I guess 40 is the age when I should not be offended when people call me, “auntie”. It seems like many people are uncomfortable with ageing, but in general I like to age. It is ageing that has made me understand that I can have agency, it is also ageing that has given me perspective. I can now see why people mellow with age – so many things that used to make me boil with rage or shake with shame are now insignificant in the grand scheme.
If I could turn back time and make my younger self believe me I would tell her not to bother with the education system and instead take my self-directed learning journey more seriously. Yes, I am 40 and I still feel traumatised by my school days. Many experiences from that time still cripple me in many ways. I have spent my entire 30s trying to overcome the profound sadness I have felt in the first twenty years of my life.
I am 40 today, and I still feel profoundly sad. You know what they call an earworm? It is like a song that get stuck in your head. I think my sadness is something like that. It is a feeling stuck in the depths of my body and my psyche. But reading plenty of buddhism and psychology books had taught me that my feelings are not me, that the brain is designed to protect us and be efficient so remembering what used to threaten us will keep us safe by making us avoid those threats. I know all of that intellectually, so most days I try to make the best out of my time by somewhat co-existing with that sadness. It used to paralyse me.
Along the way I developed more compassion for myself. I used to get really upset with myself because I can’t function as well as other people, but now I understand it is just how my brain is wired due to previous experiences so there is very little I can do to rearrange those neurons in the short-term. There are things that we can do in the long-term like meditation or therapy, but I think what changed in the last year or so is my capacity to be more accepting when I regress or when progress is slow. The whole lockdown situation probably helped as I could no longer find distractions so I had to exist closely with my dysfunctional psyche. It was really unpleasant but only on hindsight – necessary. I became a lot more honest with myself. I mean, I always had the belief I was honest with myself but there are always deeper layers to unravel.
I am a lot more okay with being lacking as a person. To be irrelevant, behind, unseen. For me, that is one of the greatest sources of stability and peace. Because of society conditioning we are always trying to signal something whether consciously or unconsciously, so just plain giving up is really freeing. Sometimes I wonder if this is all something I could have done much earlier in my life, but maybe I had to experience the conventional life to truly know that is something I do not want. I am just thankful to know this early enough.
I am excited to start my 40s. When I became 30 I made it a personal goal to live my next ten years such that I can become an awesome 40 year old. My definition of “awesome” has dramatically changed. I think at 30 I imagined myself being some thought leader (hahahaha) somewhere doing world-changing things. Ten years are enough to know that it is tremendously difficult to change the world without harming it, because most of us cannot see the systemic effects of our actions. My ex-colleague used to tell me that she is skeptical of the word, “scale”, and I used to debate her strongly on that citing her of all the examples of how scale had changed the world for the better. It turns out now I think she was right, and “for the better” may only seem better in the short-term (see: my favourite fable on this).
Now, I just want to stop harming myself and the people around me (No I don’t go slashing people but psychological harm is a lot more insidious and long-lasting). My only wish if I may have one is to be healthier and that my loved ones stay healthy. 40 is the age when we start experiencing more death around us, and I am not prepared for it at all. It gives me terrible anxiety whenever I think about it (everyday). Tibetan buddhists spend a lot of their lives preparing for death, though it is in a different context because they believe in reincarnation, in my personal context I do hope I can develop the capacity to accept the inevitable with more grace. More importantly, I want to always be mindful of the time I have left with other people.
For the past few years, whether for new years or my birthdays I have probably wanted nothing more than inner peace. That’s probably because I had known nothing apart from inner turmoil. I cannot say I have attained inner peace – I don’t think even monastics lay claim to that, but I think I am feeling a lot more comfortable co-existing with my self and the world. I hope this is an upward trend as I age. I feel like I am only starting to discover my self because she was so deeply buried under all that societal conditioning. Who is the person when those layers are gone? Can they truly be gone?
In the right conditions (right conditions because inequality sucks), to be able to age, to be able to uncover ourselves as we become, is a blessing. I acknowledge this even as I am agnostic about the value of life. At every decade I am a vastly different person. I am unrecognisable from the person I was at 30 – my scifi mind cannot help but wonder if she would really dislike the person I am now if we’d met across time. She was narrow in both her worldview and her values. Maybe it is a good thing if I can say this about my current self if I get to 50, but maybe at 50 I can finally stop all this judgment.
