Welcome to Episode 71!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 71 is Sabrina Ooi.
Sabrina Ooi is the co-founder and CEO of Calm Collective Asia – a community that was established during Singapore’s first circuit breaker to talk about all things mental health in Asia. She is a mental health expert by experience, having achieved personal recovery and well-being through her journey with bipolar disorder.
Sabrina regularly hosts Calm Collective’s community engagement talks and peer support circles. She has been featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Tatler, and CNA, and was named a Gen.T Honouree in 2021.
To understand how Sabrina ended up establishing Calm Collective Asia, it’s necessary to dive into her story. She shares why she felt like an imposter while studying at Raffles Girls’ School (Singapore’s top school), how she started DJing for the likes of Dior & Rolls Royce, getting through debilitating depressive episodes since the age of 11, how she was initially misdiagnosed as being depressive only to discover that she was bipolar, being “arrested” for attempting to end her life and her journey to recovery.
This is STIMY’s first mental health episode and I felt that Sabrina’s story is so incredibly powerful and important. It is time to destigmatise discussions around mental health and I hope that this episode contributes a little to that ongoing conversation, particularly in Asia.
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You don’t want to miss out!!
Who is Sabrina Ooi?
Sabrina Ooi grew up in Singapore and she shares how she ended up growing up with lots of pets and her unusual path to getting into Raffles Girls’ School – the top academic institution in Singapore!
- 3:41 Being told by her mum to be “average”
- 5:23 Having her first depressive episode at age 11
- 12:33 How her DJ career began
Sabrina shares how she was initially misdiagnosed as depressive, going for therapy and how she learned that she was actually bipolar.
- 17:35 Triggers for her depressive episodes
- 21:59 Going for therapy
- 23:55 Not going for private practice
- 25:05 Having suicidal thoughts
- 27:36 Taking antidepressants
- 29:52 Depression v Bipolar
Surviving & Thriving
Sabrina shares how she got through her darkest period, which included attempting to commit suicide, and her incredible path to recovery.
- 31:49 Survive, Live and Thrive
- 35:11 Journey to recovery
- 36:52 “How I went from Leaving to Living”
- 42:36 Starting Calm Collective Asia
- 47:24 The vision
- 51:13 Symptoms to look out for
- 52:31 How to find the right therapist
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:
- Karl Mak: Co-Founder, Hepmil Media Group – building Southeast Asia’s largest meme-based company
- Renyi Chin: Co-Founder, MyBurgerLab – one of Malaysia’s most innovative burger chains
- DJ Didonna: Entrepreneur & holder of Harvard MBA, turned founder of The Sabbatical Project
- Hillary Yip: Founder of MinorMyna & youngest entrepreneur in the world
If you enjoyed this episode with Sabrina Ooi, you can:
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STIMY Ep 71. Sabrina Ooi (Co-Founder & CEO, Calm Collective Asia)
Sabrina Ooi: I didn't have an official first job after university. So in my final semester of university, I had the opportunity to be a resident DJ for one of Singapore's biggest club collectives. They were called massive collective. It's funny that I say collective now.
It's like, I kind of, it's kind of a foreshadow. Huh. Interesting.
So they're called massive collective and they were pretty massive in Singapore. Um. They were running some of the Singapore's biggest clubs called mink at that time dream and there wa s also filter. That was like Singapore's biggest VIP club.
So I had this opportunity where they offered me to play at their clubs and in return, the pay was substantially higher than every fresh graduates. And I would only have to do this like three days or three nights a week. So then I was like, all right, let's do this.
And so I did.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone. Welcome to episode 71 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer Ling Yah, and today's guest is Sabrina Ooi. Co-founder and CEO at calm collective Asia, a community for good mental health in Asia with a mission to normalize mental health conversations at home and at work. Now, before we dive in, I just wanted to throw in a little notice that this conversation today is a little heavy.
We talk about things like depression, suicide, and death, as well as the state of mental health in Asia. Now, in this episode, we are very blessed to have Sabrina who she has openly about her life growing up in Singapore, how she felt that she never deserved to be studying at Raffles, which is essentially the top school in Singapore.
How she fell into the world of deejaying for the likes of Dior, Rolls Royce, and World's 50 best restaurants among others. But apart from that, we also talk about her struggles with depression. The first time she experienced it at the age of 11, how it gradually got worse, the moment where she actually contemplated ending it all, and how she ended up being properly diagnosed as bipolar.
Sabrina was a wonderful in just openly sharing her journey as far as what it took to recover and how Calm Collective Asia was birthed during the pandemic. I loved this episode. I'm sure you will too.
So are you ready?
Sabrina Ooi: I was born and raised in Singapore and I would say I came from a middle-class family. We grew up in my grandfather's house. that looks like middle upper, but I mean, we were okay. Comfortable.
I grew up with a lot of animals at home.
So my mom was allergic to cats and because we're a Muslim family, technically, officially, we couldn't keep any dogs. So the next best thing was to keep rabbits. Like bunnies. Because my mum wouldn't be allergic and they were interactive enough.
So, we had rabbits. I had my first rabbit when I was like five and then I overloved that one, I gave it too many vegetables and then it passed away from diarrhea. Um, So I learned something there, I guess. But after that I continued having other pets, which were also rabbit.
We at one point had over 30 bunnies and we also had hamsters. They were, you know, , obviously breeding. We can't stop them. And through that process, we were also uh, selling the offspring because he just couldn't keep all of them. We also had fish at some point.
Ling Yah: Being in Singapore, I imagined that academics has been very important. They're very much like grades. Was that something, I mean, you went to Raffles.
Sabrina Ooi: I did. I did. And I don't know. I mean, I think I got really lucky and I can explain why I see that. Right. So my parents they're not your typical tiger parents. So. lucky in that aspect. So my mom actually told me that, Hey, Sabrina, I just want you to be average. And I was like, average, are you kidding me?
