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I Am Loveable

As the kilometres tick along as I ran earlier this evening, my mind drifted to my childhood and bad memories started flooding into my mind. The podcast I was listening to started to drone on in the background, my breathing becomes shallow and fast, while my legs continue to turn, my cadence increasing.

My father has tried calling me 2 weeks ago, and I ignored it. It was the second day of Chinese New Year, and I think he wanted to send me good wishes for the new year. This year, I opted to only wish him via text on WhatsApp. It does sound like I am a terrible daughter, for ignoring his calls and not wishing him in person via a video call. I am trying not to beat myself up too much about it because I no longer want to do what I am obliged to do. I want to be in control over my mental well-being and not let anyone muck that up. I did not even respond to his voice message on WhatsApp informing me that he has remitted some ‘ang pow’ money into my bank account. It is my money to begin with anyways. He lives off the rent money from my house in Malaysia and pocket money from my other two sisters. Reading what I am writing all sounds really bad. I have to admit, the voice in my head that tells me that I am an ungrateful daughter, visits me each time I feel angry and resentful towards my father. I try hard not to self-flagellate, but that voice in my head haunts me.

This whole idea that a good Chinese daughter will bring honour to the family still rings true. I think it is an antiquated virtue that does not relent, no matter what. The more I process what happened long ago, the more I realise that I no longer can keep being the filial Chinese daughter to may father. I have to contend with knowing that I have done my duties as a good daughter, caring for both my late mother, as she succumbed to cancer and to my father, when he suffered a heart attack soon after my mother passed. I must believe that this is good enough for me to rid the pangs of guilt I still feel whenever I feel angry towards my parents. It is all a paradox to me.

So, what were the memories that flooded my mind when I was running earlier? What is was, simply put, was that I am still coming to terms with the reality that I was an unwanted child, an after thought, an accident baby, as I have been told by my mother so many times: “We didn’t plan to have you after your brother. But, then, papa and I thought, maybe you’d also be a son.” Instead, I am their daughter. Such a disappointment.

I have to believe that I was loved. But at the same time, I know that if I continue to hold onto this belief, I will never feel the pain from being unwanted. As my therapist reminds me: “We can’t heal without feeling the feelings.” I am loveable, I am loveable, I am loveable. This will be my new mantra from now on.

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Feeling Overwhelmed

It has been awhile since I’ve updated my blog. I haven’t been able to do much of anything since my last post. I’ve since stopped working and have been given sick leave from my psychiatrist since mid September. My follow up appointment is mid Oct, and I feel that I am no better than when my sick leave began. I no longer feel that I can go back to working as a mental health nurse at this point. I am unsure if I ever will be able to doing this work.

While running today, I finally decided to listen to a podcast by Tim Ferriss that was aired on September 15th, 2020 with Debbie Millman, the host of a very popular podcast called Design Matters. It was a difficult listen because both of them shared their experiences of childhood sexual abuse, their experiences of realising that they needed help to cope with mental health issues, and what strategies they have used and are still using to assist with their recovery.

What struck me most is what Debbie Millman said earlier on in the podcast, and I quote:

And when I got older, talking 15, 16, 17 years old, at that point, I thought, “Well, I’m not going to let this impact me. I’m not going to let him win my life. I’m going to try to have the best life that I could have.” Not realizing at that young age, as you’ve mentioned, the body keeps the score. You cannot outrun your own psyche. It is not possible. It is just not possible.

Your psyche is too strong to just take those experiences and sweep them under a rug and never ever look at them again.