I write one of these every year.Additional thanks to my partner for playing such an important role in my becoming.
I missed a week of writing because I ate some champagne foam in a dessert and my body reacted so adversely to it I was sick for a week. In the middle of it all I had both gastric pain and migraine. I broke down and cried for a while because this happened just when I felt like I was gaining some momentum.
There’s some silver lining: I was too sick to visit my regular TCM physician so I had to visit one near my place, and she specialises in female hormonal issues so I’m going to give it a go. Again. She asked if I was frequently tired because my pulse seemed really thin, reaffirming what I already knew from my regular physician. These little things matter to me because my symptoms are mostly invisible to other people and it feels incredibly validating when someone can pick up on them. It has been a lonely journey: having a chronic illness makes you live on a different timeline and rhythm from the rest of the world. Everyone else seems to keep moving, whereas I’m just stopping and starting.
I am beginning – after six long years – to see the benefits of all that stopping and starting. I mean, what is beneficial is also subjective. I’ve been cycling really slowly recently because of my precarious health, and the enjoyment that arises has a sense of dispersive depth. Just today, I got to see otters rolling in the sand, one squirrel, human beings of all sorts of shapes and sizes, even pink flower petals falling onto the pathway as though it is autumn. I stood there with my bicycle for a long while just to see those petals fall.
I remember reading someone’s account of how everything felt so fresh and sharp when his stimuli was severely limited because of a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The feelings I have been feeling lately is obviously nowhere near that, but I have a sense that my body has been developing a different range of sensitivities ever since I left the hustle and bustle of a full-time tech job. I was a person who would never have had the mind space to cycle, much less stand there and admire falling petals.
I guess this is a new phase of my life? Where from time to time I still cry helplessly because of chronic pain and yet in between those times I am somehow growing the capacity to notice and appreciate the small. It took me six years to get to this point, and I think I spent most of it grieving over the loss of my past self, no matter how much her life was dysfunctional and unsustainable. I feel breathless when I see a tech person’s website now – all the projects listed, all the past jobs, all the achievements – things that would make me envious previously, they now make me a little nauseous. I don’t mean nausea in a negative way, but rather as a consequence of being overwhelmed. I definitely do not miss it.
One of the brighter spots last week was that I had finally decided to sign up for a bicycle mechanic course (scheduled in mid-july) after thinking about it for more than a year. I am a little nervous on how I’m going to withstand six full days of training with my body, but it is split into two weeks so I’m crossing my fingers. I have this strange dream of being a volunteer bike mechanic but things always sound romantic and ideal until we actually do it, so we’ll see. I do look forward to working on my own bikes, and some time ago I came across a woman who restores old bikes for a living. That made me envious.
It has been a difficult journey: to truly let go of a previous life and identity. It is still ongoing of course – how does one become immune to an achievement-oriented life after being conditioned to believe in it for multiple decades? But I feel a lot more comfortable with my current self, probably more comfortable than I ever was with my previous self. I feel like the old me was someone who was socially engineered into being, whereas I have let the current me develop somewhat organically. It is difficult to not want to twist myself into a certain way, after all I have been doing this twisting and shaping for so long.
There are people who have a natural zest for life. If given the time they would live voraciously and they would wish to live forever if the option was available. Then there are people who okay with whatever status quo they are in, and they don’t feel terribly wrong going through their rinse-and-repeat routines everyday. Many others are simply too busy surviving to even think about how they actually want to live their lives – their options are limited by their societies and systems.
I don’t belong to any of these groups. Earlier in my life chronic stress made me feel life was rather meaningless, now I have removed most of my external stressors only to discover that my capacity to live well is low. If you put a dog in a cage and subject it to chronic stress for most of its life it will take a long time to be rehabilitated, if it was even possible at all. Like if you over-stretch a rubberband it will never return to its original shape again. I guess I can go on with the metaphors.
I think that is what modern societies are doing to a lot of people. We either thrive with the system by becoming a person good at chasing the designated milestones or we develop learned helplessness. We spend such a long time of our lives in a system that rewards us when we’re do what we’re told. Some of us would like to change, but it is difficult to develop boundaries and make decisions for ourselves when we are so used to being compliant and making decisions the supposed benefit of the group.
