Some people are good at denial, forgetting, and moving on. I am good at none of those. I accumulate trauma, remember them deeply like they are etched into my bones helpless as they compound onto each other, hyper-aware that terrifying things can happen at any given moment. I am self-admittedly, a very unhappy person.
I am afraid of life. It is paralysing to live as though there is a booby trap waiting for me at every corner. It gets worse as I age, because it turns out there are plenty of booby traps in life – every now and then these days I receive news of something that saddens me and traumatises me further.
I am afraid to get infected again, afraid that my first infection has already predisposed me to health issuesdown the road. I am tired of people laughing at my cautiousness and them telling me it is mild, that it is “nothing”. It feels like every time I step out of the house I have to choose between my physical health and my mental health.
But I know I can’t avoid suffering in life. It is either this or that. I can pretend for a while that suffering does not exist, before something knocks the wind out of my sails again. I feel like for me this pretension is not sustainable as it makes me plunge into dark depths each time I am reminded how precarious life can be. I wish to co-exist peacefully with all of this: the fear, sadness, disappointment, frustration. But I don’t know how yet.
Every night I fall asleep afraid of tomorrow. Every morning I wake up uneasy. Is it going to be today? Will I wake up to another horrible notification on my phone while I seem safely asleep? Each time the phone rings it makes my heart sink. Every time I get a tingle in my throat I wonder if I caught covid again.
I try to fill up my life with little moments of joy. I have no idea if I am escaping, rebelling, or racing against something. I don’t know how to cope, so I swing between letting my feelings eat me or trying to eat my feelings. Will I get used to this?
I don’t see a way out. People tell me to “think positive” but I don’t see how to think positively in a rapidly warming world with viruses that are threatening to bestow disability or accelerated ageing. Why am I being gaslighted to feel like I am the one being insane when I have a mountain of scientific evidence behind me? Why is it on me to be positive when I am raised in a society that hasn’t been very kind to people like me?
I ask these questions in my head every day. I feel perturbed when I see seas of people interacting unmasked. Don’t they care about their long-term health? We have lost the information war, and I am afraid to witness its consequences on our civilisation as the years go by.
I feel like this is my new reality. Previously my chronic depression and existential anxiety felt personal: they were my response towards how I feel towards my existence in general. Now I think the world has gone off the rails and it is no longer a personal maladjustment but a logical reasonable response to what is actually happening around me and to me.
I don’t believe it is ever going to go away, so now I am starting to wonder if I am able to adjust to having a perpetual torrent of negative feelings swirling inside me. A true inoculating vaccine will go a long way in making me feel better, but the issue has never really been covid itself isn’t it? It has been how we’re collectively choosing to respond. The virus is just mirroring to us who we truly are.
If not for covid, it would just be more senseless wars, other pandemics, the worsening effects of a rapidly changing climate. And us, harbouring a psyche that reflects more of our primal history than the potential of our intelligence.
I’ve been feeling more down these days. I am not sure if it is pms, covid, both, or just responding to reality in general. I don’t really get why people are not depressed when a pathogenic virus capable of disabling anyone is still running rampant around a world that is rapidly heating up, and the human species seem to have no collective will to preserve our long-term survival. We need great leadership, but the type of people who would run for political positions are precisely those who are attracted to power, not people.
I was getting traditional chinese medicine (tcm) treatment for my hormonal imbalance since mid last year which contributed to my overall health getting better prior to covid, but now the physician is focused on treating my post-covid symptoms so I wonder if that is making my hormones go out of whack. It is already known that covid itself does affect hormones (if not everything), menstruating people do experience weirdness in their cycles, so it could compound my pre-existing issue.
I’ve always been melancholic, as far as I can remember. Even as numerous external factors in my life improved including meeting my partner, the sadness seemed like a permanent part of me underlying all my perception and actions.
So it takes tremendous effort for me just to convince myself that I can be alive. Things that people take for granted – mere living, enjoying life, connecting to people – are all difficult for me. It is difficult just existing in my body. I am never at ease, some uncomfortable emotion is always plaguing me, I feel fatigued most of the time. Even if I am not physically fatigued, I am psychologically drained. How can I not feel drained when every moment feels like it is filled with so much friction? And it seems the main perpetuator of this friction is my mind. My mind, which knows nothing much apart from pain and suffering.
I had to learn how to live. I feel like the dynamic that exists between my mind and me was never right to begin with, so it feels like I had lived my entire life continually being sabotaged by my mind. Maybe it is just trying to protect me, in its own insidious way. I don’t know what it means to simply live. There has never been simplicity for me, that is why I am drawn to philosophy like zen.
It feels like prior to getting covid I was on some track to somewhere – a place I’ve never been, never lived in. A place that has some sunlight and lightness. Now, I am struggling again. I cannot exercise so my body feels weak, slow and uncirculated. The lack of exercise has a profound hormonal effect on me on top of the whatever damage that was done by the virus.
I know intellectually this is just a process, I just need to give myself some time. But the feelings plaguing me threatens to drown me before I get there. I remind myself I am no longer the same person who existed a few years ago, and now I know I am not my mind or emotions.
Unlike the person who used to dwell and spiral downwards, I let myself float gently in my despair. I don’t attempt to squash my feelings or to dismiss it, because I don’t want to deal with the aftermath of repression.
I try to do at least one thing a day that would enrich my inner life. Try a new food, read fiction, draw, learn something, write, work on my website, spend quality time with my partner. If I cannot be happier, at least I can try to be richer inside?
