journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

dark times

I am sad and angry over Kavanaugh, just like how Trump’s election pushed me into a deep depression for a long while. These events are reinforcing how people are rewarded with bad behaviour, and it also shows how a lot of people are willing to support these bad actors in the system even at the expense of harming many other people because they want to preserve their own status quo when it comes to their sense of privilege.

People ask me why am I suicidal, I actually wonder why they are not suicidal. Society as it is now works on oppression, and I find it profoundly depressing. We seem to enjoy reducing other people’s potentialities in order to make ourselves feel better. I wonder why isn’t this ironic paradox more apparent to other people, what is the point of feeling powerful when you can only gain it through the disempowerment of other people? Isn’t true power the ability to feel secure even if other people are equal or more than you?

Unfortunately if we care about human suffering we have to care about politics. It is politics that are disproportionately determining whether people are suffering or not. I can’t help but feel like we’re at the prologue of The Handmaid’s Tale if we are not careful. I am also worried about how the destiny of America will affect global politics and the already difficult fight for human rights.

We are entering dark times, like frogs in a boiling pot. My inclination is to hide, to surround myself with mundane joys so I can avoid thinking about what all this means. Buddhist monastics are encouraged to detach themselves from worldly affairs, but how can one be truly compassionate and not be an activist in times like these?

I tried to make an analogy with the practice of medicine. If one sees a lot of deaths due to the unavailability of medical intervention, one may be called to be a doctor. But being a doctor requires years of medical training, just because we see people dying around us doesn’t mean we should be performing surgeries on them if we are not skilled.

That’s how I think of myself for now. I am not sure if that’s the right way to think about it. But I’m wounded myself. Everytime I think I’m recovering the wound splits wide open again as though to prove me wrong. My own suffering overwhelms me, much less being able to alleviate someone else’s.

I’m trying to take time off everything including interacting with most people to try to gain some internal clarity. If we are all frogs in a boiling pot, what is the best way we should live moving forward? What is the best way I should live? Maybe I am asking the wrong questions, because even the basic act of keeping myself alive and sane is already a challenge in itself.

how we hurt

There were many points in my life I expressed views which I believed were right, only to grow in maturity enough to be embarrassed for my past selves. There were so many times I was sure I gave people the right advice, only to realise now that I have failed to meet people where they were, I also had survivorship bias, and I really liked being self-righteous.

In recent times, if I do express a view, I would make sure to remind the other party all the fine print that goes along with it: that this is just my opinion, not advice, I am probably not skilled enough to deliver a balanced view, and most importantly of all, I am not the other party and I can never be, so it is important that they decide for themselves.

We often want things that are best for people we care about, and people who love me often want the best for me. But in many of such scenarios these intentions do the most harm. With their best intentions because they care, I have been inevitably forced to conform and feel bad about myself. It is only very much later that I realised that people had their own ideal versions of me, and it was beyond them to even consider that I was really not the person in their head. I think this forms the basis in most relationships: our versions of people interact with the other parties’ versions of us. Dissatisfaction happens when people’s behaviour do not conform to what we expect based on our beliefs of who they are.

The older I grow, the more ignorant I feel, the more embarrassed and apologetic I become of my past selves. I have come to realise how much hurt we can cause if we don’t fully understand our own intentions and motivations, and if we lack the skill to see and empathise with other people. I am also beginning to be very much aware of how much my anger is clouding and triggering me, restricting my capacity to engage with life and other people fully. I too, have a version of myself in my head that is different from who I really am. I read a book on Zen Buddhism yesterday, and the roshi calls this being at constant war with yourself.

Sometimes when some of my friends suffer in similar ways I do, I ask them a question which I have found helpful for myself in trying to determine the cruelty I inflict on myself: “Would you say this to a friend, or to a child?” Many of us would never contemplate hurting another person like the way we hurt ourselves. Why do we become such masters at self-torture? Because we internalise the voices which hurt us the most.

Without knowing it, we are inflicting hurt on ourselves, hurt on other people, thinking it is because we care and we have the best intentions. Hitler thought he had the best intentions for his people too. Sometimes the best way to express the best intentions for someone else is to let them unfold by themselves, to trust and support their agency, but that is incredibly hard to do. We like to think we are agents of change, but we try to change everything and everybody around us except ourselves. It is easier to work on external problems thinking that once external circumstances change, our inner state changes too.

I am reluctant to participate and engage with the world because I am no longer sure of the implications my actions will bring. There are some values I value above all, like openness and honesty. That is why I write and share my life publicly. Or so I think. Is that really so? I am not sure. I cannot be sure how my intentions will be interpreted.

