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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:

When to Maintain Boundaries in Relationships

I recently felt the need to block a close friend on a chat messaging app because our friendship has started to feel tenuous and strained. I do feel some sadness that our friendship has come to this, but, I have decided that my mental well-being is more important at this stage of my life than in trying to maintain this friendship. I have tried my best to be a supportive friend to her/him, but, I think I have fell short to fulfil her/his expectations of me and what friendship means to this person.

This post is my way of reaching out to this person because I do not feel I could unblock her/him and say what I needed to say to her/him in person. As this person is a friend I trust, I have shared my blog with her/him and I hope she/he will get this message. I wish you well and I hope for the best in your life’s journey. But, I think it is best for me to keep a boundary of distance between us for an indefinite time.

Let Yourself Feel Anger & Not Feel Guilty About It

For many years, I have not allowed myself to feel anger towards my parents for choosing to look the other way when I told them about what my brother did to me. What I felt mostly was sadness and disappointment in their indifference and their inability to comprehend what I have said to them. I was 16 when I told my mum what happened. Prior to telling her, it took me days to process what the meaning of the word ‘incest’ meant after I looked it up in the dictionary. When I first saw its definition, ‘sexual intercourse between closely related persons’, it was confusing to me. My brain could not make sense of what I used to think as play time with my brother to something that was actually wrong. Everything that I used to believe was turned inside out with this news article

Their only son was too precious to them and they would not allow anything unsavoury to blemish him. The word ‘incest’ was not known to me. I first saw the word in a newspaper article that covered a case of a grandfather that raped his 6 year old grand-daugther. Before that article, I believed that it was normal for older brothers to ‘play games’ with their younger sisters. It never occurred to me that it was unusual.

They could not comprehend or imagine their son doing that to me. They chose to shut me up by saying, “Don’t tell anyone.” I was 16 when I told my mother what happened. I agonised for days, thinking of words that I could use to tell my mother what happened, and school became a hazy web of existence since I realised what my brother did to me was incest. My body is there, but my mind was preoccupied with thoughts that what happened to me throughout my childhood was twisted, ugly and revolting. I felt sick.

So, yes, I am finally angry. I can finally feel angry over what my brother did to me and for my parents’ inaction. I no longer need to minimise and find excuses and rationalisation to make sense of what has happened. It is not my FAULT…. it never was!

Festive Seasons – Chinese New Year

I’ve missed work again today.

I had a breakdown this morning, sobbing at the breakfast table.

Feeling utterly overwhelmed

Wounds of the past, festering

Being brought back to the past

Preparing for Chinese New Year dishes for offerings and reunion meals

I hear my mother’s taunts of my incompetence as I tried my best to do her bidding in the kitchen.

“Not like that, you’re not slicing garlic right!”

“Make sure you don’t burn the garlic!”

“Turn the fire down!”

“Hurry up!”

How I’ve buried all these hurt

It’s festering now, pulling me down

Old wounds bleeding fresh again

Paralysing me, more tears

I missed work again

I feel defeated, a failure

My mother was right, “You never do things right!”

Filial Piety – Part 2: The Analog Clock

I have just realised that I should have mentioned that my posts can be triggering for some of you. It just never crossed my mind until recently. So, I will start of each blog if the content would have descriptions that could be disturbing to some. This is one of them.

As I have promised, this is part 2 of Filial Piety – to what end? that I wrote last week and had to stop because I could not continue writing at that point because it dredged up too many emotions within me that I could not contain if I continued to write it. I am now very aware to confront my troubled parts in piece-meal sizes so that I am able to be in control of how much I am able to process at one point and not risk re-traumatising myself with those buried memories.