My partner loves making art. Whenever she has free time, she goes straight for her art, and doesn’t stop until she has to. Whenever I have free time, I doomscroll. There are things I would intellectually like to do, like work on this website. But somehow I am weighed down by a sense of chronic mental fatigue. I don’t know if this fatigue is the outcome of surviving chronic migraines or the outcome of fighting against the system my entire life, or both.
Sometimes I imagine myself being struck by a terminal illness or suddenly dying in an accident. I would be so upset with myself for all the time I had wasted doomscrolling. Other times I have this awareness that I lack compassion for myself – I am unable to empathise with the person who is in a long, drawn-out battle with her body and brain.
This has been a recurring theme in my recent posts: I think it takes energy to live consciously, to want to do wholesome things and actually do it. It is like eating. We could just buy an average takeout and be satisfied, or actually take the time and effort to cook something delicious for ourselves. Many of us would choose the average takeout, because we’re just too mentally tired to go through the work of cooking. I deeply envy the ones who really enjoy cooking and don’t relate to it as a chore.
A lot of things in life can be perceived as chores. Again, I think this is an outcome of being forced to do things from a very young age. Logically speaking, everyone should feel incentivised to eat healthily, exercise and lead a meaningful life right? Why do we constantly choose to distract ourselves with alcohol, shopping, relationships, etc instead?
Doing meaningful things require a sort of psychological stamina because they often require effort and they may not be instantly gratifying. Writing posts like this every week is definitely not instantly gratifying. Many a time there is no gratification at all. Scrolling reddit to look at cute animal videos seem more worthwhile to my dopamine starved brain.
I think I’ve exhausted my psychological stamina earlier in my life and now the consequence is my brain associates most activities as energy-draining. I do have two and a half faint embers flickering: bicycling and this weekly writing. Bicycles may be the only thing I claim to moderately love now. Writing is more of a spiritual commitment, a spiritual commitment to my self since I am not religious.
To write and publish, is a very conscious decision. There is no two ways about it. It is honestly easier not to write, and why should I publish my skeletons for everyone to see? Perhaps it is one of the few if not only connection to the outer world. As long as I continue to write, I can still see that I still care somewhat.
I call reading a half ember because there are long periods when I just don’t pick up a book. Everything needs momentum and to start reading requires a person to consciously drop everything else and enter a quiet mental space. Sometimes there’s just no such space available, other times the fatigued brain prefers bite sized social media just like a sugar addiction.
I often wonder what my life would be if I don’t suffer from migraines anymore. I wonder if that would finally give me the psychological stamina and momentum to work on my creative projects, or if I would end up taking my health for granted and burn myself out again. I wonder if I have learnt and fully digested all the lessons I needed to learn. I wonder if my migraines would fade if one day I find the elusive balance of regulating myself. So many ifs.
In the meantime I guess learning to lead a quiet life with the awareness to live small meaningful moments and knowing what to truly cherish while learning to regulate my self is my ongoing goal. I feel like there are times when I just give up and everything becomes trash, until a recovery period when I consciously decide to try again. If I’m lucky it takes days to complete one cycle. If I’m unlucky and lose myself it could take years.
My partner observes my spiralling periods have become shorter. There is usually a setback, then a spiralling, then a period of recovery, and then the slow acquisition of a well-being that is enough to start living meaningfully and being creative. I think my spiralling and recovery periods have become shorter, but the time to rebuild my spiritual and creative well is still long drawn.
Life is essentially a practice, a skill to be honed. I can only hope I have enough time, and enough moments of insight and awareness. Wanting more time is a strange twist for a person with chronic suicidal tendencies. That is a faint ember in itself I suppose.
In chinese there’s a phrase 初心, which is loosely translated as “original heart”, and it means one’s original intentions, the core of who we are. I do believe we are constantly evolving as people so there’s no permanent core but there is shifting baseline, a sort of driving force of how we make choices in our lives.
My brain/mind is like a broken radio station that broadcasts its own programmes, sometimes multiple ones at the same time. I constantly find myself being bogged down by day to day worries, getting lost in them, often forgetting what is the actual meaning I want to express in my life. Plenty of things seem worth worrying about until we juxtapose it with mortality. Is this something worth worrying about if I were to be seriously ill or die tomorrow?
