As determined as I was to get to the bottom of my troubles, some things just didn’t surface immediately. I wasn’t ready to actually process a lot of lay beneath the surface. Also, some of it was just plain growing up and life experience. I wanted to “get to the bottom of things” and Get Well and Move On With My Life but…yeah. It doesn’t work that way.
Therapy, therapy and more therapy. Sometimes I wondered when it would all end, when I would be ok and get to do other things then psychoanalysis and thinking. The early years were tougher, when I still didn’t trust Florence that much and when I still had to fight against my mother’s injunction that going to therapy was something “wrong” and that it showed that I was weak and useless.
As the years passed I began to realize just how much of my “illness” started not just before I was born, but before my parents themselves were born. As Florence has said more often than once, fear and abuse can be multi-generational, and in my case they most definitely were.
A lot is revealed in therapy. I know this may well be what they call a “duh” statement but it’s very true. I began to remember things – things that I never really forgot but that made a lot more sense now. For instance, I remember trying to commit suicide at the age of six or seven. Not so normal right? I wanted a toy (I think it was Bumblebee, from Transformers) and my Mum wouldn’t buy it for me. I stewed and steamed all the way home and when I got there, I ran to the drawers, pulled out a knife and threatened to kill myself. I’m not sure how serious I was about this, but all my Mum did was laugh and take the knife away.
Now, kids don’t always do the most sane or “normal” of things, but I personally think that’s a more than a little nuts.
During another sessions I also suddenly remembered something that had happened while I was younger. My mother had gotten angry about something – once again, I can’t remember what – and she made as if to throw her pair of glasses across the room. I immediately rushed to her and pinned her arms to her side…gotta help Mum, glasses are expensive! She struggled and I gripped tightly and eventually, to my relief, her struggles subsided. Nine-year olds aren’t the strongest of people around.
When I told Florence this she smiled her knowing smile and said simply “you see, even young Kain had to be responsible for others’ emotions.” She was right, as always. It’s funny that I had never thought of it this way before.
The phrase I used often when I spoke of these things was that I hadn’t consciously repressed them. And I hadn’t. These things were always in my memory and had been for years before. I just hadn’t connected the dots. Even in my despair and pain I actually felt a lot of sadness for those whose trauma and illness were such that they couldn’t remember at all.
I’ll give you another important incident. When I was four years old (or so) at Ma Ma’s house, I was crying fit to wake the dead. Totally normal four-year old behavior, especially when you consider that I missed my Mum and Dad and that I was really lonely there. But for some reason Ma Ma couldn’t take it and tries to get me to stop crying.
She doesn’t hug me, she doesn’t comfort me, she doesn’t talk to me (actually she can’t do the last one because she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Hokkien) So what does she do? She puts chilli in my mouth.
No I’m not making this up. I wish every time I said I was not making this up or I’m not kidding in the book I was but I’m not. I can’t think of a more ineffectual way to make a child stop crying than to put something hot and unpleasant in his mouth and make him…cry more. Which is of course exactly what I did. I cried EVEN LOUDER. I can recall even at four (or so) feeling an extremely strong desire for revenge and thinking something along the lines of “well, that’s what you get for putting chilli in my mouth!”
When I told Florence about it years later she was quite direct and told me simply “that’s trauma.” Why, so it was. How come I had never known about this before? I do recall mentioning it to my mother at one point but she simply said that her parents didn’t know better because they were uneducated people – her answer to everything her parents ever did.
And now let’s think about OCD. Lots of reasons and causes for it, too many to go into here. But let’s apply Occam’s Razor for a second. My parents have always been anxious, worried people. My mother had suffered from panic attacks since she was seventeen (I only learned this MUCH later in my life) and my Dad well…he worried about everything. See any connections?
It began to shed light on everything that I’ve recounted in the previous chapters. Think about it – a little kid, aged maybe six or so, following his Mum everywhere? Shopping centres, dress stores, going to the park…oh let’s not forget the holding hands. Hold hands to cross the road, hold hands to go over the overhead bridges (she had vertigo, in addition to agoraphobia and panic attacks) hold hands to go everywhere.
That same little kid spending little to no time with his father. Yes, he did take me out to watch video games and did play with me on occasion, but there was very little physical contact – let alone emotional contact. Does that sound healthy to you?
I reflected on how my mother never spoke ill about her own father. To her he was a brown-skinned, taxi driving angel and he must have “worked so hard.” Every ill he did was excused by how hard he worked, how he could not help it because he was uneducated. Everything. He scolded them mercilessly but it was ok, he must have been so tired after Working So Hard everyday. He beat them but it was ok – he didn’t know any better, he was Uneducated and Working So Hard.
I always wondered as a child why we took so many taxis (the bus system in Singapore is actually very good and I only took a bus when I was…thirteen?) and why she would tip each one so extravagantly. Now I know. She probably saw her father in each and every one of them.