Some days I am full of pity and reproach for myself. Some time in the future perhaps I would read this entry and wonder in amusement why was I so trapped by myself? Many times in my life I have realised the way to walk out of this despair is simply to sidestep it. But the process to just take that one step can be long. There must be enough buy-in from the broken mind. It has to be tired of being broken for so long.
I am also profoundly affected by the lack of physical energy, so not being able to exercise is also contributing to the downswing of my emotions. But this morning – 17 days since I’ve truly tested negative and 12 days after my fainting episode I took a morning walk for the first time. I’ve only been walking to malls and also walking in place while watching tv post-meals, so this is the first time I’ve done any deliberate exercise. There is a track below my apartment that has some gentle inclines.
I felt breathless at first, scared. But I slowly get used to the cadence. I try to get some sunlight in my eyes. I monitored my heart rate carefully, not letting it go beyond 120bpm. It didn’t get higher than 103. I walked only for 30 minutes, though I felt like I could walk longer. I let music fill my brain, calming my nervous system down.
On a typical day, I don’t feel compelled to do anything. If I just live based on my feelings I would simply lie in bed wondering what is the point of it all. I have to design a lot of infrastructure in my day to day life to ensure I keep myself alive. Being alive is not just about being able to function biologically. For me it is the process of enriching our spirit. I may feel dead inside, but my broken mind is still capable of making something, learning, experiencing. It is almost like cajoling a convalescing patient to go outside and get some sunlight even though that is the last thing the person wants to do because they are suffering. Except in my case I am both the caregiver and the patient. To co-exist with my broken mind, I have to learn how to be a caregiver to it. I have to be sensitive to my mind’s feelings, and yet challenge it, but I can’t push it too far. I have to compassionate to its damage, but I cannot allow it to be the automatic pilot of my life.
Who am I really? Is there a person that exists beyond this broken mind? At a time like this, it seems delusional to believe so. But this journal, all my documented memories, they display some evidence of…I want to say “an other”, but this other is still me. A wholeness I guess? A wholeness that is obscured by chronic feelings of grief. A grief for never truly being able to know my self I guess, a self who felt like she would never be accepted for who she is, because I was born into a world that keeps trying to make me someone else.
Prior to getting covid I revolved my life around getting healthier: exercising, recovering from exercise, cooking. Now I am just focused on getting back to my baseline, which till now I am not sure if it is even possible. I fainted twice consecutively last week with my heart rate reaching 110+bpm at rest and 130+bpm while walking, while the next few days I recovered with abnormally low heart rate: 40+bpm which is normal for me prior to covid while sleeping but not when I am conscious and sitting. I still have no idea what happened on that day. I guess I wouldn’t assume my recovery journey to be linear. Right now I am just grateful that my tuesday episode doesn’t seem to be POTS, which I am terrified of getting post-covid.
Hence I will not be attempting anything even moderately strenuous till at least a month later. I have time freed up due to not exercising and cooking, so I thought I’ll attempt to work on things that I’ve always wanted to.
I feel like this is a chance for me to rethink how I want to live my life and potentially reinvent my self. We’re all trapped in crufty images of our selves that have been layered upon over such a long period of time. It is difficult to break out of that image. For example, I’ve never really enjoyed drawing, so even though I wish I can draw, I’ve never really persisted because I don’t really want to spend my time doing something I don’t enjoy doing.
But what I’ve learnt from running and cooking is that there are things that are just not enjoyable at the beginning. One has to accumulate a certain level of skill before we can get into a zone that could potentially make the experience feel transcendent.
finally learning how to draw
I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw. In the past I just simply thought I had no innate talent, that is why drawing feels so difficult to me. Now I think it is true that I don’t have the talent, but I do think everyone can learn to draw something as long as they put in the patience, time and practice. I do believe I have undiagnosed mild adhd, so it is just not easy for me to have the stillness that is required for drawing.
I was very inspired by Chris Silverman’s apple notes art. I know I will never draw like him, but I just want to be able to make really simple drawings. It doesn’t even need to be aesthetically pleasing, just enough to convey its meaning. I wanted to try using apple notes too, because I wanted it to be journal-like where it is automatically dated, and surprisingly there aren’t many ipad drawing apps that could do so, if any. Unlike Chris who drew with his finger (clap clap), I drew with my apple pencil on an ipad mini. I decided to start from food, using a very simple illustration style from a japanese book I bought a while ago:
I know it is ugly, but it was the simplest thing I could bring myself to draw while I was still sick. It took me a few more days before I made another attempt:
I hate to admit this, but in recent years I feel like I stopped being free with my instagram account. I used to post incessantly and freely: documenting places, food, people everywhere I went. Now I have imaginary rules like I can only post things of certain quality, and I cannot post more than once a day. I don’t like this version of myself. So I posted the drawing above even though I still felt self-conscious about it. I wish to return to the original quality of my instagram account: a place to document my life, not to house a highly curated version of myself.
The interesting thing about drawing using apple notes is that it has no layers nor zoom (Chris Silverman has a zoom hack here), so it feels almost like drawing on actual paper. I have drawn digitally on the ipad over the past few years so having no layers was challenging, but I thought it would provoke me to think more deeply about how I wanted to develop my drawings, and expand my skills.
Since there are no layers, I have to think about the order of the items I want to draw, and how I should add the colours. I have no distinct style yet, and since I am just a beginner I don’t wish to confine myself to any particular style, so I continued to experiment over the next few days.
