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.

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.

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.

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.”

Back at Work…

After almost three months away, I returned to work this week on Dec 1st. Since I last saw my psychiatrist on Nov 17th, I have been struggling with the growing level of anxiety about returning to work. Just the thought of facing my duties at work, my colleagues, my manager and patients felt dizzyingly terrifying. I was the one that told my psychiatrist that I should go back to work. It was my idea. I should not be feeling like this. The brain never wins when it comes to dealing with depression and anxiety. Rational thought only works well, when one is not struggling with mental illness.

I only worked three days this week, but it felt like a lifetime. I felt mostly like an extra prop in the office as there was nothing much I could do. Groups have started two weeks ago and for me to facilitate a group is not ideal. Keeping the frame is more important than letting me get back to my duties straight away. Mostly, I feel relieved that I was not involved in any groups this week. It wasn’t a task that my colleagues are expecting from me. The clinic on Wednesday felt like I was of some use. That was something that was expected of me to do.

I knew I was finding ways to isolate myself. I did not want to engage with anyone. I did not want to talk. I did not want to do anything. I avoid eye contact. My physical body is there but my mind was in constant fight of flight mode and my cognition was on auto mode. That’s why I am relieved that I was only expected to clinic duties.

At this stage, I can only manage part time. Two days would be ideal, but I negotiated for three days a week with my manager. The likelihood of a part time contract seemed unlikely from the conversation. I am ambivalent about whatever outcome when I meet my manager next week for a confirmation. However, I have just decided that if I am offered a part time contract, I will continue working until I no longer can hold the fort.

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.

Living with Depression and Anxiety as a Mental Health Nurse

The past three months have been extremely challenging as I am in another depressive episode. I was off work for almost 7 weeks and it took a lot out of me to drag myself to work as my anxiety to return to work was overwhelming. As a mental health nurse, everything I have learned and my experience in supporting clients with mental health challenges does not mean anything in my own recovery.

Feelings of confusion and utter helplessness for not being able to use the various tools that I preach daily to my clients to use to help get them through the darkest hours does not even closely describe what my experience with depression is like. Depression is a word that is ubiquitous, heard by many, but understood only by those who have touched the blackness of it that threatens to engulf and shallow you whole.

The past four weeks I have been struggling to maintain my work plan and I have missed work days here and there. As I haven’t been working full time for the past 3 months, I am struggling to pay my debt and my partner isn’t able to cover everything for the both of us. My account has been seeing red for three months now. It has definitely ruined my credit standing. It will be difficult for me to get a loan after this.

This week is when I start working full time again. Still, I missed work yesterday because I had a cold. I was relieved that I had a cold because I have a reason apart from my depression to not go to work. Work today was slow and dreadful. I felt drained just being there. I am not even doing anything much at work apart from administrative stuff. Despite all the struggles, I am truly blessed to have colleagues who have been kind and supportive. This is what makes the days seem easier.