It was after the first retreat and Meimei had come back to live with us after spending some time at her father’s house. I was glad to have her around but her presence also sparked off some old patterns between my mother and I. Things had gotten so bad at home that I finally decided to go somewhere else for a while, and by that I meant another country. Down Under, to be precise.
I have some folks in Australia. Specifically, my grand-uncle on my father’s side. Ever since I was younger my father had often made the suggestion that I might like to visit them, either to explore possible schooling options or just for a holiday. I always said no because…well the rest of the book should have told you why. But finally I was well enough to go. So I went.
Uncle KM (the grand-uncle I mentioned earlier) Hock (his eldest son) and his family were the most helpful, generous, and caring people that I could ever imagine. I might even say Hock is the nicest guy I have ever met in my life, and I have met a great many people. They helped me rent a place, got me settled in and offered to take me around.
The first night there I stopped taking my medication and haven’t taken it since. It may have been due to being away from Mum or the laidback Australian air or a combination of the two.
I should also mention my landlord, Stephen. He was a really nice chap as well. We chatted, he took me around driving to various parks and we shared a few meals. I even met his elder brother (Sam, a good friend of Hock’s) and we swapped life stories a bit. There was a lot of Asian Family Drama and they also had their own share of issues…but who doesn’t? Stephen’s mother was definitely controlling his life (perhaps not as badly as mine used to) and it showed.
I think Stephen was a really good person for me to meet on my trip. Why? He showed me what it was like to be stuck in the past. He loved old cartoons and TV shows and we watched quite a few together in my time there. He dug up stuff like the Inspector Gadget pilot (that I had no idea even existed) and was particular proud of his acquisition of the Knight Rider Blu-Ray boxed set.
Now there is nothing wrong with Knight Rider. I love the show myself. But when your ringtone is set to an endless series of old cartoon themes and all you do after work is watch Red Dwarf, Back to the Future and Beverly Hills Cop, one begins to wonder.
I couldn’t help but think to myself – before I came here, how many times has he done this? When I leave, how many more times will it continue? An endless cycle of nostalgia, watching reel after reel of childhood. We all have to move on someday, no matter how hard it is to do so.
Hock and his folks met up once every week to have a meal together and I went along whenever possible. I learnt that my grand-aunt was a hoarder (the same as my paternal grandmother) and I tried to give whatever advice I could.
They were all very nice, normal people. Too normal, perhaps. They did know something about my condition (not the specifics) and inquired very generally about it. It was actually kind of painful to go to the dinners with them. They all seemed so happy and normal and well-adjusted. They had no notion of what I had gone through and I had no way to tell them.
I tried to explain what I could, but the dam broke when Susan, (Hock’s sister) after listening carefully to some of what happened (abuse and the like) said “you know what helps? Getting married and getting a job.”
Wow, like that was going to make up for everything that had happened! I wanted to punch her right there and then. But since I was an adult all I did was smile politely and leave the house. I sat on the grass outside until I was calm enough to come in, and then I told her that “my twelve year old self wants to punch you but my thirty two-year old self is preventing him from doing so.” She looked kind of shocked. Later I did also tell her that I know all she wanted to do was help but still…that wasn’t helpful to hear at all.
She told me I looked normal (I guess on the outside I do?) but inside I was anything but. And perhaps her advice might have been really good for “normal” people. You know how people keep on telling you there’s no such thing as normal? Well, there is and there isn’t. Being a pretty weird person myself I’ve thought about this for years and finally came to the conclusion that yes – there really IS a baseline normal (though it’s a lot wider than you might think) and I’m nowhere there.
Australia helped me resolve an issue that had been plaguing me for years. For the longest time I had this notion that Australians were so much more fortunate than others. Lower rates on education, more opportunities for locals (generally speaking) and of course, the dole. Even Meimei told me that when she went there, all the other Asian students felt the same way. I wasn’t quite sure what I thought. On one hand I felt she was right, but there was more than one side to the equation.
But you see, if you grow up without wanting anything, then do you truly feel contentment? If you have never felt the crushing bite of disappointment or pain, then is what you’ve gained really fulfilling? It’s hard to say. The same fortune that allows some Australians a relative easy life also means that many of them turn to drugs or other…recreational practices.
Sometimes I still feel a bit angry when I think about the country, and even (or especially) my relatives. Man, you all have millions of dollars! You’re well fed and happy and intelligent and successful! It couldn’t hurt you to do some social work now and then! Give back a little, huh mate? I try not to judge but yes I must admit that I did (and maybe still do?) feel this way. Perhaps I’m seeing the whole situation the wrong way? After all I was only there for three months – and I’m only human!
I intended to do more in Australia – go out, see the city, maybe visit some caves and wineries. But all I really did was stay at home and process. Oh, and how did I process! Now that for the first time in my life I was free to completely and 100% go into myself with no interruptions, blockages or restrictions, that is essentially all I did. 24/7. I would wake up and the thoughts would start – childhood, teenage, grief, guilt, everything that I have been writing up until this point. I buttered my toast and thought about abuse. I went for walks and contemplated the Divine. I got groceries and was consumed by fear.