These days, I feel inclined to lead a fully private existence, away from everyone I know. I have been having these feelings for a Long while, but I have been hesitant because of what I view as my social responsibility: to write so people like me can feel less alone, to try to be a positive representation for the lgbtq community, to amplify marginalised voices, to bring awareness to social injustice. I have always believed in the power of the individual to make a difference and in some ways I still believe so. But I am learning that the power of the individual also depends on the individual’s capacity to operate with clarity and awareness. Right now we are also seeing organisations and cooperations having a negative impact on the world even though they started out with the best intentions they had.

I am also tired. I no longer want to be at war with myself, to impose on myself who I should be and what I should or should not do. I would be a nun if I wasn’t partnered or have family who would be upset. But I think I can be a hermit for a while.

What about the world that is burning down at this moment? I don’t think I am in a position to make quality contributions because I have too much anger and sadness in me. There is a difference between believing in the power of the individual and thinking that the world would combust without me. And to be very honest, if humans go extinct I wouldn’t really care, in my opinion that seems a better scenario than what we have now: a world of people who are intent on hurting other people, a world that has most people in invisible chains.

Kyoto’s zen

The older I get, the more fearful of travel I become. My sanity is established on the routines I’ve set for myself: my morning runs, diet, circadian rhythms. There is a sense of psychological safety at home. I can understand why people dislike change.

But comfort is a sweet, slow-acting poison. We stop expanding the moment we stop having new experiences. Home establishes fitness for my body, and travel expands my consciousness. I need this oscillation in my life, at least until I can figure out how to find some harmony between the two.

There is a reason why I tend to plan longer trips these days. There is a fear of missing out, that there is not enough time to see everything. Some people spend two weeks in Japan travelling across the entire country, I opted to spend most of these two weeks in just Kyoto. The first couple of days we walked until we became numb to the beautiful zen gardens as we zoomed in and out of the temples like there was no tomorrow. I had to keep reminding myself that there was still plenty of time, we could afford to see a little less and be a little more. So we spent the next couple of rainy days spending long periods of time sitting in cafes: she painting and I, writing, sometimes reading. It seems fitting that we are able to find our own inner zen-ness in the city of zen instead of trying to rush through it all.

Being able to travel is a privilege, so is being able to spend long periods of time to do so — I am painfully aware of that. I feel existentially guilty as a traveller for so many reasons. But there is a small part of me that reminds myself that I consciously chose time over busying myself, it is still a choice I have made to let go of it all.

Maybe that is why I was attracted to Kyoto in the first place. It was during times of personal turbulence I turned to zen texts and stories, to try to understand what it means to be present and let go. I have found great comfort in them, even if more than half the time I had spent scratching my head trying to understand the essence of what they were trying to convey. There is both comfort and discomfort in mystery, in things that cannot be explained by language but must be experienced and felt. I am a person who likes to ask why, and even to live I needed a reason as to why. But the last few years have taught me a profound lesson: sometimes there is just no why, and are we able to live with that? Being able to let go consists mainly of being able to let go of pursuing the whys, to develop the capacity to take in what is in front of us and experience the moment without spinning any narrative around it.

I think in another life, I would be okay being a monastic.

I love travelling because it makes me open my mind to ways of life I have never thought possible before. The diversity in human beings. I read in a magazine that people in Kyoto are okay being slow, in contrast to their compatriots in Tokyo. Sometimes living in a somewhat homogenous country like Singapore makes me forget that slowness is a popular choice elsewhere. It seems incredible to me that in some places in the world, sitting in a room quietly for hours at a go is not considered a waste of time.

Why do we ever let ourselves be convinced there is only one right way to live? Why do some people insist on making everyone else live like them? Travel has taught me that diversity is a beautiful, precious thing, it is one of the few rare things that makes me consider that life is worth living. I am grateful that there are human beings who have forged out different ways of living for themselves, because it makes me contemplate the array of possibilities I can have for myself.

That is why I find inequality profoundly depressing and tragic, to carry the weight of the knowledge that some people will never be able to have the choices I can make. Travelling only serves to make that more pronounced. How does one live with that?

Life to me, is all about being able to carry different weights and yet at the same time be capable of momentarily let them go in order to be able to cherish the present; at the same time trying to philosophically resolve the delicate balance between growing ourselves away from the noise and the social responsibilities we have as interdependent beings.

We think of personal growth as levelling up and achievements, but perhaps a rarer form of growth is to not be driven by fear, impulses and primal motivations, in order to reach a centered clarity with regards to how does one act and live. I think that is a huge premise of Buddhism and by extension, Zen Buddhism but people focus more on the ascetic ways of life than the fundamental philosophy at the root.

I have nowhere to go with this post, no point to make, and I think that is representative of where I am in life now. I think of this as considerable progress because I have worked so hard my entire life so I can be seen, only to find out that I don’t even know who I am and how I want to live. I still don’t know, and maybe like Buddhism there is no concrete ‘I’, that it is a fixed idea of who I am that has caused me so much suffering.

love does not run on autopilot

Today is my writing day (typically on sunday), and it also happens to be our 28-month anniversary, so I thought I’ll take the opportunity to reflect on us.

