Worthy of Time

Serendipitous find on Instagram that I think has been very helpful at articulating thoughts and feelings that I would not be able to find words to describe for myself.

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.

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 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.

Letting Others Care for You

Since my first episode of depression mid of last year, I have continued to remain stoic as that was how I know how to cope with difficult times. I grew up learning to be indifferent and strong whenever faced with difficulties and just push through. This coping method has worked well for me the past 34 years but it is no longer working well for me anymore. I am learning to allow others to care for me instead of pushing everyone away because I do not know how to be vulnerable. My experiences throughout childhood, adolescent and adulthood has been to minimise my experience of sexual, emotional and physical abuse and stay strong by minimising what has happened to me.

It is difficult to let the advise of the psychiatrist sink in when she said that I need to let others care for me. I find it extremely difficult to do. I have no idea how to let my guard down. Despite not being able to let my guard down, I am no longer able to pull myself together and push through this current depressive episode. It feels like this is never going to end and when it does, it will haunt me again sometime later.

I have been going to work daily for the past 3 weeks but really, it is not helping with my recovery. Talking to the psychiatrist yesterday made me realise that I need to accept her recommendation of taking time off work until my mental health is better. My mental distress is manifesting physically in a variety of ways, from headaches, to dizziness, aches and pain, joint pain and extreme fatigue. Yet, I still pushed through the days at work a day at a time, feeling totally drained when I get home. I am finally at home starting today to go on medical leave. I am unsure how long I would be on medical leave for and this time around, I am letting my treating team decide what is best for me as I no longer know what is best for myself.