I thought it’ll be fun to rope my partner in for a session, to see how she interprets the same photo with the constraints of apple notes:
It was actually fun as a couple activity and it was interesting for me to see her rendering. She was actually mostly done when I was barely one-third through, so she started making embellishments to her drawing instead. As an artist I guess it much easier for her to render the shapes whereas I had to make multiple attempts just to draw one object.
I don’t really know where this will lead me, or if it would sustain. But I’ve never made so many drawings in such a short period before. For me it isn’t just about learning how to draw technically, but also to practice being still, observant and patient. For someone like me who is not good at drawing, the initial stages of every sketch is ugly and awkward. It takes endurance to keep on going, to believe that the result will be satisfying. I still think my drawings are ugly but they feel very satisfying to me, because every completed drawing symbolises winning a small successful battle over my mind.
reading books from the library
Reading is not a new activity to me, but it has been a very long while – years maybe – since I’ve gone to a library to discover books. I typically discover books from online recommendations. When I was a kid, I looked forward to every library visit where I would pick books from looking at that wide array of spines, followed by reading the blurb on the back cover to gauge my interest. There were no such thing is reading reviews back then, before the age of the internet. Maybe the closest thing is to simply borrow books by famed authors. As I got older I still discovered books from used book stores, especially while travelling. But these opportunities are few and far in between now.
Since the number of books we can read in a lifetime is extremely limited (roughly 1976 books if if I read a book per week and live till 80), I still want to be more discriminating before making a time investment to read a book. So I browse the spines as usual, read the back cover, and if it is interesting enough I check it out online to see if it is well reviewed enough.
A library that is a 5 minute walk away just opened near my home, so I could keep discovering and borrowing books this way. Here are some I borrowed last week – didn’t think much of them until a friend on instagram stories commented that they were confusing – only then I realised they are co-incidentally from 3 different “religions” lol:
I enjoyed all 3 books in different ways. The zen book had illustrations, and it inspired my black and white illustration above:
The illustrations are simple and yet very informative. I strive to draw like that. Something that makes it easy to document my life visually.
I’ve also begun to bring a book with me on my commute, which is not a big deal to most people but it is something I wouldn’t have normally done as I was adverse to carrying additional weight on my shoulders. It allowed me to read a lot more, spend less time clicking mindlessly on my phone, and it creates a meditative bubble in which can be a noisy environment.
writing more often in shorter sittings
I actually experimented with writing more often in shorter sittings before, but it never really worked out. I do think for a certain type of writing I need to go into a meditative zone for a longer period and excavate something that lies deep inside my psyche. But I don’t want to confine myself to that sort of posts only. This post and last week’s post on hanoi were both tedious to write because they are more blog-like with more visual content and running commentary versus a journal-like pouring out of my thoughts and emotions. I could not have done it in a single sitting. So it was much easier to write them in chunks, taking my time to find and edit the photos required.
in case I can no longer be my old self
This is also in case I don’t recover fully, shortening my already-short tolerance to work on the computer. Prior to getting covid I don’t tolerate the screen brightness very well for extended periods of time. It also felt exhausting to do any cognitive task for too long. That was why I stopped working on my interactive projects.
I am still in recovery, so I have no idea how much energy will truly be available to me in the future. I figured it would be better to practice working in much shorter energy and time cycles. If I can’t write lengthy posts anymore, maybe I could write short ones.
In life it is necessary to constantly reinvent oneself, because everything is impermanent and circumstances change. Our selves get constantly hammered and enriched at the same time. I guess it is just not realistic to expect my self to always be doing things like before. If I am not careful I’ll just end up frustrated, not allowing myself to flourish in ways I cannot imagine because I am so used to certain ways of life.
I thought I’ll document my favourite things in hanoi in case some internet stranger finds it useful, else I’ll just drown in nostalgia some time later when I look back upon this post again. These may or may not be in order of preference:
sua chua (yoghurt)
It seems like yoghurt is a relatively popular dessert in hanoi, and the yoghurt seems slightly different from the typical yoghurt. I’d seen a couple of youtubers having local yoghurt while in hanoi, so I tried to find something on google maps. It led me to Sữa chua thạch lá nếp — the stall owners didn’t speak english so I had to awkwardly point to a bowl someone else was eating. Hence I had no idea what I’d ordered, but I fell in love with it. It has some yoghurt, a caramel pudding, a variety of fruits, and some jellies. I liked it so much I went back for it another 3-4 times. We ate it sitting on mini stools by the roadside.
There are avocadoes everywhere in hanoi, even on maternity nutrition posters printed decades ago. Again, I sought this out because I saw a youtuber (thanks youtube!) eating it. The particular stall we went to had a multitude of flavours, so I tried avocado cream with caramel pudding, and also avocado cream with cheese (cubes, sprinkles, ice cream). We tried another stall, but still preferred this one — the avocado cream was surprisingly not that sweet. This was another place we went back multiple times.
Hanoi is known for egg coffee (which you should also try), but we fell in love with salt coffee instead, which is a hue specialty. Most non-black local coffee in hanoi is actually sweetened with condensed milk, which in my opinion enhances the overall flavour and layers, and reduces the harshness of vietnamese coffee. We tried salt coffee from a variety of cafes but our favourite one is called “salt mate”. It has salt coffee, and another version that is “cream coffee” on the menu, but it is actually delicious salt coffee with a ton of decadent cream.
Hanoi is famous for its very chaotic traffic but every weekend roads around hoan kiem lake will be closed to traffic. You could see people just strolling around, kids playing, people exercising, etc. It is a wondrous sight. I took the opportunity to jog around the lake, and it just felt so pleasurable to jog with a tremendous amount of space around without the typical constraints of a foot path. It is very thought-provoking: what a city can do to enliven its people, and how that will in turn impact the richness of the city.
