(cw: euthanasia & suicide) I haven’t written here for a couple of weeks, mostly because I was sick. Usually I get one migraine per cycle, but this cycle I had another one just a couple of days after I recovered from the last.
It is demoralising and depressing.
Being sick has robbed me of all the things I used to enjoy doing. Apart from health there is a momentum when it comes to working on creative projects. Once I get a migraine I am not only down for the entire span of time I am nursing one, I am also down for the days after. Depression and fatigue is known to be a common postdrome. So I lose my previously accumulated momentum, and it takes weeks to restart another one, if I do bring myself to do so. Then before I’m barely started, the next attack destroys me again.
It gets really frustrating and dark. So I tell my partner that I wish euthanasia is legal here. She takes it in her stride and doesn’t take it personally, even if I ask hypothetically if she’ll be there with me at the end of my journey if it becomes an option. I know I am asking too much of her, but I ask anyway, because I must.
Sometimes the only relief from not being able to end my life is to tell someone I wish there is an option to do so.
I am capable of laughing, of cracking jokes, of being lighthearted, of filling up my days with things I like doing, so it doesn’t seem like I am the person capable of writing a post like this. Sometimes she forgets, and I myself forget. Until the next moment that desperate feeling arises again. It is just a feeling, as illusory as an imagined narrative, as real as an impulse before it turns into action. Just because I intellectually believe I shouldn’t act on it, just because I refuse to hurt anyone who remotely cares about me, doesn’t mean that the feeling ceases to exist.
I think it will always be part of me, for better or for worse. It is already so much of my history. I don’t think it is something that has to be hidden or rejected. I don’t wish for it to be gone, like a shameful secret. It is what that keeps me alive in a way. The fact that I still yearn for relief, for something that makes me feel better than now.
I would imagine it may be disturbing for some people to read something like this. But I also imagine a society whereby people are free to express such thoughts, that perhaps just the act of putting them out there in the open is freeing them from the massive weight that may compel them to act on it.
My partner and I started dating because she sent a message to me (to ask to hang out, not to offer help) after she read a post I wrote about my chronic suicidal tendencies. I have always thought it was very strange of her to want to date a person who has publicly stated multiple times of her wish to die. Now upon writing this and thinking of this memory, maybe she was ahead of me all along. That she didn’t see it as a flaw, or something that I should be cured of, or something to be avoided. She saw it simply as a part of who I am, how I thought and felt, and she told me then she felt like I was one of the most alive people she’d ever known.
I thought it was funny and ironic, and I didn’t really know what she had meant. But now I think I understand, the willingness to feel such pain and desolation, in a way it is an extreme attempt to not let life deaden me.
(cw: suicide) I had refrained from commenting on Singapore’s politics prior to the elections, because the more I grow the more I realised what I do not know, so I don’t want to influence anyone’s vote in case of unintended repercussions. Imagine a scenario where I think that choice A is right and I persuade you to make choice A, but a decade later I’m horrified to know that actually choice A is flawed – do I take responsibility for your choice and the ripple effects it may have? I don’t want to have this power as much as I have the power to influence how much influence I have as a person.
Now that the elections are over I would like to document my own thoughts, and hope that in time to come I will have the humility to go over them to see how much I have differed or stayed. My own desire to document my thoughts publicly for the last couple of decades has prevented me from escaping from my own personal failings. I cannot selectively alter my own personal history as long as I am committed to keeping my writing online. This is something I personally appreciate because I’ve witnessed how selectively altering history can hurt.
As a caveat I would like to state that all views below an outcome of my personal worldview and lived experiences, and I do not intend to persuade but rather to participate in a world that I still believe will benefit from diverse views.
From deep resentment to mild appreciation
I grew up really disliking the incumbent party and their policies. I’m convinced that if there was an easier way to end up own life I would not be alive today. I disliked the whole success narrative, I still get nightmares about taking exams, and till now I have not recovered the self-worth I have never gotten because this society is so focused on material success. For me, the successful life they have painted – was not worth living and is still not. What is the meaning behind chasing grades and status our entire lives, getting a superficial sense of happiness from bragging rights? Isn’t that a pathetic way to live, to feel worthy only if other people decide so? That a life is only valuable if one is productive in terms of economics?
So when the opportunity came to move to the US I went after it as though my life depended on it. My life did depend on it. Prior to moving to the US I was having another long intense suicidal ideation phase. I am also still convinced that I wouldn’t be alive today if I couldn’t move.
In San Francisco (cannot speak for other places) I found the only place where I felt like I belonged. People appreciated the fact that I didn’t have a conventional background, and my skills were highly in demand. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t treated like some pariah. For the entire time I was there, I lived with both fear and joy because I was deeply afraid I would lose my visa status and I would have to return to a country who made me chronically suicidal.
However, life for me tends to have dramatic turns. I have written in multiple posts why I chose to return so I will not rehash it. When I returned I mentally expected to be in a chronic state of unhappiness, but surprisingly I gradually learned to appreciate being here.
The irony is that I can only appreciate my life here because I had the chance to live elsewhere. Not everyone reacts the same way I do, some people leave and they never want to return (why would anyone want to return to a place that causes so much trauma), just like my younger self. It depends on what a person needs and wants out of their life.
For starters, I was struggling with chronic health issues. I very much appreciate the state of healthcare here. In Singapore I could see a private doctor without having private insurance without fearing for my life. It would have been impossible to live in the US as a sick, unemployed person even as a citizen. It is not easy dealing with health issues even as an employed person. So I appreciate our healthcare policies, our robust enough public healthcare system, that I can use my Medisave to pay for a hospitalisation plan if anything went wrong.
Embarrassingly, that was the first time in my life I learned that psychological safety is very much tied to financial safety. It is not about having enough money to retire, but rather to not live in fear that an unlucky life event will drive you to bankruptcy. I can live with having to work in low-wage jobs for the rest of my life because of my chronic ill health, but I cannot live in a country that will make me fear going to the doctor.
This alone gave me the time and space to focus on getting better.
