Jan 25, 2023
“There are many depressed, mentally stressed people who look very happy and appear like their lives are well put together”
Sarimah has been in the public eye for more than two decades now. She broke into the scene on TV in 1997 when she was 18, hosting the RIM Chart Show and Kids NTV7. Then in 2001, she launched her eponymous solo album Sarimah, which quickly earned her recognition at the 2002 Music Industry Awards Malaysia (AIM) as Best New Artist and ERA Awards as Best Breakthrough Artist. Since then, a career in entertainment boomed and cemented her as a bona fide belle of local network TV with acting roles and a string of TV shows too long to list down here.
It must not have been easy in the fickle world of show business where a career is made or broken by the backbone of audience rating scores. “What I would like to share is that ultimately, [being a] public figure is a job,” Sarimah shares. “Sometimes the public figure aspect of that comes with people’s expectation of how a performer like me should look, behave, speak, walk, talk, eat. So when I’m out in public, it’s kind of hard to just be, you know, sort of a relaxed mummy version of me. [There are times where] people at tables look at me or ask for photos, and I’m having a really, really bad hair or bad skin day or my daughter is having a challenging day and she’s not in a good mood. So it can be a struggle…”
Sarimah and her husband Tunku Jamie Nadzimuddin Mudzaffar welcomed their daughter Tunku Sofia Najihah in July 2019. She has been open about her postpartum depression then and continues to advocate better awareness around the subject. She shares, “I’ve always had some form of anxiety since I was a teenager but I didn’t get diagnosed and become properly aware of it until after my daughter was born … thanks to my psychology studies, I was [more] aware and I knew that I needed to seek out a professional to help me through those really dark times of severe postpartum depression and anxiety, and I managed to pull myself out with a lot of kind support and hard deep therapy work.
“It took me six months to heal and I still suffer from bouts of anxiety here and there but I have different coping skills now. In fact the experience matured me and helped me become more focused and grounded as a person. I don’t let myself burn out. I don’t bite off more than I can chew in terms of work as well as personal matters.”
Since then, Sarimah has been more outspoken about mental health awareness, being an active speaker and moderator in discussions and forums both online and offline focusing on topics related to mental health, women’s welfare, cyber ethics, suicide prevention and compassionate therapy. She has been the ambassador for Women’s Centre For Change in Penang, a Cervical Cancer Awareness ambassador with MAKNA (Majlis Kanser Nasional) and an active speaker with MIASA (Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association) Malaysia where she was appointed patron for the 2021/2022 term—a crucial time in the storm of the mental health crisis when urgent calls for help were at its peak.
“Behind everybody’s mask of their job or their title or status is the authentic person who has ups and downs, good days and bad days and we’re all essentially in the same boat, handed with different circumstances and our own [personal] struggles.”
To quote her favourite physician, Dr Gabor Maté says that “Every human being has a true, genuine, authentic self. And the trauma is the disconnection from it, and the healing is the reconnection with it.” This is Sarimah’s healing in progress.
ABOVE Images: Imran Sulaiman; hair: Cindy Hor; makeup: Epie; outfit: Balmain
What’s the self-talk you do when you’re feeling down?
I’ll just tell myself “Okay, it’s time to get moving” because moving is living and living is moving. And nothing helps you feel better than those lovely endorphins. So my
go-to coping strategy whenever I’m feeling down or stressed is to get moving—be it a brisk walk or a 10-minute jog around the block to clear the head; and I always start my day with gratitude for being alive, able, healthy, and [also for] what I have.
You’ve come out as an advocate for mental health awareness in the last few years. Could you tell us more?
Nowadays I’m careful to make sure that I take care of my spiritual, physical and mental health before taking care of everyone else’s. And my priorities have shifted now and they’re all about what works for my daughter, my husband and me first before anyone else in my life. And that’s allowed me to be able to be mentally stronger, more focused on my family, my work, clients and people I work with. So I’m really in a more grounded place now personally and professionally.
Ironically it is at this age that I’m probably stronger and fitter mentally, physically and spiritually than I was before. So it’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of therapy, a lot of exercise and a lot of being vulnerable, and just shedding layers and being honest with myself and those close to me.
