In Zen/Buddhism there is a concept of taking refuge in the Self, that throughout chaos and impermanence there is a part of our interior world that is timeless and at peace – a quality that we can find deep within ourselves if we meditate deeply enough.
Today at our 58-month anniversary I found myself thinking of this concept when I think about my partner. That my life has been full of changes, upheavals, anxiety and insecurity, but I could somewhat find myself resting in her presence, like a refuge. It has been that way right from the start, even when we were just hanging out as friends. It was as though I entered a bubble, away from the world. My typically busy mind seems to slow down when I am spending time with her.
I met her at a very chaotic and distressing time of my life, at a time when I had nothing left in me or with me. I showed her my terrible hand of cards at the very beginning and she chose to keep on holding my hand anyway. We now joke that she was too deluded by the romance to think clearly, but I know my situation wasn’t something most people would have been comfortable with.
I am a very light sleeper, and I tend to be unable to fall asleep when there is someone else in the same room. The first night we spent together I fell asleep like a baby in her arms. These surprising events kept happening throughout our relationship, as I kept finding previously unknown pieces of myself emerging as I relate to her. I was initially very uncomfortable with the playful side of her (because I am a grinch), but as the years go by I started being playful myself.
All the parts of me I lost a long long time ago, they started to emerge in the safety of her presence.
I have made controversial choices all my life so I am used to feeling unsupported. It is difficult to understand my choices in the context of mainstream society. When we had met it wasn’t clear which direction my life was going to take yet, and as I navigated further and further away from the mainstream she supported me through them all. I think I would have made the same decisions anyway without her, but she made them a lot easier.
When I wanted to try doing delivery jobs she tried them with me. When I started intermittent fasting she ate at the same times with me. Because I have chronic insomnia I have to sleep before 10pm she changed her sleeping patterns to fit mine. She gradually understood the sensitivity of my health and witnessed the toll it has taken on me. No one can tell whether a person is living with an invisible illness except the person who has to live with them. It is not easy to be with someone who has a chronic illness but she dynamically adjusts to the ebb and flow.
We have our fair share of fights but we have learnt to communicate better together. We have both changed so much as individuals in the past almost five years, and a lot of it is due to the space we give each other in the relationship to become and emerge. Since we are both quite volatile in some ways we have no idea if the person we love today is the same person we would love tomorrow. Somehow we managed to endure the volatility till now.
I don’t take all of these for granted, and that’s why it still means so much to me to be able to write these monthly posts, whether on here or Instagram. The opportunity to reflect each month indicates another month survived.
It can be difficult to understand the meaning of a refuge or a home, to be able to rest fully in an intangible quality that is almost spiritual. But because I am able to experience it in another person I now see the possibility of finding it within myself.
I can’t express the gratitude towards my partner enough. This is the first time in my life I’m experiencing a prolonged period of relative stability and safety, first time in my life I feel like I really have a cheerleader, a person who really knows who I am warts and all, not just a projection of who they think I should be.
It is not easy to live life out of the mainstream and to find a partner who thrives on that. We are like co-hermits, contented in our small life with not much of an ambition or special desires except the freedom to creative in the ways we want to. I feel tremendously lucky to find someone who sees the beauty in the small.
Thank you, for not letting go of my grinchy hand for the past fifty eight months, and for letting me experience what it means to have a refuge.
The world is in a weird state now, where some of us are lucky enough to go on about life as though nothing is different, while others are facing unimaginable suffering. I struggle a lot with survivor’s guilt and all other sorts of guilt. On a day to day basis I try not to let it overwhelm me, but the subjects of mortality, luck, inequality and impermanence weights heavily on my mind.
I feel like I lucked out in many ways, except perhaps in terms of health. But in a really weird way I am actually grateful for my fragile body, because it has taught me early enough in life not to take my time and health for granted. I can imagine a parallel universe version of me who is healthy, probably still stuck in the hedonistic cycle of pursuing approval and success, deprived of a mechanism that will give me some cause for pause. I guess I can thank my fragile body for marie kondo-ing my life, that it forced me to have a laser sharp focus on what truly matters to me.
I fell chronically sick a few months after my grandmother passed away in late 2014. Till today I have no idea whether it was due to unprocessed grief, or that her death ruthlessly swept away the illusion I was trying to live in, or both. Yesterday while having a bedtime conversation with my partner I told her how deeply I regret the person I was when she passed. I can still vividly remember the last time I saw my grandmother, that I didn’t say a proper goodbye because she was taking a nap, and also because I was rushing to leave. I was never present, always trying to escape to the future or somewhere else. I wish I knew how to be a better person back then, I wish I spent more time talking to her, taking her out for meals, to try to truly know and connect to her.
I spend a lot of energy these days trying not to be that person. I spent a long time of my life harbouring a lot of anger and hurt so I was defensive and resentful all the time, not realising I was becoming like the people who had hurt me in the first place. To consciously choose to go the other way: to try to care and tend instead of resent and retaliate takes a lot of work. To say that I wanted to become a better person for altruistic purposes would be a misunderstanding. I just didn’t want to turn into a monster and be stuck in a personal hell.
