My name is Callum Ang (not my real name), and I am a millennial Singaporean who is living with a disability. My mental health journey started in my adolescence when I was in Secondary One. Because of my disability, I was given extra time on a mock exam because I had weak writing muscles. My teachers sat me in the school hall with peers who are also disabled. After the rest had completed the test in standard time, I was still working on my paper. A few of them gathered around me, looking bemused and unhappy. One of them questioned me: “Why are you still writing? Time’s up.” I replied politely: “The teachers assigned me additional time because of my disability.” He then retorted: “But you can write quite fast, there’s nothing wrong with you!” Another student in the background shouted: “UNFAIR!” I felt devastated and started doubting if my disability was real. I told my parents about what happened, but all they could say was: “Boys will be boys.” That ableist (prejudice and discrimination against people who has disabilities) experience significantly damaged my self-esteem and made me hate myself for being different from everyone else. I felt ostracized by them just for having a disability. I still remember the trauma I experienced then like it was yesterday and will never forget it.
Growing up as a teenager who is disabled, I struggled to come to terms with my identity as someone who has disabilities. I frequently felt excluded in school and did not adjust socially as my debilitating condition greatly limited my mobility and voice projection and made it very difficult for me to interact with my peers. Although my family have supported me well throughout my life, I found it very hard to make friends as most people my age didn’t know to behave around a peer who has disabilities and mostly avoided me. My only friends were those whom my parents or school designated to assist me in class. Still, even then a couple of them made use of me to get ahead in their grades, and another teased: “I’m not paid to do this job.” I always felt guilty for imposing on them and burdening them with my physical needs, because the school didn’t allow my carer to be in the room to assist me. But I am still profoundly grateful for the unconditional kindness my buddies have showered me, especially since they were not rewarded for it. However, when I was hospitalized for various illnesses related to my disability between the ages of 15 and 17, none of my classmates came to visit me, and I felt very alone and was in distraught. Nevertheless, I took comfort and found strength in my Christian faith and my family’s love for me.
I went through one of my darkest times in my first year at poly. The veins in both my arms became inflamed due to intravenous antibiotics used to treat an infection in my body. This resulted in me completely losing the ability to write during a lecture, and I experienced a lot of grief as a result because I really enjoyed writing and used to love drawing and painting as a kid. I was also anxious about whether I could complete my studies as I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. As I told my mum about what happened in school, I started to cry uncontrollably as the emotional pain inside of me was overwhelming. I was in despair and depression during that period. I didn’t know how to continue living and felt like quitting school. But thankfully, with help from my course manager, teachers, and my parents, mostly, I was able to graduate with a diploma in merit.
Following that harrowing distressing experience, the worse happened in the years ahead. Two months after I could no longer write, my doctor prescribed me steroids to delay the progression of my physical disability. The drug seemed innocuous at first and didn’t give me many problems initially. Little did I know. My doctor didn’t warn me about the adverse effects the steroids would have on my long-term mental health. Steroids make individuals more sensitive and vulnerable to stress because it increases cortisol levels in one’s mind and body. People who take steroids regularly live with anxiety, depression, and mood swings. It also causes insomnia in some. Life became even more challenging for me after I started steroids as I not only have to contend with a pre-existing disability, I now had to deal with another disability in the form of mental health issues precipitated by medication. I couldn’t sleep because of the perpetual stress induced by steroids. I struggled to get along with my family at the time because of my heightened sensitivity and felt like I was going crazy. I was also going through an identity crisis in school when I became interested in a classmate but never dared to act on it as I hadn’t accepted myself for my disability and felt that I would never be good enough for them. My self-esteem was extremely low, and I desperately wanted to end my life but couldn’t carry it out given that I lack the physical strength to do so.
My mental health was further exacerbated by the practical concerns of life. When I was 19, the time came for me to decide on the next phase of my education, and I opted to pursue a social science degree. My dad felt that I should do something more practical like business or accountancy. Having studied business for three years, I grew tired of it as the emphasis was on how to generate profits and not on how to support individuals which is something I’ve always to do. I was attracted by the social justice aspect of the course which appealed to me because I wanted to learn how I can play a role in building a more equal and inclusive society for the disadvantaged and marginalized communities. I wanted to stay faithful to my convictions and be a self-actualized individual, doing what I am purposed to do. Being torn between my own dreams and that of being a child who always strive to honour my parents, I felt utterly worthless for failing to meet my father’s expectations of me and felt like killing myself. But once again, my faith pulled me through this difficult time....
(Stay tuned to Part 2 of Callum's story.)