When your loved one has depression, you can expect caregiving to be a life-long commitment. For two decades, Karen Poh was the keeper of her son Ivan’s* anxious mind and heavy heart. She became the cheerleader, confidant and best friend he needed to take on the illness.
My son was not a typical child
From the time Ivan was eight, Karen, who moved to Australia in 1989 for her husband’s job, had already noticed that he wasn’t like other kids. She recalls coming home one day to find the door of her computer room knocked down.
“I locked the door because I didn’t want the children to go in and play on the computer,” she explains. Ivan had seen cartoon characters kick doors down on the television and decided to do the same. “I knew he wasn’t a bad boy, he just couldn’t separate fantasy from reality.”
Karen later discovered that Ivan had a condition called Asperger’s syndrome, which causes someone to have trouble understanding social situations. “There are certain social etiquette we all abide by that he doesn’t understand,” she explains. This created problems for him at school, because he had difficulty making friends.
Ivan was lonely. Luckily, he had his two brothers to play with at home. The boys were extremely close and did everything together. That is, until his older brother left for university when Ivan was 15 years old.
He couldn’t handle the many changes in his life
To be closer to her eldest son, Karen moved the family to Melbourne where he would be going to school. Ivan, separated from his brother for the first time, had to adjust not only to a new house but a new school too, and a very competitive one at that. The pressure from his peers and the school system was too much to bear for him.
“I noticed that Ivan became much quieter, “ Karen says. She initially thought he was sullen because he was going through a phase. But there was more to his withdrawal than just teenage angst.
The first time he refused to get out of bed and go to school, Karen obliged. “I thought maybe he wasn’t feeling well.” But the next day, the same thing happened. Karen hugged him hard, and carted him to school though he protested. This went on for several days. Ivan even cooked up a story about not being able to keep up with class because he’d lost his calculator.
Karen took him to the school counsellor as well as a general practitioner who specialised in youth. Ivan was diagnosed with depression.
This helped to explain the cloud of hopelessness that would hang over him for the next year or so. “He didn’t expect much in life. He would say to me, ‘Why do I live? Why should I study?’ And it was exasperating, but at the same time it would tear at my heart because I couldn’t help him,” says Karen. When he was in this state, he couldn’t do anything productive.
A regular dose of therapy and medication reigned in those negative emotions. But not without his mother’s close monitoring and tireless care through every breakdown and temper tantrum.
My friends just didn’t understand
There were many instances when Ivan would act up, sometimes in front of others. He couldn’t stand being in crowds, and would cry or make a scene under duress.
For example, when Karen threw a housewarming party at her new place in Melbourne. “Just one hour before my friends arrived, he had a meltdown,” she says. Ivan declared that nobody could come to the house, just as Karen was slaving over dinner in the kitchen.
Desperate for the company of her friends, she told him he could stay in his room. “You don’t have to see my friends," she told him. So he stayed locked inside for the entire duration of the party. “After that, I didn’t have people over because I didn’t want that situation where people asked questions.”
“A lot of my friends thought I must be a bad parent because my son was so weird. They tried to give me parenting advice, but they didn’t know what he was like,” says Karen. She spent less and less time with them because she felt they couldn’t give her the support she needed.
In adulthood, he still needs me
After a year or so of treatment, Ivan seemed to be getting better. He was still gloomy but at least he was functioning fine. Soon, it was his turn to go to university.
Karen thought that since her sons were all independent, she could finally return to Singapore to be with her husband who had long moved back. But it became apparent that Ivan was not self-driven enough to cope with his university workload.
The flood of projects and deadlines were too overwhelming for him, so Karen would have to fly back to Australia during assignment periods just to babysit him until he finished his work. “I would just sit next to him and watch!” she smirks, amused by the absurdity of the situation. A four-year degree programme took him seven years to complete.
Then, Ivan flew back to Singapore in the hopes of finding a job. This was one of his greatest challenges. Unlike school, he was not merely judged by his academic records but also his ability to conduct himself in an interview. As an adult with Aspergers, he struggled to impress his interviewers.
“I would drive him from place to place for interview after interview,” says Karen. The repeated rejection was extremely disheartening for Ivan. And he sank much deeper into depression. “That’s when it got harder to cope. There came a point where he gave up on everything. We would be talking in the car and he would just start crying.”
Ivan was already in his late 20s by then. Yet he still relied on Karen for a shoulder to cry on and a voice of reason. Exhausted and unsure of how to cope, she went to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) looking for solutions. The doctors referred her to Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), a social service organisation dedicated to supporting caregivers.
Karen attended a caregiver training course and made new friends who understood her situation. They had group chats and regular meet-ups where members could share about their lives candidly and without judgment. When she had bad days, she could turn to them for support.
“I could talk about things I didn’t have to be ashamed of,” she says. Fortunately, Ivan managed to get a job after months of searching and Karen could finally breathe a sigh of relief. He’s now in a stable job though he still requires counselling and medication. And in this time, Karen says she’s had the space to find herself again.
Be understanding, be supportive
The Agency for Integrated Care and more than 30 community partners are launching a Mental Health Awareness Learning Series 2018, as part of World Mental Health Day this year. The theme for this learning series is called “Be Understanding— Be Supportive”. It is happening from Oct 14-31.
For information on community mental health services and resources: visit www.dementiafriendly.sg, www.silverpages.sg, Dementia-Friendly Singapore Facebook page and Mental Health Awareness Singapore Facebook page. You can also call AIC’s Singapore Silver Line at 1800-650-6060 or email email@example.com.
*Names have been changed.