One of the things that gave me a lot of stress before I moved to the US was the high rent I had to pay in Singapore because I moved out from my parents’. When I moved back I turned 35, so I was so glad that I could apply for a 2-room BTO flat under the single Singapore Citizen scheme. It was affordable enough so I could probably afford it with a part time job if my health didn’t allow me to return to the workforce full-time. Unexpectedly I met my partner who is a year older, so when our relationship became stable we could buy a public flat in the resale market under the Joint Singles scheme. We could both afford the flat because of the CPF scheme.
Because I lived in the US, I didn’t have any illusions about how having a public flat is an investible asset that would make me prosper with time. I just wanted an affordable roof over my head. So I see the our public flat schemes as what Americans call rent control. Being able to “buy” or legally lease a HDB flat for 99 years is a way to have an affordable fixed cost of living. This is something that is close to impossible in the US.
When I first got back I wanted to learn more about what I used to dislike so much, so I started reading books on our founding Prime Minister and also other civil servants. I actually cried a lot while reading those books. I didn’t know why we have trees everywhere in Singapore, something I took so much for granted until I started living in the US. I also didn’t know what our civil servants had to go through during times when Singapore was the pariah country in Asia. I’m not sure if they teach this in history classes these days, but I hope they do. Because in my time what I got was this boring narrative about a fishing village and Sir Stamford Raffles, not some outrageous story about how our civil servants had to pretend to have things we didn’t have, to convince investors to take a chance on Singapore.
I started to understand why we had the policies we did. Why our public education system had to be so suffocating. I didn’t understand the existential threat we faced and still face when I was much younger.
Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing but it helps to bridge
Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. Decisions are also made on a spectrum, they are not binary. It is easy to look back and say we could have made better choices as a country when we are now the beneficiary of our economic success. There is no alternate timeline so we’ll never know if we could have been otherwise, but at the very least I understood why certain decisions were made. Perhaps I still don’t agree with some of them, but at least I don’t think they were made with no practical basis.
Now that I am almost 40, I am a beneficiary of many policies made by the government. Our needs and concerns change as we age. I like that CPF exists. Without CPF I’m not sure if I would be able to buy our place back then. I think and plan for my old age and I appreciate the 4% interest rate in our retirement accounts.
Appreciation does not equate to accepting status quo
It is also only as I grew older that I learned we can like and dislike something at the same time. That the incumbent party can do a lot of things right and also make mistakes. I resent and appreciate it at the same time. There are some issues that I think the country should do better on, not just because it is the right thing to do, but rather I believe it will benefit us in the long run:
Sensitivity to racial issues
When someone tell you they have been hurt throughout their life, it reflects a lot on us if we tell them they are wrong and they are imagining things, without even trying to understand why they feel that way in the first place. Why are we so triggered every time we discuss majority privilege? The problem I see is the general populace here doesn’t understand the dynamics of power and privilege. We think just because we suffer too, it cannot be true when other people tell us they are suffering more.
I hope we will gradually address this issue because it will only benefit the entire country if minorities are not held back unnecessarily. Pretending it doesn’t exist or that we “import” these ideologies (seriously wtf) will only increase the divide and will produce systemic repercussions.
I am not an economist, so I will not pretend I have the answers, but I do think more work can be done here. Whenever we debate about social welfare inevitably the question is where the money is going to come from. It seems like some economists believe we can afford to provide stronger welfare nets. Again the solution is not binary – possible or not. I hope we’ll make the math work. I feel like a repeating record, but addressing inequality is not just about justice per se, but rather enabling the potential we have as a nation. Less financial stress improves health and other life outcomes, it is win-win for everyone if we are willing to redistribute the wealth more evenly.
Improvement in housing policies
I hope we can find a balance between having enough housing and supporting people who do not fit in traditional moulds, such as single parents or younger adults. Many people do not know what it takes to manage a household (or actually, themselves) until they are married or when they reach 35 because they live with their parents. This is not ideal for enabling the development of maturity and independence and could cause further issues down the road. Perhaps a good midway step is to allow unmarried adults to buy on the resale market if they wish to. This still gives priority to families (although I don’t personally agree with this but for the sake of being realistic about how society works here) for subsidised new housing.
Education system and mental health
Everyday on reddit I see people writing posts like “I cannot take it anymore” or “I am seriously depressed please help me”. I feel like in my time things were already bad enough to drive me to contemplate suicide as a kid, it feels like things are both worse and better for kids these days. There are definitely more study/career options, yet it also seems like they are expected to cope with more demands. There are some right steps being taken, like abolishing ranking and mid-year exams. I do hope apart from policy decisions the culture will gradually change to accept more diversity in how people can develop or make life choices. Not everyone wants or needs material success, and that should be accepted.
I also wish to see less focus on STEM and ideally incorporating subjects like systems thinking, philosophy, financial literacy and mental healthcare into the curriculum at a younger age. Being good at science and math doesn’t make you become a better human being, you know?
I personally believe the reason why people are participating in gutter politics is because we are not taught to think and participate politically. People can only express what they know and what they experience. I think this is the outcome of our narrow education system and the government is dealing with the seeds they sowed.
Diversity in society and politics
I feel cautiously optimistic when our prime minister offered to make the leader of Workers’ Party the official Leader of the Opposition, promising to send resources and staff to support him. I didn’t see this coming because I’m so used to witnessing ungraceful behaviour.
I think it is better for Singapore as a whole if our political system matures. Having a one-party system may have worked well in our infancy as a country, but as we develop we should build the necessary infrastructure for diversity to flourish, instead of being afraid of it.
I think the world has been built on a myth that a monolithic culture thrives better, but taking a lesson from nature, it is diversity that will make an ecosystem flourish. It is when different ideas come together in connection that we experience creative breakthroughs. When we keep reusing the same ideas over and over again because it historically worked, we fail to consider the potential that may come from reconsidering the world in an entirely new angle.
I don’t pretend to know better, and I can only express the view of someone with a very specific lived experience. But that is the beauty of diversity, that we do not and cannot experience life the same way as the next person. If people don’t express their unique views, society will just have the assumption that we are all the same, and policies will be made based on this false assumption. This has real consequences on people’s quality of life.