I normally don’t get to eat pizzas because I’m perpetually on a low carb diet, but since it was my birthday weekend I decided to give myself some leeway. I thought it was strange that one of the most highly recommended dining places on youtube was actually japanese-fusion pizza, so I thought I had to try it to see what was the fuss. Their service was impeccable, we asked if we could sit on the rooftop since we don’t dine indoors (due to avoiding covid), and though their rooftop was not open they kindly opened the window next to our table for us. I can’t imagine a restaurant in Singapore doing the same…
Anyway, we tried a half-half pizza, the 5 cheese portion of it was great, I wouldn’t bother with the fusion sliced beef part, would probably pair it with another more pizza-like flavour. We couldn’t resist the 4-cheese dessert, which was also really good.
Bun cha is made internationally famous by Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama – I wonder if this is slightly offensive to people in hanoi since it is a much-loved dish before all the media spotlight. The restaurant that served them doesn’t mind all that publicity though. We liked it so much we went back 3 times to eat it, and it is a pretty low carb meal if I skip the vermicelli (hope this is not sacrilegious to the vietnamese).
It is difficult to describe the savouriness of bun cha: sour, sweet, a little burnt, a little refreshing. It is unlike many asian dishes, though I could imagine it as satay drenched in a light sweet broth. I like lettuce wraps, I wish we can have more lettuce wraps everywhere.
We saw this on youtube (it is actually useful to watch a few vlogs on the destination) prior to the trip as well. My partner is an artist and thought it would be nice get something to stamp on her artwork. You could get a premade stamp with your name carved on it, for us we drew a sketch for them to carve. It can be collected the same day or the next.
For some reason the baguette in hanoi seems a lot more crispy than the ones we can get back home. Not that I eat a lot of baguettes due to my carb restriction. The way they do banh mis in vietnam is just different – probably due to the ingredients and seasonings available and their local tastebuds. I guess banh mis available out of vietnam is catered to the locals in that specific location.
We tried two of the most highly recommended ones: Banh Mi 25 and Bami Bread, but our favourite is Banhmi LongHoi, which we found highly rated on google.
Hanoi has like 5 cafes on every street and I am not even exaggerating. We loved both the local sidewalk cafes and the hipster-looking ones. It was inspiring for me to see how different cafe owners express their creativity.
sitting on the streets
One of my favourite things to do is just to sit on the streets on these little short stools, have a coffee and people watch. We just don’t have these sidewalk cafes in singapore.
For a chronically ill perpetually existentially depressed person like me, there aren’t a lot of things in life that gives me a sense of aliveness. Travelling is one of those few things, because it is mind-opening to experience a world different from mine. Everything seems peculiar and wondrous in a foreign city.
I don’t always take the effort to document my travel experiences, but for me I tend to dwell on the misfortunes I have had, so I need constant reminders that there were parts of my life that were good. Hence, my obsession with documenting my life. I wish to remember all my selves who have lived.
I’d finally tested negative on may 2nd the 13th day of my infection, in time to have a mini celebration with my partner. I am not sure if I overdid it, but a super faint line that is not very visible under normal lighting conditions turned up on the 15th and 16th day – I continued to test because I was hoping to have 2 negative tests within 48 hours.
There are differing views on the internet regarding the viability of the virus. The conventional view is that most people are not contagious on day 10 onwards because they could not culture a live virus in the lab even if the rapid test was positive. There is also a view that since the rapid tests test for nucleocapsid protein which is only produced by the active virus, and the rapid tests are not that sensitive to begin with, so one should assume the worst if even the faintest of lines continue to show up. I also found a couple of articles that said that the rapid tests could pick up inactivated virus bound by our antibodies.
It doesn’t seem very clear cut to me and the research I’ve found still seems murky. I’ll continue to test until there is no doubt with the results. Right now it does make me feel a little anxious because I don’t want to have a persistent viral load in my body, no matter how low it is. I definitely do not want to be chronically inflammed. But I’m actually testing negative on the government-issued tests (sd biosensor and flowflex) and only abbott panbio tests seem to be picking up something. I’m not sure whether to be glad that it is capable of picking up such low loads – at the very least it makes me want to continue to be cautious. I definitely wouldn’t be visiting any elderly soon.
My heart rate is still elevated while standing or walking, especially in the morning. I have a daily routine of using a polar h10 chest strap to take my morning hrv using elite hrv, followed by using hrv4training with the apple watch breathe app. Prior to covid I consistently had a morning heart rate (measured while sitting straight) of 60s, 70s when I am stressed, and now I am measuring late 80s. My hrv in the morning has tanked from 30ms-50ms to 10-20+ms. Well it has only been 2 weeks out and I can’t expect my body to make a miraculous recovery, but I am not really seeing much improvements over the days and it is worrying.
But at the very least my walking heart rate does adjust downwards to 90+bpm after spiking a while. I couldn’t get it below 100bpm for almost two weeks.
I feel like I have lost all the cardio fitness I have built over the past few months if not years. I have to restart from scratch again, all the way from learning to walk. I can only console myself with the knowledge that I have extensive experience in healing and recovery.
Physical fitness aside I am also taking the opportunity to think about how I want to live. I’ve never really stopped thinking about it, but having a viral infection that has the potential to cause permanent systemic damage makes me think deeply about how I want to spend the rest of my time if my life is going to be shortened, or if my health is going to be compromised from now on.
