I remember the first time speaking to my mother since I enlisted with the Commandos, the Special Forces branch of the Singapore Army.
It was over the phone.
You’d expect an anxious flurry of questions, a thunderstorm of “how’s-training-going” raining down on me, and the familial, heartwarming bridge of boisterous well-wishes connecting both sides.
But in reality, only muffled breathing transpired across the line. The line was silent. I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t.
You see, I was crying. I was, in fact, crying so hard that not a sound could come out of my mouth. You know when you’re so overwhelmed with emotions that you’re struggling to speak so you twist and contort your mouth like a dying fish out of water? I was exactly like that.
‘Special Forces Soldier’ and ‘Crying’ are words that you don’t expect to see side by side. They’re almost oxymoronic, much like ‘peacekeeper missile’ or ‘military intelligence’. You get me?
Yet, these oxymoronic terms exist in reality. Neither do you often see the words ‘Soldier’ and ‘Mental Health’ together, but this issue is real, and it’s plaguing more soldiers – and young people – than you think.
You see, I was crying so hard that day because I had just been diagnosed with a mental health disorder I never knew I had.
And I was out of the Commando formation.
Mental health is an issue that is strangely never brought up in the military, despite the many times the terms ‘resilience’, ‘fortitude’ and ‘mind’ are being thrown about like grenades at a range.
At the beginning of my journey with the Commandos, the trainers would take the opportunity during every little activity to engrave this mantra at the heart of the pulpy pink flesh in your head:
‘It’s all in the mind’
At 5am in the morning, when the whole world was asleep, we’d be squeezing the corners of our bedsheets into the bedframe and tucking the hems of our uniform trousers into our boots. “HURRY UP! HURRY UP!” became our daily wake-up call, and we answered this call in the form of three neat rows aligned along the gravel road, field pack on our left and waterbottle in our right hand, a symbol that a new day was about to begin.
In the middle of the day, during one of our many TABATA physical training sessions, we’d feel the oh-too-familiar ache of a quadricep too overworked the day before and wrestle against the weakened muscles crying out in agony from our hundredth push-up.
“One more! Just one more! Come on, you can do it!” The roars of encouragement from our trainers thundered at us, like the rousing cry from spectators in the grandstand witnessing a tug-of-war battle before them. It was a boisterous spectacle, and more often than not, we felt as though our bodies and minds were often vying against each other, brawling for the honour of tearing my being down.
In the cadence run that followed, the rays of the sun would beat down on our bare, shirtless backs like a master whipping at his slaves.
At night, everything came to an end. Our trainers would dismiss us to our bunks where we would journal our experiences and emotions felt during training that day. Sitting sprawled on the scratchy thin fabric lining our mattresses, we’d scrape our pens against the grainy paper of our exercise books with an intense vigour, as if it was an outlet for us to vent our angst at the day’s stressful training. It was a compulsory ritual which ended the next morning when the journal was submitted to our trainers to read.
You could imagine what our days were like while training, because as my trainers said, it’s all in the mind.
When you imagine what our training was like, it’s a no-brainer that a strong mind and resilient mentality is vital to pull through the gruelling hell we wade in daily.
Yet, we often overlook one small fact: Our brain is an organ.
Much like our skin or our stomach, our brain is merely an organ the length of a pencil with a weight of fewer than five pounds.
Like our skin or our lungs, it’s not difficult for our brains to “fall sick” or “overwork” itself.
This is when mental illness sets in.
And everyone – I mean everyone – is at risk of contracting the illness.
In January this year, the illness came to me in the form of adjustment disorder.
Adjustment disorder arrived as an unexpected visitor during sleepless nights, nights when my entire body felt cold and tingly and clammy, despite it being hot and humid outside. The symptoms presented themselves in declining of extra servings of food because I “wasn’t that hungry” when the rest of my buddies were devouring away at roasted chicken at the end of a long day of training.
At that time, I had no idea what was happening to me.
I thought I was scared. After all, being thrown into the depths of special forces training in the military right after graduating from high school sounded more like the plot of a trashy American movie rather than an actual path which I walked with my own two feet.
I thought it was normal. In Singapore, all male citizens had to serve with the military, and newly-conscripted recruits are bound to feel some sort of apprehension, right? Perhaps these fears would be reduced to a gradual hum as the beat of the training intensifies over the next few months.
I thought my world was about to end. Am I really going to feel this way for the next two years?
In actuality, my world had just sneezed, and my mind contracted the symptoms.
I had fallen sick.
Thankfully, treatment came in the form of a consultation with a qualified military psychiatrist, who properly diagnosed me and provided me with adequate techniques that would allow me to cope better while in service.
In less than six months, I had been liberated from the invisible shackles of my illness. I can say with proud relief that I’m cured.
While the sensitive nature of the military bars me from revealing in exact detail the treatment which I undergone and subsequent measures undertaken, I have full faith in the methods that the military adopt in managing this issue of mental health among its soldiers.
Yet, I’m only one active serviceman in an entire battalion of troops with a history of mental health disorder. From the dense jungles of Brunei and Thailand to the cookhouses within our own army camps scattered around the corners of Singapore, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other active servicemen who are battling the same demons within.
And so the question remains:
So, what can we do?
While we can rest on our laurels on management of mental health issues, what about mitigation?
How can we take a proactive approach in mitigating rising mental health issues in young people?
I cannot answer for the Army. But I can share with you my own coping techniques which has been shaped by my time in the Commandos as a soldier.
Whether you’re an active soldier out in the field or a civillian in the corporate battleground, this is for you.