I hope the next time when someone tells us their life is different from ours, that their lived experiences challenges our perception of reality, we can at the very least take the time and space to ask, why?
The other day I was reading a book on “How to Take Smart Notes“, what I was really fascinated with wasn’t the note taking system itself, but the story about the person who was famous for using the system: Niklas Luhmann. He was a sociologist who wrote 58 books in his lifetime, and he credited his prolificity to his robust note-taking system (with 90,000 index cards), “zettelkasten“. Once he was asked what his main research was and how long would he take, and his reply was:
“My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11)”
Can you imagine asking anyone these days how long their project would take, and how your response would be if they reply, “30 years”? We would be shocked if they said something like 3 years.
When I started architecting this website I knew I wanted towards something that would last a very long time. The growth of this website is nowhere near linear, as I frequently take long breaks due to health reasons, or I take a necessary detour like what I’m doing now with Roam Research, or I go on long reading sprees trying to fill up the gaps in my knowledge. The past few weeks I’ve just been processing a ton of notes in Roam, and it made me feel that I was neglecting this website. What I’m doing is building the scaffolding I need for the content I want to produce: I need a quick and easy way to surface connections between things I’ve read. Luhmann wrote a theory of society, and I wish to write a theory of a person, even if that theory only applies to myself.
The story of Luhmann investing years on a system made me remember the time I turned 30, I told people that I want to take my entire 30s as an incubation period so that I can become the 40 year old I wish to be. We talk about 5 year plans in terms of careers and businesses, but we don’t talk about long-term views in personal development.
The way I spent my 30s wasn’t the way my 30 year old self imagined to be. I thought I would get rid of whatever shackles I had in my 10s and 20s (which I felt I had wasted) and become a successful person, whatever success meant to me at that point in time. It turned out I reached my original goal much earlier than expected, and it promptly drove me into an existential crisis. As a 30 year old, I only knew what it meant to be successful externally and that was what I pursued. External success, is a very insecure and fleeting experience, and it made me think if this is all there is?
I was always insecure and anxious, always seeking for approval and validation. I had no stable sense of self, and minor traumatic events would send me into deep depression. It didn’t matter what I achieved professionally, or how many people told me how good my work was. I felt empty, fragile and exhausted. I felt like I had to keep up that relentless pursuit just so I can be continually validated so I can continually exist.
I’m turning 40 next year. The world is a mess, a huge cesspool of suffering and I think we’re on the brink of a major political disaster at any given moment. But I’ve come a long way on a personal level. Yes, I’m still chronically sick, anxious and insecure, I threw my career into a garbage can and if not for Covid19 I’ll be delivering food, but I no longer feel like I’m a walking imploding tornado.
I’ve transitioned into doing things that are meaningful to me personally, and I’m developing the courage to nurture this sense of doing into something that sparks deep fulfilment to my life. To even have the idea that this is something that can be developed and nurtured, is a huge step for me. There is also this on-going effort to develop the willingness to endure frustration and ambiguity when solutions and completeness is not in sight that is signature for any long-term undertaking.
I have a private document that lists my ongoing anxieties, and from time to time I refer to it. Plenty of things that used to make me anxious no longer has the same power over me. You know how the brain is a sponge and how we can internalise people’s criticisms? It turns out the same mechanism is also effective at internalising values we keep reaffirming to ourselves. Maybe talking to ourselves in the mirror works after all – I don’t talk to myself in the mirror, but I talk to myself a lot in my journals.
When we write resolutions they tend to be pretty short-term. I think it is meaningful to contemplate the kind of persons we want to be in decade jumps. Becoming is slow, and it needs time. We don’t give ourselves time, and so we don’t give people time. Yes, life is short and unpredictable, I could be dead tomorrow much less achieve my dreams of becoming a 50 year old I can respect, but the paradox is nurturing anything meaningful, sustainable and deep doesn’t take place at a frenetic pace. We talk about long-term responsibility to the natural eco-system and to society, but my suspicion is that till we learn to undertake long-term responsibility for ourselves, we will not be in the position to undertake that on a societal level.
One of the most important things I’m trying to do is to learn how to take better care of myself so I can bear the grief I know that will come. To be capable of bearing grief one has to learn how to cherish the present so there is no regret of letting what is important simply pass us by, to learn how to cherish the present means nurturing the capacity to be present. The capacity to be present is developed by truly listening to our needs. Society has always preached that we need to put the greater whole above the individual, but I dare say that without knowing our own wholes, without learning to love our whole selves wholly, we will always be subconsciously driven by our personal needs and yet never learning to satiate them truly – we can’t be thinking of the greater whole or the other when we each feel perpetually deprived and untended to.
We can only stop chasing unnecessary things and learn to be still here, if we learn how to properly tend to our needs.
I know I am not there yet. I’m always anxious and still constantly seeking to be soothed in unhealthy ways. But I think the work I’ve put in for the past five years has nudged the needle considerably. Yet without the first half of my 30s giving me the opportunity to know what external success feels like, perhaps I wouldn’t have known that is not how I wish to live my life.
I feel like I’m constantly loosening the invisible chains on myself with every year that goes by. I think the gift of working on ourselves is emotional freedom, and it is emotional freedom that gifts one creative freedom. There has to be a sustainable, steady force propelling us through a 30-year project, and we cannot let our psychological baggage be dead weight in that long, possibly arduous journey.
In parallel is the long process of taking notes and processing them. It feels like a lot of tedious work. I did just one book and I was like, how am I going to do this for the hundreds of books I’ve read?
I think about the 20,000+ word post I wrote in 2015, how I meticulously manually included my book highlights, social media posts and writing, how I tagged them – how much value I derived and still derive out of it. I still get shivers looking at that post. Perhaps one day I’ll create a meta-commentary on that post with the benefit on hindsight, five years on.
The notes I take, gradually becomes me. When I revisit them, that part of me is reinforced. When I forget them, that part of me is forgotten too.
