Editor’s Note: I absolutely enjoyed meeting Xun An. He’s a good-natured guy that enjoys a lame joke or two, but at the same time has a deep philosophical side to him. Introspective, authentic and wise beyond his years. Featuring him in this interview is an absolute joy and privilege. I’m inspired by his story on how he chose to make the best of things in life with mental illness. Read on to understand the back-story of, “The Black Box“, and what he has to say about mental health in Singapore.
1. Could you share with us on your creative process and the inspiration behind this book?
‘The Black Box’, in its original form, was actually a series of sketches and scribbles which I did when I was first diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in late 2013, and was suffering from the initial onset of rapidly emerging symptoms– auditory and visual hallucinations.
It was deeply terrifying and confusing. I could not make sense of what was happening to me; why I was acting in a certain way, what I was seeing and hearing.
I was ‘seeing’ many black lines and scribbles. No words could express how I felt- so I took to drawing to express my fear and frustrations, and also as a desperate attempt as a coping mechanism.
I was drawing to save myself, and give myself hope.
The above picture is probably the first instance which Penn, the penguin character in the book, was born. Prior to that, I was just drawing many Black scribbles and lines.
I guess I wanted to move away from that as it was very negative, and into something positive.
Since I could not get rid of the lines, why not either contain, or mould them into something else, maybe even that of positivity?
That was my train of thought in creating the story. A penguin was black and white. I had many black, messy lines, which was “bad”. Use the “bad” things (lines, illness) to create “good” things (penguin, story)
So I started to move away from drawing out my symptoms in absolute terms to using those symptoms to create something positive, to keep me going.
The story in the book was essentially the hope I had for myself, for my illness.
2. What did you set out to achieve through it?
The story was initially for my own use. I had no plans to publish anything- I was more concerned about just stabilising myself.
Along the way, I decided to show my story to some of my close friends, who then encouraged me to publish the story.
As I worked on the book, I realised that through it, I was empowering myself and fighting my own inner demons.
It was a very powerful feeling- to use what was given to work against you, and moulding it not only to work for you, but potentially for others.
It was then that I realised that I had this piece of work had evolved as a means that could help others facing a similar situation, and that by keeping it all for myself it was ultimately very selfish.
From there, things quickly expanded, and I am where I am today.
3. What is the one thing you’ve learnt from publishing this book?
Well, the first thing I learnt is how to actually publish and print a book! I think that I did pretty okay for a first time. Hahaha (Okay, jokes aside – now on to the real thing)
I learnt was that despite what I had, or the circumstances I’d been through, having a mental disorder is not the end.
I used to think I would be chained or burdened by the very virtue of it–a large part of having this type of thoughts was due to the stigma pertaining to mental health issues. I actively tried to hide and suppress it. In a sense, I was ultimately rejecting myself.
It may sound extremely cliché- you may be a product of your environment and circumstances, and to a large degree, you cannot control the world around you, but you can choose and learn whether or not to let it affect you and your own world (self)
It’s about the choices we make regardless of what we have.
4. What is the message you’d like to tell the public with regards to mental health, and persons who struggle with it?
Mental health issues is something that is not openly spoken about.
Mostly because it is complex and evokes fear and discomfort. There is also a large degree of negative association with the illnesses itself, those afflicted by it, and those who associate with it.
Fear, suspicion, being seen as less than equal, that we are not as capable of proper cognition and therefore are unsuitable or incapable of being successful in life. Things like that.
People have asked me why, as a young man brimming with potential, I choose to disclose my illness, and put many elements of my life in jeopardy. The answer is simple.
Growing up, I experienced what it is to be discriminated and isolated by people. I had hoped for change- but the more I progressed along in life- the more I realised that it was more of the same; sometimes even worse. It seemed to have permeated through the fabric of society.
That being said, to those who struggle with mental health issues, we are human. People who are sick, are also human. We’re just a little different-not by choice, but we are ultimately human.
As ‘sick’ people, our attitude also results in our altitude.
Living with mental illness makes things harder- there is no disputing that. Silent discrimination and stigma will work against you.
But the times have changed- things are slowly getting better.
So do not lose hope, as the war would have already been lost once you adopt a defeatist attitude.
As a society, it is important to be more circumspect about our attitudes and behaviours in order to make progress.
The mental health community can do its part, but it is also up to the mainstream society to choose to listen.
No amount of formal education, economic status, or social standing could change a person’s perception, and subsequently behaviour, if they chose to stigmatise another, which ultimately stems from fear and apathy.
I believe in organic social change. I was taught to be the change that I want to see. So I choose to enact change with what I have, with my given circumstances.
Mental illness is just a part of a person. It is not the person.
My only wish is that the public will ultimately warm to this idea, and truly put it into practice.
But until then, my work continues on. I am still young. There are still many years ahead of me. My path is a little different. Maybe not very popular or cool. So be it.