Depression is real. And so is mental illness. (File pix)

DURING the winter break last year, I decided that I had to take some time off studying so I did what most girls my age do; watch K-dramas!

Truth be told, I am not an avid K-drama fan. I could recount only around 10 K-dramas that I’ve watched so far, which included My Love from the Star, City Hunter, Pinocchio among others.

So this time around, after being influenced by my friends and by the hype on Twitter, I decided to watch Weightlifting Fairy.

And it was superbly light-hearted, comedic and cute. This K-drama features Kim Bok Joo, a promising female weightlifter that had just enrolled in a sports university. The male lead is Jung Joon-Hyung, a handsome collegiate swimmer plagued with numerous false start disqualifications because he was traumatised by his mother abandoning him when he was small. Now this swimmer recently broke up with his girlfriend named Song Shi Ho, a rhythmic gymnast stressed out by the high expectations thrusted upon her.

Now at the female dormitory, there were rumours flying around about a ghost eating up all the food in the kitchen at night.

One night, Bok Joo could not sleep because she kept thinking about the fact that Joon Hyung had just kissed her, so she got up to refill her water bottle.

She heard a sound in the kitchen, and slowly walked over to see what was causing the noise. She saw a girl in a white nightgown sitting in front of the open refrigerator, methodically shoving food into her mouth. Bok Joo gasped at the sight, and asks: “Wh-who are you?”. The girl turned her head, looking pale and haggard with food smeared all over her face. It was Shi Ho.

Watching this scene, I was surprised that someone could develop an eating disorder because of stress. Not just any eating disorder, but sleep-eating! Imagine my reaction when I experienced the same thing with my flatmate at Cambridge. I just had my friends from London come over during the weekend, and I had bought some Magnum ice creams and stored them in the refrigerator. Alas, I forgot to bring the ice creams out and was shocked to find that they were gone when I opened the fridge. Then I opened my cupboard, and I saw that all my biscuits and chocolates were missing, too! Afterwards, I noticed a note scribbled by my roommate, saying that she ate all of them.

From early on, I noticed that she was easily stressed out by even the smallest things. Once, she woke up late and hence, was unable to attend her morning rowing practice. She nearly cried when she told me, and I was quite baffled as to how to console her. Not only that, she would weigh her calorie intake every time she eats, which was extremely alarming for a Malaysian to see (face it, we do like to eat!).

Every morning, she had a specific routine that she would adhere to, which was exercising for two hours in her room before going to classes. And if she did not wake up as she was supposed to, she would break down to pieces. For a person who seldom sees this type of behaviour, it was definitely hard to watch.

Once, we had tea in her room. I was talking about how hard it was to fit in in Cambridge because of the cultural differences and extremely high standards.

She suddenly brought out her ID card and showed me a picture from last year. She was almost unrecognisable! She was quite plump in the picture, with her cheeks filled out and a warm smile on her face.

Whereas the person sitting on the armchair across me and sipping on a cup of tea was extremely thin and fragile. It was no surprise when she confessed that she had anorexia and depression, and she had to take pills constantly because of her illness, which was not helped by the fact that Cambridge is one of the most stressful places to study in.

For those who are unaware, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and in many individuals, distorted body image. People with anorexia generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some people with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat.

On the day that she took almost all my food, she was dealing with one of her bouts of depression and grabbed any sort of sweets that she could see. Her mum came by soon after and I told her how I was worried about her daughter. In fact, her actions would sometimes get to me and I wondered if I would be heading for the same direction.

After the second term, she decided that she would pull out of Cambridge and start her first year again this September. Initially a medic student, she told me that she may opt for other courses such as natural sciences since medicine may be too much for her to bear. When she came back to collect her things, I could see that she looked quite relieved. I gave her a hug and asked her to take care of herself. She just gave me a wan smile and said: “I will.”

Depression is real. And so is mental illness. Imagine if I told you that I have cancer. You would almost certainly come to my home and comfort me in any way that you can. But if I tell you that I could hear voices in my head, or even feel suicidal,your first thought would be: “Stay away, you’re not right in the head.” And that is the kind of stigma that we need to break away from.

I thank Allah that I was born in a Muslim family and have lived in Malaysia for 21 years. A good religious background, a supportive family and a wonderful, sunny country definitely gave me strength that has enabled me to fight the inner demons that sometimes crop up in my head, giving rise to negative thoughts or crushing my soul.

So take some time and watch YouTube videos about mental health and eating/psychological disorders, read up on articles online on ways to help, and be sensitive to other people’s feelings. A good deed goes a long way, and it never hurts to be nice.

Looking back, I know that I should have educated myself more on anorexia and depression as there might have been a chance that I could’ve helped her. Wherever she is, I hope that she is well and healthy.

The writer is a first-year chemical engineering student at St John‘s College, University of Cambridge, UK. A Yayasan Khazanah scholar, she was a former student of Kolej Yayasan UEM and Sekolah Seri Puteri, Cyberjaya. Email her at education@nst.com.my

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