You Are Not Alone
Tropika Club partners with IncBox Founder Stephanie Wong to shed light on the importance of mental health.
When I asked her if she could share her medical prescription panic disorder, severe anxiety, and mild depression, ‘Sure!’ she said, without skipping a beat. The plastic bottles with her medication crackled in the back of my phone. ‘I know I have to spell them out carefully for you because the names can sound confusing.’ Plainly, she recounted her medication for me, as if she was naming the mints she’s having.
That breezy candour carried throughout my conversations with her. After a long hour of follow-up questions on the phone, I told her she sounded contented with where she was in life. ‘The intrusive thoughts still come and go,’ she said, with a pensive weight in her voice, ‘even as I’m running a business.’ Stephanie has been living with panic disorder, severe anxiety, and mild depression for four years now. This is her story.
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A Long Road
Stephanie was flying to Hong Kong on a Singapore Airlines flight for a holiday four years ago. But even before the plane hit the tarmac at her destination, she had an allergy attack, suffocating her. The medics were already waiting by the time her flight landed at the airport.
‘The cabin crew at Singapore Airlines were so calm and professional. They were already trying to help me onboard the flight,’ she said. ‘I wish I could express my gratitude to all of them in person. Without their help, things could’ve been much worse.’
She was transferred three times to three different hospitals when she was in Hong Kong before the doctors prescribed her steroids and codeine to prevent future allergy attacks.
It was around then when she first experienced episodes of breathlessness. In the months after she returned from Hong Kong, the allergy attacks became more intense as doctors continued to prescribe her steroids and codeine. Doctors would continue the prescription for nearly three years. Then, a lifelong friend went into a coma due to a lung infection. Not long after, the friend succumbed to the disease. ‘He was a pillar of my life. It was a total shock.’
‘But I detached myself so completely, so I can properly take care of my friends during the weeks he was in the ICU. I didn’t even know how I managed to help out at his funeral.’ But soon after, she found herself unable to leave her home as the episodes of breathlessness became more violent, manifesting into excruciating physical pain. ‘The pain; it’s like having a heart attack. It’s as if someone’s grabbing my throat,’ she recalled. ‘And my left chest would always tense up. The funny thing is, it’s never on the right.’
The toll on her was complete, wrecking her physical health and mental health. ‘It’s as if I’m dying every day. I could barely step out of the house for two years, even if it’s for a cup of coffee,’ she said, ‘imagine having a heart attack every day for two years.’
‘The worst part was that I didn’t even know what’s going on.’ She saw specialist after specialist, but none could give her the correct diagnosis. ‘There was a point when I lost all hope because I’m spending all of my money on doctors and medical bills.’
One night last year, things came to a head, where the pain was so great that she had to go to a hospital.
‘By then, I knew those episodes of breathlessness were panic attacks, but I really couldn’t take the pain in my body anymore,’ she said.
So she headed to Singapore General Hospital. The nurses and doctors were initially sceptical, but Stephanie was adamant in getting a proper diagnosis.
‘It’s one of the darkest moments in my life.’
But, in that darkness, she found a way to move forward from her ordeal. She finally found the right help. ‘He knew what was wrong with me right off the bat. Everything changed from that point on.’
A Leap Into Faith
After over two years of agony, she finally had an answer. A professor from the Department of Psychiatry at Singapore General Hospital correctly diagnosed her with panic disorder, severe anxiety, and mild depression.
‘I owe him my deepest gratitude. I never had a doctor who listened to me until that moment.’ It was then she realised the importance of taking care of one’s mind and body.
‘I was an absolute social butterfly, a total extrovert. I would be anywhere and everywhere,’ Stephanie remembered, ‘I had trouble turning people down, so I always wore myself very thin.’ Today, she makes sure to set a time and space for herself to rest and heal.
Even if she had the answer to what was going on with her mind and body, Stephanie still had to figure where to go from that point. Her savings were already bleeding red from all the medical bills.
Then she chanced upon an American nutrition company while reading articles online. Something clicked. She realised the importance of taking care of one’s own mind and body, and that fit in with her revelation. ‘And they’re even committed to reducing malnutrition in children by providing them with vitamins and minerals. Everything just clicked,’ she said.
