How do I begin to talk about my mother? Sometimes I feel this whole book was written about her, and not me.
It is perhaps significant that the very first Evangelion fanfic I ever wrote was called “Okaasan” (Mother) and that there is a song in the EVA soundtrack called “Mother Is The First Other.” Because she is. A newborn child knows nothing other than her or his birth parent. Life starts with mother. Biology dictates that it can’t be any other way.
She gave Meimei and I so many things, besides life that is. Intellect and perception both, lightning-sharp and swift. My love of singing – I only learned later in life that when I was 2 years old and couldn’t sleep my mother would sing me every song she knew.
And that terrible crippling fear that seeped into everything. Forget about monsters under the bed, the monsters were everywhere – in the rafters, in her children, inside her.
We were trapped in her world for so long. She pulled everything to herself and wouldn’t let go – and for those of hers that she loved the most she crippled so they would never desert her. The Woman Who Was Scared and Never Let Go. She wanted us to be there for her but she was never there for us. We were always the ones who had to say we were sorry – she could never do anything wrong, a cruel and unforgiving goddess who needed her supplicants to stay alive.
The countless fears that I was literally dragged from bed sometimes to deal with. Her getting drunk and I having to pick up the pieces (and my friends wonder why I don’t drink!) Having to go with her everywhere in case the panic attacks came.
I think my sister’s therapist actually put it very well. We were like her pancreas and liver. She needed us to function. How can my pancreas and liver want to cosplay and learn Japanese? Something is wrong here!
It’s from her conversations with Meimei that I also learned the secret of the relapses…that there was no such thing as a relapse in the first place. All that happened is that Mum couldn’t take it and passed it to me, so that I had to bear the burden of all her emotions. And then I broke, which wasn’t my fault, but to her it was. And the even deeper secret which I discovered on my own – that if I didn’t have those relapses (violent though they could be) to bleed off all that pain, grief and anger, I might have died.
I think of the bad but I think of the good as well. When I was young she would even pray over me in her own way, asking the Universe and all good spirits to watch over and protect me. Throughout each terrible year no matter what horrors she visited on us she would nevertheless give me a birthday card with well wishes. I still have all of them. She often told us that memories were the most important thing, and in a way if I had not believed that and held that truth dear I might not have been able to write this book.
There was so much love from her when we were younger – the storybooks and meals outside, the trips to the park and to the theatre. She gave us whatever affection she had and more besides.
Her own tragedy (which frankly deserves its OWN book) of someone who struggled so long and so hard in her own way, but was brought down by internal forces beyond her control or understanding. I feel the loss of potential for both my parents keenly, but somehow stronger for her…which is understandable. I was always close to my mother. If you met her, you would know instantly that she had It – call it chutzpah, derring-do, mojo, whatever you want. Whatever It was, she had It…but It was not enough.
When I first got in touch with just how much damage my mother had done to me I was scared. Not because I would be hurt more but because it felt that my other childhood memories of her would go away. I did not want all the good to become blotted out by what happened in later years and despite that, it happened anyway.
The first time we moved to Sanc Ville I remember waking up one night, unable to sleep. I walked outside to see my mother sitting on the balcony. She motioned to me and I went to her and she held me as we looked at the stars. To this day it is one of my most treasured and happy memories. I felt love – nothing but love for everything around me and the embrace of the woman who birthed me.
And so when I knew about the abuse, about how bad things really were and how my childhood may not have been that happy after all, I became frightened. Terribly, terribly frightened. Would I lose that too? The kind and smiling mother of the past, destroyed by the evil witch of the present? And yes in some ways there was a time in which I did lose them. The string of crisises in my twenties – being thrown out of the house, the OCD and exams, the trip to England. I hated her and yet I sorrowed for those beautiful memories which seemed tarnished now.
But then they came back in all their glory and more. My love brought them back to me – a sadder, wiser me who could see both sides of the equation, everything we shared when we were younger and all the abuse that happened when I was older.
Ah, the abuse. It’s detailed well enough in most of the previous chapters so I’m not going to go into detail here. But I’ll just talk about it a bit more. It wasn’t just the scolding and the screaming and the shouting, it was a thousand other little things as well.
Her disdain for anything “not intellectual” (which extended to everything I loved and far beyond that as well) The constant scything criticism and character assassination.
Trying to talk at the dinner table and all I would get was a black-eyed look and the words “I’m eating.” Mealtimes for many years were like being in a tomb – stony silence broken only by the sound of tableware. And from onwards onwards if I ever tried to engage her in conversation the response would generally be “I’m watching TV.” Besides shouting and working that was all she did for many years.