In a hyperfast technological world where information is transmitted and analysed faster than the speed of bullets whizzing through the air, we tend to run faster than we can manage along the race. Soon, we feel our lungs collapsing in on themselves. We feel our breath shrink from a confident inhaling in the beginning to short, bursting gasps at the end. We feel like it’s enough, we can’t make it till the end. Before you know it, anxiety sets in. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues among young people. Heck, even you might have experienced a degree of anxiety before. You see, life is a marathon. Along the journey, we need to slow down. We need to enjoy the sights along the way – both the good and bad ones. We need to breathe. And trust that in the end, the road will straighten out, there will be fewer bumps, and things will fall into place.
Remember what I said about journaling every night after training while I was in the Commandos? I wasn’t making that up. Every night, whether our training ended at dusk or an hour before midnight, we would ALWAYS journal at least half a page. Sprawled on my upper bunk, as heavy as my eyelids would be on some nights, I’d write whatever came to mind. It was like the post-training, nighttime version of Morning Pages. And it was the best habit that my experience in Commandos built into me.
Writing is cathartic. Writing is reflective. Writing is empowering. Integrating the habit of journaling into your regimen is perhaps one of the best suggestions I can give you if you are struggling to manage your thoughts. Journaling gives you clarity. Clarity will change your life.
Open yourself up to Vulnerability
There have been days when I regret leaving the formation. I could have grown a more resilient mind. I could have been physically fitter. I could have had one hell of a military experience with the Special Forces. But aside from all the I-could-haves, there was one thing that made me never regret leaving: the steely, unfazed faces of the other recruits.
Now, I’m not saying that’s bad. It’s excellent, actually. Soldiers are supposed to be strong and tough and emotionless. But… what if that lack of emotion extends within?
Think about every successful person you know. Think about all your role models. Why did you respect them? Because they had the courage to admit – and show to the world – that they were vulnerable. They owned their vulnerability, and people respected that. Unfortunately, with the other recruits, I felt that I couldn’t show any emotion in order to fit in. I had to be tough. I had to be strong, even though inside I felt as though my heart was being shattered to a million pieces. I had to “be a man”.
But the fact of the matter is, being a real man means acknowledging and owning your emotions. It means to be vulnerable if need be, and accept vulnerability as a component of strength in order for self-love to take place. Only when we love ourselves and accept ourselves, insecurities and all, for who we are, can we prevent and overcome the illnesses plaguing our minds.
What do you think is the top disease affecting humankind today? No, it isn’t cancer. Neither is it AIDS. Ebola’s got nothing on this too. The biggest disease affecting humankind today is a lack of gratitude. More specifically, complaining.
During the gruelling cadence runs and CrossFit sessions we endure as Commandos, it’s easy to complain. It’s easy to ask: Why us? Why am I going through all this for nothing? I want to go to college, not learn how to break down doors and invade fake empty rooms! All of these negativity-laced thoughts are bound to drug you into thinking your life sucks. You have nothing to live for. Your life lacks meaning. You aren’t in control of your own decisions. You have everything to lose. You can’t do anything about where you are right now. Don’t all these questions sound like the onset of depression?
You see, I loved the physical training. I loved every minute of it. But tell me three months ago that I’d fall in love with CrossFit and I’d have stared at you, asking “You mad bro?” Well, what changed? My mindset. I learnt to fall in love with the juicy fluids of adrenaline flowing through my veins. I learnt to savour the salty taste of sweat dripping down my face and into my mouth. I learnt to recognise how privileged I was to have the opportunity to undergo CrossFit lessons as part of training while civilians had to pay hundreds of dollars a month to work out at a Box.
In a difficult situation, it’s easy to think positive. But it’s even easier to think negatively. Alas, us humans tend to prefer the path of less resistance. This path unfortunately also leads us down a spiral of depression and self-pity, leading to depressive symptoms. Therefore, learn to identify the root of all your stressors, and think about how you can bend the card you’re dealt with into something more positive.
This way, you can reshape your mind. You can change your life.
Seek Help if Really Necessary
All of my suggestions above are only for those who suspect they have a slight degree of stress-induced mental illnesses, such as anxiety or adjustment disorders. Thankfully, they’re temporary and can be managed on your own.
However, what if you’re often hearing voices in the back of your head? What if images of a traumatic past replays in your head over and over again without any signs of subsiding? What if your symptoms persist for weeks or months on end? I have three words for you: Get professional help.
When we were out in the jungles during our field training, we had to sleep with our rifles at night. Hug it, hold it, sleep on it; do whatever you want with it, as long as it remains with you at all times. Every night, our commanders would creep up on us when we’re all asleep and try to grab it away from us. If anyone were to find their rifle missing the next day, they’re fucked.
Similarly, your health, be it physical or mental, is like that rifle. It is your most important asset, your weapon that you use to take on the world and master your life. Once it’s taken away from you, you’re screwed. Love it. Own it. Protect it. At all costs.
Society, especially the military, tends to overlook or ignore the commonness of mental illness. It’s as though the red tapes of bureaucracy holding the civil sector together has somehow been wrapped around our eyes and mouths too.
Yet, we need to open our eyes. Our mouths must no longer remain silenced by fear or submission. We need to speak out for what we believe in. As an active soldier, I can tell you this.
No longer do we fight with weapons and missiles and grenades.
No longer do we physically go to war with other countries like our forefathers once did.
Today, the greatest battles occur in the mind.
Thankfully, our greatest weapons to combat them also comes from within us: our faith that our future will be better than our present, our resolve to be resilient, and our voice to speak up against the stigma of mental illness.
If you are with the Singapore Army and find yourself unable to cope while training, do not hesitate to call the SAF Counselling Hotline at 1800–278–0022.