journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

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

on learning how to think

One of the hardest and most important skills to learn in life is learning how to think. Usually learning how to think is associated with critical thinking, and people assume that it is for the pursuit of intellectual truth, that it is important to learn how to determine falsehoods or cognitive biases in society.

But what is less lauded and talked about, is learning how to think when it comes to perceiving ourselves, our potential and how we can relate to the world. It is one thing to see the world as it is, and another thing to see ourselves as who we truly are. I realised I either gave up too much power in terms of determining who I am, or I was over-confident in the knowledge of myself.

I think what makes a huge difference in the quality of one’s life is to develop the capacity to continually break internalised moulds of ourselves. That requires acute divergent thinking. It’s the ability to suddenly shift the mirror to a completely new radical angle to see a different side of ourselves, to reimagine new versions of who we can be. Or to nudge ourselves into realisations that we don’t have to do things the same old ways, or follow any conformist behaviour.

For example, I used to think of myself as a designer and I felt like that was the only thing I could ever do. Or I cannot count the countless times people tell me they can’t cook/draw/read/change careers/etc because they assume to know themselves and their limitations. But plenty of times it is either a societal conditioning or a limit we put on ourselves (okay this is aside from having the economic privilege of choice). I think it’s important to ask ourselves why we have that perception, and to think deeply and critically about it, not just the standard “I know myself”.

On a more meta level, that so many of us regularly repeat “I know myself” in itself is a critical reason why we should learn more widely about how to think. One of the ways to learn how to think is to input more and wider sources to better develop our streams of thought. Having only one answer to questions is an obvious sign that our stream is narrow because there’s almost always multiple sides and dimensions to every question (having just read a book on quantum physics, I was surprised to learn that even the reality of atoms is not absolute). We only need to pick up a few neuroscience and psychology books to know that “I know myself” is probably a fallacy.

The moment we learn that we don’t really know ourselves that well, everything falls apart. We start to doubt ourselves, our pasts, our constructed narratives. But that can be liberating — if we don’t know ourselves that well, then what do we actually know, and does that mean there’s also multiple dimensions of ourselves we have yet to discover or develop? What can we really contain?

These days I am bothered with a question: how much of my chronic depression is due to my inability to think myself out of my own rabbit holes? I grapple with my own definition of my feelings, the ways I see the world. Sometimes I feel like the world looks depressing to me because I have not learned to look at it in a different light. Sometimes I wonder if my brain chemistry is limiting my spectrum of thought or if my spectrum of thought is impacting my brain chemistry (well the science says it’s a complex system — the truth is nobody really knows). Even the capacity to notice beauty, I realised, has to be learned for me. An old couple making conversation can be annoying, a delay on the road can be tiring, an old building can look ugly. But they all can be experienced so beautifully.

I look at myself in the mirror. I see ugliness. I think of myself in my mind, I become impatient with my flaws. I don’t think I can do a lot of things, because I have become accustomed to what I believe I can do. I don’t trust myself to handle difficult situations, because I believe I can’t.

The capacity to think divergently makes a critical difference here. Many times it is just the ability to write a different storyline for ourselves. I was a designer but now I want to do something else. I am not sure what is that something else, but what is wrong with not knowing? What makes us try to define ourselves so narrowly? When I look into my perceived beliefs deeply, all I see were societal constructs. Why do we need to have careers? Why do we have to explain ourselves? Why do we have to try so hard to be validated? Can I co-exist
with my sadness instead of trying to get rid of
it? Is happiness really important? Must life be precious to everybody? Why is existence important? If the point of life lies in the meaning, what is the point of meaning?

There are some questions I don’t have answers to, and once again I want to have the humility to acknowledge that I probably don’t possess the capacity to see the world as widely as possible. It is only recent that I have become aware of how narrow my view is, and that is astounding as well as liberating.

I just need to develop the skill to remember this: that my world view is narrow, the view of myself is narrow too, and ahead lies the potential of the unknown. Even the ability to intervene with our own line of thinking and interject new lines is a developed skill, and I classify it as one of the micro-skills under the umbrella of learning how to think.

I think the secret of life is to always have a question at every point we think we have static answers to

the weight of existence

I’m near the end of our second week in Taiwan. In the middle of last week I felt unwell and homesick. It is strange that when I was younger I wished my travels wouldn’t end, and now I’m fighting against my own primal instincts so I can continue the journey.