But her father cautioned her about the risks of starting a business from scratch. And she already has debt from the medical bills, so piling on more debt to fund her new venture would be a risk. She was betting her life on it, even as she was just beginning to recover her mental wellbeing.
‘Being in the state I was in, I knew shouldn’t even be starting a company,’ she said, ‘But I knew it’s either I take a risk, or sit down and cry. I knew I needed hope.’
Stephanie was relentless in getting them to partner with her as an exclusive distributor on Qoo10, emailing them nearly every day for two weeks. Her persistence and passion paid off. She decided to set up Incbox, an online health and beauty store. That way, she can not only get back on her feet, but help others to do so as well.
It was a runaway success. Since the second day it was listed on Qoo10, they have been featured frequently by the platform for three months, then became a fixture on top-seller lists. ‘All of this wouldn’t be possible without the exceptional team at Qoo10. I really have to thank each and everyone who helped us at Qoo10.’
‘Beauty is the Best Version of Yourself’
‘I still relapse sometimes. It comes and goes,’ Stephanie said, ‘This morning I had a small panic attack. I think I’m having one now too.’ She notes that it’s not a one-off disease. Stephanie still visits the professor who first diagnosed her from time to time, all the while adhering to the medical prescriptions.
She encourages everyone to take charge of their mental health. ‘I have seen so many people hide their pain for fear of the stigma: my neighbour’s daughter, my own friends.’ Of course, the right help matters too, because the right help for everyone is different. ‘What works for me might not work for you,’ she told me. ‘I rely on my medication, but for other people, it could be therapy or counselling. But whatever it is, the first step is to open up.’
It’s easy to think that it’s all in your head, but Stephanie knows otherwise. ‘It’s not your imagination. And I don’t think there should be shame in being imperfect.’
Her battle with that shame began long before that fateful flight to Hong. She was bullied about her height and looks. She reminisces her travails during her secondary school years: “I was figuring out why can’t I be beautiful? It took me a long time to learn how to love myself, in my own skin, unconditionally.”
But now, she knows all the beauty treatments in the world can’t really change how you feel about yourself. ‘For me, being beautiful has nothing to do with looks,’ she said. ‘For me, beauty is the best version of yourself. That’s how you can take care of not only yourself, but the people you love too.’
Building on that, she’s focusing on expanding the line of vitamins and nutrition at IncBox. Incbox now boasts an extensive range of health and beauty products that’ll keep you in the pink of health.
Their eclectic marketplace offers top-notch health products from Earth’s Pearl Probiotics, the YUMI range of vitamin gummies, and Nelson Honey. They’re not short on beauty products too, carrying quality wares from Royal Nectar Skin Care and Glutanex professional whitening skincare.
As with most fledgeling start-ups, there are ambitions for regional expansions too. But ultimately, she sticks to her original mission – to provide confidence to those who need it. ‘Actually, one of my biggest aims is to grow IncBox to become a social enterprise. I want to engage special needs or challenged persons for positions in my company.’
‘I think it’s time to let go of the stigma. It’s so ingrained in ourselves; we need to change it.’ Stephanie thinks there’s still fear when it comes to mental health. For the past two, three years, she’s even had panic attacks in public. But nobody knew how to react. She understands that they don’t want trouble – but now, she flips that narrative. She’ll talk to people who don’t look like they’re alright. ‘So far, no one has scolded me yet,’ she chuckled.
‘That being said, I think there should be a shift.’ She told me sometimes even medical professionals can forget to listen, since they have so many other patients and responsibilities.
I asked her how would she advocate for mental health in Singapore, but she denied the notion that she was an advocate. ‘I’m just someone with exceptionally thick skin,’ she said wryly. I disagreed; she was even fielding requests to speak publicly about her journey with depression and anxiety. ‘I just know that I have to share my story. I don’t even believe in karma!’
She tells me she only wants to do what she thinks will make a difference. She knows opening up is a powerful tool. That’s how she managed to persuade some of her family and friends to seek counselling, especially when faced with life’s many challenges.
‘I’ll already be happy even if only one reader goes to a doctor.’ That’s why she’s sharing her story. She wants to show that it’s possible to build a better life, even with depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. ‘It’s not about being able to build a business, it’s about building a better life for yourself, even if you have mental health issues.’
‘It’s always going to be a journey.’ She said, as calm once flowed over her voice, ‘I’m still working, still coping, still living.’
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