Despite having schizophrenia, Charmaine hasn’t backed down. Instead, she’s used her diagnosis to create an impact in the community.
At first glance, Charmaine Wee is… well, pretty ordinary. The 39-year-old is your average marketing manager, living in Singapore with her husband. She had plenty of friends growing up, and even led a wild teenage life that tapered off as she matured. You wouldn’t guess she has schizophrenia – and has been battling the mental health condition for almost a decade.
To get insight into her recovery journey and debunk common misconceptions about the illness, we sit down with Charmaine for a chat.
But first, what is schizophrenia?
In case you’re not familiar with what schizophrenia entails, here’s the gist: it’s a mental disorder that affects the brain, causing a disconnection from reality. Dr Rajesh Jacob, senior consultant psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare, shares that common symptoms of schizophrenia include auditory hallucinations, delusional thinking, and irrelevant speech with thought disorder.
Singapore is well known for being ahead of its time, thriving as a first world country. But we’re still worlds behind in areas like mental health, which only received more awareness during Covid-19. A diagnosis like schizophrenia in Singapore is often met with discomfort and shame. And worse still, the media we consume perpetuates false information and exaggerations of the illness. Think along the lines of Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in Shutter Island, and M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 film The Visit.
“There’s a misconception that people with schizophrenia are prone to violence and are ‘dangerous’,” Dr Rajesh says. But this is untrue. In fact, individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol, or have an underlying antisocial personality disorder, are more inclined to violence.
The first episode of psychosis
In 2012, Charmaine left home to attend a three-day Christian conference with fellow church mates. It was here that she experienced her first episode of psychosis. “I dropped to the floor, and it was like an electric shock vibrated through me,” she says. “When I got up, I started to hallucinate. I heard whispers calling me a witch.”
Alarmed, she sent a text to her friend to inform him of the situation. They prayed over her but the voices remained, and Charmaine continued to hallucinate deeply. She became reclusive and fearful. After she returned home, she met up with a church youth leader. His girlfriend was a doctor. They knew upon conversing with her that something wasn’t right.
“According to them, I would start to speak but drop off mid-sentence. And when I picked up again, I would start a different conversation as though I was talking to someone else,” she says.
They visited a GP, who concluded that Charmaine needed to go to the hospital immediately. But she was reluctant. There were voices in her head that told her people wanted to kill her. To survive, she had to flee Singapore.
“The voices made me feel powerless, as though I had no authority over my own body,” she says. Thankfully, her friends were able to pick up on the storylines forming in her head. And they used it to their advantage. They told her they would drive her to the airport and help her escape, but instead, they brought her to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) emergency room.
Charmaine spent a month hospitalised at TTSH, and another month at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) before being discharged. But this was just the beginning of her journey with schizophrenia.
Running the race to recovery
Despite the diagnosis, Charmaine shares she wouldn’t believe she was sick for a long time. It was hard to accept that she had schizophrenia, especially in Singapore where the stigma against mental health illnesses is strong. Without consulting a doctor, she would taper off her medication. This caused several relapses over the years.
She remembers a particular incident in 2015 when the hallucinations came back. “I went to hide at The Star Vista and felt as though something had knocked me over and sat on me. I wasn’t able to get up,” she says. Eventually, someone called the police, and they sent her back to the hospital. She experienced two more relapses before a turning point came in 2018.
“I received a vision from God,” she shares. “He asked me, ‘What does a marathon runner with a broken leg need to do? Wear a cast so he can walk. The medicine is your cast. Take your medicine and finish the race’.”
Charmaine was put on new meds, and has been medication-compliant ever since. She also saw a therapist to help regulate her emotions and experiences with psychosis. When she told him she was ready to accept she was unwell, he said, “Good! Now we can work towards a proper recovery.”
Using her diagnosis to create impact
In the months after, Charmaine took up more responsibility in her journey to recovery. She attended psycho-education classes and mental health courses to understand schizophrenia better. She also joined peer support groups and volunteered in mental health organisations like Psalt Care and Hope Alliance, becoming the secretariat of Christian Mental Health Advocates.
Slowly, Charmaine began to reintegrate into society and started dating again. She met her now-husband as a volunteer in Hope Alliance. After learning about her diagnosis, he chose to see her for who she was in spite of it. He attended courses at Caregivers Alliance to support her in case of a relapse. And he’s gone on to work at Caring for Life, a suicide prevention charity that provides free training for detecting and supporting individuals with suicidal ideation.
“Some people think that once someone is diagnosed with schizophrenia, they’ll be unable to function, work and live a normal life. This is a misperception,” Dr Rajesh says. “Once the person receives and continues treatment, a large majority of them can work and function.”
In 2019, Charmaine and her husband co-founded a mental health platform called Mental Connect. Inspired by her experience with schizophrenia in Singapore, the portal helps individuals find mental health resources to support them in their recovery journey. This includes information on therapeutic activities, counsellors, psychological and psychiatric services, and crisis intervention.
Filling up on hope and community
Charmaine is presently in recovery for a subset of schizophrenia known as schizoaffective disorder. She still experiences setbacks from time to time but has learnt to manage her symptoms with the therapeutic methods she’s picked up. This has helped greatly in preventing a relapse.
Her biggest encouragement? The instances of non-judgment from those around her. Despite relapsing in front of her church mates in 2018, they didn’t push her away or shun her. “Instead, they embraced me and told me they would wait for me to get better. It helped me in my healing because they normalised it and didn’t make a big deal out of it,” she says.
Mental health conditions exist on a spectrum; every diagnosis and treatment is unique. To those who are struggling with schizophrenia in Singapore, Charmaine has this to share: “Whether you believe in God, science (or both) keep the faith that recovery can happen. There will always be people around you who are willing to walk this journey with you. Whether it be friends, family or community efforts. Having hope will help you move forward.”
As a society, we need to come together to raise awareness and normalise conversations surrounding mental health illnesses like schizophrenia in Singapore. This is the key to helping individuals like Charmaine, who need our support to get better.
If you’re struggling with your mental health and need support, please reach out to a counsellor or mental health organisation. For urgent help, call the National Care Hotline at 1800-202-6868.