It is difficult: prior to covid I’ve already expended most of my energy into recovery, so much that I have not much left to be creative. Now I have to get myself back into my previous baseline, which I am not even sure if it is even possible.
I haven’t felt creative in years. I feel like I’ve lost such a big part of myself to my chronic migraines already. Going to hanoi re-sparked some of that creativity back into me…I was truly in my best health prior to and during the trip. Will I be able to cope with the grief if I can never feel like that again? Or will I learn to cope as usual? What is left for a chronically sick person? Are there still doors I can open, little things I can do that will make me come alive in spirit again?
At this point, I am just glad writing is still here for me.
While writing this post I cannot help but think most people would not relate or be interested in the fine nuances of rapid tests and contagiousness, or the details of my cardio biometrics – I guess things like heart-rate variability must sound esoteric to most people. But all of that is me: my obsession with finding answers through data, the tools I rely upon to gauge my health. They are a large part of my life, and I must continue to commit to writing as myself.
Today is the 9th day of my covid infection. I wanted to write something much earlier, but couldn’t find it in me to do so. I guess after writing several times here that I cannot escape this generational fate unless I am willing to become a true hermit, I am finally meeting this fate.
I have no idea how I got infected, except it was either somewhere in Hanoi or at the public library that has just opened near our place. The thing is, everywhere has unmasked, sniffing and coughing people, so it is hard to tell. Do I regret going to Hanoi? No, because the probability of getting infected in Singapore is also pretty high, especially since they removed the mask mandate for public transport.
I am surprised that I didn’t spiral into despair after testing positive. Maybe I was too sick and shocked to actually spiral. There are too many things in life that is out of my control, even without covid danger is always lurking in the dark corners.
I don’t know why people call this “just a flu” or worse, “a cold”. I had “mild” symptoms – I have seen people describe the worst cough and sore throat ever – and I had neither of those. My throat was mostly uncomfortable, and I barely coughed. One of the symptoms I was very afraid of was insomnia, but apart from the first night when I woke up every hour I slept okay. My fever didn’t spike more than 38 degree celsius. But for a few days I could barely eat, and I could barely sit up, and till now my heart rate spikes to 100+bpm if I stand and walk. My standard symptoms are “mild”, but internally I feel like I’m slowly being emptied out.
I’m doing everything I can to avoid the fate of long covid, including being on a zero carb diet, applying nasal and throat sprays, and ingesting a dozen supplements proven to help. And of course, lying horizontal most of the time. I am not sure if all of these would be enough. I am not even confident of walking, much less the running I used to do. I may possibly be out for months, depending how and if I recover.
It is a strange and saddening time in the world. The government keeps telling people it is mild, research keeps popping out to say it is not. There is a large dissonance. There is increased risk of all the medical conditions we can think of post-covid. The body can only function so much with damaged vessels, cells and immune system. Yet I still see everybody going around unmasked, and letting their kids go unmasked on planes and indoor places. Some people have popped up to tell me that they are still dealing with some lingering effects many months later. The situation seems hopeless. We’ll never coordinate enough effort to do something about this, so the virus will simply keep on mutating. One day, everything is bound to catch up. We can only go on for so long ignoring the increasing numbers of people getting disabled by the virus? I think governments are keeping their fingers crossed that it will “only” disable 10-20% of the population.
I – for my own sake – am hoping that vaccinations do work to keep the damage low enough. The hope is in a true neutralising vaccine, I guess? And continual improvements in the treatments available for long covid. There is a lot of unknown and we may only know decades later, like it took decades for science to link EBV and multiple sclerosis, or flu and parkinsons.
Again, I console myself by thinking I can only do things that are within my control. Reality has happened, and all I can do is to cherish the time remaining before some other shit hits the fan. Will I suffer a stroke, or go into cardiac arrest if I resume running again, or develop heart disease? I will do what I can to try to avoid these fates, but if I don’t I am just one of the millions of people being let down by this systemic failure.
Day 9, I miss my partner. I’ve stopped feeling so disappointed that I am still testing positive. Some people have kindly shared with me that it took them 11-14 days to test negative. I’ve decided to stop wallowing and see if I can do some little creative things, like write this post. I’m not sure how my existence will unfold or if it would be shortened, but as long as I am still alive I’ll be trying to leave some imprints.
Every year during the time of my birthday I would try to travel out of Singapore, even if it is just to somewhere an hour’s flight away. When I was much younger it was because I didn’t like being in my own country, in the last decade or so it is because being in a foreign place automatically provokes me to be more mindful. We become blind to our surroundings when we’re too familiar with our environment, and that blindness can deaden us to life if we’re not careful.
We didn’t travel for 3 years or so because of the pandemic, but end last year we decided to take a calculated risk to travel to bangkok. We survived that trip, so it gave us courage to attempt to travel again for my birthday. Perhaps we wouldn’t be so lucky every time to avoid getting infected, but the risk is possibly similar in Singapore anyway now that we’ve removed our mask mandate on public transport and indoor settings, unless we’re both willing to become true hermits. But we’re taking every precaution we can by wearing n95 masks on the plane and bringing a personal hepa filter to dodgy places. We also wear kf94 masks at every indoor place and avoid dining indoors especially in air-conditioned places unless there is adequate ventilation like we can sit next to an open window. All of these is not foolproof, but I think it is the best we can do apart from staying forever at home.
This year I chose to travel to hanoi, though I made sure my partner is on board too. We both don’t feel comfortable in chaos, but I asked the James Hollis question – will this enlarge or diminish me – and some inner place within me felt like hanoi is a place that would enlarge me.
