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.

A picture from my journal

I have been unable to write lately… Everything seems to trigger me and bring me back to my childhood abuse. I’ve finally managed to pen something in my journal today, so I thought I just take a photo of that page and share it here because I just can’t type it out.

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.

A Little Bit of Fresh Air

I got out of the house today after weeks of being at home. I have been isolating and I am aware of this. I am aware that this is not good for my recovery, but at this moment, I don’t have the energy to struggle with this. I still go out for runs and I walk my dog, almost daily this week.

The main reason I got out was because I had a therapy session this morning. I stopped therapy with this therapist for 2 months now and today is the first session after that break.

The session today was difficult. It is always difficult for me because I find it very hard for me to talk about the abuse. Since this depressive episode, this struggle of finding words to talk about it has become worse. My therapist said that I stop breathing each time I said anything that relates to my past trauma. I did not even realise I was doing this and I do appreciate him pointing it out to me. Since then, throughout the session, I became aware that I did stop breathing each time I brought up past traumas.

I came away from therapy today feeling lighter. I always do, before things start to fog up and I feel weighed down again. What I took away from today’s therapy was that I need to take the time to work through everything that I bring up in therapy and not rush into jumping from one thing to the next. I tend to do this because I can’t sit with the discomfort, pain and tears whenever I am triggered by past trauma that I talk about.

In regard to the title of this post, I took a walk at the gardens after therapy. I did not stay long, but I am glad I went because I almost just drove home. I brought my camera along, took some photos and listened to the bird song… which always brings a sense of calmness. I wanted to attach a few photos, but wordpress doesn’t seem to allow that. There is no post processing, the photo is as it was taken. Maybe, by looking at the photo, it would encourage anyone that finds it difficult to leave the safety of home, to finally venture out and enjoy some fresh air.

Acceptance and Grieving

I struggle with the idea of acceptance. I do understand that acceptance is necessary for healing from a traumatic past. My rational brain understands the reasoning behind this, but, it is never that easy with matters of the heart.

How does one accept and be at peace with past abuse and trauma? I ask this question often and have not arrived to an answer. My mind gets triggered to the past abuse and it takes me awhile before I can push the memories out of my mind.

The meaning of acceptance in human psychology is the ability for someone to acquiesce to the reality of the situation they are in without attempting to change or challenge it. Sounds absolutely rational and the right thing to do, but, how does one achieve this tranquility, especially if the person is needing to accept the abuse that they have had to endure?

Prema Chödrön, in her book “When Things Fall Apart”, wrote that to be able to be free of suffering, one has to ‘abandon hope’ and be in a ‘state of hopelessness’. She writes that if we hold on to hope, hope robs us of our present moment. We cling onto what might happen in the future in the hope that things would get better, but in reality, we have no control over what might happen in the future.

Since reading Prema Chödrön writings, I have formed a different perspectives on my feelings of hopelessness. I have been clinging to the notion that I can not see what my future is going to be. I have always liked to plan for my future, with the hope that it would be better and I would be able to actually, finally, live. My mind is always repeating things like, “If I do this, I will be able to gain that”. But, recently, I am beginning to doubt that this is even remotely possible. I have always used this way of looking at things and planning for the future, but what have I really achieved, apart from running away from the reality that I am suppose to face and accept? Would I ever be able to focus on my present moment and not be dwelling in the past and planning for the future? At this point, I am unable to do this.

Sins of the Mother

In discussions about the sexual abuse of children, the question constantly comes up: Why does the girl’s mother ignore the signals, or why, through her attitude, does she make it impossible for her daughter to confide in her? The mother’s behaviour is particularly hard to understand when it turns out that she herself was abused as a child. Yet the key to understanding lies in this information. It is those very mothers who suffered similar abuse in their childhood, and have kept it repressed ever since, who are blind and deaf to the situation of their daughters. They cannot bear to be reminded of their own history, and so they fail the child.

Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing childhood injuries.

When I turned 16, I read a newspaper article that reported a case of incest and the details of how the perpetrator, who was the father of the girl, was arrested and prosecuted. Prior to this newspaper report, I had no idea that what my brother did to me was an incestuous relationship. I did not even know what the word ‘incest’ meant until this newspaper report. I had never thought of it that way from when it first started when I was 6 and as the years go by, I grew dependent on ‘play time’. When it finally stopped when I turned 13, I thought I did something wrong to be rejected by my brother as he no longer wanted to bond with me through ‘play time’.