2 years-ish is not a very long time for a relationship, but it is long enough to get past the initial honeymoon stage where everything seems sunny and full of promise. This is the time when masks if any start to drop, and we go from our very best selves to…just being our selves. The romance fades, and couples become like housemates.

Having been in and out of several relationships for the last 2ish decades I was aware of the transience of “romance”. The word “romance” and “love” seems to be thought of interchangeably. They can be, if we’re lucky, but most of the time romance means all the elaborate gestures we do for our partners in the initial stages, including the heartbeat-pulsating intense feelings. The curiosity and pleasure of knowing and being with a new person: wow, what a rush.

I guess I am lucky and old enough now to know, romance is not love. This is what that makes or breaks relationships, because of stupid hollywood movies and korean dramas we tend to mistake romance for love. So when the romance and intense feelings fizzle out, we wonder where is the love?

I’ve written about what I think love is, so I will not repeat it here. However, I would like to point out: long, great, love can be romantic too. It just takes effort and mindfulness. But the horrid truth is – which hollywood movies or kdramas do not tell us – we are awfully lazy and mindless creatures. Most of us don’t like to think too deeply about things or raise questions about the status quo. So we tend to end up transitioning from being a couple to living like housemates.

I didn’t want my relationship to be like that, especially since my last one was that way and I didn’t even realise it – the difference between co-dependency and love – so this time around I sought to change fate. I insisted that we celebrate our anniversary monthly, no matter what.

So every month, we try to do something nice for us. I tend to like eating, she likes nature and art. So far, we haven’t missed any one and I am rushing to finish this one so we can commence on today’s.

I don’t think love and/or romance runs on autopilot. People think they meet the love of their lives and we will live happily ever after. I really blame the media. Celebrating an anniversary monthly is a checkin in reality: does this date really mean something still, how do I still feel about this person, remembering how much we went through to get together, how easy to let time pass and things slip, how much gratitude we have to be able to wake up to the person next to us. It is a time to put aside all the mundane responsibilities and chores in a partnership to really see our partner, to re-demonstrate the love in case we let this precious time and love pass us by without even being aware of it. In fact, a monthly reminder is too far apart, it should be on a daily basis, to remember to love and not just live with. But I acknowledge as humans it is difficult to get past our conditioning to take the least effort as much as possible.

Not many people know this, but I was convinced I would never consciously choose monogamy again. I thought it was a fallacy brainwashed into us so that society would be neater. How could one person really love just one other person for the rest of our lives, how could said person remain lovable?

2 years-ish is a short time compared to the rest of our lives. But like I have mentioned a while ago, it is also enough time for a relationship to change its quality – usually for worse. When they say marriage is like wine because it gets better as it ages I was like what the hell are they talking about? Relationships cannot fight against the law of diminishing returns, so I thought. Most people just accept it as a law of nature, so we all settle and compromise with good-enough.

On our 28th-month anniversary, I would really like to express the sentiment: marriage does get better with time. Obviously we’re not legally married because we can’t in our own country and for now it is a little pointless to get married elsewhere because we don’t enjoy any economic or legal privilege as a married couple, but we have joined our names in a estate purchase and we operate just like any other married couple. It doesn’t mean it would be impossible for us to split, but straight people divorce like three times and they still get unlimited chances to marry, so the only way to view a marriage is to tend to it as though we mean it for life, just like my partner and I do so now.

What gets better with time is the level of psychological intimacy. We have been so intentional with our honesty to each other – well some couples talk in code even after decades of marriage – that in the initial stages of our relationship I was skeptical if it would endure all that truth. There was no up-selling right from the start, in fact I was very deliberately down-selling. We placed all the possible difficulties and anything that may be dealbreakers right at the start, when it was the most fragile. So we fought and cried a lot. We fought so deeply that every monthly anniversary then felt precarious, like we were never going to celebrate the next, so we were exceptionally conscious of it.

But now, we get to enjoy the wine. We put us through tests, power struggles, airing of skeletons in the closets, psychoanalysing, terrible ending scenarios, emotional manipulation – till it got to a point where we now have an acceptance, understanding and love of each other that I presume will take a lot to break. We have created a psychological safe space for each other and for the relationship where we can be our worst selves and yet know that we’re both trying our best to work on it. That we will never consciously choose to hurt each other. If there was some hurtful behaviour, we usually understand that it was probably an accumulation of events that we both have responsibility towards, so we work together on it. We try to problem solve the issues caused by our different psychological dynamics. Together.

Previously, I would just keep my true feelings to myself, feel unsafe, blame everything on my partner that they didn’t love me enough, but suffer like a martyr because “I was willing to suffer for love”. Didn’t they tell us it is all about sacrifice and compromise? They didn’t tell us a relationship is dysfunctional if the compromising and sacrificing is based on unequal terms and repression. A relationship should be expansive, it should not make us feel like we’re shrinking. (There is a lot I have to write about unhealthy relationship dynamics which I’ll probably do so in another post.)

