Being able to travel for work and enjoy Michelin-starred meals may sound like the experience of a lifetime, but for Nadia Daeng, all she could feel was guilt.
"My older sister would say things like why does Nadia get to have a normal life? Why does she have friends? Why does she have a job? Why does she get to travel the world?" the 38-year-old tells AsiaOne, explaining that caregiver guilt was a constant battle for her.
From growing up enduring abuse from her older sister, who has intellectual disabilities and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), to dealing with survivor's guilt that became the "driving force" of her depression, Nadia opens up about her road to recovery.
Growing up with a sister with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
The former public relations professional is now the primary caregiver to her 44-year-old sister and her 75-year-old mum, who suffered a stroke in 2019. She's been dutifully keeping up with both of their treatments. Nadia is also a major part of their support system along with her two older brothers. But it's apparent that some scars from the past remain.
For as long as she can remember, she's dealt with beatings from her sister, who has trouble regulating her emotions, and was even threatened with a knife on one occasion. But Nadia is careful to emphasise that much of the abuse was because her sister did not receive proper treatment for her BPD in her youth.
Back then, there simply wasn't any awareness on mental health conditions, says Nadia.
She recalls being brought to her mother's workplace as a child, and having to show her bruises to the manager, just so her mother could request time off to look after her and her sister. And even when faced with Nadia's wounds, her mother's manager disallowed her to take leave to look after Nadia and her sister.
"What did the manager say?" Nadia recounts, still disgruntled. "No, no, I don't think your daughter [did it]. I think your husband is hitting your daughter."
Ironically, her father was actually her biggest rock and she was very much a daddy's girl, she shares. Unfortunately, he passed away suddenly in 2004, leaving her without her main support system.
Pressure to be one in the family who 'had it together'
Despite her difficulties and trauma as a child, Nadia eventually found success, securing a job at a multi-national public relations firm some eleven years ago.
At that time, she was her sister's secondary caregiver, and was helping to support the family, along with her brothers.
But beyond the facade of a career woman who had her life together, Nadia was struggling mentally.
"I remember I was at work, and I was typing out a document. I was staring at the same tiny paragraph for about three hours," she says. "And I kept blinking my eyes because I was fighting back tears. And then I was like, yeah, this is not okay."
Nadia didn't know it then, but she was experiencing depression.
In hindsight, she cites her survivor's guilt at having a "normal life" compared to her sister as one of the biggest factors, adding that she put immense pressure on herself to make up for it by working hard so she could bring the family on overseas trips.
With that also came the expectation to be the one who always "had it together", says Nadia, which is why she resisted seeking professional help for years.
Things eventually came to a head in January 2016, when she developed suicidal thoughts, but stopped herself from going through with it when she remembered it was a family member's birthday.
When she confided in her best friend, the latter immediately went into "alpha mode", researching treatment options, from counselling to yoga, and pushing her to seek professional help.
In May that year, she finally began treatment for depression at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), but the feelings of shame and guilt were hard to shake.
She remembers sitting at IMH — a place she considered her sister's realm — staring at the appointment card in her hand, and breaking down.
"My brothers and I were the ones who had to keep the machine going, making sure that the bills were paid, making sure that our mum and sister had everything they needed.
"I felt like I had let everyone down and I let myself down by holding that card in my hand."
Fortunately, she stumbled upon Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), a non-profit organisation offering resources and support to people caring for those with mental health conditions.
Its flagship programmes are its eight to twelve-week Caregivers-to-Caregivers (C2C) courses, uniquely structured in an educational support group format, allowing caregivers to learn and journey together.
These programmes are supported by National Council of Social Service (NCSS), and free for all caregivers who would like to learn more about caring for persons with mental health conditions.
With the pandemic, CAL has also launched online classes.
When Nadia signed up for CAL's C2C programme, it was like suddenly being "pulled out of the water", she says.
"You know, I'm not the only one going through this. There are people going through this and we do need this."
'If I wasn't receiving help, I wouldn't be here'
Nadia was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) after her mum's stroke in 2019, and she tells us that she's definitely still in the process of her recovery journey.
But attending therapy, getting on medication and finding CAL has made all the difference.
"The stuff that I've gone through in the last three years alone, if I wasn't receiving help, I can pretty confidently say that I wouldn't be here talking to you," she tells us candidly.
She's also in a good place with her sister right now. In fact, her sister was one of the first to support her when she first told the family of her intentions to speak up about her story and advocate for mental health awareness, she says.
"She not only gave me permission, she encouraged me. Because she endured it for so long. She was not understood. She felt like she was being crucified for having this illness that she herself didn't understand," adds Nadia, who's also an active volunteer with CAL.
Of course, there are naysayers who have accused her of seeking fame, but she scoffs at that and tells us that she's doing this because she's "sick and tired" of the stigma attached to mental health conditions.
She also cites Beyond the Label, a movement by the NCSS to address mental health stigma, as one of her biggest inspirations for her advocacy work.
"I remember the first time I saw a Beyond the Label campaign, I thought I was seeing a unicorn," she enthuses, palm on her chest.
There is still a ton of work to be done when it comes to raising awareness — she's come across some who don't think depression is a real thing, for one — but Nadia says things have come such a long way from her sister's time.
"I'm really glad that we finally have avenues now, where people are actually having conversations and understanding that it is not a flaw. It is not something that you trigger.
"I feel sad when I see the number of people who don't seek professional help because there is help available!"
If you or anyone you know is overwhelmed with stress or anxiety, find the help you need here via Belle, Beyond the Label helpbot.
This article is brought to you in partnership with Beyond the Label by National Council of Social Service with AsiaOne