I think a forgetful person is a happier person. I wish I can be forgetful sometimes instead of being a broken record player playing the same few tunes every time. Is it better to live with the anxiety that comes with the awareness of mortality, or is it better to be forgetful so one can lighter and more cavalier but risk getting blindsided by the shock of loss?
I go back to paraphrasing one of my all-time favourite quotes, that love is a preemptive form of grief. To experience grief is to truly know that one has loved. But here as I type this I realise there is a difference between the grief that comes from the regret of having not loved enough, and the grief that comes from having loved with no holds.
I have always thought that love is an emotion but it is actually a capacity that takes skill to build. I hope to become a person capable of the kind of love that would gift me the sort of deep but regret-less grief, and also to be able to bear the unending streams of grief that will come with the rest of my life. I hope time is on my side.
I am a lot better at being present now, though it is a long work in progress. I am almost 40, but I still feel like a child learning to navigate the negative effects the external world has left on my interior world. Presence requires the capacity to tolerate all the feelings that a moment can bring, and to discern actual reality versus the projection of a deeply ingrained memory. Each time I descend into an almost bottomless depth due to the most trivial of triggers I feel like history is just repeating itself endlessly and I seem to never be capable of transcending my past selves, yet my partner reminds me that though I still plunge deep I seem to surface quicker.
Sometimes I am surprised by the velocity of my tears, it is almost ironic but I feel like now I am much older I can now give myself the permission and safety I lacked as a child to cry with all my might.
The capacity to truly love comes from emotional maturity, and emotional maturity is tied to the ability to tolerate difficult feelings. Society frowns upon difficult feelings and crying, so some of us learnt to repress them, some of us learnt to escape from them. We’re told that grown ups shouldn’t cry, and I believe that has ironically made many of us into emotionally stunted adults.
I am aware how much of child I am still emotionally. My grandmother’s passing was the catalyst for me to learn how much my emotions prevent me from truly living.
Her death gave me an opportunity at life. I wish it wasn’t so, that she could still be alive and I could introduce her to drinking lattes and eating egg benedicts, but unfortunately I know I would still have been the person trying to escape from life.
The other day while just sitting around in my living room, I had this sudden awareness of my newly developed capacity to feel subtler emotions – instead of just high and low notes, there was a spectrum of emotions there were barely discernible in the middle.
I guess if I think about it, emotions are somewhat only noticeable when they are at the extremes. Many people probably go about their daily routines without noticing their emotions. Then again, there is a difference between being conditioned to ignore our emotions versus truly operating from a healthy neutral zone.
I had a profound realisation that the intense emotions I almost always had were preventing me from truly living. They were all I felt – it is like only being able to taste extremely salty or sweet foods, missing out on the finer subtler, more dimensional notes. One can go through an entire life believing food was either tasteless or heavily flavoured, without ever knowing what natural flavours taste like.
Intense emotions are like a perpetually loud ringing noise that follows me wherever I go. It is a constant distraction, distracting me from noticing the present because my emotions were so overwhelming and they would trigger unpleasant memories and those memories would trigger more intense emotions, forming a very unhealthy feedback loop. Interestingly the latest medical research is proving that psychedelics may play a role in breaking those loops. The theory is that they force a reorganisation of the brain. Unfortunately these treatments would probably not be available in where I live at least for the considerable future, but one can break neurological loops with something like meditation, except it would probably take a lot of effort, discipline and time.
I believe the point is to learn to see and experience life and the world in new dimensions that would break us out of old patterned thinking. Old pattern thinking is not just mere thoughts, they are engrained deeply in us precisely because that’s how our brains work – designed to conserve energy by storing what we learn so well that it becomes an automatic response. Our brains are not moral agents, so it cannot differentiate learning useful things like cycling or playing an instrument versus replaying a traumatic memory over and over again.
Travel was one way that would consistently break me out of my old patterns, such as visiting San Francisco for the first time radically altered my mind. The other important factors were books and relationships, including the one with my self.
I still experience being profoundly affected by my emotions. I could experience a day when I felt everything was complete, and the next day I would question the point of my life. But if I could run a sentiment analysis on both my public and private journal entries, I will wager that my sentiments are trending more neutral as time goes by. I would take neutral and middle over highs and lows.
It is just that it is so freeing to notice some silence when one is so used to a chronic, loud, ringing noise.
The older I grow, the more I come to realise I am actually like a puppet: I am at the mercy of my psyche and hormones. I am subject to their swings, especially at my monthly hormonal cycles. There are always grand plans and hopes – things I had thought I would do, the time I believed I could spend, the stuff I had hoped to make.
Yet I look back at all the time I had and so much of it was just spent in recovery mode. When an illness is mostly invisible everything seems unreal and I become my own gaslighter. Was I really unwell?