Gratefulness. We always had to be grateful for this and that, although I didn’t see why I should be. I should be grateful for even having a house? I got thrown out of that one. For having money? We didn’t have a lot of it. For knowing more than other people? I’m not sure that really helped all that much.
The constant bickering and recrimination. The thousand and one things she said to pull us down and drag us apart. “You must teach Meimei things” “Don’t share food, it’s so childish” “you can’t rely on me for everything” (huh, what? Isn’t it the other way around?) “you won’t always have a maid” “Mummy cannot already” “Mummy try very hard.” “Your brother always likes to make a fuss.”
You know what? I’m going to just stop here. It would take another chapter or more to do justice to all that struggle and travail, but I would be so tired of writing it and I’m sure you would be tired of reading it. In any case, it’s over.
Although that is easy to say and it was much harder to get there. I can remember the thousands of hours Meimei and I tried to understand her strange world without avail, penetrating deeper and deeper into a mist with no end. If only we could figure it out, see the rhyme behind the reason. I asked my Dad, I asked my sister, I asked the world and the Internet – why? Why did she do the things she did? What demons so haunted her that she would treat her children this way? Hyperthyroidism? (her answer for everything) That only explained part of it. And that like many things that was simply a symptom of the cause.
So many hours in therapy, opening one door after another. I think in my mid-twenties there was a period of three years in which I did nothing but talk about my mother. I got so sick and tired of it that I once threw up my hands and said just that. Florence just smiled and said “but you know you have to talk about it.” I did. So it was once more into the breach again – that time and many times after.
I write about this so easily now but it took what seems like almost forever to get here. I think when Florence first asked me “can you feel compassion for your mother?” (this was in No House, No Home) I looked at her like she had grown two more heads. Compassion? For her? For the person whose sole reason in life seemed to torment myself and my sister? SHE FUCKING THREW ME OUT OF MY OWN FUCKING HOUSE FOR HITTING HER WITH A PILLOW. But even as I thought that I can remember something (someone?) deep inside answering “yes.”
I looked back and I wondered how much of my life had been affected by my mother. Of course we are all shaped by our parents, but I was more or less completely molded by her in some regards. Was the loneliness that so plagued my earlier years also because she clung me tight to her breast and wouldn’t let go? Would I have hated Singapore so much if she had not hated Chinese and passed that hatred down to me? Had she not sent me back to school and made my school and test phobias worse I might have been able to get my degree and move out much earlier.
All that disdain I struggled with in my twenties, how this and that had to be “good enough” or I wouldn’t even give it the time of day. The constant judgment that I levied on myself and others. Even when I was a young shy child, how much of that shyness was due to her clinging on to me, and not me to her? I was a perfect little angel, never throwing any tantrums (I cannot remember throwing a single one in my entire childhood) – but was that because she wanted – no, NEEDED – me to be that way?
Maybe everything was really from my mother. Everything. The envy, the jealousy, the OCD, the depression. Everything. All shattered reflections of a twisted whole.
As I went deeper and deeper into therapy and into self-reflection it certainly seemed that way. I wanted to deny it even as I wanted to accept it. It would make everything so much simpler.
In some ways it was probably true. But once past a certain point (and I’m most certainly past that point!) we just have to let go and not keep on asking. I asked and asked during those terrible, terrible years and in some ways I have found enough answers to stop asking.
Amazingly enough with all my psychological knowledge I have never tried to formally diagnose my mother, and she has definitely never gone for any assessment of her own. Like I said back in the Worst Holiday Ever, she was probably narcissistic, maybe BPD? Definitely paranoid to some level, and there is some GAD and OCD there as well. And of course she herself admits to the panic attacks and agoraphobia.
But the clinical definitions only go so far. They are necessary for treatment and fund allocation and research but in the end there is only someone in pain and how that pain is expressed.
With all the love and compassion that I possess now I can look at her and see a very different person. For her to have treated us the way she did, there must have been some serious hardcore abuse in her past that she either can’t talk about or just doesn’t remember. My Mum didn’t talk about anything – the divorce, my father, her emotions, my illness, Meimei’s schooling, whatever happened…everything was “it’s over, there’s no need to talk about it anymore.”
Talk about repression! And displacement. And minimization. And the host of other defenses she employed nearly every day.