I used to be able to sleep in the worst of backpackers’ inns and travel overnight on buses. These days I don’t feel fully at ease except when I’m home. I don’t really know what happened along the way. Maybe I overdosed on the instability I’ve experienced in my life and it is both therapeutic and comforting to go back to the exact same conditions. I face a dilemma: my physical and mental health requires routine, but my spiritual and emotional health requires discovery (and it took a lot of self-examination to come to this realisation, the fact that I am not as one-dimensional as I thought). Managing my overall health is like walking on a tightrope.

In the middle of last week I came across an article about inequality in Singapore, and it filled me with a lot of sadness. I struggled terribly in the system even with middle class economic privilege, it has caused me so many emotional scars that I’m still having nightmares over it till today — I can’t imagine what it’s like to be struggling with both basic needs and the ruthlessness of the system. These feelings don’t allow me to recuperate in peace or live my life in isolation. I am always haunted by the unfairness of the system and the guilt of my own privilege. I feel like I should be doing more but my health doesn’t allow me to. My nervous system has gotten to a point where every little trigger can potentially cause me to spend days if not weeks in pain. I feel useless and powerless.

I tweeted about it and received a beautiful response in return. I would like to believe that it is better to focus on what I can do versus what I cannot do. That we all have different roles in this world and not everyone can and should be a tireless activist. I try to comfort myself by telling myself I am trying to recover so I can be in a better position to contribute. I wondered if Van Gogh felt useless painting everyday.

I am trying to defy a system that measures people in absolute terms, and yet I can’t escape from this conditioning myself.

How long will my recovery take? Will I ever recover? How does one negate a lifetime of self-abuse and negative thought patterns? Is observing myself and life frivolous? Is art and philosophy frivolous? Is self-examination frivolous? How do monastics feel looking at the state of this world? How can one ever live freely or even strive to be free while witnessing the entrapment of many others? How does one maximise their own privilege effectively to equalise the playing field for others?

I try to rationalise and think in logic, but regardless of the answers I come up with, I can’t escape the weight of the questions and the density of my feelings.

I can only continually try to expand the space I hold for these questions. Maybe with time and hope I will be able to exist with them.

jolting contrasts

Having spent a week in Taipei I am reminded why travel takes a lot of weight in my life. It is the opportunity to take oneself out of a familiar context, to be forced into a heightened awareness because we are in unfamiliar surroundings. Back home I navigate myself around with my eyes half closed, I don’t look around myself much anymore because my brain is blind to a place so familiar to me.

Being in a different territory and culture I keep getting these jolting contrasts — I witness the seemingly mundane interaction between a breakfast shop owner and a school kid and I feel a lump in my throat. Everything has this romantic tinge to them: from the musical intonations of the Taiwanese to the revived old buildings made into creative spaces. It makes me wonder if we are more immune to the spirit we carry within ourselves, and the presence of a foreign energy is inevitably provocative.

Browsing an under ground bookstore I came across this book titled, 被討厭的勇氣 — loosely translated to “The courage to be hated”. It turned out to be a chinese translation of a Japanese interpretation of Alfred Adler’s philosophy. I ended up reading an english translation of the book and gained a basic insight to Adler’s theories through the lenses of two Japanese co-authors. What a convoluted yet beautiful way to learn something!

I miss and lack this sort of serendipity in my life at home. Home has been a sanctuary to me, but has also played a part in causing me to be somewhat static. Travel forces me to engage with the world because the allure of discovery is too hard to resist. Interacting with life does not come naturally to me, I prefer to engage with words through the barriers of various mediums.

Somehow all of this makes me think of my previous desire to live a monastic life. Buddhist philosophy is about seeing that everything is an illusion, and many have interpreted this to mean that we should practice non-attachment. I wondered what’s the point of living when you are not attached to anything. I have come to a recent thought that perhaps it is about unconditioning ourselves from the usual things that we’re attached to — symbols of power and validation — then from that empty space we would be able to freely choose what do we wish to be attached to instead. I think there is a courage needed to lead a monastic life, to let go of everything, and there is also courage needed to be fiercely committed to being alive and human. Maybe that’s why in folklore we have stories of deities falling in love with human beings or choosing to be human, without imperfection would there be space for unconditional love, would there be stories of incredible courage and resilience? Would there be a poem writing about stubborn gladness?

autumn around the corner

I feel like an animal, chased by predators all my life, and suddenly someone brought me into a sanctuary. There is peace all around but I am not used to it, so I keep looking over my shoulder anxiously. The quieter it becomes the more anxious I get.

I am reminded of this:

“Winnicott says somewhere that health is much more difficult to deal with than disease. And he’s right, I think, in the sense that everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.” — Adam Phillips

I think about how I lived: how I rushed from moment to moment without truly understanding how I felt. It is very easy to get caught up in busyness, because doing things distracts us from feeling. Some people say we must keep ourselves busy in order to not fall into depression but I wonder if the possibility of feeling alive while being still, exists?