I went deep, really deep – so deep that I writing this now I am amazed I actually let myself go so far all by myself. But it was exactly because that I was alone that it was possible to do so.
I explored my childhood anew, with all the knowledge and power now available to me. I went back to my teenage years. I especially examined the circumstances and causes leading up to the OCD (still the chief bogeyman at that time) the constant fear and anxiety that had plagued me since well…forever, I guess. I reflected on everything I had ever heard from my mother about her own childhood and what she went through.
I began to make the link between trauma and OCD. I had most definitely had suffered from multiple instances of PTSD in my teenage years and twenties but it had just never clicked. It was always depression this, depression that. Dysfunctional family. Broken home. Horrible divorce. Endless war.
All that was quite true. But what of the toll on the body? Trauma gets stored at a level that is deeper than the mind, in the very tissues and cells of the human form. The parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t have a clear pathway to the prefrontal cortex (the seat of rational and conscious behavior) and as such trauma has to be healed by different means.
I remembered all my relapses, the time I slumped on the floor and Mum didn’t respond at all, the screaming and shouting and scolding I had endured since even my (relatively happier) childhood. It dawned on me that I had probably suffered multiple traumas in addition to all my other problems – and that those traumas had simply gotten worse instead of better over the years.
I used all the techniques Psycare had taught me and more. Slowly the body began to heal. I read books. I Googled like a madman. I watched every TED talk on anxiety and OCD there was (and there were plenty) I went into that space I had gone into so many times before, to draw the blade that would cleave the darkness.
I read a book on toxic shame by John Bradshaw and had to walk around to process it physically every twenty pages or so. It explained SO MUCH about my family. The fact that we had to protect our parents instead of the other way around. Their endless cycles of destructive behavior. The primary contamination of toxic shame – that an abused child is devalued at his core, so that he feels that his entire self is wrong, and not just what he does.
I started getting panic attacks and feeling terrible. I think once I tried to call the Good Samaritans and I got a message saying that they only worked till 10pm. I know Australians sometimes can be a bit lazy but REALLY?
It was one night when one of the panic attacks struck and I felt frozen to my chair. Should I get up? Should I not? Should I wait for it to pass? I wanted to call my sister but she was probably asleep…should I…I suddenly felt a huge surge of frustration. Enough with this! I was sick and tired of this nonsense and I would do something about it. I put my hand to the hilt of the blade and in half a minute I stood and went to get some bread from the fridge, the crisis over.
I felt renewed compassion for my mother. These things must have made her life a living hell when she was younger and there was nothing that she could do about them. She often told me about trying to see someone in Australia about her panic attacks when she was younger and the doctor just telling her it was homesickness. She did the same in Los Angeles but I think that medical science was insufficiently advanced at that time to do much – just like I had to suffer from OCD for so many years without the techniques to diagnose or cure it effectively. I had found means with which to combat them but it seemed she never had.
I let myself feel the true extent of all the pain I had suffered in school so many years ago, the sensation of being used and even raped by my schoolteachers and the adults around me who were supposed to take care of me but instead used me for their own ends, whether it was at home or in school. It was like Gundam and Evangelion all over again – children with special powers who end up being used as the tools of adults. The memories were really painful to experience anew but I went through them anyway.
But what with the people, the culture, the sights, and all the revelations, I think what may have been the most significant there were the 3 comics I got from the library. Yeah, that should come as no surprise by now.
The first was Insufficient Direction, by Moyoco Anno. She’s the wife of Hideaki Anno, the director of Evangelion. It was NOT about Evangelion (surprise, surprise) but rather about their home life together. I think after reading that I had to take a two to three hour walk just to digest everything I felt.
There was so much to process after reading it, but strangely enough the strongest emotion was one of happiness. I was happy that this man, who had changed my life so much and didn’t know I existed, had achieved some measure of happiness (as had I!) Wherever or however it had come about, he was in a different place now – the new Evangelion movies show this pretty clearly.
The second was Are You My Mother? by Alison Bedchel. It is perhaps the most psychological comic I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them. One of the major characters is Donald Winnicott, the founder of object relations theory. Many of the panels are given over to expositions and explanations of psychology and therapy and how it intertwined with the author’s own life.
While reading it I got the “shakes” again – headaches, stomach cramps, nausea. That was, of course, a clear sign that I should continue. The only way out is through. It’s basically about the author’s relationship with her mother and how it affected her life.
Her mother could very well have been mine. Educated, intelligent and filled with punishing criticism. Well ok she wasn’t as bad as my own mother, but there were definitely problems and issues there. I won’t spoil the book for you (it’s great, you should go read it) but it did resonate with me on a very deep level.