How much are we in control of our own decisions, and how much are we subject to our own primitive impulses? Reading a ton of Buddhist books I think the genius of the Buddha wasn’t in creating an entire religion but rather deeply understanding the psychology of human suffering and breaking down the seemingly attainable steps to liberate ourselves from it.
You would think that if someone could prove that meditation would solve most of our human problems we would all sit down to do it immediately. Just simply sit, breathe and observe your thoughts. But it turns out sitting still regularly and for long periods of time is one of the most difficult things to do for a human being.
Till date I can’t tell if the point of meditation is to liberate us from the primitive clutches of our minds so we can be less of a puppet, or to actually develop the capacity for equanimous acceptance that we will never fully escape from the puppet strings. I think it is perhaps a bit of a paradox – seeing and accepting that the puppet strings are there in the first place could possibly make more room for creative manoeuvres.
They say there must be hope in life. At times I cannot help but wonder if hope is a concept that is invented as a coping mechanism. I am skeptical of recovery for myself but I must live as though as there is hope, because how do I endure the rest of my life otherwise?
I continue to try to eat well, exercise moderately, and sit still for at least ten minutes a day – in hope that I can create more gaps and disconnect between what my broken psyche wants me to do versus what I intellectually hope to do. It feels like I am not making much progress, and I am like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a mountain except I am accumulating points towards a migraine attack. The pain lasts at least for three days and when the pain recedes I am utterly downcast and exhausted from enduring the pain. Days and sometimes weeks later I may feel as good as new, and I could almost believe that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy. Till the next attack, when I start to think Camus is a joke.
The cycle goes on. I feel like I’m in an endless repeating loop. Yet sometimes I read past entries from my journal and I discover though I am still coping with pain and fatigue from the pain, I am a lot less emotionally tortured. Is that a glimpse of the freedom I am looking for? At the very least I am no longer a puppet of the many stories my mind likes to make up.
Maybe I can never escape all of my puppet strings but I could attempt to shake some loose? At the end even if the outcome is the same, there is a difference between living as though as there is hope versus living with resignation. Perhaps we can imagine the puppet to be happy.
A while ago I had a minor surgery for my infected cyst so I could not exercise the whole time, so I was raring to get back to it again. I never thought I would become a person to miss exercise. But there is something about having blood and oxygen circulating efficiently through my body, that my fragile body plagued with migraines and hormonal disorders can still carry me through prolonged physical exertion. There is a magical feeling I only started to experience quite late in my exercise journey: that I could complete an hour of aerobic exercise without collapsing into a heap.
I was surprised to learn that I could still retain most of my lung capacity even though I stopped exercising for a long while, that I wasn’t frantically out of breath. I somewhat settled into a slow enough jog, with my heart rate ranging from 120bpm to 150+bpm. I could not help but think about the many first times I tried to start running, where just a hundred meters was enough to make me feel like my chest was going to seize any moment.
The very first time I could make running a successful habit, I still felt terrible even though at that point of time I was running everyday for almost three months:
I don’t feel that discomfort in my chest anymore. I think it is a combination of increased aerobic capacity because of all the cycling I have done, and I seem to know how to jog at last? I know it sounds hilarious but I struggled to run slowly enough to jog. I was either sprinting too fast, or brisk walking as though as I was limping because I was too tired to run.
I also learnt to enjoy the meditative aspects of running, to just let my mind wander aimlessly while I jog and be curious about the thoughts that would pop up. I am guilty of doomscrolling, so running without a device chained to me is a welcome relief. Isn’t it strange I feel relieved of my phone yet I’m immediately stuck to it when I have access to it?
Every time I run I think about how profound the lesson of pace has been in my life. I have always been an all or nothing person (which I discovered later is a classic symptom of the borderline personality disorder) so it is either I am sitting all day long or trying to exert my body until it is on the brink of falling apart. This applies to almost everything I do: work, diets, habits, relationships. The concept of moderation did not exist in my life.
But last year I kept falling sick with a ton of regular exercise and a pretty strict diet, until I started having long dizzy spells. I learnt that both exercise and dietary restrictions can be stressful for the body. Most importantly, I learnt that something that worked for many people doesn’t mean it would work for me. I have come to accept that my hormones are ultra sensitive and they do not like drastic changes or even stress that would be typical for anyone else. Now I try to exercise alternate days and eat mindfully. It is still a long journey in progress, to be better at reading signals from my body, and to make better dietary choices for my health instead of succumbing to cravings. I give myself a break every now and then – will depletion is a very tangible thing for me.
I think I have finally stopped feeling upset about not being able to do the things that most people can do, or not being able to get away with the things that most people can get away with. Through a lot of trial and error I am still learning the boundaries of my body.
