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.

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.

Acquiring Stuff Does NOT Fill the Void

“Maybe buying this new iPhone would make me happy!”

I am sure I am not the only person that has ever uttered this rationale to themselves, whenever they feel the need to perk themselves up with a new gadget, a new car, a new bike, a new laptop, a new anything. But, I am not going to write about everyone else. I am going to write about my inability to control these impulse purchases, whenever I feel depressed, and I never seem to learn from the credit card debt that I get myself into, over and over and over again.

It is a compulsion. It is like I am compelled to purchase stuff because I feel it is justified. So I could compensate from all the stuff that I ever wanted, from the ‘deprivation’ of getting things that parents would buy for their children when I was growing up. There were things I coveted growing up, mostly, toys and books. Lego sets, game consoles, a Gameboy, a Nintendo, action figurines, a telescope, Enid Blyton’s books… Books! Not even books! I never could understand why my parents would not get me books. Till this day, I still cannot make sense of why would any parent not buy their child books when they ask for them from time to time.

I am in my third credit card debt situation. Fortunately, the amount is not as bad as the previous two times. I have been avoiding this debt since my concussion Dec 2019. Being off work in the early months of the concussion, caused a reduction of money I made each month. As the months passed, my could only work part time as the recovery took a long time. Then, when I finally could go back to work full time, a major depressive episode knocked me down again and I could not function. I have been off work for so many weeks now, that I have lost any sense of time.

I am going back to work tomorrow. I am not ready. But, it is the right thing to do. Today, I was reminded of my credit card debt. It did not feel good when someone reminds you of your incompetence with managing expenses. There is only so much you can hide from yourself before someone points it out to you. However, it does not mean this reminder did not hurt. I am struggling to crawl out of this self-loathing, it’s just pathetic. “One step at a time, one day at a time”… I tell myself. But, really?? Am I really taking one step at a time? If I am, it does not feel so. I feel stuck, stagnant, surrounded by muck and mud.

Thinking Differently about Loneliness

Loneliness has been my close friend for most of my childhood, adolescent and adult life. I have always felt a gnawing sense of loneliness for as long as I can remember. I was the quiet one in school, which teachers and peers concluded that I was a shy kid. But, really, I was just introverted and a little eccentric. Books has always been my best companion as it allowed me to travel into places away from the sexual abuse.

I did not have a lot of pocket money growing up. My mother was very strict and felt that giving too much pocket money means spoiling the child. I was given 20 cents for school days and none for the weekends. That money was just enough for me to buy a bowl of plain noodle soup, but I never did spend that money. I kept it so that I could rent books or buy them. The public library where I grew up was small and modest. It didn’t take me long to finish reading all the books that it had. My school library was similar as well; small and modest.

I was fortunate to have a friend in school that would let me read her Enid Blyton books that lined her bookshelf at home. She used to invite me over after school to read, and I will always remember those moments. Since we parted ways for university, I have lost touch with her. I have no idea why I have never initiated to rekindle the friendship. It would be so easy with Facebook. I saw her profile some years back, but never reached out. Maybe, I was afraid that she could no longer remember how close we used to be when we were 9 years old.

My mother was never keen on encouraging my love for reading. She always pulled me away from bookstores as she was afraid I would want to buy a book. She felt that books are a waste of money because you only read them once. She also felt because of this, books take up a lot of storage place in the house and we didn’t have a bookshelf at home. As a child, I have always felt that my mother was unloving as she never showed much affection for me. As a child would, I equated her resistance of getting me books as part of her indifference towards me.

So, I was a lonely child. By the age of 7, my sisters have moved to another city for university. I was left with my brother as a “play mate”. He was 14 at the time. As he was the only siblings that I could play with, the abuse was inevitable. It didn’t stop until I turned 13. Throughout the years of the abuse, I felt more and more alone because it was not something I could tell anyone, as my brother would always threaten that he would hit me if I ever did say anything. He had a temper. I was terrified of him as a child.

I have been trying to think differently about loneliness but it only fuels my thoughts about how lonely I feel. I’ve got a loving partner but that doesn’t mean one would not feel lonely. Loneliness is our perception of how connected we are with other people compared to what our idea of what level of social connections we think is ideal. I have tried getting to know new people via volunteering, clubs, sports & work. But, nothing really have worked. Maybe, there is something fundamentally wrong with how and who I am. Maybe it is also the cultural barriers as I am Asian and a migrant in a western country. It is a murky conundrum.

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.

