As I walked through the doors of the café where I was scheduled to meet Putri Eilya Sofea Bt Azman, 20, or better known as Sofea among her family and friends, it didn’t take me long to spot this beautiful young lady.
As I took my seat in front of her, her sweet smile was so warm and welcoming that I immediately felt comfortable talking to her. Sofea had a glow around her and if I didn’t know better, I woudn’t have known that this is the same girl who tried to end her life twice.
Mental illness is not something to be taken for granted. Sofea’s story is an inspiring testimonial of how with the right help and support system, everyone can pull through in life.
This is Sofea’s story…
Sofea’s parents divorced when she was at the tender age of 10, leaving an emotional scar. Growing up, she was also emotionally, physically and sexually abused.
To cope with her emotions, she learned to mask them by being actively involved in school.
“I did not want to show how I felt and I became the person that smiled through everything. It was not until my foundation year after I shifted from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to Johor Bahru (JB) to live with my dad, that I started to realise I was crumbling inside. That was the lowest point in my life,” shared Sofea.
Due to the past, family was not an option for Sofea to lean on for support. Thankfully, Sofea was blessed with a pillar of strength whom she could trust and rely on. Her then boyfriend and now fiancé, helped her pull through. “Even though my family would scold him, he remained by my side,” she said with a smile.
Time went by, Sofea completed her foundation course and eventually returned to KL. However, things got messier back home, her dad fell sick and he was financially down.
So, she decided to work part-time at a local science centre. Sofea found joy working there and after about five months, she received the green light from her dad that she could continue her studies to fulfil her dreams to become a doctor.
“I was happy! Medicine is something that I love. Although my friends and brothers were discouraging me, saying that being a doctor will not make me rich, the interest to be a doctor has always been in me,” she said.
From dream to nightmare
Sofea went to Russia to pursue her dreams. Being in a foreign world, away from those whom she could trust, Sofea was feeling the impact of her past and present. Having existing emotional wounds and living in a cold and stressful environment, led to moments of panic attacks. Thankfully, she initially had a support system from friends and her fiancé to help her pull through.
“I did well in my studies despite everything but I suddenly realised that I was not alright. In my room I would cry, have panic attacks and soon, my friends started becoming distant,” she shared. “Honestly, I’ve not shown this side of me to others before and when they saw that I was feeling down, they started distancing themselves.”
Sofea passed off her friends’ reactions as a result of pressure due to their studies but when she returned to KL for Hari Raya celebrations, her friends back home became distant as well.
Sofea wondered why and although she didn’t know the answer then, she thought perhaps she did something wrong.
She stayed to celebrate with her loved ones but as the day for her to return to Russia came closer, Sofea’s panic attacks worsened. “I was trembling and had difficulties sleeping. That was when my fiancé suggested that I head to the hospital for help. However, being mentally ill, I did not want to burden others. So, I said ‘no’, I didn’t want to go.”
The turning point Sofea wasn’t getting any better and her fiancé had no choice but to go against her will.
She met a psychiatrist who had a long session with her. “My fiancé was there with me. When I couldn’t speak up, he helped me. I broke down during the session and at the end, the psychiatrist concluded that I was not fit to return to Russia to continue my studies,” she recalled.
Her doctor laid down options for Sofea to consider but she was afraid to go against the initial plan of her returning to Russia. One of her biggest concerns was how her mother would react. Weighing out the consequences, her fiancé and her decided that it was best not to tell her mom.
Instead, they told her father and thankfully, he agreed to be supportive but thought it would still
be best for her to continue her studies abroad.
However, things did not turn out as how she would have wanted it to. On the day of her flight, Sofea’s mom found out about her diagnosis. “My fiancé tried to explain to my mom but she went berserk. I was going to head to the airport and my mom wouldn’t even say goodbye. I was already feeling depressed and this caused me to break down.” Sofea said.
Feeling broken, Sofea attempted to end her life. Her fiancé immediately rushed her to the Emergency Room. During her stay at the hospital, Sofea’s mom did not pay a visit but instead, chose to rant to her future mother-in-law about her daughter.
“My fiance’s mom never condemned me. She’s a motherly figure who has always supported me. After I was discharged from hospital, I stayed at her home for a week because my dad was all the way in JB,” she explained. Staying with her mom was not an option.
