When Nicole K started The Tapestry Project in 2014, she knew the journey ahead would be difficult — not least because she herself grappled with depression, but because public acceptance of mental health issues was slim at the time.
"When I was first diagnosed with (depression) in 2006, even saying the word 'depression' resulted in either shaming or shunning," says Nicole.
Still, the writer — who declined to disclose her surname — wanted to provide people with mental health issues a platform for their voices to be heard: Even if it meant eliciting unpleasant emotions.
"I usually mentally prepare myself before I read a new submission, because you'd never know what you're going to get," she confides. "It does take an emotional toll on me, so I have to be mindful to take a break and recharge before I engage with the next person."
But it does little to hamper Nicole in her quest to help normalise discussions about mental health. The Tapestry Project's latest initiative, Sit With Me, was produced for the recent 2020 edition of the Singapore Writer's Festival.
The microsite — which can be viewed here — features 12 stories and poems from Singaporeans that explore how they dealt with their mental health during the tumultuous year. The site also comes with a warning: "Due to the nature of these stories, we ask that readers exercise discretion as some themes might be triggering."
Courtesy of Nicola Dreyer
In Sit With Me, a writer grapples with body dysmorphia intensified by the lockdown, while another speaks of a terse long distance relationship laced with self-harm. The concept of the virtual exhibition — with its name and accompanying photographs of empty chairs — is a reference to Gestalt therapy, a psychotherapy method that utilises chairs to help patients actualise and work through internal conflict.
As Nicole says, her work as a curator for essays about mental health — oftentimes intimate and raw — can be triggering, but she sees her experience with depression and anxiety as "an asset — not a liability".
"It may sound controversial, but I see my lived experience as an asset," she says. "It serves as a bridge to connect with people on their journeys, and helps me meet them where they're at."
One sign that her work is bearing fruit lies in the country's changing attitudes toward mental health.
Nicole says The Tapestry Project has seen a "steady increase" in the number of submissions since its inception. "When we started in 2014, we received maybe no more than five stories, all written under pseudonyms, for the whole year. Fast forward to 2020 and we've published nearly 30 stories (from February to October 2020) alone."
For Nicole, giving these stories a public platform to be shared and discussed is an essential stepping stone in making Singapore a more welcoming place for people with mental health issues.
"I think in order for any sort of change to happen — be it institutional, cultural or even personal — it requires us to take an honest look at ourselves," she says.
"We need to listen to the kinds of conversations that we're having with ourselves, as well as one another. And for that to happen, it takes awareness, openness, and time."
Visit The Tapestry Project's page here.
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