I have decided to go back on traditional chinese medicine (TCM) to manage my hormonal issues and migraines (which are inter-related). I tried to DIY for a long time and it wasn’t working. Many people are on long-term medication for their chronic issues, so why do I think I should be exempt from it? I am tremendously lucky to at least have something that helps – I frequent migraine and PMDD communities so I know that it is rare.
I still consider myself to be psychologically and emotionally imprisoned so I will rely on TCM to provide support for my body while I continue to work on those issues. I am also starting to meditate again, in an effort to improve my autonomic responses and my capacity to be less reactive.
Hopefully I’ll gradually doomscroll less. Change is paradoxical though. The more we try to change, the more what we try to reject in ourselves will hit us like a boomerang. So it is all about pacing, again.
Every now and then I would browse the new arrivals section of the national library’s e-book collection. I was surprised to discover quite a few interesting books there, books that I wouldn’t have known about through my typical discovery vectors. There is a sort of visual serendipity through browsing random book covers and waiting for something to jump out to you. The cover and title of Katherine May’s Wintering jumped out to me:
“Truly a beautiful book”, endorsed Elizabeth Gilbert on that cover, and I know people think of Gilbert as a chick lit authour but I loved her prose, so I was eager to check out if this was truly a beautiful book.
Spoiler alert: It was.
Katherine May uses the seasonal winter as a metaphor for all the dark, cold and difficult periods we endure in our lives. From the get go I was captivated by her beautiful prose. I recognise beautiful prose when reading it makes me feel admiration, envy and jealousy at the same time – I wish I can pick the right words and string them together, like music:
There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can’t quite keep pace.
But more that the beauty of the prose itself, I had found myself deeply resonating with the way she describes her experiences in her book, as well as the little stories she included throughout. This is how she describes what it feels like to endure a personal winter:
Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider…However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.
It is not common to read about people’s experiences with their struggles in general, because of the stigma and shamed attached:
We’re not raised to recognise wintering, or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored.
It is even less common to encounter the precision of describing the experience as “sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider“. We often read about the actual pain and suffering, but for me what is a lot more subtle and insidious is the alienation one feels, the feeling of being left behind or being the cursed child while everyone else is progressing nicely along.
She writes about herself being pleased when she actually falls physically ill, because physical illness serves as a legitimate reason to stop working:
But then stress is a shameful thing, a proclamation of my inability to cope. I am slyly pleased that I have pain to contend with, rather than a more nebulous sense of my own overwhelmedness. It feels more concrete somehow. I can hide behind it and say, See, I am not unable to manage my workload. I am legitimately ill.
…and that it was only on her break that she could finally notice the effects that stress was having on her body:
I’ve been wound so tight with stress that I can no longer see past my own knots, and now, having relaxed ever so slightly, I’m feeling the full force of its impact.
It is deeply comforting to me, to read of someone’s experience that I so deeply related to. Even though I knew what I have personally been through it was an experience that was so isolating and personal that I may as well have imagined it all. We cannot have witnesses in our interior world, we have to develop the capacity to be the steward of the authenticity of our own experiences, because it is so very easy to be gaslit, and sometimes the worst gaslighter is ourselves. It feels powerful to see one’s own interior world being mirrored elsewhere, that someone else knows what it is like to hover precariously in that particular corner of the world.
She writes about her son being bullied and unable to fit in school, the fact that children tolerate a lot of conditions that adults will not tolerate:
As children, we tolerate working conditions that we’d find intolerable as adults: the constant interrogation of our attainment to a hostile audience, the motivation by threat instead of encouragement (and big threats, too: if you don’t do this, you’ll ruin your whole future life …), the social world in which you’re mocked and teased, your most embarrassing desires exposed, your new-formed body held up for the kind of scrutiny that would destroy an adult. Often, in childhood, this comes with physical threats, too – being pushed and shoved in the playground, punched and kicked…Imagine how that would feel to you now: that perpetual threat to your bodily integrity and your mental well-being. We would never stand for it, but we did as children because it was expected of us, and we didn’t know any better.
If you don’t do this, you’ll ruin your whole future life…how familiar it sounds. Unfortunately there are many of us who never had the space to grow away from what we tolerated as kids, continuing to tolerate the threats to our wellbeing because we do not know anything else. We accept it as part of life to give up our agency and autonomy.
She responded to her child with a decision that would break my heart a little:
I was not willing to get him back into school by breaking him, however desperate I was for my own time again…I sat down with them and learned that my son was just one of hundreds of children across the county who felt flattened by school, and that I was one of hundreds of parents who felt a gut refusal to force him back into it and to train him to take the consequences. The parents told me how it took a while, but that their children had become happy again out of mainstream schooling, having been violently unhappy within it. ‘She’s a different child now,’ said one. ‘She’s recovered a part of herself that we thought was lost forever.’
I was not willing to get him back into school by breaking him…I often wonder about the person I would be if I was not broken, what it is like to not lose parts of me forever. I wonder if one day in the future we would finally understand the harm we were subjected to, and the harm we continue to perpetuate. I wonder if I will see this in my lifetime, but for now I am comforted with stories like this one.