I want to be more than average. So I was a bit like, huh. Confused when I heard that. So when I was nine years old in primary 3, there was this gifted education program thing that I got into. Um, So basically a bunch of kids at nine years old. We take a couple of tests, which tests your English and mathematical ability, plus some like logical reasoning stuff. And then I just happened to g et into this program. And I was like, well, I don't like my class right now. Cause they kind of put me in a class which was like full of competitive girls.
And I was like, I want to get out of here. So I told my mom, I want to get out. I want to join this other program. Not knowing that it was going to be even more competitive. I was naive. I did not have full perspective back then. But so then I joined the gifted education program. When I was 10 and that pretty much set myself up for the next eight years.
Um, So I got into raffle schools, primary school when I was 10 and then my whole entire environment was full of overachieving. People. And then because of the program, I actually was very playful during those years, I was skipping extra classes, skipping school, to play games, to spend time with my animals at home, right.
Ling Yah: Did you feel like being in that environment was what pushed you to, because I read that you had that first depressive episode when you were 11.
Sabrina Ooi: Definitely.
Yeah. Cause I think I had quite a shock when I moved from my like lower primary years into an environment that was kind of competitive. And you know, , you put a bunch of girls who are like maturing or going through puberty. And I think there was a lot of like gossip and like backstabbing and politicking happening in school that I was just not prepared for.
So I think that first time when I had my first ever depressive episode, I felt very detached from school. I felt like I didn't really belong anywhere. And I couldn't find a sense of meaning in the day-to-day things that I was doing, right. Like school didn't really mean anything.
I was like spending time playing games. Me and my pets were great. I would stick around for them, but they don't really need me, right? So yeah. I had my first depressive episode when I was 11 and then I managed to still get through the PSLE. Primary six leaving examination. The biggest thing that a 12 year old could go through, right.
High stress for experience for everybody.
So when I was in primary six, my teacher actually took my mom aside and told her that sabrina is not going to make it through the PSAV because she's just not been studying in school. She's just doing the bare minimum, just passing.
I was getting like 60 out of hundred for like everything across all my subjects. And that's not what you're supposed to get when you are aiming for the top school. Or when you're in that environment at least. All my peers were getting like 90 something out of a hundred. Right.
And I, yeah, but compared to them, I was not going to be kid. And for me, I wasn't really enjoying myself in school.
So what happened that year of primary six? My mum, then just said okay. Sabrina, we got to just drop all your extracurriculars right now. So I was doing ballet. I was doing piano and those were actually out of my own interest that my mom did not force me to do it.
So I stopped all of that. She enrolled me into math and science and English classes as well as some Malay classes because I was kind of struggling everywhere. And then I made it through the primary six examination.
But even so I did not actually meet the cutoff points for RGS. Raffles Girls School, which is like Singapore's elite, top, whatever school. Right. Still is apparently so I didn't make the cut off point, but because I was in the gifted education program and I was learning Malay, there was this loophole, which meant that as a girl, there's no other alternative school that you can go to besides RGS, if you are a female taking Malay as a second language. So I had to go to RGS.
Ling Yah: Where I suppose a happy coincidence.
Sabrina Ooi: Yes or no, right. So that whole time I was like battling imposter syndrome because I was like, yeah, I guess I got to go to this school fine.
But then I was like, damn, I don't deserve to be here. Cause like all my friends were like, firstly, I would stay in the gifted program and everyone has scored significantly higher than I do. I mean, I still had a decent score, right. I was supposed to go to still an above average school that I was posted to officially, but man, like everyone around him was just so academy gifted.
And so even for a secondary school, that was quite a struggle for me academically. Cause I just, I guess I, I, I'm not interested.
The only times I got interested in things was when I actually enjoy the subject or if I liked the teacher.
I never knew what I wanted to do. I guess I was just taking it day by day and I was just following things that I was interested in. So when I was in secondary school, I was in the 10 pin bowling club. Yeah. And it's really funny because I'm like pretty small, I'm like 155 cm and quite slim built.
So like I was carrying two balls, which are like 12 pounds each right? With me every week to go for training. So I did that initially. And then after that you know, in the background all along, I've really loved music. I would always like go home and totally pirate all the music available out there on, was it Napster and Limewire and all of that.
And I wouldn't like make CD, mixed tapes and stuff. So, ah, thank you. Yeah, right?
So when I was about 14, 15, I started exploring the local music. And this was where I stumbled upon a lot of like local talent. so at that point I was listening to a lot of rock, and then I was just checking out all the rock bands.
I was learning guitar at the time, like an electric guitar. I have my like fender Stratocaster. So all of that, I really enjoy it just going into that. And I was spending a lot of time going to gigs, learning about music, listening to music, practicing my guitar, making friends around that as well.
A big turning point for me doing my secondary school years or my early teenage life was when I had this research project in school where we could choose any topic that we would want to go deep into. And I said that, all right, I'm going to do a project around Singapore's local English rock scene. That was the exact phasing, I think.
Um, So this gave me the permission to go for gigs. Cause this research. It gave me the permission to interview people who are these musicians, the producers surpassed like the gig organizers and all of that.
I mean, I got to talk to them and learn from them and eventually we had done the report and we realized that, Hey, we still have some time. Why don't we, you know, , from our learnings raise awareness about the English rock scene in Singapore, amongst our fellow students.
So the idea to create a concert was born. So that gave rise to this like little rock concert that we did called rock for good. And we actually pulled in 1,300 people to attend a rock concert in Singapore's top girls school.
That was really cool.
So that was kind of like the turning point for me, because like all along, you know,, from the point I was like, I guess 10 to 15, I felt massive imposter syndrome because I felt like I didn't belong. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be in this like elite environment because I'm just not interested in that or I'm just not good enough.
But somehow I got here and UV, right. And I'm still here. Um, so. yeah, that was like the first time I could see concretely that I was able to pull something together of that scale for a 15, year old. Putting together a concert, organizing it, coordinating all the different volunteers, security, guards doing music talent.