– Debbie Millman

This has been my default thinking to minimise what has happened to me throughout my early teenage years to early last year when I first was officially diagnosed with clinical depression. I was working in a locked mental health ward and has just started my job there for only 4 weeks before I got unwell. This was definitely not the first time I have had a mental breakdown. I have remembered numerous depressive episode throughout my teens, young adulthood, and throughout my 30’s but I did not think of seeking professional help at that point because it was just unthinkable. It just was not something that I would have done because of the stigma surrounding my culture and where I was brought up (All I can say is that I grew up in a Asian family in Southeast Asia). Even if I did seek out help, I would not have known where to begin, as the health care system where I grew up did not have a robust mental health service due to the stigma attached to it. Somehow, my coping mechanism through believing that what happened to me was nothing and it was in the past and how I would not let it affect my life, kept me going. But, as Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score”, my body has found a way to finally show signs of the abuse and everything started crashing down on me.

I will be turning 41 this November and listening to Debbie Millman and Tim Ferriss talk about their lifelong struggle with mental illness and how Debbie talks about being in therapy for the past 30 years, somehow, made me feel that this is going to be my reality as well, and I feel defeated mostly, but, at the same time, there is a glimmer of hope for me as others have gone through similar journeys. The feeling of defeat mainly comes from the hopeless that I feel and how this cycle of depression will come and go, and come back again, and there is nothing much I can do about it apart from learning new coping strategies to help manage and hopefully prevent another depressive episode by being more mindful of when my mood is starting to dip. I also feel that, does it mean that I need 3o years of therapy to be able to finally have some semblance of actually living life, and not just going through the motions as what I have been doing the past 34 years? This is something that I will only know as my journey continues towards seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Here is the link of the podcast transcript from the podcast I mentioned in my blog, if you’re interested:

Our Dog Boyd

Boyd came to live with us a day before New Zealand went into a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Our previous dog, Marlow, has just passed a week prior, and I was devastated. I knew that I needed to adopt another dog to fill the void. I was in a bad place at the time, still recovering from a concussion and my mood started to slide into a depressive episode. I found Boyd on the Dog Rescue Dunedin (DRD) website and instantly felt a connection to him when I read his profile. It was probably due to the fact that Boyd has had a difficult life prior to being put up for adoption. He has lived with 3 other foster homes, and things has not panned out well for him. I emailed the DRD coordinator (whom will be referred to as Donna) to enquire about Boyd, and she rang me on a Saturday evening. From the start, Donna was apprehensive and tried to describe how Boyd is like behaviourally; how he is anxious with other dogs, how he requires someone to slowly build a bond with; she told me about him being at 3 other foster homes. She describes that he will whine and howl loudly during walks if there was another dog in sight. Somehow, I knew Boyd would be the perfect dog for someone like me. He was unloved and traumatised in his youth. It was almost like I wanted to protect him so that in some way, I could recover from my own traumatic experiences.

Marlow and Hugo

Within a couple of days, I met Boyd and brought him out for walks, to get acquainted with him. Boyd came to visit my home and was slowly introduced to our four cats, just to see if he would tolerate them: which he did, almost perfectly. The whole adoption process happened very quickly, and Boyd came to live with us on the 24 March 2020. I spent a lot of time with him at home, working with him to get him settled. He was very anxious. I had about 8 months with him at home because I was recovering from a concussion and then in June 2020, I took time off work for almost 4 months before going back to full time work in December 2020. Boyd brought some calm in my life at that difficult time, and I knew that he too, found solace being with me. Throughout this period from the 24 March to November 2020, Boyd has bit into the aluminium window lock and jumped out the window, twice. Once was within the first 2 weeks of him moving with us. It was a windy night and our house rule about dogs is that, the bedroom is off limits. He settled quite well the first 6 days, sleeping in the living room on his own, until that windy night. That was the first time he bit and broke the window lock and jumped out. I woke up the next morning to a broken window and a missing Boyd. Luckily, he didn’t go far. He decided to take shelter at a bus stop just two doors down. He has been sleeping with us since that night.

This pattern of escape continued from the beginning. Just when my partner and I thought that he has finally settled and feel comfortable that we will always come home after work. When I went back to work in December of 2020, I constantly worry that Boyd would hurt himself, escape our back yard (which he has numerous times)… mending the broken fence each time has not deterred him. We couldn’t keep in alone in the house because he would break the window and jump out. Our garage is under the house, it’s quite a height and we didn’t want him to hurt himself. We’ve had neighbours put in complaints of him whining and howling to the city council while we are away at work.