Not long after, her dad proposed for Sofea to stay with him. Although, she didn’t find the idea good as there was tension with her and her siblings who were living with her dad.
She did not feel comfortable nor safe there. However, her fiancé convinced her to give her dad a chance to try.
While Sofea was living with her dad, she realised that her father was still not able to accept her condition and she felt sad.
In a fragile state, that was when Sofea attempted to end her life for the second time, just weeks after her first attempt.
Sofea was warded again but this time, she was not going to be discharged so soon. On the third day, her doctor decided to transfer her to the psychiatric ward.
A place like no other
When Sofea found out about the transfer, she questioned herself, “Why am I here? I’m not crazy. So, why?”
She felt hurt and lonely. Sofea shared her first memory of entering the psychiatric ward, “I was afraid and the minute I entered, I heard a person scream. Some of them had their hands bound and I was very scared.”
Sofea was warded at the psychiatric ward for 13 days and it was during her stay there that changed her life forever.
Hoping to debunk the perception of psychiatric wards, she said, “When I had panic attacks, the patients at the ward came to my aid. The nurses were nice but they were busy and so, it was the patients that calmed me down. I was so touched because they helped even though I did not even know their names yet,” she said.
During her stay there, Sofea opened up to the patients and learned about their story too. “Despite their various diagnosis, one important attribute that stood out was that their hearts were so pure despite being diagnosed with a mental illness,” shared Sofea.
Sofea became happier in the ward and everyone became friends.
“We shared our stories, we somehow understood each other and we did not judge. I was happy in the ward and these patients listened to me,” she shared with a smile.
“My dream is to become a doctor and I was happy that I could help people. The patients talked, opened up and although some remained quiet, they would share their snacks with me and that was something.”
Even Sofea’s relationship with her father made positive improvements during her stay at the psychiatric ward. “It has always been awkward between me and my father. He never knew my story, he never asked. There was one day when we fought and I poured out everything that was affecting me,” she shared.
Sofea’s dad admitted that he never knew and told her that she could go to him whenever she needed to. “I was skeptical at first but he did try and today, I’m able to share with him my problems.”
She credits her stay at the psychiatric ward as the reason why she has become better. Feeling empowered, she said “It was there that I learnt to accept everything that happened in the past and to forgive those who have hurt me.”
Healing is a process
“When I shared my story, I wanted people to know that healing is a process. What’s most important is to get up when you fall,” she emphasised. “The stigma of mental illness is always there but I’m happy that a lot of people are now opening up. I used to be alone and I couldn’t bring myself to share with others but now, I can and it makes me happier to tell people that they’re not alone.”
Since opening up about her story, Sofea has helped countless people and her story, shared all over the globe. She has also had a mental health expert from Australia contact her to give advice and another from Jakarta. Celebrities as well have gotten in touch with her to give their encouragement.
Sofea stresses that if you are battling with a mental condition, getting help is vital. As for the community, it is time to start becoming positive. “Positivity is so important and many people take it for granted,” she says. Positivity is what helped her heal too.
Her advice to others is, “Kind words and positive actions can actually help people. I learnt the hard way but when people are nice, it helps me to get things straight. I would like people to know that it’s not an easy journey and you need to help yourself as an individual. My therapist told me, love yourself, when you love yourself, people can’t break you.”
The power of social media
During her stay, Sofea had access to technology and shared her experience at the psychiatric ward on Twitter and although she did not expect it, 2000 people and counting have shared her post ever since.
“I did not expect my tweet to blow up to this scale and a lot of social media were dropped me a personal message to say thank you for opening up. Now, they do not feel alone. Some of them were afraid to see a doctor and I encouraged them. Days later, I received ‘thank you’ messages for encouraging them to see a doctor and for helping although we do not know each other personally,” she said.
Sofea never knew that she could make such a huge impact in not just one but in the lives of many. Soon after that, she created a blog to share her story to help others. Plus, she found writing therapeutic too.
Handcrafted with love
Sofea recently started her own line of handcrafted natural soaps – XOXO SOAP by Sofea. The soaps are made from natural ingredients and are suitable for both body and face use. The range of soaps nurtures the skin with moisture, cleanses it from within to keep the skin soft, healthy and supple. Check them out on Instagram @xoxo. by.sofea !