Finding One’s True Self

I have just finished reading Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child” late last night, after an 18 month gap from when I first picked up the book. I cannot quite recall how I got to know about this book then, but, what still stays fresh in my mind was the wave of emotions that it evoked the first time I picked up the book and started reading it; put it simply: it hit too close to home.

Alice Miller, born as Alicija Englard (12 January 1923 – 14 April 2010) was a Polish-Swiss psychologist, psychoanalyst and philosopher of Jewish origin. She was well-known for her books on parental child-abuse, notably for this book that I have just read. It has since been translated into other languages since its first English translation in 1981.

Alice Miller wrote that through experience, “there is only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood”. She argued that the abuse that we experienced in our childhood would have irreversibly damaged us and the only way to “regain the lost of integrity” was by examining the the hidden memories of our past and bringing it closer to our conscious awareness. This statement does seem like a sweeping generalisation to make for the complexity that surrounds mental illness. Still, I feel that the over-generalisation in this context is necessary to discuss a subject matter this complex in order to elucidate the arguments that follow.

Therapy cannot give us back our lost childhood, nor can it change the past facts. No one can heal by maintaining or fostering illusion. The paradise of pre-ambivalent harmony, for which so many patients hope, is unattainable. But the experience of one’s own truth, and the post-ambivalent knowledge of it, make it possible to return to one’s own world of feelings at an adult level – without paradise, but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does, indeed, give us back our vitality.

Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child.

This quote particularly hits home for me because the past 3 decades I have managed to bury the abuse that I experienced in childhood by minimizing it and by deceiving myself that what has happened was not as bad as it seemed. By compartmentalising the abuse into various need boxes in my brain was how I managed to cope throughout the years, until, this coping method no longer works. When I first got depressed, I had no awareness that I have used compartmentalisation and minimisation as a way of dissociating the abuse from my reality. In retrospect, I now understand that this method of coping is dysfunctional and common amongst those who have experienced any form of abuse. Having this awareness that I have buried the abuse makes me feel sick in the stomach because I have practically deceived myself from the fact that the abuse inflicted on me was sickening and not something that was ‘nothing’, which I told myself to believe throughout the years. The whole notion of lying to myself has wasted so much of energy to maintain this deception that I have only been merely surviving on a day to day basis rather than actually living life. This is what saddens me the most: the knowledge that I have wasted so much time and so much of my life by deceiving myself. This quote was why I could not continue reading this book when I first picked it up 18 months ago. It was not easy this time around either, but, I persisted because I knew that I needed to read the whole book in its entirety this time around. I needed unbury the hidden ‘knowledge’ that has stayed dormant in the depths of my consciousness all these years.

It is a great relief to a patient to see that she can now recognise and take seriously the things she used to choke off, even if the old patterns come back, again and again, over a long period. But now she begins to understand that this strategy was her only chance to survive. Now she can realise how she still sometimes tries to persuade herself, when she is scared, that she is not; how she belittles her feelings to protect herself, and either does not become aware of them at all or does so only several days after they have already passed.

Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child

Next quote pointed out to me that this was the type of coping that I have been using all these years. It is a good reminder for me to be aware whenever I fall back into this thought pattern and tell myself that what happened to me has been having a huge impact on my mental and physical health. Since my most current depressive episode, I have caught myself multiples times when my thoughts went back to automatically minimising the abuse because it is easier to avoid the barrage of painful emotions that hits me each time I remember the details of the abuse. I have to keep reminding myself that I need to sit with this pain and discomfort in order to grief over the lost of the innocence of my childhood, so that I can start to heal.

Depressive phases may last several weeks before strong emotions from childhood break through. When it can be experienced, insight and association related to the repressed scenes follow, often accompanied by significant dreams. The patients feels alive again until a new depressive phase signals something new. This may be repressed in the following: “I no longer have a feeling of myself. How could it happen that I should lose myself again? I have no connection with what is within me. It is all so hopeless…it will never be any better. Everything is pointless. I am longing for my former sense of being alive”.

Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child

I think at the moment, the deep depressive moods have been muted somewhat and I do not feel much of anything most times. I feel mostly numb and then suddenly, I am overwhelmed by deep sadness that feels like it is swallowing me whole. When this happens, I just want to end it all. Suicide seemed like the only way forward. Even when I am able to catch my thoughts of suicide, I still mostly do not want to live. The quote above explains what it is like in my head most of the time. The sense of hopelessness, disconnect and indecisiveness makes everything not worth living.

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.