It was still a shock to our senses though. But we acclimatised gradually within the next couple of days. I started feeling inspired by all the contrasts we could experience in the city. The traffic is famously insane but they also close the most central part of their city every weekend to traffic for people to walk about and kids to have fun. I feel like this is extremely progressive?
I love travelling because of how provocative it is to my worldview. I could have the worst beliefs about humanity because I spend too much time within a narrow section of the internet, but travelling opens me up to new worlds: new ways of living and seeing. I could watch a thousand youtube videos on people’s experiences in hanoi or listen to a hundred people about how they felt, but nothing would have prepared me for the actual experience. We have different personalities, different ways of perceiving, and we seek out different types of experiences. I didn’t enjoy ho chi minh when I travelled there in 2012, but that was a different self trapped in a different mind space.
Hanoi is a city full of surprises. The same street can be home to a traditional pho street side stall, a modern cafe, a touristy souvenir shop, and an expensive-looking boutique. We enjoyed going into hidden alleys, going up some dodgy stairway and discovering there is a really cool cafe at the end.
I think in life it is really important to be surprised, enlivened and inspired. Hanoi is such an experience for me. Every day I see something that makes me go wow, this exists. I guess there would be some people who may come to Singapore and have these feelings too.
I have a lot more photos and thoughts to share, but it will take some time to organise and sieve through them properly, so I thought I’ll just share some brief thoughts first. I’m trying to tell myself not every post has to be this longwinded excursion into the depths of my psyche. Old habits die hard.
Last year, I wrote I wanted to learn how to cope. I don’t think I have learnt to cope well yet, but I do think I have made some progress compared to last year. It is difficult to notice inner changes in ourselves, but because I keep a daily journal I am able to look at entries I’ve written a year ago and notice a shift in tone, choice of words and the surfaced content. I hope I’ll be able to say the same this time next year.
Psychological progress is not linear though, and cannot be taken for granted. It is like climbing a rock: it takes considerable effort to hoist myself up. It is also not something that can be achieved with intention and effort. It has its own life. Sometimes I think I’m over a psychological hurdle, only for it to raise its ugly head with a vengeance. Other times I am surprised to discover that an issue that caused me considerable distress previously is no longer at the forefront of my consciousness. Who knows? I have no idea who I am going to become.
It is quite interesting though, to get to know my self as I age. I would have never expected myself to be who I am today as a 21 year old. I say this with neutrality, I don’t mean that I have become someone who has exceeded my expectations. But I am utterly different from who I thought I was going to become. It is amazing how much one’s personality can change and yet some part of it is still the same, like you can plant the same seeds and have them sprout in different ways. I wonder who I’ll be in another 21 years, assuming I am still alive? I guess I can’t even assume I’ll be alive next year, much less in 21 years.
I really enjoy ageing (except the part where people around me are also ageing), because if we do it right it can be freeing and thus confer us more creativity and agency in the way we choose to live and exist. I like how the older I become, the less I give a shit about the impression I give to people. People’s opinions are such a great source of suffering in this world. I wish there comes a point in everyone’s life where all of us will realise that opinions are merely made up content, and the quality of that content is very much limited by what the individual encounters in life. And most people’s encounters are limited by the structures of their environment. Most environments are badly designed without the consideration of what makes a human, human. So basically opinions are like rubbish, because most of us grow up being shaped by rubbish. It takes work to find our selves and our true values when we are all layers of rubbish. Hence there are very little opinions in this world that are truly valuable, because it is difficult to find opinions that actually originate from a quality source – it is profoundly lonely to walk out of that pile of rubbish, so most people just don’t even if they are aware of it.
I think that is a huge part of my work this past year. To have the capacity to maintain my own equilibrium and inner temperature while living in piles of rubbish. The other part is an ongoing journey of letting go and acceptance: that decay is simply part of life no matter how cruel it is. I can rage at it and think it is massively unfair, but I cannot change the physics of living. All I can do is to prepare myself for grief and loss, even though I know all that preparation will not cushion me for what is to come. Grief is horrendous, but it is worse being paralysed by the fear of it. Avoidance causes me to shrink. I feel like a fragile teacup, but I hope by knowing I am going to break some day will lessen the suffering a little bit when it comes. Or maybe it is wishful thinking to think that this suffering can be lessened, but I would like to believe I can somehow coexist with it. One can hope.
The pandemic has taught me shit will happen regardless and we have very little control over it. I am coming to accept that I live in such an era, an era when our previous life expectancy will no longer apply, and the temporary stability of the previous decades are over. I think people believe the pandemic is over and we’re going to return to what was there before. But as much as I need to live in a bubble sometimes for my own mental health, intellectually I am mentally preparing myself for more instability and suffering to come. When I look at the objective data, it is right there staring at our face no matter what angle I try to spin. The earth is warming up, we’re hopeless at looking at the long term, some political leaders have the emotional maturity of children, everyone is just too overwhelmed coping with the trauma of their own lives to be capable of making a sustained effort to overcome the existential threats we are facing.
I guess all of this is pretty heavy for a birthday reflection post, but it is what that is at the forefront of my mind as I turn 42. I am depressing company, I know.
But as the world burns and everything decays, I am also learning to live a lighter existence. The heaviness is there and I cannot escape it, but there is nothing in the rulebook that says we cannot have fun while things fall apart.
