(cw: suicide ideation) Some time ago a friend told me her therapist had graduated her from therapy, and my heart swelled in a burst of gladness. It is rare for me to experience a genuine moment of joy – I recognise it when it is unbridled physical reaction versus an intellectual reasoned response. This gladness inevitably accompanies my response whenever someone tells me they are entering or graduating therapy.
I think of myself as a self-centered person (I am just overwhelmed with coping), so sometimes it surprises me when I am capable of feeling glad for other people. I think it is because I know from the core of my body what it is like to encounter and navigate life while trapped in an invisible prison, and how impossibly freeing it is when one is able to step out of it. We cannot completely understand people’s internal experiences, so I can only speak and project from mine.
For most of my life I was like the person in the left-sided figure above: weighed down by these seemingly heavy stones, impossible to escape. That was the foundation of my worldview, that the world is heavy and it is a trap. I could hardly see, and I couldn’t move or tilt my head to see the world around me. So I was only capable of making choices that I could barely see, and it felt like there were not many of them. This was a life that made me feel chronically suicidal because it didn’t feel like it was worth living.
I call it an invisible prison and perhaps that implies it is not real, but it felt very real, and it definitely has real implications on one’s quality of life. For example, a society’s culture is something that is almost invisible: if we examine it, it is just a set of stories and norms, but most of us are bound by those stories and norms because our culture determines the expectations and measurements people judge us by, including our loved ones. In Singapore materialism and “meritocracy” is very predominant in our culture, so we think a good life means chasing things like grades so they can eventually turn into wealth. Going against this narrative means setting ourselves up for a lifetime of misery: we become a disappointment in our society, never appreciated or validated, always discriminated, always deemed a failure, always enduring the uncomfortable silences when people ask us what we do (and where did we go to school).
When I was very young I’ve always thought this materialistic mindset was stupid, but even intellectually knowing that did not prevent my self-worth from being shredded into pieces. I’ve learned that intellectual knowledge does not protect us from emotional damage, all those years of “you are a disappointment” seeped into every living cell of my body even if I believed I was right in my own priorities.
I truly believed I was a failure, an abomination, an alien to this world. What is the point of living when my existence is a source of pain to the people around me?
These feelings still plague my consciousness and subconsciousness even till today, no matter what I’ve done and inspite of whatever success I’ve encountered in my life. But there is a huge difference in how I process them now. In my past I would be riddled with self-doubt and insecurity, unable to stand against the tide of the mainstream, subconsciously believing in the mainstream narrative of success while consciously trying to live against it. Now, I recognise these feelings as a psychological trauma response. I know that the fear and sadness my body feels is simply a chronic memory of the past and its progress is slow-moving compared to my psyche. I know now that I am not cursed or unloved because there was something wrong with me, but rather a consequence of a dysfunctional system that is the consequence of the history of our species.
Stories are both imagined and real, that is the paradox. It is real when it is the society’s imagined consensus, when one is too powerless to overcome the detrimental effects of being an outlier or too weighed down to discover that alternative stories do exist. One can even construct their own story and live outside society, assuming they have the financial privilege of not having debt in any forms.
But when I was weighed down by my own invisible prison, I could barely see, much less see far and wide. I have always thought of myself as an imaginative person, only to discover that my imagination has been severely limited. For decades I couldn’t imagine another way of life than being trapped by a perpetual prison, I even locked myself in further by subconsciously adhering and further attaching myself to the norms I thought I despised.
I thought I freed myself when through serendipitous luck I found myself in San Francisco, only to find myself in a different prison. But perhaps even the act of being in a different prison gave me the perspective that motion is possible.
I became interested in therapy only when I read “On becoming a person“. Back then like most people I thought therapy was only for emotionally unaware people or for people with serious trauma. Reading that book thoroughly convinced me otherwise, that therapy is essential for one’s becoming, even if one is perceived to be well in conventional terms.
The trouble with me is that I mistook being painfully aware of my emotions as emotional awareness. The reality is that I was so clouded by the pain of my emotions I couldn’t see above them. I was in denial for a very long time.
Since I wrote, journalled and introspected a lot I also assumed I knew myself well. I was so wrong. I now believe one can never know themselves too well, and the more we think we know ourselves the bigger our blindspots probably are.
Therapy is a way to excavate ourselves from our invisible prisons. A space where a good therapist facilitates our questioning of our rigid beliefs, subconscious narratives, and help us imagine alternative outcomes and notice our own blindspots.
I couldn’t afford to see my therapist for too long, but as I said to her in our final closing session – for us it wasn’t the quantity that mattered, but the quality. She listened to my pain, acknowledged it, validated it, and didn’t dismiss it. She didn’t try to tell me others had it worse, or try to attribute it to fate or the universe or some unknown test that is given to me by some unknown entity, or attempt to relate to me with her own life story. She cleanly took my pain, not only held it, but somehow managed to reflect it back to me in a way that I could finally see and believe my own suffering.