Boyd is very attached to us now, especially me. I’ve noticed that his anxiety has gotten worse to the point that he cannot bear being on his own in the living room, even for 10 minutes if I move to the bedroom. There was an incident where I caught him just in time from jumping out the window again, when I was in the bedroom with my partner, putting fresh bed sheets on. We were away for only 10 mins.

Boyd is suffering. I know how that feels. He wants to be with us, love us, but the more he bonds with us, the more petrified he is of losing us because that is probably all he has known his entire life. He is 10 years old now, and I can’t bear to see him so stressed and anxious all the time. It’s cruel. It’s true what dog behaviourists say about dogs like Boyd: there are two categories: those that can be rehabilitated and those that are just broken.

I have to let him go. He will be in a better place very soon. We love you Boyd.

Me and Boyd

For more photos of our cats, Marlow and Boyd, visit our instagram page at: https://www.instagram.com/scorpioneolee/

Going back to Therapy

I have just re-engaged with therapy last week on Friday after taking a break from it to focus on psychological work with a clinical psychology for the past 11 weeks. I am still on a temporary schedule for the next three sessions while waiting for a more permanent slot when it comes up.

When I requested for a session with the therapist, I wasn’t in a good space. I could feel the depression descending and as it always does, it filled me with dread and hopelessness, that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like. I went to bed restless, with my mind, having a field trip of tormenting me. I did eventually fall asleep, albeit a restless one. Somehow, I managed through the next four days at work, with only moments of despair and dread. Only during therapy did I realise that I have fallen back into the habit of coping through numbing and busyness. I wouldn’t have realised this if I did not have a therapy session. Therapy was a good reminder that I need to be mindful to move towards switching to helpful coping styles when I am falling back to old habits of numbing, ambivalence and busyness.

On a good note though, I am starting to enjoy work much more. Anticipatory anxiety every night before bed time is still in the fore, making sleep quite restless. There is a lot of psychological preparation that I need to make to calm myself down and not go into a panic every time I need to facilitate a group. I am not sure when this is going to be less prominent, but, I am hopeful that with time, and lots of practice with grounding skills, it will get easier.

Unrelenting Sadness

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt sadness. This feeling of sadness is like a fog that transcends and envelops me, like a thin veil, always there, always looming, waiting to swallow me whole. Growing up, I was a tenacious kid, curious, playful, always longing for my mother’s attention and love, but never quite getting enough of it. Play with my neighbourhood friends and books, were my way of escaping the sexual abuse that was disguised as play time by my brother, and the emotional and physical abuse that I endured from my mother, every time I pushed the limits of my curfew, so that I could stay out playing with my friends, just a little bit longer. Despite knowing that I would be punished for staying out too late and breaking my curfew, I continued to stay out late because the joy and freedom I felt, for being a child, savouring each play time as though it would be my last. It was bliss before the storm – the pain endured after was worth this playful freedom.

In my teens, play time naturally ceased as my mother’s academic expectations of me skyrocketed. There was no time for play. My mother was relentless in keeping me on a strict study schedule around the house chores that was expected of me. Also, sexuality was confusing for me as a teen. Sex was to me, a form of brotherly sisterly love, and this was all I knew. I felt his love being stripped away when my brother suddenly stopped ‘playing’ with me. As my girl friends in school talked about boys with such fervour, I on the other hand, did not shared those proclivities, and because of this, I was quite the outlier that way. Books then were still my best escape from this sadness that I don’t quite understand and when I read, I felt free to explore the worlds that are so eloquently described. I devoured any book that I can get my hands on, be it in the school or public libraries or books that I rented out with food money that I saved. I hardly bought books fresh from the shelves as I never had enough money to do so. Nourishing my mind and soul with words were more important than feeding hunger. Sadness became more pronounced as I tried to numb myself from the gnawing loneliness that I felt and frequent masturbation became a substitute for the lost of brotherly ‘love’, to fill the void inside me.