There is a certain joy and sense of home to be felt in a relationship where we can feel safe with. To share our darkest thoughts with, to confront our darkest selves with, to co-create a future and home together. Life really sucks sometimes and if we can find someone who is there to hold our hand through the best and worst of us and times, then I think it is one of the luckiest and most privileged events that can ever happen to us.

And I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged to be in this relationship.

accumulating data for health

Today is the second day of my post-menstrual migraine. It seems to be less painful than yesterday, alleviated a little by a bout of running. The pain returns after my body settles down post-run. Nobody really knows what causes migraines and why menstrual hormonal fluctuations triggers them. They are all hypotheses at the moment. In traditional chinese medicine, there could be a number of causes: excessive liver heat, qi and blood deficiency. According to my sinseh I suffer from all of them. They probably influence each other.

My body feels exhausted during PMS, in pain and fatigue from the blood loss during the cycle, gets a migraine post-cycle, so in reality I only feel relatively well for 1-2 weeks each month. 2 weeks if I am lucky and if I live religiously like a monastic.

I tested my blood glucose upon waking up today. My reading for fasting blood glucose was not ideal. Based on information from yesterday and today, I seem to fall upon very borderline pre-diabetic ranges, though there is also varying information out there on what is considered pre-diabetic. I have terrible food comas so I already know that my insulin response is not great, so this is not surprising. But on the other hand I have excellent pulse rate, heart rate variation and blood pressure, so there is a part of me that expected a much lower reading, especially since I intermittently fast.

Until I found out fasting can also cause blood glucose levels to spike. Trying to get healthy is like walking around blind trying to find some semblance of light somewhere. There is conflicting information everywhere. Know what can cause glucose spikes? Waking up, exercising, low carb diets, fasting, etc. Do you know what can improve the insulin response? Exercising, low-carb diets, fasting.

WTF.

I think what matters are the long-term trends. I regret not doing this blood glucose monitoring thing earlier because of my fear of blood and needles. It would shed a lot of light on whether my current readings are an improvement or a deterioration.

There is a wildcard in all of this: stress. Stress produces cortisol, and cortisol causes elevated blood sugar. So I need to run and control my eating but not too much. But how does one know what is too much?

Is blood glucose monitoring a little extreme? Well, if I’ve been trying to be healthier for the past three years and nothing seems to really work, then I guess I should try everything I can in my power and capacity. Maybe I could have gotten healthier earlier if I haven’t been so resistant to being extreme. To be fair, I did get healthier compared to 2015. My eyes have stopped being chronically dry and painful all the time, my migraines are considerably less painful, less lasting and they occur less frequently. At least now it is once a month and I can time it.

It is my 50th consecutive day of running today. Last week I got to run 5km without stopping and it felt like a big milestone. But this couple of days I gave up jogging without a pause because the research seems to be more in favour of running intervals. So I vary it in a single run. I jog, stop to walk, sprint, brisk-walk, alternating between them. There is a certain allure to endurance runs: I think there is a masochistic part of us that likes to see how much we can push ourselves and how much we can improve our limits. I find it interesting to observe how reluctant I was to give up my long jogs in favour of intervals, despite the science.

I look forward to accumulate more data to look at the longer term trends. It’ll be a bonus to feel a little more alive in the process.

P.S. I forgot to explain why I’m monitoring my blood glucose in relation to my migraines. The evidence is pretty compelling that migraines is an by-product of chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation is directly linked to high blood sugar (and hormonal dysfunction). It is a vicious cycle, because the more chronically inflammed, the worse the insulin response, the higher the blood sugar goes. My suspicion is that my health is not so bad that I am diabetic but it is chronically bad enough that it is causing a whole host of issues and I’m definitely on a slow long ride to worse complications if I don’t nip it in the bud now. I don’t care much about dying, I just don’t want to live a slow, long, painful death. I already feel semi-dead now: my migraine feels like someone twisting a blunt object in the insides of my head. It is exponentially worse than the needle pricks for my blood glucose monitor.

My dentist & I

Last week I visited my dentist of 12 years for a 6-monthly checkup. It seems innocuous, but I am embarrassed to say this is the first time in my life I actually turned up for a dental checkup on time.

As a child the adults around me all had dentures, so I naively believed that was the rite of passage for everybody. I thought since I was going to get dentures sooner or later, why waste time taking care of my teeth?

By the time I grew up to know that was not the case it was too late. I was traumatised by all the pain I had endured at my school’s free dental service, so I developed an intense phobia of dentists. Obviously it became a vicious cycle: I avoided dentists so my teeth got worse, and so by the time I had to visit one – usually only because of a really bad toothache – the pain would be excruciating, so it made me fear dentists even more.

Until one day in 2006 I broke a front tooth while eating. It was unsightly, so I had to visit a dentist as an emergency. I picked one near my office then, mostly because I like its name and decor.