We should not try to deny the possible existence of winters in our lives, May tries to persuade as she rightly criticises the phenomenon of toxic positivity:
This is where we are now: endlessly cheerleading ourselves into positivity, while erasing the dirty underside of real life. I always read brutality in those messages: they offer next to nothing. There are days when I can say, with great certainty, that I am not strong enough to manage. And what if I can’t hang on in there? What then? These people might as well be leaning into my face, shouting, Cope! Cope! Cope! while spraying perfume into the air to make it all seem nice. The subtext of these messages is clear: misery is not an option. We must carry on looking jolly for the sake of the crowd. While we may no longer see depression as a failure, we expect you to spin it into something meaningful pretty quick.
Instead, we should accept that these times are essential periods of our lives when we recover and regroup ourselves:
Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered…Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs.
Reading the book, I paused and reflected the longest at the following passage:
As we so often find in ancient folklore, the Cailleach offers us a cyclical metaphor for life, one in which the energies of spring can arrive again and again, nurtured by the deep retreat of winter. We are no longer accustomed to thinking this way. We are instead in the havit of imagining our lives to be linear; a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
I think about the epiphany I had a while ago, the one of the greatest sources of psychological suffering is to believe in the illusion that life is a linear hero(ine)’s journey, that we would conquer challenges along the way in order for the big payoff at the end. Perhaps that’s why many of us put up with so much when we’re young: we work ungodly hours, sacrifice our sleep and health, put up with unfair treatment and ridiculous threats to our safety, because we believed in that narrative that it will all pay off in the end.
But most of our lives do not play out like a fairytale. Working hard does not necessarily lead to success, compromising our selves and integrity becomes a inability to enforce healthy boundaries, sometimes we don’t realise we are losing more important things than whatever we were working so hard for, other times even if we do get the payoff it does not lead to a happily ever after. There are always more winters to come.
The only way out is through, as she referenced Alan Watts but the lesson is essentially Buddhist/Taoist in nature:
…life is, by nature, uncontrollable. That we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow, and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life. Our suffering, he says, comes from the fight we put up against this fundamental truth.
Happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn, she proclaims. I think more than happiness, learning to endure winters better is the most important skill. We believe happiness is the default state of being, so we attempt to disown or deny negative emotions. But I have learnt that unhappiness (or winters) can be a teacher, a compass that directs us to where we need healing and/or transformation. Life is basically a lifelong process of navigating unchartered territory.
May eventually got used to winters and shares how she copes with it:
I recognised winter. I saw it coming (a mile off, since you ask), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it, and let it in. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable, and that my feelings were signals of something important.
This is something I relate to. I used to spiral deeper and deeper whenever I got sick. I suffered from the sickness itself, and suffered more from the feelings I had about the sickness. The second arrow, like the Buddha taught. I blamed myself for it, and felt deep resentment and shame about it. Learning to parent myself better made a whole world of difference: tending to my self like I would tend to a sick child.
I have shared my favourite passages from the book. I would recommend reading it as a whole, it felt like it was sang to me like a song, nourishing the depths of my lonely soul. Perhaps it is not a subject matter that would appeal to everyone, though it seems like to be doing well at the moment, which is not surprising in a time like this.
This is only the second book review I have ever written, because it is so. much. work. But I’m losing out if I don’t write them, because I lose the lessons and sentiments post reading the book. I have decided that writing a possibly terrible book review is better than writing none, so please pardon me if this comes across as choppy or unstructured. I merely wish to have a record of the quotes I loved and the thoughts the book provoked out of me.
A couple of days ago I had a day surgery for an infected skin cyst. It was minor but very painful. I couldn’t help but think about another previous skin cyst surgery I had nine years ago (I don’t know why I keep having them but I won’t complain about a nine-year interval).
Back then, I was all alone. I had to do everything myself, including heading back to my temporary accommodation post-surgery while I was still recovering from all the pain I had felt. I remember being very drowsy from the strong pain killers that were dispensed to me, sleeping a lot, bleeding a lot, fumbling with my dressings a lot. I probably didn’t eat much – back then there wasn’t many food delivery options, and the place I stayed was not near food.
Nine years later, my partner accompanied me to all my appointments, waited for me outside during my surgery, comforted me when I came out of the room with blood drained from my face. I couldn’t stretch my hands much, so I had to stand there helplessly while she undressed me before my shower, listened to the doctor intently as she was taught how to change my dressing and apply paper stitches on my wound if they come off.
I thought about everything I had to do alone nine years ago, and everything I have her to do with me now. I am very much in support of singlehood because I am cynical and I think the probability of finding someone compatible is almost zero, and being with an incompatible partner is life-exhausting. I told my partner that if this doesn’t work out I’m just going to be with myself for the rest of my life. I am done with relationships – I consider myself unsuited for them and I prefer to live out every inch of my weirdness than to hope for someone to accommodate them.
