I first met Sufyan during this year’s Singapore Mental Health Conference. As we briefly traded war stories in our battle for sanity, I could fully relate to how it was like being homebound and unemployed due to severe anxiety and panic attacks.
Despite his diagnosis, he found strength in pursing his dreams and will be launching his debut album this Saturday, 15 Nov.
Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Suf. Keep up the good fight!
1. Congrats on producing your very first music album, Solitude! I imagine it must have taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice. What were the main challenges you faced, especially with a mental health diagnosis?
The main challenge I faced in producing Solitude was getting funding and sponsorships. It’s expensive producing a full album because of the entourage of various professionals with individual professional fees.
When I embarked on this, I knew that it would not be an easy journey for me, given my mental health condition.
However, due to my strong desire to break mental health stigma, I did things independently and at my own pace, from research, self-learning, to organizing pre-production plans and execution.
In conceptualizing this album, I overcame many draining panic attacks.
Sometimes, I find it surreal how I had managed to deal with the whole idea and process of completing the album. Deep inside, I would always remind myself to focus on the goal and not get lost in process.
It was emotionally trying towards the final stages of this album because my mind was drained from doing things by myself. I was afraid of failing my mission to break mental health stigma.
However, having a persistent belief for positivity was crucial for me to rise again.
Fortunately, I also received help from various organizations when it came to launch and post-production logistics. Thus, I am indeed very grateful to all who had helped me in so many ways.
The challenge in producing an album is great in itself. With a mental health diagnosis, my challenges were beyond madness, as every small step took immense effort.
But I learnt that everything comes together and heals with time. There are no shortcuts to any success.
2. Some of your songs are quite personal, and relate to your journey of recovery. Would you mind sharing a bit more about that?
The 12 songs in Solitude were written when I was homebound and unemployed for three and half years. I had social anxiety and was afraid to step out of my home then.
Personally, this album is a gift to myself. It fulfils the dream I once lost to major depression. I was on a quest of rediscovering myself.
The album is also a gift to the world and represents that journey of self-awareness, acknowledging one’s condition, seeking treatment, taking one small step ahead.
It proves that dreams can come true. I hope to encourage those suffering to believe that they are not alone, and they can achieve any goodness they wish to achieve in life.
No one can take our dreams away because that dream is within us and only for us to believe it can happen.
My very first song started as a kind of explosion in my brain one day. I composed the melody and lyrics of Do It. This song was actually composed in five minutes during a panic attack!
Panic is also one of my favorite songs. This was written to overcome the dark shadows of an ex-colleague who once had the power to demoralize me, such that I felt worthless and resulted in major depression.
It is an upbeat song of release – the letting go of the past. Its message, in short – overworking in a toxic environment can endanger our mental and physical health. Once crippled, we are on our own to manage life.
For anyone out there in similar situations, it is time to go home. Spend quality time with family and just rest. Break that vicious cycle. Our body needs rest in order to connect well with the mind for a new day.
However, my emotions continued to dive deeper into that dark tunnel as I fretted over finances upon quitting work. I had to sell the first home I ever owned, where I invested time and effort on interior design, which is also one of my hobbies.
In the midst of this darkness, a voice in me suggested that I could overcome this by buying a Clavinova piano.
I’ve always played what I felt in my head and heart, and often deviated from music scores during music lessons. I failed technically as a musician but discovered my forte for translating ideas to melodies.
I admit that my lyrics and style of music are non-traditional, as I have no formal training. It may not be perfect, and could well be my first and last album, but I can at least say I tried.
3. People with mental health issues are often misunderstood, and there’s a pervasive sense of shame attached to our diagnosis. How do you feel about this?
Mental health stigma is not only a local issue, but global one.
Many doors were shut on me when it came to the funding of this album. But there had always been a part of me that did not allow anyone to take my dreams away through their hurtful words.
With these triggers, I had to gather my courage to face obstacles, including stigma. It got on my nerves when friends and relatives gradually went silent on me, even when my condition improved.
This silence became more apparent when I became more active with mental health advocacy work. But I refuse to let other people’s insecurities and opinions about mental illness feed me or weaken my goals.
Prior to being open about my journey and having my story translated into music, I was actually very skeptical and in denial of needing treatment. I was afraid of the word “mental illness”. I could not accept that fact.
With time, I realized it is only through acceptance that my condition could be improved with my willingness to seek treatment.
My horrendous past work experience during my 13-year career had led to my anxiety disorder. It had crippled me in finding employment, whether it’s in a similar job scope or otherwise.
Today, I have no regrets leaving that job because should I have chosen to slave for the wrong people, I would not have lived my dream, nor understood what it means to have quality of life.
Life is not about eat, sleep, work. Repeat.
Life is about experiencing and exploring beyond our comfort zone. That is where life begins.
4. Most of us fear facing a relapse. How do you care for yourself in the midst of your busy schedule?
I rescue animals and care for them until they are strong enough for adoption. That is where I find my comfort and helps me in managing relapses.
Uniquely, accompanying my anxiety triggers is the premonition of sensing animals in distress. Yet with animals, I do not panic. I find peace in animals. They do not hurt with words nor have conditions for love.
These premonitions usually accompany a panic attack and occur as suddenly.
I could be reading a book, enjoying a movie or playing the piano. Out of the blue, there’ll be a surge of energy that rapidly raises my heart rate and I end up hyperventilating. Oddly, these premonitions guide me to information that leads me to the animals in need of my help, and also connects me to other sources of help such as people who are able to adopt, sponsor or foster these animals.
I could choose to regard this premonition or panic attack as a rare gift, or I could choose to be depressed about this and just sit on it. It is about acceptance.
I was always afraid that my gift would end up with me having a zoo!
5. What advice would you give to some of us who might be going through a mental health challenge today?
It is okay not to be okay.
After all, there are no solid definitions of “normal” these days. For so called “normal” people, they too have their highs and lows as humans.
But for us who fight mental health challenges, our highs can sometimes be felt more acutely. In the extremes of highs, when we accept who we are, the joy belongs entirely to us. In difficult lows, when we accept the lows, we learn to overcome many different levels of lows and we can only grow stronger with time.
At the end of the day, we are fighters and we are blessed with answers to managing our obstacles.
There is no need to be ashamed of our diagnoses. There are blessings in disguise in every predicament. There is always something new to learn about life by accepting our diagnosis, whatever it may be.
Remember – what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.