You exercise often—take us through your current weekly routine.
Well, [I exercise] Monday to Sunday. Every alternate day I’m doing weight training and I have a personal trainer [come round] once a week. I do barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells on alternate days. I do 30 minutes of cardio on the other days be it running, jogging or on the elliptical trainer, depending on how tired I am. I also walk all the time everywhere. If possible, I park cars further than they need to be parked. I sometimes watch Netflix and TV with my husband on movie nights standing up … I drink an awful lot of water. I try to get as much sleep as I can. I mean, I really do keep moving every single day, be it cardio or weight training and I do Pilates for my core. Yeah, so I love it. Fitness is my thing. Health is wealth. And wealth is feeling that peace within.
Back in early 2020, you tweeted about postpartum depression. What do you think is still misunderstood about it?
The biggest misunderstanding about mental health issues is that a person with mental health conditions can’t function or there’s something wrong with them. Essentially all of us have a mental health issue just like we all have some sort of physical health issue, be it a bad knee or diabetes or something more terminal. And the same goes for mental health. It could be something not so serious on the scale to something very serious like psychosis, where somebody ends up self-harming or harming another person. So it’s all within a varying [spectrum] of sorts. And I think the biggest misconception is you’re either not crazy or you are. Two polars. Where else most of us sway between both sides depending on what life throws us daily. Some of the common words used especially for postpartum is often “Oh, it’s just a hormonal issue.” Yes, mental health problems can be a hormonal issue, however its severity is compounded by other issues like surroundings, family, history, childhood adversities, even economics and life opportunities.
Your top tips for holistic well-being?
We’re a society that likes to reward strength by not being vulnerable. Instead of saying “I’m suffering,” we always say “I’m okay.” So we need to change that. I mean, there’s a huge correlation between suppression of anger and rage, and having heart attacks and even cancer. Even in utero, the fetus is impacted by the mother’s emotional well-being. The famous physician and author Maté says that the body never lies. It keeps its stories, every single incident, and every single pain and sadness in the body and if we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge it and feel it, it cannot be suppressed forever and pours out in rage, in diseases and often with actions that we regret.
If you had to run a promotional campaign for mental health awareness, what would it say?
I would ask everybody not why the addiction, but why the pain? What are you really feeling? And I’d probably also run a campaign that says, “It’s okay to be okay.” Because everyone’s focused on “it’s okay to not be okay”, surprisingly now we have a tendency as a society to sometimes only focus on the negative and often we feel the guilt of being happy and thriving. This causes a cycle of self-blame and no one breaks out of the victim- rescuer-perpetrator triangulation. Someone’s gotta be blamed always. We need to get people to open up and say, “Look, let’s not just survive anymore. Let’s thrive together.”
On Maté’s quote “ask not why the addiction, but why the pain”—what do you think your “addiction” was?
I think we all have various addictions in life and mine was perhaps to work. Achieving at work would [give me] a sense of being good enough. Therefore, if I can do this much work in a day and do three MC jobs in a day, then somehow I was amazing and I was a super capable human being. I realised that I was just driving myself down to the ground with burnout and my sense of achievement got sort of twisted. In my younger years, because I’m half Irish, half Malay, there were a lot of cultural challenges living in many countries growing up and a lot of issues such as bullying. And I thought to be accepted, I had to entertain and make people laugh … I guess that became the addiction—to make other people feel happy at the cost of my own happiness until I realised it and I was able to step back and put my own mental and physical health first.
What is the one message you would like our readers to take away from this?
I would say to look at yourself from all aspects of success: mental, spiritual, psychosocial; you are not just one thing. You’re not just your body and your looks. You’re not just those thoughts that tell you you’re not good enough. You’re not just [a reflection of] the friends who don’t pick up the phone and who may have back-stabbed you.You are not just one thing, you are everything. And we need to offer ourselves real compassion, not sympathy, but empathy. And when you can really look at yourself and your own history, and really sit with yourself and allow yourself to acknowledge pain and loss and everything that we all go through as humans, then you’re able to offer that to other people. Connect with yourself so that you can connect with others and that will ultimately bring you the opportunities to belong—that we’re all looking for.