When I turned 17, I flung myself into my first romantic relationship with a boy that showed me interest because I wanted to drown away the sexual attraction I had for my best friend in school, who is a girl. I wanted to cure my ‘homosexual tendencies’, per say and this boy was my get away ticket. I clung to his love like my dear life depended on it. The relationship lasted 7 years and finally, he could no longer love me, as I have put all my hopes and desires to be loved onto him and did not notice that I was suffocating him with my neediness and my need to squeeze every drop of love from him to substitute the lack of love that I never got from my parents. When our relationship ended, a part of me died with it as I was convinced that I was and never will be loveable and the sadness became all consuming.

In my twenties, I cling to any affection that I can get from anyone that showed me any flicker of romantic interest. I was open to dating any guy that wanted to date me and I would be sexual with them, if that is what it takes to feel wanted and loved. Ironically, it only left me empty and when it is all over, feeling of shame and guilt would wash over me. Paradoxically, I continued to plunge myself into these relationships, knowing fully that it would only end up hurting me even more. It was like an itch that needed scratching.

Being in my early forties now, I am just in the beginning of my journey to lick the wounds of the past. I am only just beginning to put the pieces together and make sense of my life that has passed me in a blur. It is hard not to grief the lost of time and what could have been. This sadness that resides deep inside me will always be my most loyal companion. This sadness pops it ugly head with each day that I take, totally out of my control. Because of this, I let myself ride its wave. Somehow, there is a morbid sense of relief that I know, the option of suicide is possible, it is something within my control, that I can bear to continue living in this sadness, just knowing that I have that option.

Kindness

The last couple of weeks, I’ve reflected a lot about what has been happening around me. I’ve been surrounded by so much love and kindness. In the beginning, I did not know how to respond to all the kindness that has been shown to me. All I kept doing was saying “thank you for your support and thank you for everything you’ve done for me”. I’ve built layers and layers of thick walls to protect myself, and because of my traumatic childhood and all my experiences as an adult has mostly been bad, I have learned to become cynical… I just couldn’t trust anyone… The first thing that would always come to mind whenever anyone showed me kindness was, “What is this person up too? There must be some ulterior motive”.

But, the last couple of weeks have slowly peeled away the layers and layers of walls that I’ve erected, and I’ve started to realise that the kindness shown to me by my colleagues at work, is real. I feel loved, respected and supported by them, every single day I’m at work. I’ve recently had a depressive episode and because of the support from my colleagues, I have gotten out of the slum, much quicker than I normally would. I feel grateful, so grateful… but, there’s also sadness that I haven’t had kindness shown to me most of my life until now. But, I am going to hold on to the kindness.. Savour it… And continue to peel away the layers of walls that I’ve kept standing all these years.

Being Quiet of Late

Since being back at work full time in Dec of 2019, I have not been able to sit and write as much as I would like to. There is so much going on that I’ve had to prioritize my mental capacity to focusing on getting through work and juggling part time study as well. At times I am aware that I keep myself so busy because “being busy” has been my go-to coping mechanism. I have taken some time off work early April by working lesser hours. It does help take some of the pressure off. Ideally, I would like to just stop working and just focus on being a student and on my recovery. It’s a luxury that I can’t afford at the moment with credit card debt to pay off (I’ve written about this in my earlier blog post).

I’ll try to write more because it helps. Till the next time. Thank you for staying tuned.

Roller Coaster Ride

Last Thursday, I felt the best I have felt in a very long time. Why did I feel good about myself last Thursday? The reason is simple enough: I had enough mental reserve to provide a distressed client the mental and emotional support that she needed at the time. I can’t say more about the encounter due to confidentiality, but, what I can say is that it felt good to be able to support someone else and direct my focus away from my own mental health struggles to give another some reprieve from theirs. This warm, fuzzy feeling lasted for the rest of Thursday evening. It was short lived though…Come Friday, my mental health started to take a dive and at this very moment of writing this, I can feel myself plunging into the depths of darkness, the darkness that pulls you in, deeper and deeper, until there is nothing left to feel, apart from the emptiness and vast open void that you feel inside.

