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.

A Small Win

For the past two weeks, I wanted to buy something, anything… a new tech… that’s my go to whenever I my mood drops. I’ve written about this in my earlier blog post. I was restless, numb and indifferent. The ‘need’ to buy something expensive was very strong. My impulsive brain was going on overdrive.

Well, I didn’t cave this time around to this impulse. Went out with my partner yesterday afternoon, stopped by a tech shop that I usually get my tech gadgets from, and I was able to resist that gnawing impulse to buy something.

It wasn’t that bad afterall.

Can’t Believe it’s Been A Year

WordPress sent me a notification that my first post was exactly a year ago. My first reaction was, “Has it already been a year?!”

A simple notification such as this can jolt and remind us that time is so fleeting. It is so easy to just live my days, moving through the motion that ‘I am walking through the path of my mental health recovery’. I do realise that my mental health is no longer as bad as how it was exactly a year ago, but this realisation does not discount the fact that the daily struggle is utterly exhausting.

New Zealand is currently in lockdown due to community cases of the Delta variant of COVID 19. Even though I am concerned about COVID, I can’t help but also feel a sense of deep relief that I can stop struggling so hard every day, just so that I can function at work, and be my best for the clients I work with.

I just have to keep reminding myself that “things will get better.”

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.

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.