All of that together was just very confidence building for me. And we also had sold tickets for the concert. so that was the first time I held $10,000 in my hand, actually it was like $13,000. I, I was like, oh yeah, Hey, we sold because somebody sold tickets at $10 a piece. Right. So, yeah, that was the first time I realized that, oh, I could do this, right? I can see that. Getting a team together, work towards a common vision and make some money out of it. Create a product and make some money off of it.
Ling Yah: How did you go from that to becoming a DJ. Because you were like DJing for Dior, Rolls Royce? I don't think most people can do that.
Sabrina Ooi: Well, again, that was just me following my interests really, right. So, I mean, like I've always liked music I still do. As I grew older, after my A levels there were some time to kill.
So my bunch of friends and myself would be partying every week. We would go three times a week or twice at least to a point where my mom's like Sabrina it's Wednesday night. Are you going out for ladies night? And I'm like, huh, I'm tired. Mum. I need to stay at home.
There was one day where I went out to this club and it was like super cool.
It was called the butter factory in Singapore. And one of the frontman for the bands that played at my concert was actually DJing. And then I looked up and I was like, oh my God, that's really cool. I can do that. And I can control the crowd. And actually more importantly, I can get out of the crowd cause everyone is so damn tall.
So , I am like, if people are just powering over me and they were like, elbowing my head, right. I'm like, hello, excuse me. And I hate the very heel. So I was just like, damn it. I guess I'm here. I just need to breathe by. I want to be here. Cause I love the vibe and I love the music. So it was kind of a way for me to still get that vibe and music and energy without having to.
Fight with these tall people around me towering over me.
And because I love music, I've always really enjoyed sharing it with other people. uh, Sort of like, from the mix-tapes I was doing as a kid. I guess I saw this opportunity to pick up a new skill. I had some time, so I actually contacted that friend and I asked him to teach me how to DJ.
And when I went into university, they just so happened to have a DJ club. So there was a studio and all the DJ equipment already waiting for me to just go practice, right? And while at university, all the people around you are raring to party. Right. So that's where I bought my event organization skills and started throwing parties for students.
Ling Yah: Did you feel like you were happy that you exactly where you want it to be? From the upside, it looks like you really have it together.
You had something really unique. You are going to the very top.
Sabrina Ooi: Not really, no, I have a lot of fence or like Sabrina, what are you doing with your life? Why are you spending all this time? Deejaying and organizing potty. He says, not always have time. Shouldn't you be studying and like getting better grades?
My grades were not that bad. I was averaging a B-plus. Okay, fine. I still haven't shown anyone. My, university degree.
In my own world, I was enjoying myself and I was making side money, just , making some cash from that, using that to fund my travels as well. So I would like take trips here and there. I would buy. Usually it's like CDs, you know,, back in the day was still quiet a theme. usually I would buy like gadgets.
Yeah, no. So I thought I was doing okay. But didn't have a lot of people around me who kept questioning like what I was doing and then they didn't realize I was also making money from it.
Ling Yah: Were those comments and those questions filtering into you and making you doubt yourself?
Sabrina Ooi: Definitely. So during university it felt like it was fine, right.
And like, I still was working on my degree. I was making site cash, enjoying it, so life seemed fine. I was also motivated to make the money because my mum had told me that, like, I think in the second or third year of uni, she was like, I'm not going to fund any more like extra things you're going to have to pay for all your travel from, here on out.
So then I was like self motivated to make that extra cash. And it was much more fun than like, I don't know, working in a department store or something.
So I would say that I was affected more so when I hit my mid twenties, after university.
I didn't have an official first job after university. So in my final semester of university, I had the opportunity to be a resident DJ for one of Singapore's biggest club collectives. They were called massive collective. It's funny that I say collective now.
It's like, I kind of, it's kind of a foreshadow. Huh. Interesting.
So they're called massive collective and they were pretty massive in Singapore. Um. They were running some of the Singapore's biggest clubs called mink at that time dream and there wa s also filter. That was like Singapore's biggest VIP club.
So I had this opportunity where they offered me to play at their clubs and in return, the pay was substantially higher than every fresh graduates. And I would only have to do this like three days or three nights a week. So then I was like, all right, let's do this.
And so I did.
I got myself into the whole deejaying thing regularly, three times a week, maybe four times at nightclubs or at events when I was fresh out of uni and I continued to do so for about a year and a half after that. But during that time, I was hit with a couple of existential crisis and depressive episodes as well.
I was at a hard time. I started questioning myself again when I got hit by depression.
Ling Yah: I imagine that a lot of people would just think if they're not familiar with this that we all go through these existential crisis. We all think, why are we on this earth for? What am I doing my life by sounds like what you went through is actually different from what?
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I think there are a couple of triggers for these episodes. Right? Usually it would be a combination of anxiety and depression coming up and then it would kind of spiral into an existential crisis to a point where I'm like, okay, if I can't find an answer to the meaning of life or of my life, and I can't find a viable pathway forward, then what's the point of living.
That was like the thought process I would go through several times But I think what happened when I was out of university.
I think after university, I faced a couple of like stressful events as well.
So I kind of have to like rewind to the point where my last semester was happening, what happened there was that I had just like, from an exchange, I had just broken up with my then boyfriend and I was going through a very strange transition period where I was trying to figure out, where to live.
So my parents split after my junior college and when I come back from exchange, I wasn't sure what to live. Cause my mum was planning a move to New Zealand. And then my dad, I had been estranged from for a while. So when I came back, I had actually nowhere to live. So my dad actually said, Sabrina, fine, you can come stay with me for awhile.
But he had just married his now wife and I entered a very strange environment to where it was very uncomfortable for me. So then I had to move out after one month of being there and then. I had moved to my mum's kind of like a temporary rental accommodation before she figured out her own life stands as well.
So I think there were a couple of transitions that I had to manage. Like, what do I do with my life? The other part was where do I stay? Where do I live? How do I find my grounding again?