From the age of 4, my mother would sit me down on the carpet in the living room and tried to teach me how to read an analog clock. I remember feeling overwhelmed and I just could not grasp the concept behind what each number on the clock meant. I got confused about the function and meaning of what the shorter hand was as compared to the longer hand. The numbers on the face of the clock always looked jumbled in my head each time I looked at it. I tried really hard to pay attention and make sense of the repetitions made by my mother, where she hoped that by repeating what those numbers meant would magically be imprinted into my mind. To my mother’s dismay, my tiny mind could not make sense of any of it, and she would berate me, “You’ll never learn this. Why are you so stupid!” Stupid – Somehow, I learnt the meaning of this word straightaway. It was then that I started to believe that stupid, was what I am.

Filial Piety: To What End?

According to Confucius, filial piety is the virtue of respect for one’s parents and elders. This virtue is also embedded in Buddhist and Taoist teachings. All cultures have some form of this expectation in varying degrees, but, it is more pronounced in cultures that are more collectivist in nature.

I remember fearing my mother’s rage for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories were when I was 2 or 3, my mother would sit me on the potty and leave me there for as long as she needed to complete her tasks in the kitchen. As she busied herself in the kitchen, I would play with a locket that my grandmother gave me. It was a black stone shaped into an eggplant, attached to a gold ring, where the chain would lace through it. I remember that I would suck on it as I sat on the potty and wait for my mother to be free to wash me. I would not make a sound as I quickly learnt that if I did, my mother would yell at me to be quiet. So, I would sit, suck on the black stone locket and wait patiently while watching my mother in the kitchen, waiting for her to glance over, but she never did. By the time she picks me up from the potty, my bum was already quite numb from sitting on the potty for so long. She would wash and dress me and leave me beside a small transistor radio. I loved that thing. It was my priced possession. The first one that I got was a red one and when that broke, my father bought an exact same one but in black. It had a retractable antenna and a dial at the top beside the on-off switch that you turn to set the frequency. I remember just sitting quietly beside the radio and listen to music as my mother went along with her house chores everyday. Music was my friend, my solace.

I do remember happier times when I was a toddler, even after the sexual abuse started. The fondest ones are the ones where I would sing and dance along whenever my favourite songs get played on the radio. Being able to do Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk was my favourite move and I relished the attention I got from the laughters of my father and sisters. In those happy snippets, I remember that there were no hearty laughters from my mother, only a smile carved on her face each time, while my brother was always absent.

I think I would need to continue this post for another time. I think I need to pause and contain my distressing emotions while I write this part of my life. I’ve decided to still publish this unfinished work because I feel that I need to get this out there. There will be a part 2 of this post at some point when I am ready to reopen my containment ‘vault’ and process through this part of my life in writing.

Sins of the Father

I guess you could consider this post as a sequel to my earlier post titled Sins of the Mother . I told my mother about the abuse at the hands of my brother when I was 16, but I waited to tell my father about it until more than a decade later. I was 32 when I told him. I’m still not sure why I waited so many years before till I decided to tell my father about the abuse. Maybe, I was afraid that I would receive the same respond as my mother had given me. Maybe, I was too ashamed to tell him. Maybe, I was still in denial that the abuse ever happened. I still have not figured this out yet.

My father came for a visit in 2011. I was still living in Malaysia at that time, running a small English language centre at the state of Johor, situated in the south of Peninsular Malaysia, by the border to Singapore. We had dinner at one of my father’s favourite Chinese restaurant nearby, when he decided that he wanted to spend some time at the language centre, before heading back to my apartment.

I can’t exactly recall what we talked about before I decided at the spur of the moment to tell him about what my brother did to me as we were growing up. I tried to gauge his facial reaction as the words started stumbling out of my mouth, but I saw nothing. To be fair, I don’t even know what I was expecting to see. Deep down, I knew what was going to happen. I just knew that he would utter the same words my mother did when I was 16. And I was right. With a straight face, not looking at me, but staring straight ahead as he said, “Don’t tell anyone.”

Flashes of better memories of time I spent with my father came flooding back. Where was the father that used to bring me to the cinema for movies? Where was the father that would carry me and place me on his lap as he moved his knees up and down to mimic a horse ride? Where was the father that used to carry me to the bedroom whenever I pretended to have fallen sleep on the sofa? At that moment, I was hoping for him to say: “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I wish I knew”. Or maybe a sign of anger or disappointment towards his only son. There was none of this. Writing this blog entry makes my heart ache and his words “don’t tell anyone”, echoes over and over again in my head.

Running an Off-Road Marathon For The First Time

After the Queenstown marathon last November 2020, my partner was looking for another marathon that I could aim at doing. At that point, I was still in the throes of depression that I was not thinking of doing anything, let alone another marathon. Nevertheless, she found the Big Easy Mountain Run, a 42.2km run that starts from Snow Farm and finishes at Luggate. I have to say, I did get quite intrigued by the prospect of exploring this area as I have never heard of Snow Farm nor Luggate. Despite, not being very sure about completing another marathon at just only 8 weeks after the Queenstown marathon, I decided to just do it.

As expected, I pretty much regretted making this decision the very next day! Spoiler alert: I enjoyed every minute of the run and I am still feeling the euphoria three days since completing it!

My training for this marathon only consisted of running daily at short distances of 6-8km and a 10km run on a Saturday or Sunday. But, I made sure I was out with my running shoes daily and hitting the kilometres as planned. I did not feel that I had the motivation to run anymore than those distances. I knew that this would not be enough to train for a mountain marathon, but, it was all I could make myself do in terms of preparing for it. I did make sure that my runs pass through routes that I needed to do climbs up and down hills, which was not difficult to find in Dunedin.

The marathon website stated that there is a 9km uphill run, before 12km of undulating terrain and the final 21km would be a downhill run all the way to the finish line. With this information at hand, I thought to myself, “Well, I guess half of the run would be downhill, depending on how tired I am then, would determine how my legs would feel running downhill at that distance”. I knew that running downhill can be tougher than running uphill because you are basically abusing your quad muscles as you control your balance on the descend. However, I was pretty comfortable that it might not be that bad. Am I in for a surprise!

The first 9km uphill was, in the scheme of things, the easiest bit of the whole marathon. By the 13km, I was struggling to keep my pace while running uphill as I tackled the undulating terrain that I needed to cover before reaching the 21km point. It did not take me long to start walking uphills and only running when I am going downhill. Reaching the 21km mark, I thought I would have some relief from pushing myself uphills as I started running downhill. I sighed a breath of relief as I raced down until I saw from a distance that an uphill stretch came to view. My heart dropped, but I still had hope that it would just be that one odd uphill stretch and then it would be downhill till the finish line. It was not to be. I was greeted by undulating terrain for what it felt like an eternity. I felt exhausted at this point and wondered to myself if this is THE marathon that I would have to call it quits before the finish line. Somehow, that thought came and went as quickly as that thought ended. I told myself that I will finish this even if I have to walk all the way to the finish line.

I took me 6 hours and 59 mins to finally cross the finish line. I did not walk all the way to the finish line. I continued running downhill and walking uphill as I passed each kilometre. Crossing the finish line always puts a smile on my face, no matter how much my legs were screaming to stop the abuse. As I write this, I still feel the sense of achievement that is hard to describe in words. All I can say is that it is an intoxicating feeling that you will feel for the next couple of weeks.

I have taken advantaged of this feeling and signed up for my next off-road marathon. I heard about the Motatapu Marathon from another runner at the post-race meal. He wanted to know if I have heard of it, which I answered that I have not. I have no felt so excited about something for almost a year now because of my depression, and I am thrilled to say that I am excited about Motatapu. I have 6 weeks to continue my training and I am sure I will enjoy Motatapu as much as I enjoyed the Big Easy Mountain Run, despite the torture and pain of running a marathon. This is good. Feeling excited is good for me. Feeling excited means I am on my way to my long and slow journey of recovery.

photo courtesy from the Big Easy Mountain Marathon website: https://theultraeasy100.nz/race-distances/marathon/

Reminding Myself… It’s ok!