The dentist fixed my front tooth, along with countless other decaying teeth. She was grouchy and frustrated with my dental hygiene, sighing and scolding me repeatedly. But there was one thing which left a deep positive impression on me. Apart from fixing the teeth, she was obsessed with making them look good. She not only fixed my front tooth, she replaced the discoloured parts with tooth-colour matching dental fill.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid to smile and I stopped being so self-conscious of my teeth. She told me to visit her again in 6 months. I didn’t turn up.

Until years later. I was going to move to SF, so I wanted to make sure my teeth was in good order. This time around I told her I was afraid of her, because she was so scary during my last visit. She was surprised, but she became a lot more gentler with me. Along with fixing a few decaying teeth here and there, she suggested she sculpt my front teeth and put on veneers. It was not only for cosmetic reasons but my front teeth was crowding the rest of my teeth, so it was causing problems.

It was very expensive, and I didn’t have a lot of money back then, it wiped out most of my savings but I trusted her with my teeth.

Hours later, for the first time (again) I have a smile with perfectly straight front teeth. I didn’t have to put on braces, it was like a combination of art and magic.

I moved to SF with a kind of confidence to smile like never before.

A few years passed again and this time I moved back in Singapore. I went to a branch office of hers near my place and the dentist there told me I had a couple of decaying teeth. Without hesitation I knew I had to go back to my original dentist to fix it.

Suddenly, it was clear to me how important is trust even in service provider relationships. The only other long-term service relationship I have is with my hairdresser (also 12 years). We have a plethora of options these days and we usually hop around for the best offers. But I would rather pay top dollar to go back to her (and I had become jobless so I was taxing my savings).

She had moved to a new location, and we greeted each other like old friends who have not seen each other for a long time. I was just so full of joy to see her, to visit her new beautiful office and to discover a sense of lightness of her I have never experienced before. She has aged, and so have I. There was a lot less weight felt in both of our presences.

She fixed my teeth again, and she told me to visit her in 6 months.

That was my visit last week, and for the first time there was no teeth to fix.

I had grown up, and I now know myself as a person with healthy teeth.


I wrote this post because it made me happy to see my dentist and I feel privileged to have had witnessed her work. She operates like a craftswoman. It is rare for me to have such deep admiration for someone’s work, and it is just so amusing that the subject is a dentist.

How many people can claim to change people’s lives when they provide a service? I feel like my dentist has changed my life, she has given me the gift of my wide smile, which I flash unabashedly these days. It has made a whole world of difference to my self-image and esteem.

Also I was embarrassed about my teeth for the longest time and I was fearful that people would find out I have veneers on my front teeth. But I am now in a different place in my life. I think it is important to know that some chronic damage can be reversed, and also that I would heartily recommend people to go for cosmetic procedures if it truly makes them feel better about themselves and allows them to express themselves more freely.

I know I did.

I am no longer afraid for people to know I have veneers. I am glad I did something for myself that was life-changing. I also enjoy airing the skeletons in my closet.

It is so freeing.

on running, fitness, and the narrative of sadness

I have been running consecutively for seven days now. There’s a whole lot of reasons why I am doing it – which I will probably document in an essay later – but mainly I got tired of feeling tired, and I got to a point when I was willing to try anything to jumpstart my self, even if it means doing something I dislike. Additionally, I moved a couple of months ago, which meant that I lost access to a pool, and I needed to find another convenient exercise to keep my sanity. I really dislike tying exercise to my sanity, but I have to consider the overwhelming evidence that shows the positive correlation, including my observed mental states when I am exercising regularly.

People frequently suggest “exercise more” when I tell them about my chronic depression and other health issues. I want to state here that I think usually that’s not helpful, even though I actually agree with it after my own lived experience. That is because when a person is feeling depressed, and the person is vulnerably sharing that with you, they are usually feeling shitty enough about themselves and the last thing they typically need is the insinuation that they have not tried to do everything to help themselves. “Why are you always not doing enough”, is probably what they are hearing. Depending on the severity of their health issues, sometimes exercise can make them physically worse.

What I have learnt personally is that one has to get to a healthy enough state to even attempt an exercise routine. Else, it will add to the feelings of self-defeat and guilt when it is not successful. One of the biggest symptoms of depression is the dysfunction of the dopamine reward system, so people who are depressed (or burnt out, etc) cannot motivate themselves. It is not that they are lazy. Their brains are not functioning.

So I think I got to a point where I felt well enough to attempt yet another try at running. I have tried several times in the past before but it was never sustainable, or it caused my chronic migraines to become worse. I guess what made the difference this time was that I have become a lot more compassionate with myself, and I have developed enough cognitive skills to cope (more on that later). So when I ran badly – I couldn’t even run 100m without feeling I was about to die – I stopped making myself feel bad about it and I stopped forcing my body to try. I just stop. Walk. Run again when I feel better. My theory is this has caused my body to overtax itself less, so it doesn’t trigger my migraines and other issues, yet.