In therapy I often mentioned how I felt that all the reasons and barriers that my mother employed were like a tower of ice, standing cold, tall and alone amidst a wasteland. And how I wanted to assemble my own mass of logic and refutations and build a tower even taller and larger than hers – so one day it could topple down, smash against those icy walls and break them apart.
Until the day I realized who was inside that tower…not her, as I initially thought, but her father. She had to protect him – someone who Worked So Hard that it was no matter that he never loved her enough, or spent enough time with her, or was proud of what she did or anything else. He was the best father that ever was and no one could measure up – not her husband, not anyone. It was like Rapunzel but this time the flaxen-haired maiden was outside and making sure no one could get in.
And what I called the Killer Queen – a fearsome Iron Maiden-like figure composed of berriboned steel skirts (she was always good at sewing) and interlocking timepieces, a menace that when you were found wanting would suddenly stop, marionette-like, and swing a scythe-like hand down. And when I stepped forwards, blade drawn, ready to slay the monster – only to have the clocks stop and that terrible façade shatter to reveal my mother, trembling and crying in fear.
For her there was always fear. She almost lost me at four, and she may not have ever got over that. And then she lost her beloved father (and despite what he did must have done, there was love on both sides) a year later. The divorce and my “crackup” must have sent her into a tailspin which lasted most of my life, making everything she suffered earlier worse. Fear, always the fear of loss, of bad things, of bogeymen, of construction workers and rats in the attic. Hell on Earth to live with, but when you saw everything…hard not to forgive.
If only there had been some way to reach her. Heaven knows I tried, in so many ways over so many years. But then if there had been, and it had worked, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
I saw how everything – everything! – in her life and in her relationships with others (not just her family) was based on the past. Small things, like why she decided to put me into that horrible school. The reason given at that time was that my grades were not good enough (and yes, they had suffered somewhat in the US) But it was really because C and C (well at least one of them) were there. Back to the past, never to the future.
My sister, as usual, put it very well – in her world nothing changes. Nothing. Everything is in some way related to the past. I reflected on how she would tell the same stories again and again, more than fifty times, down to the same inflections. Nothing about the world could be believed unless it came in a book (hopefully written by a white man)
There was a time during the last few months when I told her that cosplay was all over the world and mainstream now and she said “cosplay? All that ratty-tatty stuff you and your friends put together?” and suddenly I realized that this was the 15th time in ten years that I had this conversation, with the same answers being given. Nothing could ever update, the firmware was stuck on version 1.0 and wouldn’t progress any further.
But I remain optimistic. She is stronger than she knows. There is still the woman who went to Australia all by herself when she was 18 (back when precious few did, let alone young Asian females) who used to read us to us and knit us clothes, who did so many amazing things that I wrote an essay stating that my mom was my idol when I was thirteen. (it was rejected by the teachers on the grounds that your mother can most definitely NOT be your idol) She’ll make it, and be the stronger for it. Everyone has to grow up someday, whether it’s twelve (far too early) or sixty-two (far too late) – but grow up they must.
Even after everything that has come between us, I love her.
Especially now that most of the questions HAVE been answered. It’s all so simple now. So very simple. Everything that we suffered all those years.
I’m going to put in in the easiest language possible.
My mother was an abused child. We already know that right?
When a child is hurt at an early stage of development, they become frozen at that stage of development – leading to a fractured ego which leads to the poor child never being able to grow up. It most definitely also leads to high blood pressure, agoraphobia and panic attacks. An intense pressure to succeed and perform arises because of low self-worth due to the aforementioned abuse – criticism, beatings and lack of love. My mother must not have felt very loved, wanted or needed – except for the amount of work she did.
She marries someone who will she feels will help her succeed – not coincidentally, he marries her because of his OWN issues. Impossible demands will be placed on him which he will not be able to fulfill and he likes it that way.
Children are born – Meimei and I. Severe enmeshment occurs at a very early age because the parent’s self is still frail and unformed. The same drive to succeed continues with going to the USA, the PhD and everything else. You are mine, you have to help me succeed. I have to succeed because without it I am nothing. The same small child still cries for Dad and for him to come back and love her and tell her she’s good. But he’s dead and that will never happen.
Children grow. But they have to grow in the way I want them to. They have to help me – help me to keep house, with my work, to go out with me, to do the things I like. Everything from housework to nipples – the content doesn’t really matter. They are mine, not anyone else’s – not theirs, not their father’s. Mine and mine forever! There is love, of course. There has always been love. But the past has corrupted it. The fear is just too strong. That people will leave her and in leaving she will be left with nothing – the greatest fear, that she cannot cope with life itself.