But for now, I lucked out I guess. We are still a relatively young relationship at almost five years old so I won’t jinx it. Yet in life the magnitude of certain moments will cause them to be etched in our permanent consciousness no matter how short-lived. For the past couple of days, even if it is just for a short while, I felt like I wanted and needed nothing else from life. How precious it is to have someone willing to wipe pus off your skin and hold your hand while someone is trying to slice through your body. Someone whose tender care is something that one that can trust and relax into, instead of feeling bad that one has to be taken care of. A tender care that is truly warm and comforting, not strangely foreign and weight-inducing.
A well-intentioned friend mentioned that he wished I would still be doing what he thought I did best – design. He was probably thinking of the version of me that existed nine years ago. But my career did not make me feel life was worth living, in fact it probably exacerbated my suicidal impulses. I am tired of living life as though report cards and resumes are the only measurements that matter. I don’t enjoy being seen as a specimen that is deemed to be thriving or not because of the work I do or some signals I fail to emit.
I may be different tomorrow, next week, or next year, but right now I have everything I can possibly want: a quiet simple vacuum that I can exist in with my partner facilitated by the bond we have with each other. I marvel while she makes her art, we discuss what I write and learn, sometimes we just hold each other and enjoy each other’s presence, other times we act like kids and laugh, every now and then we grieve together about the state of the world.
I have learnt that that the capacity to truly behold what I have is actually a skill. It is a form of heightened awareness, that a lot of what seems mundane now is what I didn’t have nine years ago, that peace is not the default state of this world but rather it has to be fought for, that even if I live for thirty more years it is barely 10,000 more days. I am already in the process of grieving the people who will leave this world before me.
When I look back at my past 14,000+ days, there aren’t many good periods I can remember. I know there will be periods of intense grief in my future as everyone ages. I wish to have some good periods to pad that oncoming grief. That when I look back at my life, it wasn’t just full of stress, anxiety, deadlines, insomnia, migraines, eye pain, people’s expectations, emotional trauma, grief, sadness, numbness. I don’t even need laughter and joy. I just want more moments in my life like the moments I had post-surgery: the awareness that I have everything I need. What I felt then was better than joy or any spikes of positive feelings. It was a feeling of calm completeness.
I don’t need other people to know it or validate me. I just need my self to learn how to recognise it more.
I am still not sure if there’s any point to writing a post like this because no one can know what will happen in an entire year, but I thought it may be valuable for my future self to have a record of my sentiments at this point in time. My 2020 post sounded a little angry to my current self, so I’m curious to know what would my 2022 self think of the me now?
Last year I wrote about pursuing non-pursuing, in a way I couldn’t have foreseen I guess my intentions were fulfilled? It was a year I couldn’t have pursued much anyway. I had to cope with all the inner depression, frustration, grief and angst that had no external channel for escape.
I think I learnt to sit with myself a little better, though I think it is only the beginning of the journey. My goals if any, are mostly the same as the last few years though: I seek emotional freedom.
I am aware that I have a recency bias and for now I don’t really want to sift through my previous posts, but it feels like in recent times I have begun to be a lot more aware of how my mind imprisons me. It still does so, very much. I am in a lot of anxiety every day, though objectively I am probably a lot better than before. Some of my thinking is simply not flexible which is a surprise to me because I had always perceived myself as a very open-minded person. It is funny to me how inaccurate our perceptions of ourselves can be.
I wish to be less tortured by my self. That the climate of my thoughts and emotions can become a bit more neutral. To a person with chronic trauma, the only options that seem to be available are either flight, fright, or guarding each moment with extreme vigilance. I have no idea of what true relaxation really means, what does it mean to be present with the moment instead of being afraid of what the next moment may bring.
There is improvement though, however slow. I find reading through my old journals and timehop entries amusing and enlightening. Reading these things used to make me upset, but I am in a place where I can laugh at my old deluded selves now. The big reveal was how much I used to live in a world full of my own concocted stories.
It made me go through a writing slump because I was really afraid to write anything that would make me sound stupid to my future self, or worse, write something misconstrued as “advice” to people who may read this blog. I am a lot more careful to insert caveats into my writing – that whatever I’m writing probably only applies to me.
I do want to continue writing in public despite my misgivings. This is my part – however naive – in trying to express something into this world that is a little bit more authentic, even if the idea of authenticity itself feels inauthentic. Once in a while I stumble onto people’s sites that make me feel a little less lonely in a world filled with so much noise, and I hope that my little footprints online will leave a trail that would comfort someone out there, or someone like my younger self. I had derived so much courage and comfort from people’s writing online, especially during my teenage years when the world was a lot more unaccepting in many ways.
Maybe 2020 made it really clear to me that I am truly afraid of life and everything that comes with it, and I wish to be a little bit braver, and a little bit more at ease with the world and myself, a little bit less paralysed by my anxieties.