Today I found myself moving slowly. I rented a car to drive some of my stuff from my storage to the new apartment I co-own with my partner. I think about myself in my youth, how I used to speed across lanes trying to get ahead of every car in sight. Now I hardly move out of the slowest lane, preferring to feel a steady momentum instead of anxious competition. When I reached my apartment I rolled the trolley and unloaded my stuff as though I had all the time in the world. I am bemused as I observe myself.

I am not sure how to make of this reality, everything feels surreal to me. What does it mean for me to finally settle down after years of movement and escaping?

When I lived a life of a walking dead I was game to take a lot of risks and I was unafraid of loss. There was nothing to lose when everything felt dead to me. Aliveness has a price to pay, because aliveness for me means being keenly aware of the beauty and transience of everything. The more alive I become, the greater I notice the potential for grief. I am learning to hold space for beauty and joy in my life, yet I am also growing afraid of losing everything precious to me. Sometimes I suspect my subconscious chooses to numb myself because like Winicott said, how much aliveness can we truly bear?

It takes courage to endure a cold harsh winter, but perhaps it takes a particular quality of resilience to notice the beauty of flowers blooming knowing that autumn is around the corner.

emotional bedrock

Yesterday I read a story about a psychotherapist who had a very difficult client. The client was homeless and didn’t have money to pay, yet the therapist elected to take her on, paying for supervision herself to ensure she could get a professional opinion on how she’s handling the case. The client had a history of abandonment so she was extremely needy, frequently calling the therapist almost every day.

Long story short, despite trials and tribulations which included a suicide attempt in the middle, fifteen years later the client was able to thrive independently. I loved this sentiment:

“It is at times like this that therapists feel the earth move. It’s not when the big revelations tumble out, or even the times when the patient effuses gratitude. The most satisfying moments are these seemingly mundane occasions that make one feel a person’s molecules have been somehow rearranged for the better. I felt that all the time, patience, skill, compassion, and money I had put toward the healing of Emily had reached her, and not only reached her but settled into a kind of emotional bedrock.” – Deborah Luepnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines

Fifteen years! What does it mean to spend fifteen years with a person not on a personal level but on a strange professional yet intimate level? What does it mean to patiently trust in someone’s lifelong’s process of becoming? One can never know where it’ll go when the process takes so long, so it takes a giant leap of faith and dogged persistance for both the therapist and the client. It is really not easy for either party to keep showing up. For fifteen years!

The idea of becoming a therapist has popped up in my mind repeatedly recently. It will be a long and expensive journey, and I am not sure how committed I am to it yet. But I’ve found the process of holding space and being a mirror for my friends particularly meaningful, especially if I was able to reflect a little bit of their own light back to them. I was aware of this a few years ago, but it never occurred to me that I would want to do this professionally.

But each time I read stories on psychotherapy I am moved profoundly, each time my therapist holds space for me I can feel the edges of my existence. How therapeutic and life-changing it is to have someone see and take us seriously, and what would it mean to be able to give this gift to people who really need it? What would it mean to be part of the process of someone forming their emotional bedrock?

I think it is one of the greatest gift in life to be able to gift someone a full and accurate reflection of themselves and their potentialities, to honour them seriously as a human being, to believe in their capacity to thrive. And perhaps it means even more to show up for them when everyone else has failed to do so, to give them a safe space to hurt and to truly be with them while they grow and heal.

In one of my earlier sessions with my therapist, I told her that it saddens me that therapy exists as a profession, that we have to pay for someone to take our emotions seriously, that the people who really need therapy will never be able to afford it. I was moved to tears when the therapist above initiated an effort to provide therapy for the homeless.

I would like to work with disadvantaged communities if I ever pursue psychotherapy as a path. I think how we navigate life is based on how we see ourselves and by extension, how we relate to others. I have spent most of my life walking in circles because I was unable to see myself. It is arguable if I even had a self. Who knows how our lives may unfold if there are people who are deeply invested in our becoming as our selves (and not treat us like a statistic/case number/retirement funding source/trophy/extension of themselves)? If, if I can become a person who is resilient enough to be there with someone while they take their time to become – looking at where I am now I think I have a long, difficult way to go – I think it would be an extremely meaningful way to spend the rest of my life.

The thought of sticking with a someone for more than a decade sounds unthinkable and claustrophobic to me (yes I have commitment issues), but who knows?