When the opportunity for that deejaying job came around, which paid me, then I think it was about four to five k comfortably a month Singapore dollars versus a fresh grad salary for a marketing grad who would earn, like, if you're lucky you get three K. So when I had to choose between the two options, I obviously chose the deejaying option because that would give me the financial freedom to potentially rent a place.
I went on to live with my mum for a bit until she moved to New Zealand and then I moved to my uncle's place. But the entire time I was in university, I was kind of distracting myself with school, with relationships, with friendships, with the whole deejaying thing and events thing and exploring and finding myself.
But then when university ended and I think while I was doing the whole DJ thing, I had also a lot more time in between those DJ gigs. I think that kind of gave rise to the whole, like, okay. I think that's a lot of trauma to unpack through like my parents divorced through my relationship with each of them as well.
I felt like a big factor that played into my depression back then was I guess, just feeling very alone and isolated and not having any direction or stability in life
Ling Yah: Did you try to seek help? Talk to people? Share your thoughts.
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah. I, I tried, I mean, I talked to my friends a lot. They were pretty patient and understanding with me. Eventually it got to a point where they're like, Sabrina, you're just asking for attention. Now you you're too much. We can't handle you. You're such a, , party pooper. And I was like, oh, okay.
So that's a different story, right. But after my mum left to New Zealand, my uncle or her brother actually kind of became the main parental figure for me. So I would talk to him about it a lot as well. But at the same time, we were kind of new in this new evolved version of the relationship.
I also wasn't super open with him. I felt very alone and misunderstood, I guess, or I didn't feel like I had anyone to turn to who would fully like. Support me and unconditionally care for me, I guess, which uh, yeah, when, when I was going through those depressive episodes yeah, it was hard to find a reason to hold on.
Ling Yah: Wasn't this around the time when you stopped going to therapy?
Sabrina Ooi: Oh, so therapy actually started a bit later. So in 2015 that was when I was, so I was born in 1990. So twenty fifteen, twenty five early in the year, one of my close friends um, we were kind of dating, you know, , how that goes.
It kind of.
So I had stayed with my uncle for about a year. Then I moved out of this place and on the day I moved out, I was supposed to move out to my friend space and we were still supposed to stay with two other friends. So that friend he actually killed himself the day I moved up.
I mean, I was moving in. think that shocked me quite a bit. Cause he was actually the person who kind of helped me get through my previous depressive episode. Like he was there for me and he kind of took care of me during that time. So yeah, it was quite a shock for me when he decided to kill himself, it was quite elaborate as well.
And we found everything and he left a note and so it was after that, I realized that it affected my ability to like focus to concentrate. And also at that point, I was still deejaying, but I also had taken on a job to fill my time in between, so I was working at a place at a startup and I actually had to take a break from work. Also not such a good idea because then I had more time to ruminate and question everything.
So it was not great.
So yeah, that actually kind of got me into a deeper depressive episode. The worst I had up till that point, and that was when I first started seeking therapy, I actually went to a GP general practitioner and he had given me some Xanax to just like, tired my self through, make sure I sleep fine.
He was the one who told me why don't you go see a therapist? And then he gave me the contact to, my first ever therapy session on my first session.
Ling Yah: Wasn't this like a private practice rather than public, because your mom, told you not to go to the public. There was a story behind this.
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah. So my mom I did talk to my mum. When my mom moved to New Zealand, we actually started having a much better relationship because I guess absence makes the heart grow fonder and we can just focus on the essential stuff.
So I did reach out to her when all of this happened and she was quite concerned.
But she also said that here, you know,, you might want to consider getting help from the private system and not the public system, because you don't want to have that on your record. You never know if you might want to work for the government or someone who might be able to check your records.
Ling Yah: And that's actually not true.
Sabrina Ooi: You don't have.
It's actually not true now. I know it's not true. Okay. So right now I've learned that Legally one can only check for a person's records if you've been charged for something. If you have to bring that to court otherwise, no, it's not legal to, share any records of that sort.
So yes, I saw a private therapist and she turned out to be pretty good, but honestly now I realize that by the time I sought help from her, it was kind of like me seeking help with stage four cancer because I was already suicidal. I was already, you know,, really planning, like, okay, I think I shall go the same way as my friend.
Ling Yah: Do you remember when suicidal thoughts first started?
Sabrina Ooi: Well I mean, first of all, I already thought about it the year before. But I never had a plan, so I actually recovered from that. But this time around was a bit different in 2015 because my friend Cal who had done so far himself he had left some documents behind which reflected the calculations that he did with the gas that he got to do it.
So I knew that this a painless and practical way of doing it. And he also left behind other documents on his laptop, which we had access to. Cause I mean, I was at home and that's where he left all his stuff. So obviously I went through all of it. So having access to all of the documents and the planning process that my friend had.
Yeah, it, just seemed a lot more real for me. It became a much more real possibility to follow through. Suicide just seemed like a real option.
Ling Yah: What were you getting out of?
Sabrina Ooi: I would see it's an option for escape, It was an escape from my brain.
It was an escape from all the thoughts that oversaw that I was experiencing, all the thoughts and the feelings. I think existentially I just felt like, you know, , if he had quite a good life and he's really smart, , kind as well. And if he had a reason to get out of this life, then maybe I do too. The other factor was also, I would see it it's a combination of like anxiety and depression at work.
So I guess on a biological level, I was also not processing this in a healthy way. So what depression felt like for me was that I was experiencing a lot of brain fog, which meant that I wasn't able to apply myself intellectually. I wasn't able to understand what I was reading very well. I wasn't able to communicate coherently verbally and in written form.
So that was like really scary for me because I was just like, oh my God. I said, well, suddenly I'm dumb, I mean, I think I shared this in my LinkedIn post and I was talking about how, if I wasn't smart, then who am I? If I'm not able to communicate, if I'm not able to be effective at my job, then what's the point then?
Who am I? And even with the whole deejaying thing um, when in my depressed state, I was not enjoying music. I didn't care about my gigs. I was just so emotionally detached from what I was doing. And there was just no point in doing anything.
Ling Yah: So when you took the antidepressants, did you feel that there were a change and suddenly everything came alive?
