Zhong Peirong, 26, preschool educator and founder of social enterprise Bakery Wellness, is the livewire whom friends describe as “bubbly” and “active”. “All my life, I have no problem making friends. I talk a lot!” laughs Zhong Peirong, 26. But in early 2015, the preschool educator found herself bursting into tears frequently for no apparent reason.
Once, when she was asked to be the emcee for a school event – usually an easy task for her – she locked herself in the toilet and cried for two hours, to the shock of her colleagues. Another time, she broke down on her way to Melbourne for her graduation ceremony. “When my friend casually asked why my parents couldn’t come along, I just started crying even though I wasn’t feeling upset at all.”
Her abnormal behavior intensified when she started a new job as a learning support educator, a dream job she had been excited about. But she often found herself hiding in the toilet, hyperventilating during a panic attack. Peirong often felt too upset to go to work and took frequent medical leave.
By August 2015, she was often breaking down in tears in front of her colleagues and her boyfriend, whom she had been dating for over a year then.
“I had no motivation to do anything and my boyfriend had never seen me like that before. He kept asking when I would feel better.” Confused by her emotional changes, Peirong took two months to seek help from a psychotherapist, who recommended that she saw a psychiatrist too.
Diagnosed with mild depression, Peirong was started on anti-depressants. But the medicine didn’t help and she felt worse after a month. She was also acting out of character and couldn’t control her mood swings. There were days she was crying one moment and laughing the next. And there was even once when she called her boyfriend 260 times, giving in to a perverse sense of joy at causing him distress.
The emotional rollercoaster wore her out, but she couldn’t sleep. “I’d stay awake all night, making calls – to my ex, my family, my friends, and Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) hotline or logging on to e-counselling chats online. I either slept very little, or I’d be lethargic and sleeping a lot.”
Things got so tough that six months into her new job, Peirong had to quit to focus on recovery. However, she felt even more lost and upset. “I really loved the job; I always wanted to help children with learning difficulties,” says Peirong wistfully.
Usually a foodie, she started losing her appetite, dropping 3kg within months. Her mood swings got worse. If calls to her father or friends went unanswered, she’d throw things around in her room, shouting and screaming.
Angry that her boyfriend, who eventually broke up with her, was avoiding her, she tracked him down at his HDB block and up to the highest floor. “I went quite manic, hitting and slapping him. I felt like dying but fortunately, I didn’t try to jump,” recounts Peirong. “That was the lowest point in my life.”
Unknown to Peirong then, she was actually dealing with more than just depression. Her psychotherapist noticed she was unusually anxious and kept repeating herself, despite being on anti-depressants. She alerted Peirong’s psychiatrist who diagnosed her with mild bipolar disorder, the condition that is causing her extreme mood swings.
Fear crept in when Peirong was told about her condition. She recalls the questions she had: How am I going to work in future? Will I ever have another relationship? And her biggest fear: “Will I be like my mum and require long-term medication?”
Peirong’s mum, who is divorced from her dad, has schizophrenia and often shouted at the voices in her head. Describing her “chaotic childhood”, Peirong remembers feeling scared, thinking that her mum was scolding her.
With medication and strong support from friends and her dad, whom she is close to, Peirong slowly got back on her feet and let go of the breakup.
With her father’s encouragement, Peirong started baking pineapple tarts to sell to family and friends, and to keep her occupied. “It was so therapeutic that it really helped me, not just financially, but also to focus better.” She sold 30 bottles of pineapple tarts, donating half of her proceeds to Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), a non-profit organization that supports caregivers with loved ones suffering from mental illness.
Eager to get back to work, she took on another teaching job but had to give it up within months as she struggled with her mental health. This time, she decided to focus on her healing, drawing strength from baking.
In April 2016, she was offered a booth at a Young Entrepreneurs Fair held at White Sands shopping mall. Taking the opportunity to raise awareness for mental health and wellness, she sold cupcakes decorated with words like Brave, Hope, and Life. She also gave away a postcard she designed, which included information and helplines. That weekend, she sold 80 boxes of cupcakes.
Buoyed by her success, she is currently registering her online bakery, Bakery Wellness, as a social enterprise. She was invited to share her story at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the Singapore Institution of Technology.
By July 2016, Peirong was feeling well enough and went back to her first love as a preschool teacher. But the change in work environment overwhelmed her and her mood dipped again. “I’d feel so lethargic, I couldn’t get out of bed and ended up taking MC for a few days.” When her preschool’s principal asked after her, Peirong hinted that she was taking a low dose of medicine for mood regulation issues but stopped short of disclosing her condition.
One day, she had a panic attack at work and she found herself crying in the toilet.
At that point, she decided that she needed the support and to recover, and decided to confide in her principal, texting her from the toilet. “Fortunately, she was very supportive. She kept telling me that everything will be okay, nobody will judge you, and everyone is special in their own ways,” Peirong says.
With Peirong’s permission, she sent a message to the preschool team’s Whatsap group chat. It explained that Peirong may sometimes cry uncontrollably and that she just needed some space. She also shared an Straits Times interview in which Peirong shared her condition, to explain what she was going through.
With strong support from to her principal and colleagues, Peirong is adjusting well to her job. Last October, in conjunction with World Mental Health Day, the National Council of Social Service invited Peirong and her principal to appear in a video as part of their ‘Speak Up campaign’, to promote an inclusive environment for persons with mental health issues.
This bubbly baker-turned-mental health advocate also initiated a ‘Baker’s Mind’ project and conducted a baking workshop for caregivers of young people who are recovering from mental illness. 10 per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the desserts at a flea market held at Scape were donated to the Silver Ribbon Singapore, a non-profit organization that promotes mental health literacy.
Baking aside, Peirong swears by regular exercise, from jogging to hip-hop dance classes and gym dates with her friends. “All that endorphins help a lot! When you feel like you can’t get out of bed, that’s when you need to get out and do something to hype yourself up,” she advises.
From her experience, Peirong has advice for those who are dealing with mental wellness issues: Don’t be afraid. See a doctor or a counsellor – it’s just like seeing a doctor for flu. With the right support system from your loved ones, we can lead normal lives too.
Text: Stella Thng/Simply Her