Her son cracks under the strain of being both husband and father but it’s his fault. It can’t be her fault if not she will die. I can’t take it – the guilt, the responsibility. I still have to work hard, still have to succeed. The pressure mounts and now it’s Meimei’s turn. It’s only normal! They have to help me as I have had to help my parents. They don’t know any better, they’re only poor uneducated folk. I have to do my best as a daughter, even though my Dad’s dead and my mother only loves her sons.
The years continue. Nothing can progress until the PhD is done. It’s all that creep’s fault anyway. My son is a useless good-for-nothing who just sits around and plays video games and my daughter is no better – why can’t she be hardworking and industrious like I was? Like my son was before he cracked up? If we work hard enough we don’t need to feel.
Everyone has to do what I want them to do. Hyperthyroidism rages out of control, turning the repressed anger of the past into screaming fits. Why can’t things be the way I want? Why don’t my children obey me and help me? I need help…I’m scared, so scared.
A broken and fractured self cannot grow. So as it was with my father – both of them stayed at a childlike development stage, unable to become emotionally more mature. Sometimes they managed to break out of it and acted like real parents and adults, but more often they did not or were not able to.
I think that in the worst of times she was trying to recreate her reality, as abused children often do. Where you were measured solely by the amount of work you did, whether it was housework or being “productive” – back in the house where she was born where that may have been reality. Her voice would break and become harsh and dry, angry and filled with pain…and I often wondered if that was how her parents spoke to her. It probably was.
Enmeshment refers to when two people are so intertwined that there is no separation – they become each other. As I said back in Revelations, at times there was no me, only my mother. She needed us to be her arms and legs, eyes and ears, to do what she wanted – but what she wanted wouldn’t really help, because it was simply caused by past pain. She was too trapped in her own past to realize that she was living it out in the present.
But at the end, after almost two decades of struggle, somehow all of us came to realize that in some way. The darkness was purged by the memory of joy…and the love that despite everything, was always there.
I look at what I’ve written in the last few pages and that is proof positive that I am finally beyond all that. All the questions that I asked at fifteen – why is this happening to me? Why doesn’t my Mum love me? What am I suffering so much? – have been answered. I’ve reached the end of this road at least. It has almost cost me my life and sanity on multiple occasions but I have shattered the chain that has bound me even before I was born.
My poor mother. How she must have suffered unknowingly all these years. OCD (especially the Pure O that destroyed so much of my life) wasn’t even known in MY time, let alone hers! She always tried to “distract herself” for whatever was bothering her because she didn’t know better. Medical science may just not have been advanced enough to treat panic attacks and agoraphobia at the time when she sought treatment. I think she even tried NLP at one point but it didn’t work. She never went for therapy (and boy was I upset about that for so long) but in the end…it’s ok. It’s ok.
Finally, I know. Finally, I understand. And finally, I can forgive – though in a strange twist of fate, I actually did the sequence in reverse order.
A cycle of hatred, passed down since who knows when
As I am yet living and not dead I prefer to the cut the chains here,
to live for what should have been
And still can be, rather than what was.
Even if you will not believe me I will say it one more time,
A thousand, no, ten thousand times.
I forgive you.
For not understanding, for never being there,
For tearing us apart and inside out
Your kindness locked behind the harshness of your father’s face.
But I will not push it.
Force is not the answer, either for you or for me.
I grant you leave to heal in your own time.
Meanwhile I will pray, as you always have for me.
For even amidst those sharp barbs you hurled were the
Unseen whispers of love.
Here we stand, in very different positions, to be sure,
But still two human beings upon the same Earth.
There is still and will always be a bond, but may it not choke us as it has done before.
It should not have been this way, but it was.
Even Jupiter cannot find a lost opportunity.
But may Janus, god of two faces, see fit to bless us with a kinder and gentler future
That what has come before.
I know you meant well but the wounds have to be healed regardless,
There is no disrespect and no shame, though your culture and the ghosts of the past may say otherwise.
This is farewell, then
Not forever, but for such a time as is needed
For us to mend both bridges and souls until
One day, perhaps, we can meet again
And take a real holiday this time
Wherever and whoever we might be then.
And so for better or for worse that’s my Mum and me. I’m sure others would tell it differently. For instance you’re not hearing HER side of things! Only she can tell that. And maybe she will, someday.