Sabrina Ooi: Oh man. It's not sudden. It wasn't sudden for sure. that was 2015 and I don't remember if I saw a psychiatrist then, but the next year I had like an even worse depressive episode and I've written about that as well. But that was actually when I started seeing a psychiatrist more regularly and started taking medication more regularly.
In my experience, it took at least about a month to a month and a half before the antidepressants kicked in. So initially, , it was all about titration and finding the right medication for me to be on. And then the other part of it was around adherence.
So I would refuse to take my medication many times, , before I finally accepted that this was a condition to manage and that medication does help. So it took me a while to finally accept that. So I remember being diagnosed in March of 2016 and we thought that I had just major depression and then I was like taking it and not taking it.
And it wasn't really going anywhere. I tried to kill myself again in April and then realized I don't really want to die. and then from there, I, I just decided to give it a proper shot so, looking at a timeline that you notice this was March and then April was like, okay, final I'll find the accept.
And then towards what's the end of me was when I finally started feeling like, oh, okay. I guess I can, do life again. ? So it took a while, took a while to find the right combination of medication and to accept the whole thing. And for it to kick in as well. Yeah.
Ling Yah: Yeah. I read that it took you like two years as well, just to find the right combination, right?
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah, for sure. so I was misdiagnosed right initially with major depression, but then further down the road, we were wondering why the antidepressants were a bit too much for me. And I would be. Kind of over the moon when I was recovered or seemingly recovered.
And I would like not be sleeping. I would be like going out all the time. I would start 10 new projects. And then that was when I Googled, I did some Googling and Googling and I realized that bipolar disorder was a thing. And so eventually I got properly diagnosed and, and now, yeah, things are fine.
Ling Yah: What is the difference between being depressed and being bipolar? And I read that there are four types of hypothesis,
Sabrina Ooi: like polar. Yeah. So I'm not going to go into like the details of the different types. Right. You can probably find a YouTube video for that, but the main difference between depression and bipolar is that if you look at depression as a uni, polar depression, like one sided, right.
Then if you look at bipolar as two poles. Where you have still depression. But another pole, which just like why they called mania and both ends of the spectrum, both ends of the poles can can show up differently for each person.
For mania, what that means is that firstly, I think your sleep will give way . You need much less sleep. Some people don't sleep for like one, two days. Some people may need like three, four hours of sleep. For me, it was about five or three hours.
The other part would be, you'd have like a lot of racing thoughts and ideas. And you would typically have also like grandiose plans where you're like, all right, I suppose I should have things I've heard. It would be like, ah, I think I was sent by God to do something really important here for mankind.
The other thing might be oh, I really want to stop climate change. And I have a plan for it after like two nights of research, right. Or one night of research with zero prior experience.
Hypersexuality is also another one. You'd be like super confident In your mind, super appealing to everybody, and then you go do things. And then you're also super sociable where you, make a lot of new friends, you talk. You might also talk at a kind of a rapid speech.
So those are like the common traits of mania.
So for me, I have bipolar two disorder, which means I have hypomania, which is a not so life-threatening version of mania or like not super extreme. But it's also characterized by more depressive episodes.
So that's me.
Ling Yah: And I saw this blog post, where you basically said there were three phases to your recovery journey, survive, live and thrive. Survive was 2016, which you have described was the lowest point.
Sabrina Ooi: So my lowest, lowest low, which I hit in March of 2016 on that day, what happened was that I had my debut at Zouk Singapore. Singapore's like, most famous nightclub, and I was supposed to go for a business trip the next morning.
And leading up to that, I had already felt depressed and I was very stressed out because I wasn't able to perform at work. I wasn't able to enjoy music. So those symptoms came up again. And leading to this day, it was like, oh my God, big day, because , two big things were happening. So what happened was that like, it all came to a point where I was just like, oh my God, this is too much.
On that late afternoon of that Friday, I don't know what it was, but I just felt like I had to give up and I just couldn't go on any longer. And I found myself at the top of a building just wanting to kill myself.
So someone saw me
Evanston park, right?
There was a film crew that was just there for some other filming project. They saw me from afar. I didn't see them. I don't know where they were, as I was up there with my legs, dangling off the ledge.
Right. And I was like, constantly thinking like, oh my goodness. If I jumped now, I'm going to leave such a mess behind. So I, I just couldn't do it. Um, I was just like, ah, dammit, if someone sees me do this and they're going to be traumatized, I don't want to do that. So sober, right?
So yeah, the police came and then I was like, oh no, I'm not gonna go like this. I kind of jump now. So they came. So it was like the police and the firefighters that came.
So they got me off the ledge. so they asked me, so girl, did you want to kill yourself? And I was like, yeah, are you depressed?
Okay, so now we've gotta handcuff you. We've gotta arrest you because that's a crime. Dammit! So I was like, oh no, I thought I would just be led off and I could go home and live my life or find a way, you know,, somehow. Cause it was kind of like a wake up call for me. And then I was thrown into jail for a night and I just
Ling Yah: committed a crime in Singapore.
Sabrina Ooi: It used to be, yeah, it used to be a crime to commit suicide and to attempt suicide.
So yeah, I had to be cuffed and jailed and then sent for psychiatry assessment and I had to then be sent to the Institute of mental health. Handcuffed to a wheelchair, so I wouldn't run off. So it was all really, really embarrassing for me because I missed my gig.
No one knew where I was. All my friends were there as well. Cause it was like my dad, if you, So I didn't turn up. I didn't turn up for my flight the next morning for work. So I let my bosses down and I only got out at, I think about 10:00 AM the next day. And I saw all these messages from friends who were like, where are you, Sabrina, right?
So that was all really, really embarrassing in this, all that the shame actually really hit my, self esteem and I then decided to. Stop deejaying at that point for awhile while they figured things out. And I left my job because I just couldn't deal with that stress to perform. So that was my lowest low, and I had to pretty much hit reset.
Ling Yah: What do you think was helpful in helping you go from that to recover?