As an unintended side effect, I noticed myself developing the capacity to discern between my feelings and the objective truth. I am not sure if this is an outcome of running or it is simply a development of all the work I have been putting in. I have found myself wondering why do I equate the physical feeling of sadness as an objective truth of sadness? Why do I feel bad when I am “sad”? Why do we allow physical sensations to sway us so much?

I think about my feelings of “sadness”. It is this uncomfortable deep hollow sinking feeling, sometimes tinged with a sharp pain in my chest. It is the feeling that makes me feel I will never appreciate the vibrant beauty of colours again. I don’t think I am capable of describing my feelings of sadness adequately, but I realised they are very much physical sensations, strong physical sensations, and yet they don’t cause us any immediate harm (another story if it is chronic, chronic emotional stress causes a ton of damage which belongs to another essay). Yet these sensations drive so much of the way I live.

This past week, I noticed those familiar feelings of sadness arising in me. Sometimes there’s just no apparent trigger. I just feel “sad” for no apparent reason. But I started to ask myself, is it possible to feel these sensations in an authentic manner, i.e. not repress them, but not add any negative narrative to it? Can I feel them and not keep on replaying sad memories in my head?

I read that depressed people has a shrunken hippocampus, the part of the brain that manages memories. Researchers don’t know what memory has to do with depression, but I have a theory. I think depression is an outcome of the brain being stuck in certain timelines and/or narratives among other neurological factors (being frozen is a known symptom of PTSD actually, I’m just making the connections). For example, if we experienced some trauma, the brain keeps replaying them in our head, and somehow we lose the capacity to allow new memories because the brain is occupied being stuck in that loop. When we don’t form new memories, all we remember is our trauma. We don’t remember that life has good moments too.

So as my theory extends: that’s why I keep feeling sad for no apparent reason. My body remembers the sadness I’ve encountered and it’s stuck reliving it even if I am not consciously thinking about it. But here’s the thing, if I feel sad for no reason, I’ll most likely be inclined to start thinking about the traumatic events in my life because that’s the association my brain has made. So it’s just a continuous vicious loop. I feel sad, it makes me remember why I am sad, it reinforces the neurological pathways that keeps on re-experiencing the sensations of sadness.

This reminds me of a conclusion I’ve made a while ago. If my brain only holds negative data the expression of it will likely be negative, thus to have a wider expression of it, there needs to be conscious building and input of positive data alongside the negative ones. Notice I am not suggesting replacement, because I believe sadness/negativity has a vital role to play in life.

uGoing back to why I’m running — it is one of the known ways that makes our brains build new connections:

“…conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.” — source

As written many times here before, I think I am operating with limited data. If I still care about questioning whether life is worth living, then at the very least I can do is to work towards an outcome with the fullest spectrum of data I can possible accumulate in my lifetime.

Who will I become? Will I learn to relabel my sensations of perceived sadness? Will life start to feel different to me with this increasing awareness? Will something as simple as consistent running allow me to rewire my brain to experience life differently?

I don’t know the profound answers yet and I am not sure if I’ll ever know while I am alive. But I have found myself looking forward to my runs at 7ish am every morning. Every day I wake up feeling like my body is about to crumble, but if I let myself sit for a while, drink some coffee (I went back to drinking a cup every morning, more on that later too), I’ll start to feel like running. Health benefits aside, I am also curious: will I be able to sustain something I have disliked intensely for most of my life? If I keep on running will I get fitter? How does it feel to be fit, and what will be its impact on me?

I have never, ever, felt fit in my life. I have felt well enough before, but was never fit enough for my body to be operating at an optimum efficiency. I want to know if that is a possible outcome for someone like me, someone who has felt tired most of her life.

p.s. This post is written as a continuous stream of thought so I’ll probably attempt to restructure it into a more coherent form on Medium later.

existential questions

I regularly talk about my lack of desire to live in therapy. Last week, my therapist said that she believes every person is born with the love of life, but things happened along the way to corrupt that. I used to think that way too, but this time around I challenged that belief – can we be absolutely sure of that? I argued that nature is diverse, if there are people born with the love of life, there must be people born with the lack of. And that generates different outcomes for the universe, as I responded to her seriously, imagine a universe where everyone loves life, I almost exclaim in horror.

There have been several questions in my head. Due to Anthony Bourdain’s suicide and co-incidentally a friend of mine was talking about the definition of mental illness, I can’t help but wonder if I am mentally ill. Is it an illness to not desire life? Why is a love for life considered natural and healthy? Would we consider poisonous animals unnatural and healthy? Just because the majority favours a certain state of being doesn’t mean that other states are not natural.

