Photo: Femke Tewari
When ex-national athlete Eileen Chai left her sports career, she thought she would never ﬁnd her footing again.
She was a sports prodigy: At seven, she became the youngest artistic gymnast who qualiﬁed for the 1985 SEA Games, and went on to compete in another four SEA Games in gymnastics, track-and-ﬁeld and springboard diving, for a decade.
But the multiple emotional and physical setbacks made her put an end to competitive sports in 1995. She was 17 then. What she didn’t know was that she was suffering from social performance anxiety, a mental disorder.
Of her early life, Eileen, now a musician and music teacher, recalls: “My anxiety probably began when I was training gymnastics in China. The training was tough and I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
That anxiety followed her into adulthood. When she entered the National University of Singapore (NUS) and started playing the violin with the NUS Symphonic Orchestra, she was often on edge, worrying and overthinking.
Her bouts of anxiety became so overwhelming that she found it hard to leave home without bursting into tears, for no reason. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with social performance anxiety. “My husband saw my actions as a cry for help and convinced me to meet with Dr Ken Ung, a psychiatrist whom he knows. This was after I stormed off from the band (we had formed) when someone said something that triggered me,” says Eileen, 41.
Her treatment included cognitive behavioural therapy. She was given a diary to pen her thoughts, and was assessed according to what she has written. Eileen was able to let go of her past after attending a spiritual talk. “It was about throwing away the self-doubt and my sports past,” she says. “It was a smoother climb to recovery. I’m no longer angry all the time and I’m able to articulate my feelings.”
Eileen wants to help others like her. Last year, she and her hubby founded 3am Music Collective.
She adds: “We want to collaborate with medical associations to promote support for victims of mental illness. We want people to realise that getting help isn’t embarrassing. It can happen to anyone.”