I am getting hooked with so many thoughts and feelings and I know what I need to do to diffuse and unhook myself from these unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Believe me, all I have been doing since Friday morning was that every chance I get an ounce of strength… to ground, re-centre and bring myself back to my present self… damn it! I even have a worksheet that my psychologist have given me to jot down how it went each time I used diffusing and unhooking strategies… it isn’t working. I think the reason why I am writing this post is because I need to try and quiet my thoughts, quiet my feelings … suppressing and numbing is not really working for me anymore. Supressing and numbing was all I used all these years to cope, and it isn’t working anymore. What do I do? What do I do?!

Here We Go Again… An Endless Cycle

For the past month, I have slowly found my mental health deteriorating. I could feel that slow, dread and despair, just lurking around the corner. From my work as a mental health nurse, I know the theory and concepts behind ‘unhooking‘, a term used in ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy), where you ‘unhook’ from difficult thoughts and feelings by acknowledging that they are there, but instead of focusing on them, you let them buzz in the background. The idea is to focus on the present moment, and not be dominated by these difficult thoughts and feelings, in order to live the life we want. It does work, when it works. As with many other coping strategies, unhooking is another skill that requires us to repeatedly practice and use and make it so automatic, that our brain automatically uses it as a positive coping mechanism when our thoughts and feelings becomes unhelpful. It’s great when it works, but for me, at this point, it’s a hit and miss at most times. So, what I am trying to say is that I am not quite there yet!

The irony of it all is that I teach my clients these skills. From various grounding strategies, such as physical grounding, object grounding, safe space visualisation and unhooking, to name a few. I understand the concepts behind them and the reasons why they work for some and not others, but, I find it difficult to use and practice them for myself.

My psychologist has given me a task to practice ‘unhooking’ on a daily basis. I have been trying, but, it hasn’t really worked out the way I thought it would. I am quite frustrated with myself. Maybe it’s the stress of work and the stress of an assignment that I am currently racking my brains to try and complete…Maybe my concentration is so bad that I can’t focus on any of the tasks I have in hand at the moment… Maybe it’s just the simple fact that I am slipping into a depressive episode again. The thing is, I have not even surfaced to the light from the episode 8 months ago. It’s just an endless cycle of ‘I’m ok’ and ‘I’m not ok’ and this is just so f***king exhausting!

Focusing on the Present Moment

Firstly, I just want to say that this is going to be a short post. I have not have time to really sit and write; to just ponder and write. Juggling part time study and full time work is much more of a challenge now then a year ago when I was in a better headspace.

Today is my last day of the Easter weekend holiday. I am glad that I have some time off work, but the anticipatory anxiety of going back to work tomorrow, has started bubbling up since Sunday morning. I do like my days off, but at the same time, it is like a double-edged sword because I feel at edge, almost untethered, knowing that I have to function and face work until the weekend arrives again.

Saturday morning was supposed to be a relaxing and calm day, because I finally convinced myself that going for a short hike nearby would do me good. Unfortunately, I was not able to enjoy the hike at all, my mind would not quiet down. I tried grounding myself to the sounds of the birds and the feel of the breeze on my face, but it did not work. What was supposed to be a calming and mindful outing, turned out to be a stressful one.

Since then, I keep berating myself for not being able to just enjoy the present moment. Little things would bring my thoughts back to my past and my mind would start to feed into the self-loathing and feeling unloved.

Focusing on the present moment sounds simple enough. But, really, it does take a lot of effort to make it work. Sometimes, it doesn’t not work at all. I guess I just have to keep practicing.

Note: the photo was taken during the hike at Taeri Mouth.