If someone suffers tremendously in their life and has depression as an outcome, is that an illness? Is it ill to respond with apathy or numbing sadness to life’s trying circumstances? Should they be expected to pop a pill and functional normally despite everything? We seem to be saying, despite whatever shit life throws at you, you are sick for feeling this way, the healthy response should be boundless hope and optimism!?

But why? I saw an analogy somewhere on the internet today, that if we were in a relationship with someone who hits us once a month but the rest are good times, we would consider that an abusive relationship. Why the hell do we perceive life as desirable when there are some good moments peppered among bad times?

On the flip side I do know there are people who enjoy and thrive on life. I respect that, I just wish there’s respect on both sides.

My therapist tries to tell me that my existence is precious, whether I can see it or not. It is precious to other people. But I countered, isn’t it sad if my entire existence hinges on other people? What if one day I’m no longer precious to anybody, or if everyone around me is no longer around?

Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung argued that people must have a personal myth in order to live. You have to believe in something: heaven or hell, reward or punishment, the hero’s journey, the absolute importance of evolution, etc. My problem is that I no longer have a personal myth, and after months of thought I am inclined to think I have to construct one even if I don’t truly believe in it. It has to be a narrative I can live with.

My current take is that I cannot bring myself to inflict suffering on other people for now, so I should try every means to sustain my life, coupled with curiosity to see if there’s any other way I can lead my life or be with my life that can possibly change the way I feel about life. The irony is that I can only truly know if I find it in myself to live it till the end, although there have been times when I simply don’t care.

It may be disconcerting for anyone to read this or even perhaps for myself to write this. But I think the lack of awareness, exposure and discussion over the topic of suicide that contributes to the suicide rates. Controversially, I also believe euthanasia should be legal. I once watched a documentary where a relatively young woman in her 20s went through the entire process to seek euthanasia which was legal in her country only to change her mind at the very last minute. I cannot remember it fully now, but I think it made her feel better to know she had that option. My theory (which I can’t validate obviously and could be wrong) is that if euthanasia was legal, more people would be inclined to follow a proper process which may include mandatory therapy, consultations with loved ones, handling of last matters including wills etc – that may change people’s minds.

Many a time people are forced to kill themselves because they see no way out, not to mention how many of those were done on impulse? But there’s probably ways out in those cases, but they simply cannot envision it alone. My theory is that it is the ultimate aloneness and seeming inescapability that makes life unbearable.

For me, I find relief in finding space to talk about it. Despite thwarting my therapist’s best intentions for me, I find it incredibly comforting that she engages my questioning without judgment. Strangely I have found a partner that has no only accepted this part of me but has found it interesting, so I do feel luckier in that aspect.

Maybe ultimately I don’t really want to die, I just have a compulsion to live a life I really want to live, and not being on that path yet is causing a deep discomfort in me.

But I am still asking the questions which means I am still interested in answers.

storage

I just moved out of my rented storage space of six years, having rented it a few months before I moved to SF in 2012. When I moved back here in 2015 I assumed I was going to be a nomad for at least a few years, so I continued leaving the bulk of my possessions there.

I started it with it barely half full, filled with stuff I moved there post-breakup. Each time I returned to Singapore I stored a little more: my parents moved so I had to move my childhood stuff out of their place, in between lengthy trips to Vancouver, Hong Kong, San Francisco I brought stuff. The final time I stored stuff I shipped back from the US.

My storage was essentially a time capsule.

In 2012 I spent most of the year living out of a suitcase. It was surprising how little I needed. Yet it was really comforting to own a few pieces of furniture, to expand my wardrobe a little when I started a lease in SF. I could own more than a pair of shoes. I thought I would stay there forever, so I didn’t really hesitate to own stuff I loved. I was blindsided by the time I had to leave, so it was painful bidding goodbye to my things. Among them was a little wooden stool I bought from a sidewalk stall for $25. It sounds weird, but I still miss that stool. I had an apartment full of stuff, but all that was left from that time of my life were three boxes I shipped back to Singapore. Three boxes of prime possessions I decided I couldn’t live without. Somehow I didn’t tape the boxes properly, so some spilled out. USPS (I didn’t have a budget for better lol) bothered to put most of it back for me, but till today I don’t really know what I had missed.

I tell people I have abandonment issues. I fear being abandoned, but the deeper truth is I fear abandoning. So many times I had to pack and unpack my life. It is like a repeating exercise of zen: how many times can I let go, how many times do I have to let go?

Clearing my storage for the seemingly final time, there was a lot to let go. I felt strangely emotional. It was like a chapter had finally closed with another opening. There was stuff I had accumulated since I was a kid, accompanied with stuff I accumulated in a previous major relationship, topped up with stuff I accumulated in the few years I was away. I am somehow the same person but I am distinctly different. The person who packed those stuff in the storage doesn’t really exist in me anymore. Looking at my things, I couldn’t recognise my past self, I felt sympathetic, compassionate and amused at the things my past self felt like she needed to keep.

Yet there were stuff I would not let go of as long as I can help it. My Faye Wong CD collection (haha), letters from the past, mementos from people I love(d), etc. I felt poignant thinking that these things can finally see some sunlight as I move them into my new home, yet apprehensive: how long would it be before I have to pack up again?

But there are some moments in life when we just have to take leaps of faith. I have lived a lot of my life preparing for the worst and it defined me so much, for better and for worse. Now, I want to learn how to live my life hoping for the best.

Terminating my storage was a step towards that, that I am at a place where I can settle for long time. I don’t know, there will probably always be that doubt living inside my head, but I am slowly learning to co-exist with it, tend to it, be considerate to it, instead of letting it take over my life and my decisions, like it has done for most of my life.

a relationship with me

My partner sent her first text to me after reading my essay about being chronically depressed and suicidal. She said it made her feel like I was truly alive. How ironic. She loved venn diagrams, so I used one to illustrate why I was terrible for her: I said I was a circle filled with black, and she was one filled with bright yellow. Intersected, there can only be muddy brown. The venn diagram that existed in her mind was different. In hers, I was a circle filled with psychedelic rainbow colours, it was a mini galaxy filled with stars and planets.

Honestly till today, I am not sure if she sees me beyond how I see myself, or she is deluded. I keep telling her the delusion will eventually lift, and she insists I don’t see what she sees.

When we first got together, I was in a better state of health. She described me as “cheerful”. I was upset, and I took that as a sign that she didn’t really know me, that the relationship would not survive. It took its time, but my darkness eventually returned, as it always did. She started witnessing how I would get really upset at the slightest of triggers, how I would just collapse in a heap of seemingly endless tears, how I would verbalise my suicidal ideation, how I would plead with her to leave me because I couldn’t bear to do this to someone I love, again and again. Perhaps those were the easier times because at the very least she could try to hold and console me. What was worse for us both were times when I would just go into a numb, silent, apathetic state that seemed to go on indefinitely. She wouldn’t be able to reach me, I am not sure if I was able to reach myself.

Early on, I made her promise that she would leave me once things got too hard for her. She keeps telling me I shouldn’t keep trying to decide for her. We celebrate every monthly anniversary we have because we both don’t know when. Behind the genuine happy smiles we contain on the instagram pictures we post, there were two people working really hard to stay together in spite of the odds.

My partner hardly has a spot of darkness in her, and I hardly have a spot of lightness in me. By being with her I know I’ll inevitably tarnish her being, but she corrects me, telling me I bring richness into her life, the feelings she never had. I am still not sure whether to believe her.

Every other day I’ll ask her why she loves me. She got slightly annoyed at first, but learned to understand that I have a pervasive fear of abandonment. Some days we talk about the meaning of life. I ask her if it is reasonable that I am depressed, looking at the state of the world. I ask if she takes it personally that I still feel like dying even though she’s present in my life. I needed her to understand the pain is mine, that I’m infinitely grateful for her but what is external cannot remove what is internal and rooted.

I have written a ton of posts about her generosity towards me, but those pale in comparison to the actual reality of the day to day work of being with me. All those times I tried to convince her she’ll be better off without me. The times I tell her I feel like dying. The times she accidentally triggered me. I shouldn’t be in a relationship.

But time and time again she schools me with her perspective, a perspective that is a consequence of a healthy psyche, a psyche that looks and feels very foreign to me. She tells me that the good outweigh the difficult, that I am unable to see myself, that if I could see what she sees, I’ll understand why she wants to be with me.

I am still not sure if I should believe her.

But this I know. That it is incredibly freeing to be with someone whom I can be honest with. She doesn’t try to fix me or implore me to get better, she engages my existential questioning and she accepts my suicidal tendencies. She doesn’t think I should stop having them or they are wrong. She may not understand what it means to have this feelings but she understands intellectually why I have them.

This is controversial, but for me, the space to be me with all my existential feelings and deep sadness, makes all the difference. It is the loneliness of being wrong, of being unaccepted, feeling like they are alone in coping with all that pain, that they are a burden to the people they love, that drives people to the edge. I know I can safely tell my partner how I feel without being judged for it. I don’t have to feel like I have to hide it. Hiding a huge part of who I am amounts to hiding myself.

I don’t want to get “better”. I have gotten better over the years and it’s never sustainable. It just makes the next drop more unbearable, because it deludes me into thinking I’ve “recovered”. I want to learn to sit with myself, with my difficult feelings. I want to learn to contain my own pain and co-exist with it, not to avoid it, not to get rid of it. The pain exists for a reason. If the pain should be gone one day it will be because I have reconciled with the cause, not because of any intervention methods (though for many people intervention is needed). I’m not advocating that this should be everyone’s choice but this is mine.

And I’m very lucky to have my partner’s support and witnessing. But she knows she will always have the choice to leave, and we know every month we survive together is a milestone — it is the acknowledged fragility that gives it its strength