I have always thought of myself as an open-minded person, but in recent years due to increasing self awareness I realised I can be very set in some patterns of my thinking, especially when it comes to my self. I have pretty strong ideas of what I like and dislike, or what I enjoy or dread doing. I tend to not retry something I’ve already tried before. I have spent a huge part of my former (pre-2015) life doing plenty of things I didn’t like because I had no boundaries and was always seeking approval, so this makes me more allergic to doing things I think I dislike doing.
When I finally got sick of my old self I went all the other way and started saying no to most things. There were times I thought I kept my mind open but that led me back into old unhealthy patterns so I became more resolute about saying no. It is difficult to know what are boundaries or where are them when I never had them before. I didn’t even know what I truly liked or enjoyed because everything seemed like a response to societal, environmental or familial conditioning.
All of this contributed to me being very unwilling because I felt like I spent my life being too willing. It took years thereafter to heal from all that compression — I felt like I was being compressed into a tiny box. I couldn’t differentiate whether I am being my self or being the box. I am still healing: I can see that from how I respond to certain triggers. But I feel like there has been more space opening up to feel where are the edges of myself or to grow new parts of myself.
As part of my healing process I did consciously try to do things I had disliked because they were necessary. Exercising was a huge part of that. It may seem trivial now because I ended up enjoying it so much that I now cannot stop even when I am supposed to, but when I first started out it took me a lot of effort, willpower and failures. I also had to restrict my diet and sleep religiously before 10pm – in my mind I was already willing myself to do so many things for my health, I felt like I had no capacity to try new things.
So for years my partner has been asking me to try yoga and I was like nope. I disliked the slowness of it: it felt dreadful each and every time I tried. But I have been so obsessed with running that I had to find ways to recover from my fatigued legs. That made me want to try yoga again. And this time, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it either or that it made me feel good like the way so many people talk about yoga, but I didn’t dislike it enough to stop trying it again.
Then the other day my partner wanted to visit a crafts sale. I joked that maybe I could try cross stitch. She laughed. I decided to buy a kit almost as though I was trying to spite her. In truth I was curious to see how I would respond to working on it, because again I dislike anything that requires slowness and I have some resistance towards needlecraft in general.
So far I’ve only made 3 rows of stitches, but I was surprised to learn that I don’t hate it and I am looking forward to continue on it again.
That’s the thing about the self. I am sure I am not the only person experiencing this rigidity of the self – it forms the premise of Buddhist philosophy. We seem to have fixed ideas about who we are, what we welcome as a person and what we would reject. We also have illusions of who we are, stunting us from discovering our potentialities. If I kept believing I was an open-minded person I would not be able to see where I was being close-minded. This leads to a form of semi-conscious suffering because of the incongruence between reality and my deeply-held beliefs of my self. It could manifest as me behaving defensively without knowing exactly why I had to be so defensive. The human psyche fascinates me sometimes, because of all the ways we sort of know who we are and yet we would do everything to avoid acknowledging it.
We are constantly changing as a person. We are being fed with new information, experiences, stimuli all the time. When the inputs change the output inevitable changes too. But I think some of us react to this by sticking even closer to the old fixed beliefs of our selves. Maybe sometimes we call them “values”. Or integrity, I don’t know. Or it draws us to rules like Confucius. Because it is scary to have no stable ground to stand on.
I am like that in many ways. I think I am not a needlecraft person so I avoided it. But today I am not the same person as yesterday. My old self disliked needlecraft because I could not stand the feelings that come with the stillness of time, but my current self is growing to appreciate that. I may end up still not enjoying it much but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.
I have a similar trajectory in my photography journey. I set out to take street photography because that’s what I’m instinctively drawn to, but I quickly realised that the environment can often be uninspiring. If I choose to only take photos when I am inspired, then it would greatly limit my photo-taking opportunities. I think photography is a great tool to open our minds and the way we see. How can we find a photo when nothing seems obviously calling out to us?
“I’ve been trying to achieve a breakthrough by taking photos that don’t involve people — I guess I believe it is possible to see beauty in the most mundane of environments, but can my eyes see it? this is the ground floor of our public flats, some of them have interesting feature walls like this. I find it fascinating that there is an attempt to be creative even if the apartments were built for a very practical purpose.”
I have quite a few things I had aspired to learn for a long while now. One of them is learning how to play the keyboard, and the other is learning how to draw. I don’t aspire to be good at them, I just want to be capable of enjoying them. I have a keyboard I have gotten in 2016, and my partner is amused I keep buying these drawing books but I don’t actually draw (apart from the ugly drawings I make sometimes for these blog posts). Or will they have a similar fate like my running shoes?
The by-product of all of these mini-experiments and experiences is surprise. I am surprised by my self, which is enriching. As artists we often start out with an idea and a blank canvas, many a time we have been surprised by both the process and the outcome because the actual journey and eventual outcome is different from what we’ve imagined in the first place. This is similar to how I feel about my self if I take myself as an instrument for creativity. I don’t necessarily mean creativity in a traditional artistic sense, but think of the infinite ways we can create new layers of ourselves, as long as we believe we can. Don’t associate myself with needlework? Pick up a kit and bam, I can now associate myself with needlework, an association that did not exist in my entire life before. The surprise does not only come from the feeling of wow I didn’t know I could do this, but also the journey itself teaches me new things, and I also get to know newly formed layers of myself. There are many dimensions of surprise that can be evoked when we try doing something new.
Sometimes I think of life like how Sisyphus is rolling up the same rock up a hill over and over again. It can be repetitive, dreadful and monotonous, like being caught in a trap. But perhaps even Sisyphus may become a different person each time he rolls the same rock up the same hill. Each repetitive journey is never the same journey because experiences are accumulative transforming our psyches in the process, and the conditions are never totally the same.