I remember feeling confused, ashamed, disgust and sadness as I recollect the abuse that my brother inflicted on me throughout the years. I was afraid and the shame was so great that I had to contemplate for weeks whether to tell my mother what had happened. When, I finally decided to tell her, there was no outrage or sadness from my mother. I wasn’t hoping for my mother to do anything. All I wanted was to hear her acknowledgement that this has happened. Her words still haunt me to this day whenever I bring myself back to that moment: “Don’t tell anyone” was all she said. There was no eye contact. She did not even look at me when I told her what happened. She concentrated on dicing the garlic as she prepared for dinner. It was this moment that I decided that the abuse did not matter. If my mother didn’t think that it was a serious issue, there was no need for me to see it as a serious matter. Since this first revealing of this secret that I have been keeping for so long, I have repressed it and buried it in the deep recesses of my mind, never to be looked at again, to be forgotten and to be minimised and I deceived myself by minimising the abuse that happened to me.

After my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she started telling me stories about her childhood and how she was sent away to live with her aunt after her father passed away. Her real mother wanted to re-marry and keeping a daughter of another man, was never going to be acceptable to her future husband-to-be. My mother’s two younger brothers could stay on because they were boys and boys are regarded as precious jewels, not to be discarded. Before this, I have always thought that the elderly lady that I have known as my grandmother was really my mother’s mother, but in reality, my grandmother was really my mother’s aunt. My mother also suffered emotional and physical abuse from her step-father (her aunt’s husband) whenever he got angry. He would chase my mother and her adopted brother around the house with a cleaver.

Reading Alice Miller’s book, “Banished Knowledge”, provided me with an answer to the reasons why my mother did the things that she did to me as I was growing up. She used to cane me with a rattan rod and whipped my shins until they bled before she would stop the beatings. There was so much more that she did that I had to endure as a child growing up that I do not think I can write about them right now. It is too much to write about these trauma without being triggered by them. I guess, all my mother knew was disguised abuse as love because that was all she knew growing up as a child. She never had the chance to work through the abuse that she experienced and has repressed it from her consciousness. Thus, perpetuating the cycle of abuse onto me.

When mother’s are defended as pathetic victims, the female patient will not discover that with a loving, protective, perceptive, and courageous mother she could never have been abused by her father or brother. A daughter who has learned from her mother that she is worth protecting will find protection among strangers too and will be able to defend herself. When she has learned what love is, she will not succumb to stimulated love. But a child who was merely pushed aside, and disciplined, who never experienced soothing caresses, is not aware that anything like nonexploitative caresses can exist. She has no choice but to accept any closeness she is offered rather than be destroyed. Under certain circumstances she will even accept sexual abuse for the sake of finding at least some affection rather than freezing up entirely. When, as an adult woman, she comes to realise that she was cheated out of love, she may be ashamed of her former need and hence feel guilty. She will blame herself because she dare not blame her mother, who failed to satisfy the child’s need or perhaps even condemned it.

Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing childhood injuries.

Realisation

Repressed pain may reveal itself more privately, as in a woman, sexually exploited as a child, who has denied her childhood reality and in order not to feel the pain is perpetually fleeing her past with the help of men, alcohol, drugs or achievement. She needs a constant thrill to keep boredom at bay; not even one moment of quiet can be permitted during which the burning loneliness of her childhood experience might be felt, for she fears that feeling more than death. She will continue in her flight unless she learns that the awareness of old feelings is not deadly but liberating.

Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child

Waking up this morning at 0530 hours, while lying awake in bed, I realised that I have never lived…my years of existence on this planet from the age of 6 years old, when the abuse started, I have merely gone through the motions and have done everything that was expected of me, from my parents, teachers, peers and bosses. I STILL am doing this. A big part of me knows that the right thing to do is to tell my psychiatrist that I am fit enough mentally to go back to being a mental health nurse, but, at the same time, I also know, deep down in my psyche that I need to stop DOING and stop AVOIDING, every anger, hurt, disappointment, guilt, shame and self-loath that I have kept hidden and locked away for decades.

The quote from above from the book ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child’, by Alice Miller, encapsulates what life has been for me all this while. My method of avoidance has never been alcohol or drugs, but bad sexual decisions with men and always striving for accolades; be it in term of academic excellence, winning races in sporting events or running a successful business. I wish I had come across this book sooner in my teens.. maybe then, how my life is now, would be different. But, then again, this is the exact thought process that plagues those who have been abused as a child or even as an adult. We get stuck in this loop of wishing that the abuse had never happened and what our lives would have been if there was no abuse. Would our lives be better? Would be in a better state of being? I have so much work that needs to be done, that when I think about it, I am utterly overwhelmed and waiting to be seen by a Clinical Psychologist that is funded by the health system, seems like a far away place. I only hope that by then, I would have the strength to work through all the pain.

The part where the quote said that one has to realise that old feelings are not deadly, but liberating, is one that I think I will have a hard time ever coming to terms with. The concept of this is taken from the teachings of Buddhism, where suffering is inevitable and if we understand that everything is impermanent, then we know that suffering will end and we become wiser from it. At this point in time, I don’t feel this. I am still stuck in the cycle of numbness, helplessness, extreme sadness and not wanting to be alive. It all sounds very dramatic, but to me, it is my reality at this moment.

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: