When Your Teeth Tells a Story

Last week I had my visit to the dentist in 2 years. Yes, I know it is waaaay too long to not see a dental hygienist or a dentist. I know that now. Growing up, I remember the first time I learnt how to brush my teeth in school. In Malaysia in the mid-80s, 7 year olds, will sit crossed legged on the concrete ground, one hand brandishing a new toothbrush, while the other a tube of Colgate toothpaste. We were each given a plastic cup, either a blue one of red one. No one had the option of choosing the colour of preferences. Our cups were filled with water. As you remember, I did mention that we sat crossed legged on the concrete floor. So, no bathroom sinks or a mirror on the wall. The whole cohort of 7 year olds, eyes glued to a nurse that showed us how to brush our teeth properly. Whether or not I knew what I was doing was beyond the point. I was just excited to sit with all the other 7 year olds, imitating the movements of the nurse, as my mouth is flooded with tooth paste foam and the taste of mint on my tongue.

You must wonder why I am telling you this story… I am telling this story to immortalise this somewhat mundane occurrence, because I realised something in therapy today. This exact moment was when I learned how to brush my teeth for the first time.

My therapist made me realised that I never had the experience of learning something this mundane from my parents. My mother did not show me how, neither did my father. Somehow, I can understand why my father never took the initiative to teach me, as he only brushes his dentures once a day… in the morning. My father has been wearing dentures for most of his adult life. As for my mother, I have no idea why she never took the time. She would shout from the kitchen or from whichever room she was in around bed time to remind me to brush my teeth. I was never interested in brushing my teeth when I was 4, 5, or 6. There were many nights that I would fall asleep without brushing my teeth.

After that morning in school when I was 7, I remembered that I actually felt ‘excited’ in the mornings and before bedtime, when I needed to brush my teeth. Like a lot of things, it was novel, new, exciting! It takes so little for a child to find the wonder in things. As adults, this magic only happens when we take note of the little things around us.

So… back at the dental clinic… I opted for no anaesthetic before the procedure. I knew it was going to be uncomfortable and of course, it would hurt. But, I just wanted to feel the pain, the physical pain… so, it would numb out the emotional pain. As the dentist drilled and chipped away the decay in my molar, I winced and clenched my fists. This went on for an hour. There was a lot that needed to be done.

The dentist sat me down, in front of large computer screen, with multiple snapshots of my teeth, as well as frames of x-rays…I am not a dentist, but what I saw on the screen, tells me that my teeth is not doing very well. The dentist looked at me, her surgical mask on, that split moment before she spoke, I could see in her eyes that… ‘this does not look good’. She was kind, professional and there was not a single tone of judgement, while she explained what the pictures on the screen are showing. Still, despite her her kindness, I was embarrassed…. I can’t put all the blame to my parents for never showing me how to care of my teeth as a child, but, I know there is truth in what my therapist told me this morning, that my the damage to my teeth, is a bigger reflection of the kind of neglect that I have endured as a child.

Exhausted

Everything I am doing is towards mt recovery. Every decision I make on a daily basis is rooted on ‘doing the work’. The constant juggling of emotions, thoughts, exercise, work, studies and self care is exhausting. My therapist reminded me that I have come a long way from where I was at 13 months ago. My rational brain knows that what he said holds true in my recovery journey, but, I haven’t reached a point where I feel totally comfortable in acknowledging that just yet.

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.

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?!

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!

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.