Sabrina Ooi: So I would say it was my mum actually. So, you know,, despite the trauma that we've gone through in our relationship, my mom came back to Singapore and she took it upon herself to take care of me the today and see me through the treatment process.
So she actually brought me to, my first psychiatrist and then the psychiatrist also referred me to his contact who was a therapist. That was the first time I sought that medication and my mom stuck around for about a month and that actually helped me a month and a half.
And that helped me start making recovery journey.
since 2016, I would say that. I have been on an upward trajectory overall, even though, you know, there were some points where I was like, damn it. , I miss my medication again. Or I, there were a couple of times where I thought I was like, yeah, I think I'm all billing.
Good. I shall stop now. And there was always a bad idea. Um, So I did it, I think twice. And then I would say I I've really only stabilized from around 2018/2019.
Ling Yah: And that's when you started holding a regular job. You were deejaying again, weren't you?
Sabrina Ooi: Yes. I went back to deejaying I think around 2017, actually.
So my hiatus from deejaying didn't last very long. I'm so grateful that I had a contact who, for some reason still call me back. It wasn't Zouk, it was a different club. But yeah, I'm really thankful that they did because you know, , it's still something I enjoy. But I knew then that I could not rely on deejaying as my livelihood anymore.
It's not sustainable to my current lifestyle. I always made it a point to DJ only the early sets so that I can make sure my sleep was so was okay.
Ling Yah: it was around the time when you released an article, how I went from leaving to living.
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah. Actually leaving life to living again. That's what I meant.
So that was October of 2019. I remember because it was well mental health day before it was popular. Sorry. No, it's been very popular the past two years. I wonder why it's trending. Um, But Hey, mental health has been a thing since you've had physical health and since humans were humans.
And I, I bet like animals have mental health too.
So in 2019, August of 2019, I. Started going for life coaching. So I had gone for therapy consistently, still, but I, there was something in me where I was like, okay, well, therapy has gotten me this far and I'm still committed to it, but I wanted to start planning for my life.
Now, I think I'm ready to look at my future because between 2016 to 2019, it was all about all right, let's just go do by day, man. It's just condition, try to survive and then just enjoy it for a bit. And then, yeah, I think around 2019, I think it was stabilizing for me.
Work wise I had been confirmed at my then job.
and yeah, I think it was time to want something more out of my life. So through my coaching process, I found a lot of clarity around what I wanted to do with my life in general. And what I realized was that I wanted to find a way to help other people, but their mental wellbeing, not just with like the bad side of mental health.
Right. But to find a way to, Just overall live happier and healthier lives.
I also realized that one of the things that I could do that's within my control and within my ability was to write about my experience. And that was also a way for me to reflect on what I've gone through over the past few years.
Ling Yah: Was the writing difficult? I mean you share your story now and I'm just in awe that you can share it so openly, but was that the first time you were sharing?
Sabrina Ooi: I mean, the people around me, like close to me, knew about it in bits and pieces. But that was the first time I shared about it openly and it was actually surprisingly easy to write about it.
So what happened was that I wrote the article over I think it was either three or four mornings. So before work, I would wake up a bit earlier. And I would start writing from say 7:30 AM to 9:00 AM. Or was it seven to eight 30 over three days or four days. I did some editing as well.
So Yeah, it just all kind of happen in the span of one week. And I knew that well, mental health day was coming up. So I kind of like gave myself that deadline. I said, okay, this will have mental health day. This means a lot to me. And my birthday was the day after that. So it was also a gift to myself.
So, well, mental health is like the 10th. Birthday is on the 11th. I posted it on the 9th just so that I could like be done with it. So yeah. so that was kind of like the timeline I was working with and it was a very straightforward process for me because I think I had it all inside of me already.
Ling Yah: What was the response like? Did it surprise you?
Sabrina Ooi: So when I published it, I kind of like went into hiding. I turned off all my notifications and I actually went out for a dinner a social gathering thing of like 20 people, big deal. So I went for this gathering. The next day I started getting responses.
So I posted it on my Facebook only if I'm not wrong. And I got a lot of messages from my friends who said, Sabrina, I just read this. I had no idea. And then there were also people who said, oh, this sounds like something that I've gone through. And I didn't know that you've also gone through it. I didn't know other people went through this.
It really resonates with me. The other thing that came up was also people telling me that they've been struggling and that my article had helped them a lot in processing what they're going through and figuring out a pathway to help themselves. So, yeah, I didn't really know what impact it was going to make, but I honestly just did it for myself.
I needed to kind of make peace with the past few years. And the struggle that you went through. It was very liberating to put out there.
Ling Yah: Did it start you on this journey of thinking, oh, this really reached out to lots of different people. Maybe I should share more and find more people who are interested who want to find out more?
Sabrina Ooi: No.
Okay. So, so I've recently learned this term called a vulnerability hangover. So it was a bit hung over after that. I was like, oh my God exposed. I feel a bit exposed and I need to like chill. So, following that post I mean I responded to people and to friends.
So I did that. I did do a followup with individuals. , from a bigger picture perspective, I thought that I would write another two articles about, so that's what I meant to write a three-part article. I've only done one out of three and it still stands at that, , one, a three.
That day. it's been two and a half years. I have not done anything else. I've done other stuff. Yes. I got distracted by like calm, collective, right? So what happened? No, I kind of just went back to focusing on my own life, but that said, I still went for life coaching and I knew that at some point I wanted to find a way to, get creative and help people.
Again, I wanted to bring back that 15 year old version of Sabrina because I think that was really, I guess, me at 15 years old doing that concept was the start of discovering who I really was. I was me authentically putting myself out there and I wanted to be.
Part of me back. So that was always the intention eventually to create something that would help other people, but I didn't know what that was going to be.
Ling Yah: And then the pandemic hit.