The part of my self writing this essay is elusive. I am seldom like this, whatever this is. I guess that’s why I write whenever I can, to remember the parts of me who can be like this. Maybe this is an ongoing practice too, to become a person capable of surprising myself with my self so frequently and with so much ease that I no longer feel like I am both trapped in the box and I am the box.
It had seemed like an unattainable goal: I was struggling even to finish 5km, much less 10. I learnt by experimentation that it made a considerable difference if I started slowly to warm up during the first km or so, and if I deliberately kept my heart rate around 120+bpm instead of instinctively picking up the pace. I could go on for a very long while at this slow pace, and if I tired it was my legs, not my cardiovascular system. I used to be so unfit that even brisk walking for more than 10 minutes would tire me out, so to be able to sustain a slow jog at longer distances is a huge deal to me. I gauged my fitness by how much I struggle to complete my targeted distance. When I first began running this round, I was struggling all the way from the beginning till the end for the entire 5km. Now I could probably run up till 7 easily before my feet starts to fatigue.
I slowly went from 5 to 5.5 to 6 to 6.5 to 7 to 7.7 to 8.5 to 9, then to 10. I was stuck at 5-6 for the first couple of months but I reached this threshold where my aerobic fitness seemed to make a quantum leap, so at 6.5 I started adding around 10% mileage each week. I started running around October 2022, so it took me roughly 6 months to go from 5km to 10. People train for full marathons in half the time, so my progress is considered relatively slow.
But for most of my life I avoided walking for even for 10 minutes, as a child I hated physical fitness lessons, climbing stairs used to be such a nightmare because it would always render me breathless. So yes it feels good to be fitter in my 40s compared to all of my youth.
I would probably not be on this journey if I wasn’t attempting to improve my mitochondrial health in order to heal from my migraines. This started off as purely utilitarian – I thought I would just do it like a chore just like how eating low carb feels like a chore to me: a chore being something I have to do instead of what I truly want to do. But unexpectedly I fell in love. Now I probably have an unhealthy relationship with running, because I get disappointed when I am not running, and I am always trying to run even when my body is exhibiting dodgy signals.
I now understand why people say they run for mental health. Is it the endorphins, the increased oxygen, the sense of completion? Or do I like giving myself utterly into an experience?
I know this is probably the nth time I am writing about running. But I think this is a precious slice of my life to capture. I don’t really know when this will be taken away from me. I’m afraid that a bout of covid could annihilate my aerobic capacity. Or who knows what sort of strange illnesses I may develop? I don’t have a good history with my health. Every day feels precarious to me.
We cannot help but be coloured by our life experiences. I am never at peace because I am always expecting something terrible to happen. And yet this attitude brings me a different kind of peace because I am always trying to live my life to the fullest, as much as my capacity can allow.
I now realise that attempting to live life to the fullest is actually a lot more challenging than it sounds. It takes a certain courage, to be capable of always weighing the present against the future, to be able to discern what is reckless versus choosing the present, should I have empathy for my future self versus my present self, am I being hedonistic or am I taking care of my inner needs? It is a constant calculation at any given moment. That is if I even remember to make that calculation, because it is just so easy to go into a drone-like existence based out of a regular fixed routine. I try to circumvent this by journalling every morning – it makes me think about how I want to spend my day. I don’t always succeed in trying to live with more awareness, but it is still nice to at least give some thought to it.
It is a similar calculation I make for running. Each day when I make the choice to run, I ask myself if I am harming or improving my body? I would like to run everyday but I am still not there yet. I just ran 3 days in a row this last week and I fell a little bit ill. It is still difficult for me to know when I truly need a break.
At the end of the day, it is all about building that relationship with my self and my body. To manage all the different tensions and desires I have. I am terrible at this. Yet to feel that conflict and challenge I realise, is a sign that I am in the process of learning. I have always wondered why I never seem to take the easy way out, or why does life consistently feel so uncomfortable? It is an ongoing paradox because I am ambivalent about the value of my life and yet there is this invisible desire to explore the depths of my self. Who am I, and who will I become?
Because of my chronic illness I had to rely a lot on having a stable predictable routine. It was really helpful earlier on, because my younger self did not know how to live in a routine or build consistent habits. But it has somewhat built an internal prison for me. I could have continued to walk the same amount of distance every day just for the sake of maintaining my health, to incorporate an exercise that has a high potential of triggering my illness was a risk. Now I am glad I took it.
I did probably have more migraines, but I also discovered that it was possible to push my limits. Previously just going out for a few days in a row would be enough to trigger a serious migraine, now I am able to run around 30km a week. I have fallen sick during times when my body wasn’t in a very good state to run, which I am still have trouble recognising the signs.
I know I need more flexibility in my exercise routines. So last week I did a photowalk on one of my rest days and yoga on another. It is not easy to decide to take a break. Even in exercise I am having trouble pursuing wholeness. I am feeling the conflict, which means I sense that I could do better and I am attempting to break out of my self-made mould.
It would probably be better for my runs if I work on other forms of training. I am not training for a marathon or any form of race, so there is not much point in accumulating too much mileage. If health and fitness is my goal then I have to learn how to work out my entire body instead of just my legs and cardiovascular fitness. I just forget to see the whole picture.
I guess if I could decide to start running one day, I could potentially start on anything. Maybe knowing how to overcome inertia and start something is a muscle I can train too.