I believe the processing of the notes and the slow evolution of this website will hit a tipping point and become tremendously valuable to the work I am trying to do and the person I’m trying to become.
I guess this is yet another longwinded post to say, there is unquantifiable value in long, labourious processes. I am still chronically passively suicidal, but perhaps one day I may bring myself to say the same of life itself.
P.S. I know I have had incredible luck and privilege to get to where I wanted and decide that it wasn’t where I wish to stay. I think part of not wasting that privilege is taking the time I’m given to understand who I am, what I’m capable of, and learning what is the best way to live it out. I know the fire is burning, but the person I am now is not capable of doing anything about it. Apart from dealing with chronic health issues, I’m aware my worldview needs to be way wider and I’m also always unconsciously projecting my suffering onto people. I would like to at least do no harm, and try to become a more whole person first.
Out of four weeks of a month if I am lucky I’m relatively well for two, and sick for the other two. I have tried to incorporate a daily routine for years but failed, because my body doesn’t behave the same way everyday. Only now I am learning to live according to the mini seasons of my body. The last two weeks were rough for me as I struggled with PMS related chronic fatigue, and I am only beginning to get better again.
Trying to write honestly on this public journal is also a constant struggle, especially with what is happening around the world these days. It seems unfair that I am here writing in relative safety while people are out there either dying due to injustice or fighting for it. But I know if I get caught up in activism I won’t be able to survive the grief and fatigue that comes along with it. To survive, I have to carve a little bubble around me for as long as I can. The price to pay is the existential guilt that I carry around with me everyday.
When I feel well enough these days I do this thing where I would “process” the books that have changed my life. I am using Roam Research to input the raw highlights of the books manually, then I’ll try to synthesise some of those highlights into key learning points. I did this for one of the most important books in my life, “A General Theory of Love” recently:
We can expand one of those points and see the supporting highlights referenced from the book:
The ultimate goal is still to import these synthesised learnings into this website’s library, but Roam allows me to process highlights and see/make connections between them a lot quicker. There are a ton of youtube videos on Roam’s features so I will not go into them for now.
I want to remind myself to always be willing to experiment, so in that spirit I quickly made mobile-friendly screen captures of the above and collated them into Instagram stories. It is now pinned as a highlight on my profile if you would like to take a look. In my past life as a designer I was obsessed with tappable stories, and seven years later I guess I still am. Even though I’m just tapping through a bunch of raw screenshots, there is really something about that format versus a lengthy essay-like book review.
I felt very self-conscious posting these on Instagram, because I have this idea that people want to see happy pictures, not summarised learnings on trauma. Imagine being at a party where people are happily talking about what’s beautiful and exciting in their lives, and here I am being a party downer by telling them how deeply a childhood can affect one’s life. There, I just summed up my entire existence.
That self-conscious feeling follows me everywhere I go: on social media where people tweet about their career achievements or activism, and here I am in my corner, publishing about how our psyches can mess up our entire lives. Because I have abandonment issues, no matter where I go or what I do I feel alienated, isolated from what everyone else is doing.
So it has been deeply comforting to me when internet strangers send me messages to tell me that they resonated with what I shared. It is not validation that I seek, but resonance and connection. Sometimes, I would like to feel less alone. I would also like to facilitate the space for others like me to feel less alone.
That’s why I made this website, or why I took the effort to do the very tedious processing of my books. I’m hoping that somewhere out there, someone could save precious time on their self-healing journey if they came across my notes. And I am doing this with the awareness that an effort like this will not be popular or recognised. I know it will just be a handful of people that will find this useful.
Carl Jung once wrote,
“the sole purpose of human existence: to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being”,
and what I’m really trying to do is to kindle a light in my own darkness of being. If along the way the light I’ve kindled for myself happened to light up someone else’s way, that would be enough.
On a metaphysical systemic level, I do personally believe that true sustainable change can only happen when collectively we understand the importance of an individual’s psyche. As long as we keep dismissing people’s pain and our own pain, there will always be vicious cycles of suffering.
I don’t pretend to think that just by sharing a few learnings of books I’ve read I would be doing anything to contribute to the solution, but on a realistic level in this messed up world, even to ease one person’s one moment of suffering – is something I try to take comfort in.
I got sick again this week, so just paying attention to my cardiac data didn’t work. But the data did serve as data points to an ongoing mystery, and at the very least it eliminates some possibilities so it inevitably demonstrates some possible next steps.
What I do know is that my migraine started somewhen near or on my ovulation, so it seems there is something about the drop in estrogen that is causing me pain.
There was a time when I had a few pain-free months because I was regularly seeing my family’s traditional chinese medicine sinseh. Her explanation was that my liver was “heaty” and I don’t have enough qi. I know this sounds like hogwash to a lot of people, but TCM is the only thing in my life that has successfully relived my symptoms so far, so I would say that 5,000 years of wisdom is not something to be trifled with.
Why didn’t I stay on it since it worked for me? I really wanted to understand the roots of my issue, and everytime I had tried to go off the medicine the issue would return. Something in my biology, in the way my body is struggling to maintain homeostasis, is resulting in systemic biological pain for me. The herbs were balancing whatever deficiencies I was having, but it didn’t feel like a sustainable long-term solution.
That said, there may come a day when I have tried everything I can possibly think of and if nothing worked I would accept the lifelong reliance on TCM. I would love to have some quality of life. Perhaps sadly something inherently imbalanced in our biology is not something that we can recover from. I hope this is not the case, and this is why I’m fervently documenting this journey.
I do believe one day (if we don’t self-destruct so soon) we would be able to map the TCM system to Western science. Right now, my current hypothesis that what we think of as “heat” in TCM is actually chronic inflammation, and the lack of “qi” is the inability to metabolise energy efficiently. Only in recent years did medical science catch up with what TCM has known for thousands of years: that the health of the gut leads to the health of everything else.
I think there is something about my lifestyle and internal responses that are overworking my liver for some reason, causing some repercussions on my estrogen balance or perhaps it is the other way round. Do you know levels of estrogen is directly tied to fatty liver? I had no idea until yesterday when I was trying to research the effects of a low-carb diet on estrogen. So much I’ve learned on this journey.