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah. So then the pandemic hit and then I was just like, damn it. I'm at home. And I'm stuck and I cannot travel and we have a month of lockdown.
after a week in the lockdown, I realized that mental health services were considered nonessential. And I couldn't see my therapist in person. I couldn't see my psychiatrist in person, but he still kept his office open anyway. But my therapist was like, oh no, we haven't figured out this zoom thing.
Right. And I was like, ah, okay. I was quite upset because mental health didn't seem to be an important thing when the lockdown was happening. back then when I was in my job, I was already organizing webinars for our regional clients. So then I thought, okay, why don't we do a webinar series for people who are in the lockdown, just like me.
So I called up two friends and I was like, okay guys, let's go. Let's do something about this. One of them was Alyssa and the other guy was Lukman.
And Alyssa and look Lukman immediately said, yes, we have more time. And we agree that the cause is important. Separately before we talked about mental health and they all know my journey as well.
So yeah, it just happened to be a very opportune time to start something. And it was on the side of our jobs as well. It was cause we also had a lot more time that was not my socializing to do or anywhere to go really?
For us it was just like, okay, we just wanted to teach people strategies to cope in the lockdown. That was it. So there's still this like running joke today where I was like, so guys, I conned you into doing this for a bit longer beyond the lockdown. But the initial idea was really to just do a one-off summit where we would bring together a bunch of folks who could talk about coping with relationships in the longterm.
I call it my former therapist. We also talked about mindfulness. We talked about journaling. We also talked about. Welcoming the change that the pandemic brings. So I, I called on my coach to do that. And for the first summit we had about 300 people join us. It was just like a Saturday afternoon because everyone's stuck at home, nowhere to go.
So Saturday afternoon, two to 5:30 PM sitting at home, hosting all these talks and interacting with people online. So that was a first version of conflict.
And then we just discovered that we really enjoyed it and organize more and more and more talks. Also the, the lockdown got extended, so you're like, ah, dammit.
So I guess we have more time to do this.
Ling Yah: And it's called Calm Collective Asia and there's a significance behind the word Asia. What was it?
Sabrina Ooi: Well, okay. It's very simple. So first of all Alyssa is not Singaporean. She is Filipino, so she knows like Sab, I'm not Singaporean. So this cannot be Calm Collective Singapore and Asia is also important because there's a lot of cultural nuances that are similar across the region.
This whole tiger parenting thing, filial piety is also a big theme here. so yeah, we, we from day one just decided to call ourselves Calm Collective Asia. Obviously the so-called superficial reason was because of Alyssa's reasoning, but we also took a mutually agreed that we had to look at Asia from a bigger perspective, because I mean like a lot of our friends also not like Singaporean, they're various folks who have grown up in a Asian environment With Asian parents.
We looked at it from a regional perspective from the start.
Ling Yah: What was the response like when you reached out to people asking them to speak at your events, because you've had so many people, your fellow people from LinkedIn uh, authors, musicians, even hats
Sabrina Ooi: politicians as well.
Ling Yah: Politicians. Yeah. And Dr. Candice, who was like global head of employee wellness.
Sabrina Ooi: Yes.
Ling Yah: Your CalmCon. And so what was the response like reaching out to them and asking them to speak?
Sabrina Ooi: Hmm. I don't recall having heard a no or an outright no yet. Maybe you do like a scheduling conflict, maybe. People, I just very nice, but I mean, for the lockdown, Daniel was pretty straightforward. I think from a young age, I've just learned to have a thick skin when I need to ask for something or when I want to get something, because if you don't ask you to get That was my thinking since I organized that concert back in the day.
So the way I went about it was I just called up various folks and, , kind of put together the program figured out what would fit and what would resonate with the audience. it was really straightforward and typically it always starts with why. So I would share, this is my why for doing this.
And then yeah, once they understood the why, and also my story usually yeah, they would typically say, yes.
Ling Yah: What are you seeing Calm Collective Asia as doing now, I guess you have a vision now?
Sabrina Ooi: Oh yeah. Yeah, we had, yeah, I know. Right. It's just like, it's been a constant reevaluation of our vision and reason for being since we started, because we really meant to just have this essay, like just to do this as a site project. But today calm collective Asia is still working on the same mission, which is to normalize mental health conversations in Asia.
And the way that we do this is really by educating and empowering the community So we're focused on knowledge workers, but we're also starting to bring up public programs to corporate communities. And what we do right now is to we've expanded the things or the ecosystem of what we're doing.
While we started out with creating these talks and also some content on social media. So we do these amazing illustrated posts that actually Alyssa draws. And I would say where we have the focused on creating relevant content and very accessible and relatable content to create programs to help continue and foster these conversations.
So we still organize our talks. We have calm circles now, which are our peer sharing circles, where our community actually comes together, joins the conversations. And we also have calm con, which is our mental health and wellbeing festival. Everything is online, the reason, and the reason why we do everything online is to really make sure that it's accessible and, , someone who's in a depressed state.
Like the last thing they want to do is to actually step out house. We've made it a priority to keep it accessible and keep it online simply because we know that the folks we want to reach out to may not necessarily have the ability to get out of their homes.
And the other thing that we do is around content Which is still art. Distill all the tips that we post out on social media, as well as our blog. We have articles. We have a great team of volunteers that constantly write about very interesting stuff around mental health and wellbeing. And the other thing that we were doing, and that is now being developed is that we've been bringing all of these public programs into the corporate space, right?
So we are actually partnering corporates to normalize mental health conversations at work, and also empowering their people to provide support for each other. So in a way we're kind of like productizing Calm Collective and bringing Calm Collective into the workplace, but obviously not called Calm Collective. It's like just powered by us.
So yeah, that's, the current version of what Calm Collective is. And it's always changing
Ling Yah: And so you're obviously creating, helping people to be more aware and more sensitive, I suppose, for people who are listening, are there any general advice you have for people to be supportive, those who might be going through mental health issues or challenges?
Sabrina Ooi: I think the most important thing when it comes to supporting someone who is faced with a mental health challenge, or if you're supporting someone or if you're a caregiver, is that you have to try your best to, I guess, practice compassion by simply holding space for them listening and withholding judgment as well.