The ending of the book sparked a question in me – what did I get from my own mother? Nothing, it seemed. But that wasn’t true at all. She had given me the best that she could have at that time, strange as it might seem. She was a victim of her own circumstances, her upbringing, her own parents – an entire world which was very, VERY different from the one that I grew up in. We are all a collection of our experiences, and her formative ones were probably not the greatest.
And so she taught me the things that she thought I ought to know – book learning, strict and utter obedience to your elders, and English literature. She gave of herself unstintingly in the ways she knew best. Buying boatloads of shirts I never wore, screaming and shouting at me to be a better person, and reading to us at night. So many gifts of both pain and love intertwined.
The third was the Heart of Thomas, by Moto Hagio. The moment I saw in on the bookshelf, it was in my bag before I could even blink.
Reading it was one of the most healing experiences I had in my life. For it was about love – pure, selfless love that transcended time, age, space and gender.
Interestingly enough this book was also how I knew about the writings of Matt Thorn, who I discussed the first time I met my first girlfriend. Also interestingly enough, Moto Hagio was the illustrator of Illusion of Gaia (way back in the chapter on Los Angeles) Coincidences? I had lived long enough to know that NOTHING was a coincidence anymore.
And while I was in Australia, there was an experience that I had there that completely cured my hatred for Chinese.
People are always telling me I’m great with kids and it’s generally true. While I was there I visited Hock’s house a lot and I got pretty close to his kids – his son, Junior, and his daughter, Alicia. The latter jumped on my lap more than once and wanted me to read to her.
Seeing as most of Australia speaks English, Hock and his wife Erica made the prudent decision to only speak Chinese at home, so that their children could grow up exposed to the language. Makes perfect sense to me. Thusly, the only way I could communicate with Alicia is if I spoke Chinese. She didn’t speak a word of English, whereas Junior did.
One quiet evening in Perth the adults were talking and Alicia was restless. I think she wanted to go for a walk. Would I take her out? Sure I would. I bundled her up and out we went.
It was a beautiful, quiet time. Everything seemed to be asleep. The blue-grey of the sky tinged the tops of the houses and the breeze blew ever-so-softly against us. I held her hand and she took me to a tree.
What did Alicia want with the tree? Leaves? Ok, big brother will get you a leaf. No? What did she want?
She wanted to give me a leaf. Ta yao gei wo yi ge ye zi. She slipped her hands through the leaves again and again, her tiny fingers unable to gain purchase on the slippery surface. But still she wanted to give me a leaf.
My heart broke. I think I started crying. I’m certainly crying as I’m writing this. Finally I reached out, snapped off a bit of the tree and put it into her hands. She turned to me and gave me the leaf. I was holding the ye zi, and a lot more.
If only all those years ago someone had given me a leaf instead of all the pain and suffering and beating I got. Ru guo yi qian ren jia you dui wo hao, mei you ma wo, hui liao jie wo de xing tong gen wo de jing quang, wo bu hui bian cheng zi yang de yang zi. (If only in the past people had treated me well, had never scolded me, had understood the pains of my heart and my situation, then I wouldn’t have ended up like this.) If only Chinese had been a language of love and kindness to me, instead of a bringer of beatings and low marks. How different things would have been.
She quickly lost interest (as children are wont to do) and I followed her outside, still holding hands, the leaf forgotten. I brought her down two streets and then back home (not too far if not her parents would worry) My OCD at that time was HOCD (harm OCD, which meant that you thought about either harming yourself or others) but when I looked at Alicia’s face in the evening light I swore that she would never come to harm from any mental illness of mine.
Somewhere in my heart a blue light dawned – something old and familiar and yet new. I would like to say at this moment that the OCD completely disappeared but it didn’t. Still, it was another big step forwards.
So it was a mere three months, but I came back a changed man. For the first time in my life I could process everything that happened uninterruptedly on my own, and it made a huge difference. It wasn’t truly a holiday, (maybe a working one) but it was a rest, and a good one at that.
I had been asked to stay longer but as my time there ended I knew that I would not come back, not for some time at least. I had fulfilled my purpose there. The environment was the same but on the inside I had changed fundamentally (as Meimei, who knows me best, noted)
I felt I had settled my feelings about Australia as well. It’s a nice place – no doubt about it. It had always been at the back of my mind as a possible option. I could go buy a house and live off the rent or something, just chill out and relax after so much pain in my life. Australia’s major trade partner is Japan, so I was sure there would be work there as well if I wanted it. So many Singaporeans (was I even one?) went there to study, work and usually settle.
Allan, one of my closest friends (remember him? Gundam and mecha anime fan? back in the Meetings and Partings chapter?) did exactly that. He married, had 2 kids and is still there carving out a career as an artist.
But I never really felt that it was the place for me. I didn’t write it off completely though. Making Final Decisions about Everything was a sure path back into OCD Land.
So I came back. The war continued. But the blade had changed.