I was exercising a lot and eating a pretty low-carb diet before this bout of pain, so in response I am going to tone both down a little. The relationship between carbs, insulin, serotonin and female hormones is complex – too much carbs and we can develop insulin resistance and PCOS, too little carbs and our reproductive system may shut down and we may become insomniac and depressed. But how much is enough?
I think what is “enough” is different for every individual. It would be nice if one day we can do some scans and bloodwork and it would automatically tell us the breakdown of the nutrients we need to maintain homeostasis. I would gladly pay for a service like this.
Meanwhile, I will be on this very long search for my enough.
I would like to lose the weight I feel whenever I publish anything on the internet. There is an automatic self-consciousness, the idea that people would judge me. You would think that after writing publicly about having chronic suicidal tendencies I would lose that self-consciousness, but it is always there, lurking.
I think it is difficult to be rid of that sensitivity, especially after a lifetime of feeling that sensitivity because there was so much fear of experiencing shame. I do wish to actively work on this, because I’ve been thinking about the impermanence of life a lot, and I don’t wish to wait till it is too late to do what I want to do.
Apart from self-consciousness I’m limited by my health. I can no longer look at a computer screen for too long. Back in 2015 when I first started experiencing eye pain I thought it would be temporary until I made a full recovery, but it seems till date there is no longer such a thing as full recovery for me. I do get good periods when I don’t experience any pain or discomfort but they are far and few in between, and I don’t know how to prolong these periods. This month I was optimistic because I experienced very little PMS symptoms compared to the usual, but right after my period I started having what I call malaise – the most obvious and common symptom is brow pain, like a little dull knife carving behind my brows. Sometimes they are so mild I don’t consciously notice a pain until I press them, but I feel a deep fatigue with the inability to look at the computer screen without feeling as if my face is cramping.
Just like right now, my face is mildly cramping, and if I don’t finish writing this soon, it may develop into a migraine.
I have no idea what’s really causing all of this except my lifelong inability to regulate stress is causing these chronic symptoms. I wish I knew what to avoid and what to do to manage these symptoms, but I don’t, so I can only do everything that science has taught me to: exercise, eat a moderately healthy diet, get regular sleep, drink enough water, eat some recommended supplements.
The good news is even though I’m chronically unwell, I no longer experience terrible bouts of pain that used to make me suicidal. For now. It is a slippery slope because every time I go off my disciplined regime the migraines come back again. But I do get self-policing fatigue, so now I’m trying to see if I can have some cheat days stashed in between the tightly policed ones.
Since this is such a long journey I have learned a lot, so much that my GPs have no idea what I am talking about when I wanted to test for several blood markers, and also that what we’ve been taught through the mainstream about health is mostly wrong. I am also learning about new things all the time as I go deeper into my research and self-experimentation.
When we just dip your toes slightly into the subject of health one will quickly realise everything is systematically connected. Well, except many doctors who prefer to treat each symptom in their own silos. When one is experiencing chronic symptoms like me, you will quickly learn that we must be our own advocates and many doctors cannot be trusted with their outdated knowledge. Someone I know has pre-diabetes and her assigned nutritionist from the public healthcare system told her to eat five meals a day including one before bedtime. This is the opposite of what the latest science is saying about diabetes, insulin resistance and fasting.
It frustrates me to no end because this is very real damage we are talking about. We can’t just prescribe eye drops to people with dry eyes or painkillers to women with PMS symptoms and tell them to suck it up and there is no hope of getting better. PMS symptoms are often a precursor to much more serious issues because every hormone causes cascading and ripple effects to other hormones.
Just one hormone – insulin, is able to wreak havoc on anyone’s health. Just one factor – stress, can cause a severe hormonal imbalance. Yet we are taught nothing about this.
The other day I was thinking about my mortality especially in the light of Covid19, and despite being somewhat nihilist I asked myself what would I like to complete the most before it is too late. I would like to document my journey and learnings in an accessible manner. So a couple of weeks back, I started collating my writing and books into a notebook. It makes no sense yet, because I have no clarity yet on how to format it in a way that would be useful to both the public and myself.
Today co-incidentally I came across Laura Deming’s Longevity FAQ (thanks Conor!) and I was excited that something like this exists. However, I’m personally not interested in longevity but rather the optimisation of well-being – I would rather live a very healthy long enough life versus a chronically long but unhealthy life – in general. I think something like this would be the simplest implementation on what I have in mind, though if given the time, space and health, I would probably experiment with a more exploratory interactive format once I am able to nail down the basics.
I wish we would have more systemically-linked content than time-sensitive posts. But there is very little incentive to make permanent content in a recency-obsessed society.
I’m not sure how long it will take, or if this is something I’ll ever complete. I can only work in very short spurts before I literally need to lie down. I also go through lengthy periods when I can’t do a single thing except maybe read. But I do hope that every tiny iteration can mean something.
I wrote in a previous post that I’ve been gathering data from my heart in order to understand my body. I’ve had chronic health issues since 2015, and thankfully a lot of it has cleared slowly over the past few years – like my previously dead tear ducts and oil glands in my eyes, they are now alive – but one persistent issue is chronic migraines that I get every month either during or after my monthly menstrual cycle. They last for days, and thereafter I take days if not weeks to recover from the fatigue and depression.
No one knows why hormonal fluctuations causes migraines, and actually no one knows why in general migraines occur.
There is a lot of history I could write regarding this, but to keep this post short my current hypothesis is that my inability to self-regulate is causing chronic stress in my body, which is in turn causing chronic hormonal imbalance, which causes my migraines. Since regulation is largely an autonomic process, there are two main things that one can try to improve it:
meditation: stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system
exercise: balances hormones and improves stress resilience
I’ve been regularly exercising since end 2015 to improve my symptoms. For a long time I was obsessed with forming habit streaks, so I pushed myself to exercise everyday regardless of how I felt. I started with swimming which is a gentle exercise, but when I lost access to a pool I started running. I grew to like running enough, but it didn’t stop my migraines.
