Mental Health: Totems

In Inception, the idea of totems as items to remind characters they are in a dream is a key point to the story. Totems are basically little trinkets or items that only the characters in the movie knew about in detail, and if the details were off, they would know they were in a dream.

This might all sound like some science fiction mumbo jumbo, but the concept of having a totem really helped in my battle with depression. And that’s what I’d like to share in this post today.

I call them sanity totems, because that’s their job. It’s to help remind us of our sanity. How it works is that these items hold a emotionally charged story behind them. And when you are loosing your mind in depression, about to jump or do some other dangerous actions, you hold them, look at them, and most importantly, remember them.

It’s basically a sticky note that you carry around to remind you to ‘keep it together, bro’. So an example, and this might seem strange, but this is my totem.
Yes, a suicidal person with a knife, how could this possibly go wrong! But surprisingly, this knife saved me more than once. Not just from that one time I was almost mugged in the Philippines, but also from myself.

The story behind how I got the knife is that it was a gift. A close friend of mine found it lying on the beach one day, and decided to give it to me. Now, that does not seem like much to most people, but it meant a lot to me. It was the first time in my life where someone got me a gift because they thought of me, and not out of obligation.

Now the knife itself has a pretty interesting back story. It is a standard issue swiss army knife for the Singapore Armed Forces. I was issued another one when I was conscripted, but despite having both of them during my time serving, this was the only one that made it back with me. It was found at the shore of a beach near an area where the Naval Diving Unit trained, which meant it very likely was dropped during training and got washed onto shore.

Some of the metal parts have been dented, which makes unfolding some of the a tools a challenge, and the blade doesn’t come out as smoothly as a new one. The logo has also faded. But it had character. My friend said it was like me, and I kind of agree. I have a collection of knives (it’s my hobby), and this is still my favourite. Nine years old now.

I’m also a martial artist, trained in weapons fighting, which includes knife. My training included weapon control, to prevent accidentally cutting yourself. It’s like safety training with firearms, and it’s oddly soothing a process, since your focus is on the blade while doing dexterity training.

I carry the knife with me all the time, even during depression. And whenever I was suicidal, I end up reaching for the knife. Since it was also something that could end my life, it became my go-to tool of killing myself when no other options were available.

But every time I have the knife in my hand, I remember my training, and I start doing the dexterity practice. I also reminiscence about better days, and my circle of friends, one of whom was the one who gave me my knife. It has so far, always granted me enough lucidity to step away from whatever suicidal ideation I had at the time.

I highly recommend that if you have a mental illness that periodically grabs your sanity aside, to keep a totem with you. It doesn’t have to be something as dangerous as mine. It can be a piece of jewellery, or your favourite watch. Something you can hold, look at, and feel. Preferably an object you frequently use. It could really give you an edge in fighting the madness if you get the chance to look at it, just to snap you out for the one second it takes to save your life.

If you already have something like a totem, perhaps you’d like to share them? Leave something in the comment, I would love to hear from all of you.

(Note: For more links on resources, blogs or articles about mental health and services, visit the Links and Resources page.)




  1. I’m glad that you brought it up (and very happy that it has helped you so much of course!). I, too, carry totems. Mine vary depending on the challenge I’m currently facing, but they serve similar a function to yours; to remind me what is important, real, worth fighting for. I have an ear piercing (constantly with me) that is symbolic to me personally because of a number of reasons (a character of mine has one like it, and I got it at a time of important change in my life), but apart from that, I wear a totem (usually a piece of jewellery) when I go out, and I often find myself touching it to get grounded. And writing this, I just recalled that I have one permanently in my wallet, too. I’ve just not really thought of it as a totem, but I guess that’s what it is. It’s a playing card, but I’ve attached personal meaning to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your totems sounds so much cooler than my crummy old knife. Ear piercing, jewellery, and playing cards. Totally anime. But I guess we go with what we get! Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. my sanity totem was/is my hand-watches…. i tend to get lost in myself & to keep track of my own consciousness i use the watches to keep track of me … 🙂 – Tushar from Dhaka


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