somehow managed everything- while she was carefully working on fundraising initiatives, I was playing with the office turtle. I’ve learned a ton from Britt, and am so glad we can always say we’re part of the #dreamteam.

“Show me your friends, and I will show you who you are”

Did your parent ever use this saying to stop you from playing with the troublesome kids on the playground? Mine did. It worked.

Though I did have a couple of troublesome moments. Like in first grade, I pantsed a guy on the playground, in second grade, I had friends in the eighth grade, and in third grade, my friends and I spent a recess in the middle-school area of the field because we were checking out a haunted house (read: broken wooden shed in an unkept backyard adjacent to the school). Pretty badass, I know.

Today, my badass creds include possibly saving your life.

Don’t believe me? Well…

I’m an airplane vigilante. I insist on sitting in the emergency row on a plane – not for the leg room – but because I am READY for the responsibility. I will gladly put my bags overhead, and resist any desire to bring them down, even for a minute, because those rows MUST be clear. I listen to every word that flight attendant tells me, and even take my earphones out for the video. I’ve also become quite skilled at reading the flight attendant’s eyes, so I’ll be the first to inform you if they are lying about the turbulence being “normal” and we are actually plummeting down into the ocean. I’ve even mentally rehearsed how I would put on my oxygen mask – first my own, and then yours, of course. Yep, you might as well call me Kim Possible; I’m your basic average girl, and I’m here to save the world (I have red hair, so this reference is particularly relevant).

Oops, I mean, I’m your basic anxious girl, and I’m here to save the world. Think Kim Possible actions, with Ron Stoppable thoughts and concerns.

In all seriousness, anxiety is helping me save the world… but not entirely due to my airplane safety skillz. My anxiety, well actually, being open about my anxiety, has helped me impact my friends, my family, and even strangers in the most meaningful ways.

Being open about mental illness is really hard, and awkward, and uncomfortable. Admitting that mental illness was a thing in my life was incredibly difficult because of the stigmatizing thoughts ingrained in my psyche. I believed mental illness replaced academic success, extroversion, dance trophies and party invites. It’s taken me many years to get to a point where I recognize that these things can co-exist. Though, I must admit, that my ability to whole-heartedly accept this truth cycles depending on how successful I feel, or how debilitating my anxiety is at that moment. Stigma sucks, and I imagine that just like my anxiety, it will be something I will struggle with for many years to come.

A couple of years ago I began to discover the antidote to stigma. Conversations. As a mental health advocate, I tell people to have conversations about mental health all the time. I ask people how they’re doing, what they’re feeling, I facilitate ‘aha’ moments when someone realizes the parallels between mental and physical health. The conversations I have as an activist don’t often get too personal; the students I stop while they run to the bus on my university campus, won’t often unload what struggles they’re currently pushing through. My hope is that they’ll feel comfortable talking about those battles with someone they trust, after they’ve heard my shpeil about normalizing mental health conversations. Though I’d like to think I’m pretty skilled at getting other people to have those conversations, I definitely forgot to have them myself.

That is until I interned at three summers ago.

I was surrounded by over-achievers like myself – who loved brainstorming, implementing great ideas, and ice-coffee. We called ourselves the #dreamteam.

Though I knew that we all had some connection to mental illness, it took a while before our stories came out. It took a while before we had those conversations.

And then, we got more comfortable, and the conversations began to happen. As a group, one on one. While getting ice coffee, while in the elevator, or at the bar after work. We talked about our struggles in high school, what it felt like to panic at work and try to hide it, how we balance our self stigma with our perceptions of our own success, how we aim for goals and deal with failures as a result of mental illness that we sometimes forget we have. We talked about our parents, and our friends, and the stigmatizing things they’ve said, and the stigmatizing things that we’ve said because we’re not perfect. We’ve even talked (and laughed) about the ridiculous things we do because of anxiety, like insisting on sitting in the emergency aisle of the airplane.

We talked about mental illness as if it was a normal thing in our daily lives; because frankly, that’s exactly what it is.

I will be forever thankful for these friends, because they made me feel normal sharing something that stigma made me feel so abnormal for. I am thankful that they allowed me to just chill out, even laugh at some of the thoughts that the lack of serotonin in my brain conjures up.

Because of the #dreamteam, it’s become easier to have these conversations with other people close to me. If I make this conversation normal with the people I love in my life, my loved ones will have no choice but to do the same; and they have. I am grateful that when I see a relatable meme about anxiety, I don’t just scroll past – I can send it to friends who will also relate to it, knowing that even though we are laughing together now, we will always be there for one another when things need to be more serious.

So today, when my mom tells me “Show me your friends, and I will show you who you are”

She will show me that I am not abnormal, that I am loved, and that my mental illness doesn’t change my over achieving nature. She will show me that perhaps I really can save the world, or at the very least, make the world of the people around me a little easier to be in.

Because I will show her, the #dreamteam.