If there is magic in the world, this must be it.
I told her in that moment she told me, “trauma is trauma” – while I myself was trying to invalidate my own pain saying that I feel silly feeling this way when others clearly had it worse – something lifted off me permanently.
Why do we attempt to quantify everything, even pain? Do we tell people to be less happy because others are happier? Why do we do this for suffering?
I almost broke down in that moment, from all those years of feeling invalidated. I couldn’t even allow myself to break down. I thought I was a crybaby, but even I, had an invisible armour.
She gave me the foundation for my own self-examination journey. Since I couldn’t afford therapy long-term I did bibliotherapy instead. I read all the books on psychotherapy and trauma I could find, and because of my public writing I’ve had people recommend me a few life-changing books (which I’ve referenced below).
To even attempt to free oneself one must believe that it is possible to be free. Reading these books instilled the belief that there is a path to healing, especially after reading the diverse case studies of people who managed to grow much closer to wholeness despite what they have been through. What is less discussed, is that to form a strong-enough will to be free, is also a long journey in itself. When one is chronically exhausted, it is much easier to stay in status quo than to make this attempt, which can be exhausting and full of regressions.
It can also be incredibly lonely and isolating. One can easily fall out of sync with the people around you, and everyone is used to your old self. My old self was a doormat, and people like doormats. Many people do not know how to handle boundaries well. I also no longer wanted to participate in any old patterns, so for a long while I felt lost and did not know who I was.
It also takes time and effort to build up the courage to ignore whatever mainstream narrative that is so pervasive and lead the life we truly want. To know what is the life we truly want, one must first the question, “who am I“? A lot of what I thought I wanted and liked was simply my subconscious desire to get approval and validation.
It is a scary journey, because it requires facing a lot of old existing triggers, like being seen as a disappointment or being misunderstood. Friends may be lost along the way as we no longer fit into old paradigms. I thought I was going to be resigned to being forever lonely (with my partner, thankfully) on this path, but I’m slowly discovering that there are people who have similar ways of life, they just exist elsewhere in the world. Thankfully, there is the internet.
I am still walking on this path. Because people lent me their hands, I am now able to identify what is still weighing me down and I am capable of removing them myself. The outcome of trying to free myself isn’t happiness or contentment, but rather a psychological freedom that compromises of emotional and creative freedom. I have a wider range of responses when I encounter negative situations instead of just melting down, sometimes I can even choose non-response which is something I couldn’t do in my past. My relationships and interactions with people used to have the same patterns and power dynamic, but now I am much more of a person than someone who is always trying to accommodate. There is also the freedom of choosing to opt out of most human interactions, which is something I found it difficult to do because I was always seeking approval.
Previously I was always so much in pain that I couldn’t feel or see anything else, it weighed on me so much that my choices were dictated by the amount of pain I feel. I tended to make hard choices because I was just so used to choosing suffering. It seemed like a choice but now I know my psyche didn’t know any other way.
It is ridiculous to navigate life this way. It is like going to a buffet to only drinking black coffee, and then conclude the buffet is dark and bitter. There is like so much food out there, but we end up starving ourselves because we hate the black coffee. (caveat: this doesn’t apply for people who are underprivileged, which is why it is an injustice that when the system condemns people to only drinking black coffee because of the circumstances in which they are born when the food should be distributed amongst all so no one will starve since there is enough. argh.)
Being imprisoned in our invisible prisons makes us immobile. Not only did it make me immobile, it drained my relationships with people and impacted my work because I was always walking with these heavy stones around me. If someone tries to give me a hand by pulling me along, it would inevitably exhaust them.
This probably belongs to another essay, but this is the gist of why I think psychological health should be a priority our society. Therapy should be heavily subsidised if not free. We keep trying to improve society by trying to make people go to better schools and have better jobs, but we neglect the fundamental aspect of what primarily drives people’s decision-making.
We should encourage people to take care of themselves more, not subconsciously hold it against them by perceiving it as selfish behaviour. It would benefit us as a whole if everyone can freely move and see wider choices ahead of them, and sometimes when it is possible, lend a hand to another person who is not in a position to free themselves.
I still have suicidal tendencies but they are not the single layer that underpins my entire existence. I used to think of dying all the time, seriously – all the f*cking time. Now it comes up once in a while, and I have started to entertain the question if life is worth living, instead of making it a foregone conclusion.
I think this is a question that every human being deserves to ask.
I asked my friend if she is in a different place now, after graduating from therapy. She said yes. Apart from the gladness I felt a sense of lightness for/from her. I consider myself a misanthrope most of the time, but in that very moment, I believed completely that this is what I wish for every person in this world.
When we free ourselves, it ripples.
on the journey and outcomes of freeing ourselves
a collection of resources towards an understanding of the human psyche in order to understand myself