I’ve had the Oura ring for about a year now. It measures my heart rate variability while I sleep, and along with other factors it calculates a score it calls “Readiness” which is supposed to inform me whether I should push myself hard for that day. Unfortunately my inability to self-regulate also means I would be in some form of denial when it comes to the score and I would continue to push myself regardless. So I would still regularly burn out from over-straining myself.
I couldn’t deliver things anymore because of the virus, so my main source of exercise is gone. I became worried about losing fitness because for me losing fitness is not just about energy levels but it also means the potential for my symptoms to worsen. I started cycling everyday, and when the country went into a partial lockdown I started cycling more to compensate for the sedentary lifestyle. In the middle of March I got sick, so for the first time I started paying serious attention to my cardio data to decide whether I should exercise for that day or not. Stress can impair the immune system, so I really didn’t want to compromise my immunity especially at this time.
After I recovered from that bout of sickness I decided that cycling wasn’t enough to improve my fitness, so I started running again. I got used to measuring my HRV every morning – a ritual I started when I was sick – and I used the data as signals to tune the intensity of my exercise that day. I remember burning out during the time I was running everyday, so this time I decided I would only run if my HRV during sleep and upon waking is trending positively, cycle for longer distances if my HRV is average according to my long-term baseline, and exercise minimally or rest if my scores are below average.
(Caveat: an unusually high HRV is also a sign of stress.)
Ultimately my goal is to improve my hormonal balance. I was never a healthy or fit person, so I am really curious if I can overcome my inherent biology to become healthy and fit.
While paying attention to my resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV) I realised they were always trending negatively after ovulation. A quick google search confirms my suspicion. Basically because of hormonal fluctuations, a woman has a few days of good energy levels a couple of days after menstruation, and it lasts till ovulation, which thereafter it dips until the cycle starts again.
Perhaps for a healthy woman the difference between very good and a little bit worse is not a lot. I have friends who don’t even notice their period, which is the way it should be. For a person like me with PMS – both pre and post – I am basically healthy, sane and productive for like ten days out of an entire month if I am very lucky. This has drilled into me the point that wanting to achieve daily consistency is actually counter-productive. To really achieve well-being, I need to learn how to live according to the seasons of my body.
In health, I think what is important is to improve the baseline. It is the baseline that drives the overall system, and the baseline that determines how much stress one can endure before breaking down.
I decided that what I want to focus on is the baseline of my luteal phase, which is the phase between ovulation and menstruation. That phase is the hardest for me – emotionally, physically, and mentally – and it is fourteen whole days of every month of my life, until I reach menopause which is going to bring me a new set of problems. But I am hoping if I do this right now, I can have a gentler transition to menopause.
The past few days, I’ve been pulling data from my Oura ring and analysing it in the simplest way possible. I’ve only looked at the data for the past three months because that’s when I started paying a lot more attention to my health because of the virus.
To keep it simple for now, below is a table showing the data from my Oura ring, though I do use other devices as well. I included cycle length because my research tells me that the longer I take to ovulate, the unhealthier I was. This month, I had my first period in months that didn’t come with a serious migraine, but sometimes when it doesn’t happen during then it will happen a bit later (sometimes during ovulation) so I don’t want to jinx myself. Is this because of my newly started HRV-based exercise experiment since mid-March? Was 30 days enough to make significant improvements?
What I’m interested in is to improve my data during the luteal phase: I want a trending lower RHR, a higher HRV, and an average cycle length that is not more than 30 days. The goal is to use HRV to exercise dynamically to improve my body’s capacity to endure stress which a lower RHR and HRV will indicate, and hopefully my body will produce less stress-related hormones, and that will restore balance to the rest of my hormones, eventually leading to the cessation of my migraines, or at least allow me to reach more clarity on my own condition.
Average luteal RHR (bpm)
Average luteal HRV (ms)
data from past 3 months of menstrual cycles
It is too early to tell and I am still experimenting with my dynamic exercise regime, but I want to start documenting this process from the beginning.
As we can see from the table, during my luteal phase my average RHR is trending slightly upwards due to the increase in exercise, whereas my average HRV is improving though there was a dip in March because I was sick. What will be interesting is to see longer term trends. Will exercising according to my HRV lead to a drop in my RHR eventually? Will learning to be gentle with my body lead to the health improvements I’ve always wanted?How much exercise is too much?
It is probably a strange topic to most people, writing so much about my menstrual cycle. But in my own process of research I realised this is something not many people are willing to write about in an open manner, even though it heavily affects the health of many women.
There is also very little blog posts about using data to improve health on a personal level. Based on my own understanding on global trends, chronic health issues will be an increasing concern in time to come. I hope by trying to shed some light onto my process, this information may be useful to somebody out there, no matter how obscure it seems to be now.
[mild spoilers ahead] When I gotten from reading a copious amount of psychology and neuroscience research is that it is very debatable that human beings have free will at all, and that all of us are trapped in our own scripted loops unconsciously.
Of course, I am not the only person thinking about this. So I wasn’t very surprised when these themes are being investigated in this season of Westworld. In previous seasons I felt like the robots trapped in the actual Westworld was like a metaphor for how we as human beings are similarly trapped, but for this season it is no longer a metaphor. A machine can accurately predict the trajectory of every single human being through artificial intelligence and the acquisition of personal data, and in doing so it also makes those predictions come true by limiting the choices they are allowed to have. The reason for this is so that the world can have predictable order instead of chaos.
There is no such machine in today’s real world, but in its place there are a ton of mini-systems designed to fulfil a similar purpose, such as how something that seems so innocuous like Facebook can greatly influence political results. Our resumes are probably filtered by some algorithm and perhaps in some companies they will never get to see the light of the day if we don’t have an ivy league education.
Putting technology aside, our brain works the same way as A.I.s do, even though we would like to pretend otherwise. It takes inputs and they form the basis of patterned outputs. A huge amount of these inputs are determined by the place of our birth, our DNA, our ancestral history, and the external environment we grew up in. Perhaps these I can accept, but my world came crashing down when I read A General Theory of Love and made the inevitable conclusion that even love, something that seems so magical and soulful, is merely a patterned product of the brain too.