It's really important to listen to them with an open mind with curiosity and also care. Oftentimes it's just simply like landing a listening ear or asking good questions, to get them to share more about themselves. And the more you ask, the more you find out, the more you discover from them, what kind of help they really need from you?
The mistake that a lot of people make and once in a while, I'm also guilty of this is that we tend to listen to someone's problems and jump in with a solution, but that solution might work for you, but not for them. So it's really important to hear from the person what they need.
And sometimes they actually don't need anything at all. They just need you to listen. So I think that's the number one thing I would check.
Ling Yah: And what kind of signs would you look out for any symptoms? I mean, it sounds like when you were telling you a story, that you also didn't realize what you were going through and it took a while for you to put it all together.
Sabrina Ooi: Okay. So I think it looks different for everyone.
The rule of thumb would be if your thoughts and feelings your experience is affecting your day to day ability to function. That's definitely a point or a time where you need to start seeking help, or at least a professional.
Ling Yah: And I heard from Jolene Hui, who is a psychologist that she also said that Asians tend to give physiological symptoms like insomnia
Sabrina Ooi: stomach. Yeah. So I, yeah, that's actually a really good point. So actually Jolene was my first therapist ever. Similarly I had the same experience where when I was growing up, I would get a lot of stomach aches. If a good friend of mine, she would constantly have migraines.
So oftentimes stress can come up physiologically and oftentimes we tend to try to fix it on the more superficial level. Like we just solve the symptom, but not the root cause. So if these kind of things are happening, if you're constantly getting heart palpitations, you can't sleep.
If you don't have any appetite, If you've lost your appetite or if you're eating way too much, like more than not than usual, that's when it's time to seek an opinion and you hopefully a professional one.
Ling Yah: How do you find the right therapist? I mean, there are so many, right.
And you have to shop around. what do you look out for?
Sabrina Ooi: I always tell people that looking for a therapist is a lot like dating. So you got to find the right fit. And sometimes you have to go on several dates before you find the right one. So it takes a lot of patience, but I would say that typically, it's important to first look at the credentials so it filters people out.
And then. You just simply have to meet them and see whether they're the right fit because every person has a different personality, different vibe. And you just want to know whether you actually liked the person and can respect them because if you don't then, then why see them.
Ling Yah: I heard you also share about the cookie jar exercise. What's that?
Sabrina Ooi: Yeah. So that was something that my current well, my boyfriend shared with me, I shouldn't say current because hopefully it's okay. I hope it doesn't listen, but it's fine.
He actually sat me down to one day when I was going through a mild depressive episode. This was at the start off 2020, maybe something like that.
he told me Sabrina, let's take a look at, okay. So let me introduce you to the cookie jar. And I want you to list all the things to be grateful for and all the things that you're proud of. And I'm going to give you 20 minutes to do this. And I was like 20 minutes. That's a long time. Right. So I sat there and I like listed out everything that I was , either proud of or grateful for.
I would list things like, I deejayed at this place. Wow. I would never have thought I wouldn't do that. I organize a concert when I was 15. I meet my friend happy. Cause I talked to her on the phone today, so big and small things and I ate chocolate cake and it was really yummy.
So yeah, I ended up coming up with like the list of maybe 30 things they can small and looking at that, , having written that out tangibly, I realized that it was super helpful in. Feeling good about myself. And I was like, oh, Hey, life is not that bad. I'm not that bad.
And there are things to enjoy in life. So that's a cookie jar exercise. So basically the question is, if you have a cookie jar right now, what are all the cookies that you would put into that jar? And the cookies are things that you are like, you're proud of, or you are grateful for. So just doing that once in a while, when you're feeling down, it helps a lot.
But now I also have a simplified version, which is, I just ask myself, what are you grateful for? And then I just list three things every day.
Ling Yah: Do you feel like having gone on this entire journey that you have found your, why?
Sabrina Ooi: You know what I constantly asked myself why, and I think my wife changes all the time, but the, at the heart of it, I would say, yes, I have realized what my why is. And this was what I found out through coaching. And I discovered that broadly speaking my why is to help people live more aligned with the truth.
I actually just rephrase that. See it changes all the time. So yeah, I'm, I'm constantly kind of like re evaluating it as well. And why is like my favorite question. so yeah, my why changes everyday.
Ling Yah: What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
Sabrina Ooi: I, man, I don't really care about my legacy to the extent that, like, I don't, it doesn't have to be like, Hey, Sabrina was here, , but what I do hope to change in this world is I hope that I would be able to contribute to humankind in my own way, by helping them.
Embrace a growth mindset so that they would be able to, , constantly grow and learn and also appreciate themselves for who they are. And also to find that self actualization that I think a lot of people are working towards.
Ling Yah: And what do you think are the most important qualities of a successful person?
Sabrina Ooi: Do To have a growth mindset because life is always changing and it's very important to embrace changes and to be able to rethink things, whether it's your beliefs, whether it's the way you do things. I think given the way life is going in general and how things are constantly changing.
As humans, we need to be able to adapt and to accept that changes happen all the time and that we need to adapt to it as well.
Ling Yah: can people go to find out more about what you're doing? Calm Collective Asia? How to get involved. Where can they go?
Sabrina Ooi: So for calm collective Asia, they can go to www.calmcollective.asia.
That is our website, and they may follow us on Instagram at CalmCollectiveAsia and on LinkedIn, just type in calm collective Asia.
Can also follow me on LinkedIn. Instagram. I'm also there. I also have my website, but just go there many ways to find us.
So go look for us and let's get connected.
Ling Yah: and I will put all those links in the show notes so they can easily find it as well.
What is the best way for people listening, who wants to support you? What is the kind of help you want most?
Sabrina Ooi: So the best way to help calm collective is to share our resources, share about our calm circles, calm con. If you find that your workplace needs some improvement in the mental health department, you can also link us up with your leaders and your HR folks, we will be happy to work with you guys.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 71.
The show notes can be found at www.sothisismywhy.com/71
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