My anxiety levels started creeping up on me since Saturday (16 Jan 2021), as I know that after 6 weeks of being back at work, I am expected to be back in facilitating psycho-educational groups at work. Most of Saturday, I kept myself busy: I went for a 10km run with a friend of mine; worked on what to write; dinner with some friends in the evening; walked my dog and helped my partner in an essay she was writing. All of this worked well to distract me from the anxiety that was building up.

On Sunday morning, I woke up with the tightness in my chest and a palpable feeling of dread. I decided not to pay any attention to that and pottered along with my day, quite aimlessly, even though I was working on another article on a book review that I post on Medium.com. It took me almost the whole day to get it done, as I was forcing myself to concentrate. I did think of not writing and do some studying instead, but that did not work either. So, I went back to writing. By Sunday evening, after dinner, the anxiety and feelings of dread about work was bursting from under the layer of mud that I have worked so hard to suppress since Saturday. Come bed time, I did not want to go to bed, because when I wake up the next morning, I have to face work.

Woke up this morning with the same awful feeling of dread and tightness in my chest. The chatter in my mind was relentless: “I can’t do this, I can’t do groups!” I pushed it all away buried all of this deep into the recesses of my mind, had breakfast, got changed, jumped into my car and drove to work. The beginnings of a panic attack was surfacing as I parked my car, and the bubbling under the surface panic attack hit me: my chest tightens and I could not breathe. My mind was racing as I try to gather my thoughts together to ground myself: Knuckles turned pale as I gripped the steering wheel as I tried to breathe, focus on my shoes, then lifted my head to see what was around me and placed my feet firmly on the floor of the car. It worked. The tightness in my chest relaxes, and my breathing slowed down, but I was paralysed. I just could not make step out of the car! I sat there, in the driver’s seat, for almost 20 minutes, focusing on telling myself that I need to be at work. Over and over again: “I need to be at work.”

As I write this, the relentless chatter in my mind that says: “I am weak, I am useless, this is how it is going to be always”, dominates. My rational mind is saying: “Write an entry for what happened this morning (so you can process what happened), don’t beat yourself up, everything passes, and it’s ok.”

Thoughts about Being Back at Work

For those who follow my blog, would know that I went back to work on Dec 1st, 2020 after being away for most of the year, recuperating from a concussion and then a major depressive episode. The whole idea of being in a depressive episode gives the impression that depression starts at one point and ends at another. But, really, does it really ends or does it just retreat into the background as one tries to go back to some normality?

Normality for me is when I default back to my usual coping mechanism: I numb myself and throw myself into the task at hand. I become achievement oriented. I have had decades of perfecting this mechanism. There is no conscious effort on my part to numb myself in order to put all my attention to doing the best work, be it tasks at work or doing studies for psychology papers that I am doing at the moment.

The first three weeks of being back at work, felt like I was moving along an alternate universe. I feel like I am in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had a flat affect and I was withdrawn. Feelings of anxiousness, sluggishness and disorientation bombarded me constantly and the inner chatter in my brain that “everyone is talking about me, saying that I am no longer good enough to work here” dictated my need to hide away behind my desk located at the corner of the office. My desk is also beside the door and when it is left open, I become hidden from view. The door provided me a safe space where I can avoid needing to engage socially with my colleagues. I was really just going through the motions. Completing one task after another, avoiding eye contact as much as I could with anyone, and counting the minutes until I could leave work.

At the time of writing this, I have been working for 6 weeks. I am still on a three day work week and I have gotten into my default coping style in order to function. I have blocked out all my feelings of anxiety, confusion and inner chatter. I feel and look almost ‘normal’. But, really, I am just barely managing. I am merely surviving.

I stop myself from thinking about how it would be like to start a four day work week by the start of February. I start my work week by thinking about when it is going to end. On Sundays, there is a constant dread deep within me as the hours passes by, inching closer to bed time, where when I wake the next morning, I will have to be at work. This is definitely not how I should think and feel about work, but it is exactly what work is to me at this current moment. So, I continue to numb myself, drowning myself in task after task, heading out for runs daily and spending hours writing for this blog, which, if I stop procrastinating when I write, it should not take the whole day to write a blog post.