We can consciously break these loops, if we do become aware of it at all. There is therapy, meditation, cognitive exercises, etc. I guess for me the magic question is, is awareness itself also part of one’s predictable destiny?
I think I have broken my own loops by reading extensively, going for therapy, quitting a lifelong career and changing my way of life dramatically. But, was my so-called awakening moment a predictable consequence of my personal history? If someone else walked with my shoes, would they have come to this reckoning as well? It is like if you continually stress an animal, they too would exhibit a radical change in their behaviour as well right? Well, I could say perhaps some animals develop learned helplessness and they just accept their fate, but in my case I think there were a mix of inputs in my life that made me unwilling to continue life as before, and these inputs were not within my control and will.
I don’t believe for a single moment that my personal will is a result of my own making. I have to admit I have been dealt with a very kind hand among all the pain I have experienced.
So, is a person who decides to go for therapy primed by previous events to make that choice in the first place? Someone was famous for saying that we can’t change our circumstances sometimes but we can change the way we respond. But recent neuroscience research has shown that chronic stress makes people make bad choices. Can you fault a person for making a bad choice if they can’t control how their brains respond? Can you credit a person for making a good choice if they were blessed with a healthy psyche due to their circumstances?
The other morning I was doing my routine exercise, and I realised one of the reasons why i love exercise so much is that among the unpredictability of life, exercise is one of the rare things in life that has a predictable input/output system. The body is incredibly adaptable, and one can go from almost hyperventilating on a slow run to running a full marathon in a relatively short time.
It also allows me to at least contemplate the possibility that I can break some of my own patterned loops. Like I can be cycling six laps everyday for months, and one fine day, I decide that I will do one extra lap. Because of the circuit breaker I have been sitting for most of the day after my morning exercise, so one day in the evening I decided to go for a thirty minute walk. Nothing dramatic, nothing life changing, but it is a break in my patterns and thus it feels liberating, that there is still a small portion of my life under my control.
For me the magical part of it is: because of my obsession with self-quantifying data, everytime I introduce something novel to my exercise routine I get almost immediate feedback, like improvement in my cardiac data. I was very surprised to observe that though my first run in months stressed my body out, by my second run I was recovering above my baseline the very next day.
I have never imagined myself to be a fit person, and now I’m almost excited to see where the values of my cardiac data can go.
Yet the meta thing is, my exercise itself for the most part is a very routine loop. I cycle and run the same part of the park everyday, I walk the same few rounds with my partner around our estate every evening.
But I realised that my endurance for boredom has greatly increased. I mean, I was the person who cannot stop scrolling twitter. Because of my daily looped cycling, runs and walks, I’m used to moving in circles. And somehow through that voluntary conditioning, I have started to learn to observe, even within loops there can be unpredictable beauty and moments of wonder.
I thought I’ll be really claustrophobic because of the lockdown even by my introverted standards, but once I settled into my daily loops in them I have found a space for creativity and restoration, whereas previously I could always find something to distract myself from my feelings.
Maybe I can never find answers to the greater philosophical questions of freewill, but I think I agree with the dead philosophers that it is better to pretend that we have some locus of control, no matter how tiny it seems to be. Sometimes it can be as tiny as walking one extra step – I pretend that I’m giving the middle finger to the heavens above by demonstrating that I’m behaving out of my expected loop on that day.
I went for a run this morning, my first run in months. I have been cycling everyday instead, because cycling felt a lot easier to sustain for a longer period of time. Because of the lockdown apart from my morning exercise I’m sitting or lying down at home, so I have become concerned with the muscles in my body would start to dystrophy.
Why should I care about the muscles in my body at this time? Is it for vanity or fitness? The problem is once my muscles start to dystrophy, it causes a cascading effect where I’ll get body aches, tense muscles, poor blood circulation, and then complex hormonal effects which thereafter I’ll end up with terrible PMS and a PMS-related migraine. The effects seem worse as I age, and I’ve been trying to experiment with both exercise and diet to try to mitigate them as much as possible. I haven’t had a migraine free menstrual cycle in months, if not years.
I noticed that while cycling with my road bike – which I do favour – my max heart rate per minute is around 130bpm and that’s if I cycle like a maniac, which is dangerous for the park connectors (max 25 km/h legally) I cycle on. That range is enough to build endurance, but not enough to build fitness and strength. I’ll have to do more research to cite more evidence, but my intention for higher intensity exercise is to increase my tolerance for stress. The slightly counter-intuitive thing is, the higher amounts of targeted physical stress we put our body through, the easier it becomes for it to relax, because it builds a tolerance and capacity for the stress. That’s why elite athletes have very low resting heart rates, their hearts hardly need to work to pump enough blood for their bodies.
Since the lockdown my resting heart rate has been increasing. I have no idea whether it is the sedentary lifestyle or the chronic omg-the-virus-is-destroying-the-world-as-I-know-it stress – probably a bit of both. So I decided to restart running again to rebuild my fitness since my suspicion is my cycling will only maintain it.
The difference between this new bout of running versus my old running routine is that I’m going to use bio data to help me manage it. I used to be really into daily streaks and was very unwilling to break them, so I ran everyday rain or shine. That was actually not healthy for me, as I burnt out without knowing it.
I am probably going to write another post about the devices I use to measure such data, but in summary I check my heart rate variability every morning to see how intense my exercise should be:
I use a polar chest strap for the first app and my apple watch for the second. Why two data points? I actually use four including the oura ring and a whoop strap I use during sleep (these are all devices I acquired in different points of my life in case you think I went crazy and got all of them at the same time). The reason why I use four different devices is because each one of them have their own flaws and there’s many conditions that may cause readings to be off since HRV is a sensitive measurement. So I use all of them to gauge an average sense of my daily capacity to exercise.
When it is in the green like the above, I’m good to exercise at high intensity. At yellow, it will be better if I limit it to a slow, recovery-type of exercise. If I’m reading a red score, I should have a rest day no matter what I actually want to do. Over-exercising can cause injuries and worse, burnout which make take months for recovery.