I think having many years of recorded writing taught me that a journey to wholeness is not inevitable or linear, it is a path that one must struggle to keep walking on, because without deliberate intentions and awareness we tend to walk in circles that gradually grow smaller, circles that may eventually become invisible chains that will slowly drain the aliveness out of us.
This was the post I meant to write yesterday, but I guess in psychoanalytic fashion I had to express what was truly plaguing my subconscious first. I do not wish to twist 2020 in a positive spin, yet because of its conditions I was able to experience some new dimensions of life and myself. Here’s an attempt to document them:
Falling in love with the bicycle
Cycled a road bike for the first time
I’ve ridden bicycles on and off throughout my life but I’ve never really liked it much. I think there were two missing factors: my fitness and the bicycle itself. I had bought a second hand foldie for food delivery, it was a moderately enjoyable ride but that was it. Food delivery improved my fitness, and it piqued my interest in bikes because I wanted to see if I could improve the riding experience in order to deliver food for longer periods of time. The process to satisfy my curiosity made me slightly bike crazy.
So, towards the end of 2019 I had gotten my first road bike which turned out to be a giant blessing in disguise, because the pandemic induced a severe shortage for bicycles and now it is impossible to get a good one at a reasonable price. Also, being able to cycle my road bike every morning during the lockdown was probably one of the few things that kept me sane.
The love for my road bike deserves an essay on its own, but the tldr is cycling on a road bike is almost a completely different experience from cycling almost anything else (maybe mountain bikers would beg to differ). It made me completely fall in love with cycling and with bicycles, and now I am amazed at how wondrous is this piece of mechanical machine.
Changed my bike’s handlebar grips for the first time
Riding long distances gave me pain in the hand, so I had to change the grips. Removing foam grips is truly a pain in the ass, and it probably took me a much longer while than it would take an experienced mechanic. It is only a small task, but it whetted my appetite to do more to the bicycle. I am hoping to build my own bicycle one day.
Memorable random experiences
Saw numerous beautiful sunrises
The only reasonable time to cycle long distances in hot and humid Singapore is early morning, and I got to witness some truly amazing sunrises.
…and some sunsets
The lack of movement during the pandemic made us take some evening walks, and that gifted us with incredible sunsets.
Delivered parcels & bouquets
Before the virus became a serious concern, we spent the first couple of months trying our hand at being a parcel courier. I have a lot of respect for couriers now. Being adhoc couriers gave us the opportunity to discover some very interesting places and businesses. I would totally continue to do it if I wasn’t worried about catching the virus.
Let my partner cut my hair for the first time
I am sensitive to feeling weight even if it is my short hair on my head. Before the pandemic I would cut my hair at least every month. Throughout our relationship my partner offered to cut my hair several times but I would always say no because I am vain about nothing else except my hair. I couldn’t tolerate my hair growing to become a mop eventually, so I reluctantly let her do it. She did a surprisingly good job of it considering she had zero training, so now she cuts my hair. I’ve also become a lot less conscious about how my hair looks now.
Replaced my 2013 11″ Macbook Air’s battery
This Macbook Air of mine has a ton of sentimental value, so I was sad that the battery started to be incapable of holding a charge last year. A few months ago I plucked up the courage to replace the battery on my own, and it turned out to be way easier than I expected. It makes me a sad that Macbooks (or anything made by Apple) are impossible to repair ourselves now. Also this machine is still functions pretty well for a seven year old laptop.
Tried to repair my xbox
Encouraged by the success of my Macbook Air I tried to fix my xbox (which is basically a glorified bluray player because I don’t really video game) myself. The hardest part is actually taking off the plastic case…I managed to successfully swop out the fan but it is still overheating when I put the case back on, so I’m going to try replacing the thermal paste soon.
I used to build my own PCs. I forgot how much I enjoyed tinkering with hardware, so this would be something I’ll be hoping to explore more in 2021.
Cooked a lot more
Got sick of ordering takeout and wanted to eat a little healthier, so I tried cooking. The phase lasted longer than I thought it would, but I eventually got sick of my own cooking. Still hopeful of picking it up again.
Tried different writing set ups
I went into an e-ink rabbithole and tried different ways to improve my writing experience. I get sick a lot, and sometimes I cannot bear to be near my computer because it is something that makes me sick, unfortunately. So I am still experimenting to see if other setups would get me to write more. I am also trying to be more conscious about noting down my ongoing transient thoughts and feelings because since I’ve started to review my past journal entries regularly I’ve learnt that writing from my past selves is contains valuable information for my present self. It is not easy for me though, to be intentional about writing down what seems to be transient.
I wrote a lot less compared to previous years, because of the reasons mentioned above, that I got sick a lot. My physical illnesses make me mentally ill, and vice versa. I go into phases when I just cannot bring myself to do anything else except doomscroll. Still, I am thankful that despite everything I even wrote 39 of them.