I came across this beautiful quote on reddit that sums up my sentiment at this point in time:
Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
– Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Life can seem really long, but paradoxically it can also be very short, I don’t really want to spend so much of my life thinking and worrying about things that don’t mean much in the longer run.
Sometimes I think about my younger self, and I just feel like I had wasted so much of my life obsessing about things that didn’t really matter. I just lacked the perspective to understand reality and the true magnitude of societal concerns. I spent so much time in so much angst and sadness. How many tears did I shed and how much fear did I feel just because I didn’t do well academically in school? How much sadness did I go through because I was made to feel like a failure and a disappointment? On hindsight, did the education system make me a better person? I feel like on the contrary I had wasted so much of my life simply trying to survive and thrive in spite of the system. Everything of value I had learnt was learnt out of the system. I’m very lucky it did not kill me and my love of learning. (I semi-apologise for the rant, this post was not meant to be a criticism of industrialised learning but I couldn’t help myself.)
At the end, our lives are our own. We are the ones who have to live it, to live with the choices that we make. People love to be armchair critics of other people’s lives, but they are not the ones who have to deal with any fallout when things do not go according to plan. We are the ones that have to live with the horror of betraying ourselves when we make choices that go against our personal needs and values.
Unfortunately, we evolved to be social creatures, to be part of a tribe so we don’t die alone. So we are susceptible to feeling pressure from our social circles. I am somewhat of a hermit so I don’t feel much pressure from people these days. However, I do feel pressure from the social conditioning I have had all my life – it manifests as an inner critic or wet blanket. It also manifests in behavioural patterns that I find challenging to break. For example, it took me years if not decades to finally enjoy exercising, because I had associated it with negative experiences.
I associate so many things with negative experiences that I live in perpetual anxiety even though I intellectually recognise them as harmless. I still hate the phone ringing, still dread having to talk on the phone, still dread dealing with any bureaucracy, still get severely uncomfortable with any conflict of any sort, still feel like my world is going to collapse at any moment, still get stressed for things that should not bother me anymore.
I have a newish emerging voice that tells me my stress and anxiety is ridiculous, but my body does not listen. It shrivels and tenses.
So, I often find myself swimming in a pool of anxiety in paralysis even though objectively there is nothing wrong with my life right now. I spend a lot of time anxious, anxious about how much my anxiety is affecting me, and tired from feeling this anxiety.
The other day while stuck in a doomscrolling loop, I happened to look at some of my recent tweets on my twitter profile. They were made just weeks, months ago. Yet they were enough to surprise me, because I forgot the person who made those tweets. In recent months I am only on twitter when I feel well enough, I guess that is why she feels like a different person to me now.
Once again I am realising how important it is for me to put my thoughts and memories down in record, and also designing mechanisms in place to review them periodically. Like the above quote on the impermanence of life, I cannot take for granted that my mind will always remain lucid, that I will always remember who I am. I am not even talking about conditions like dementia. I think it is part of the human condition that we often get lost in the minutiae of life, and sometimes we get so lost that we may not return.
It takes strength to want to find our way back. It is easier to live in auto-pilot mode instead of harnessing all our energy and focus to create what we want in our lives with a conscious, lucid awareness.
The ability to access the thoughts that belonged to my past selves are important to me, because they remind me of who I was when I manage to grasp a firm hold on my life and thrive. I don’t mean the selves who were successful in the conventional sense, but the selves who loved to read, create things and be sensibly thoughtful.
If I didn’t know they exist, it is possible to believe I have always been this lost person walking in circles. I may have been lost forever.
Perhaps it is easy for some people to do the things they set out to do. It is incredibly difficult for me, because I have to deal with my uncooperative mind and body, a self who used to get so overwhelmed that contemplating suicide was the norm, my sensitivity to triggers that could send me spiralling into a deep, dark, hole, my unconscious self-sabotaging tendencies, a self who is really tired from all the surviving she had to do.
Yet I find myself returning to my 初心. There is a call to return to doing whatever I set out to do, no matter how inaudible it can become, but sometimes all it takes is to get a glimpse of my past selves to snap me right back, to attempt to restart my journey again.
Round and round I go in wider circles almost getting lost, until something returns me to my core again, but perhaps one day I can find myself walking in circles within my expanded core instead.
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.