The real reason why I’m relying on data instead of my own good sensibilities is because many years of experience have taught me I have no good sensibilities and I only know how to burn out. I am also hopeless at being attuned to my body.
Today, I ran about 6km around the route I use to cycle. I have never ran that part of the park before, and it was surreal to experience how different it felt. It felt like time stood still as the park was eerily quiet with birds singing and sounds of trees rustling in the air. Experiencing that on a bicycle and on my two feet feels radically different, like time has slowed dramatically down.
I thought it would be hard. I used to struggle with 2km, much less 6km. The fitness that comes from cycling does not translate to running. My heart rate spiked to 150+bpm compared to my fitter days of 130+bpm for a slow jog. I had to be careful not to overdo it in case I burn out and fall sick yet again.
But I was surprised to learn that I didn’t feel like I was forcing myself to do something I disliked. I used to look at my watch a lot and wish the metres would rack up quicker so I could finish it as soon as possible. Today I looked at my watch often enough, but it didn’t feel terrible.
My cycling didn’t contribute to my running fitness as my heart was still struggling, but it contributed to the endurance. My chest didn’t feel like it was going to burst, my body didn’t feel like it was going to fall apart from all the weight I was making it carry at speed. So it was quite intriguing for me to observe that experience because at that 150bpm+ heart rate I was expecting to feel terrible but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t feel it was effortless – I could cycle intensely and it would never feel like a real effort to me – but it actually felt moderate. I never thought I would use the word moderate on running.
I’m looking forward to running whenever I am in a good physiological state as determined by my HRV, acquiring more long-term data and see if my hypothesis that this will lower my resting heart rate would be correct.
To really build strength I would probably have to start on weights and HIIT, but I am not there yet. I’m not sure if I would ever want to go there, but I never thought I’ll be ever cycling a road bike, so who knows?
I don’t know what are other people doing with the blogs or newsletters. I have one acquaintance on twitter who tweeted that someone wrote to him to say that his newsletter was tone deaf because he didn’t write about the virus situation at all. His reason was that there’s already a lot going on about the virus, he wanted to add a different quality to the world.
I hesitated to write a post like this, because who cares about my personal fitness when people are suffering so much? But I’ve written quite abit about my feelings towards the situation, and it is my personal belief that precisely because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, it brings a bit more urgency to me to document the mundane qualities of life. In our history even at the darkest times, we have always been making art and documenting (I sometimes think about Anne Frank writing about her desire to kiss another girl).
I don’t know about you, but personally I think everyone should do whatever it takes to cope, as long as there’s no intention to harm other people (not practicing distancing is harming people). I may not like what other people are doing for whatever reason, but I don’t have to do the same or participate in it. Similarly, nobody has to read this very mundane, specific post if it is not their thing.
At a time like this, perhaps there are other people struggling with their chronic health like me and would like to experiment with their HRV. The most cost effective and accurate way would be the Polar H10 chest strap which costs about $120 SGD / $80 USD. You can also use your existing Apple Watch if you already have one. I acknowledge these things are not cheap, but regular visits to the doctor is definitely more expensive (unless you have socialised good healthcare). The whoop band costs $30 USD/mth which is the most affordable start cost but will add up in the long-term.
I write one of these every year, since the age of 30. This is my tenth year writing, and from reading posts from the previous nine years you could see the trajectory of my identity. Apparently last year at 38 I found myself at 37 too serious, but today I have found my 38 year old self also way too serious. I think it is a good gauge of my personal growth.
It is strange to look back at my selves for the previous nine years and be able to see with clarity how tortured I used to be. I have way too many thoughts, and I wanted so much control over my life and myself.
This year, I am at a loss for what to write here. In the space where that many thoughts used to reside, there is an emptiness. Is it a good or bad emptiness, I do not know. Maybe it is related to the sense of emptiness I feel towards the entire situation right now, and the emptiness I feel towards my life for the past year.
In Buddhism there is a concept of emptiness called shunyata. I came across it while reading a book about Chogyam Trungpa (whose existence is riddled with scandals and for now I don’t wish to go into a debate if we can separate the teachings from the scandals, I am just cherrypicking what I want) – I found this quote in a previous post I wrote:
“For instance, if you are studying music, the starting point is to realise how unartistic you are. That’s a hopeful situation. That you have the intelligence to see how unartistic or how unmusical you are is the starting point. Hopelessness is the starting point. That is extremely powerful actually, and the most positive thought that you could have. It is an extraordinarily positive thing to discover how bad things are.” – Chongyam Trungpa, Glimpses of the Profound
I only remembered this today for the purpose of this post, but some of it must have seeped into the deeper layers of my consciousness as some time last year I tweeted:
The more I learn about neuroscience and psychology, the more hopeless I become towards the state of the world. So the gradual outcome is, I don’t ask much out of people including myself these days. There is an intellectual understanding towards why it is so difficult to ask for transformation. The emotional understanding, the compassion, is difficult to develop for me. But in a meta fashion I don’t ask of myself to develop that emotional capacity any quicker than I can too, because I have finally understood why I am not capable.
Perhaps that’s the biggest awareness I have had of myself this last year. I have always thought of myself as a person with a deep emotional capacity because I am an emotional person, only to find out that what I have are dysregulated emotions, not emotional capacity. What I felt for other people is a projection of my own feelings, not true empathy.
Recognising how empty of a shell I am has given me a way to ground myself, a starting point. I no longer ask of myself to be a person I am not, neither do I swim in a pool of guilt when I am unable to fulfil people’s expectations. You wouldn’t ask a person dripping of blood to give blood, would you?
I am not sure what comes after tomorrow, much less who I’ll become. I don’t really know who I am anymore and I confuse myself all the time, and I think I am beginning to be okay with that. I am developing a lot more respect for the unconscious processes that take place within us, and I have learnt to give less power to my conscious intellect. I am just a fumbling person, like everyone else.
If anything, I would like to be more capable of giving room to the fumblings of everyone, including myself. But I am nowhere remotely near there, yet.