I had a goal of reading 100 books, but ended up with a number that is like a historical low for me in recent years due to the same reasons. I don’t wish to get too caught up in a number game though, but the number keeps me mindful of how limited is the number of books we can read in one lifetime. Say I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I would barely hit 2,000 books. To know this makes me sad.
Experimented with Roam Research
This also contributed to me reading less for a while because I was making notes from books I’ve read instead of reading new ones. I am still trying to find a system that works for me that can contain Roam, this website and my health in the picture.
Other notable events
Started to journal daily, an unbroken streak since April 1st 2020
Like yin and yang, I guess I needed to pair yesterday’s depressing post with today’s because it wouldn’t be accurate to say that despair was everything I felt in 2020. It wouldn’t feel right to put them in the same post either. I guess I am the documentarian of my life so I can slice and dice in whichever way I want, and I’m doing this more for myself than anyone else.
My depressed brain doesn’t remember accurately how I’ve truly lived. I had to go through my photo library to write this post.
I’m not entirely sure how accurate can a review post be, versus being a snapshot of how one feels at the very end of the year. Memories are always sort of fuzzy, and we tend to have biases. But maybe the mere attempt to reflect is worthwhile.
2020 feels like a lost year to me, and I’m probably not the only one who feels this way. I think we’re conditioned to believe life is a linear upwards journey, and we don’t take it very well when we seem to regress. I didn’t really have plans for 2020, but it is one thing to choose not to have plans, and another thing to be deprived of the opportunity to have them.
On the surface I wasn’t very much affected by the situation. I’ve been living a hermitish life for a long while now, so I wasn’t affected by the distancing measures for the most part. But I felt very anxious for the older folks in my life, and a lot of sadness for not being able to visit them. I am very aware that time is running out for me to spend time with them even without Covid19, and losing months of visitation opportunities made me feel terrible, like desperately trying to hold on to sand tightly with my palm. However they are safe now, and I am thankful I don’t have to endure the losses so many people in other parts of the world are dealing with.
I did have to deal with the inner rage and anger at people’s self-centered behaviour, which is still somewhat manageable if they are strangers off the internet, but not when it is from people I respected and/or cared for. I think this is still something I am still trying to reconcile, and I am not sure if I should or can.
Overall, I am aware I am experiencing a chronic sadness and grief. I know I can be a very self-centered person myself, still I don’t deal well with knowing that so many other people in the world are suffering greatly. Sometimes I cannot help but wish I wasn’t alive so I don’t have to witness all of this. Is that selfish? To be unable to bear the consequences of being alive? To wish to disconnect myself from the reality of the suffering that exists in this world?
I tried to numb my feelings with distractions, but was not very successful. My health this year has somewhat worsened, though I am trying to deny it but I wouldn’t be surprised if a huge part of it is due to the necessary repression of my emotions. I feel like in order to survive and thrive in this world, one will have to be okay with walking away from the Omelas, or live in denial of this knowledge. I try to comfort myself with the oxygen mask theory, that I have to put on the oxygen mask on myself first before I can put it on for others, but in reality I don’t have that much agency over how my psyche chooses to feel.
I am not a very altruistic person. I don’t think it is a conscious choice to feel emotions that arise out of other people’s suffering. I believe it is simply a consequence of being alive and human. Who knows, perhaps if shutting down that part of me was a choice – I may have made it (I guess I can sort of understand why people turn to substances)? To be paralysed with sadness is not a sustainable way to live.
I guess that is my 2020. It is a year of coping, and I feel bad for even saying that I have been trying to cope, when I am safe while others are not. But it is my truth, that probably most things I did this year is an outcome of trying to cope. I was not really consciously choosing to do anything, they were choices made almost out of desperate attempts to numb my feelings.
If there’s any consolation, it would be that 2020 is a rehearsal year of what is to come in our future, with the permafrost melting at unprecedented rates and all that. I am trying to remain Peter Pan-like for as long as I can, hoping to acquire a repository of good memories to tide me through more bad times later. Yet it feels really wrong trying to thrive and seek joy in these times.
How does one cope with incoming losses, an inevitable consequence of aging? This is the question I’m living with these days. I’m an atheist, but I’ve been trying to incorporate more Buddhist/Taoist practices and philosophy in my life. To seek harmony and balance, to be more intentional and mindful, to develop more tolerance and compassion to endure being alive. I am less interested in being judged well or reaching nirvana because personally I think it is philosophically meaningless to believe in an afterlife. I guess I just want to tolerate being in this one.
Though I wrote that 2020 felt like a lost year to me, on an intellectual level I think it is valuable to experience uncertainty and fragility in this manner. It is a reminder to me that everything can crumble in a split-second. I have not dealt with this well, but the hope is that like antibodies after a viral attack my psyche will be more tuned to experiencing what Buddhists call groundlessness.
To be able to walk calmly on even while knowing the ground may shift or break under us anytime, to me that is the meaning of true freedom.