Working So Hard extended to others as well. We couldn’t be lazy, we had to work hard all the time. All this time I was at home, suicidal and depressed, I was actually lazy and a good-for-nothing and should either start studying and/or get a job. She and my father both had these HUGE complexes with the class system – I think they were convinced that commerce and industry would be the ruin of society.
Certain issues were just completely and utterly taboo with her. First off, my father. He was a Creep and a Scoundrel and that was that. He had betrayed us (especially her!) I think that when I was nineteen or so I ventured to ask once if maybe Dad could come to stay with us once more. She went into full defensive mode and told me that if he did he would just betray us again.
I came to know differently what I’ve spent all the other chapters writing about. It has occurred to me that I am pulling an Evangelion of my own in writing this book…putting all the good parts first, making it seem like a normal life story, and then slipping the rug out from under you later on. Except in this case it’s Book 2 rather than Episode 16. I don’t know – I didn’t start out writing it that way. I’ve tried to show it the way I felt and experienced it…but art mimics life, and vice versa.
I was caught up the family story of how I was Ill, and how the world ended at fifteen for me, and we had Lost Everything when it All Went Wrong. The problems had actually probably begun a century or so before. My mother’s father was an orphan, and my father’s mother lost her own mother at twelve and became her siblings’ mother figure at that age. I began to see the threads that connected all the harshness, all the pain, the fear and criticism and the scolding (the constant scolding!) A larger picture emerged, one that encompassed not only my 15th year but everything before and everything else.
Full clarity would come later, only when I was thirty or older, but here was when I saw the cracks in the delusion appear for the first time, and I think I finally began to see.
The body has a way of shielding you that only makes sense later on. Like Jack Nicholson so famously says “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” which in therapy is most definitely true. I wasn’t ready to feel certain things, face certain things, acknowledge or accept them, and so I didn’t. The defense mechanisms clicked into place – thinking (always thinking!) rationalization, minimalization. The addictions – certainty and safety. It wasn’t yet time.
Meimei was a huge help. Where my rational thinking faltered and was unable (or unwilling!) to draw the necessary conclusions, her intuition and insight bridged the gaps that mere logic could not leap past. “I always knew the relationship between you and Mum was unhealthy.” she told me once. From the mouth of babes, they say – and she said that when she was barely 16 or so. I can’t recall. Then a few years later she said that she had known this at 12, but had waited until I was older, because I would have rejected it then. Like myself she was uncommonly wise and mature – we had to be, in order to survive.
They came, as insights are wont to do, in their own time and pace, in dribs and drabs and fountains and wellsprings of understanding and clarity. There was no one moment in which I leaped out from bed crying “MY LIFE IS FUCKED UP AND I KNOW WHY!” I mean, the first I already knew, but the second would take some time. But nonetheless a larger picture was beginning to emerge, a view of things in which I continued to be the lead actor, but seeing a much bigger ensemble cast that I could have ever imagined.
I realized that perhaps the greatest tragedy of my life was not my life was not mine at all – it was my mother’s. In transpersonal psychology this is known as “selfing” or “being selfed” – when a child has to be someone else so that the parent can retain his/her identity. It slowly dawned upon me that my entire life had been “selfed” – from following her around in shopping centre with a book when I was a kid, to do the housework and take care of Meimei so she could go to work, to be Ill so that she could be a Martyr and show the world just how difficult it was to be a single mother with an unhelpful husband and sick children.
And it was exactly at that moment when a child begins to be one no longer – teenage – that her grip tightened into a hangman’s noose. I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t do anything. The abuse she hurled at the things I loved! All anime (no matter what kind – shoujo, mecha, fantasy, action) was automatically “kiddie porn.” She was so derisive of the largeness of the character’s eyes that I wondered what they had ever done to her. Video games were a waste of time and she couldn’t wait until I stopped playing them and went back to reading “proper” books.
Florence was quite emphatic about it. She told me directly once what I had already learned from my sister and I knew deep down – that at certain moments there was no Kain. He was nothing but a puppet, a marionette on strings so that Clarice Tan could maintain her facades, be the Big Bad MA graduate who made it all on her own and came back from Australia. No small feat, to be sure, but at what cost? My life, among others.
Day and day out, like a puppet on a string. That was me, a doll swinging on a noose, waiting for Mum to come untie me and not realizing that she put me there. For years later I would wonder why the scene in Evangelion where the child Asuka runs into the room calling “Mama, Mama!” – only to see a puppet dangling from the ceiling – affected me so. Now I know why.
We are all our parents, make no mistake about that. Even in the healthiest of families, the ego has to go through its normal process of detachment and reformation. That’s what teenage is all about! The dyed hair, the piercings, the mohawks and screaming fits – it’s all a gateway into adulthood. It was when I was about twenty-six or so I began to be fascinated with rites of passage, with the Amish Rumspringer (in which Amish kids actually get to decide whether they want to be Amish) and with the Malaysian equivalent, merangtau. My Dad did actually do a good job of explaining the last one – finally, that godforsaken sociology degree was actually useful to me in some way!
They held an almost mystical fascination for me, the Teenage That Never Was, from someone who became an adult at twelve – not-so-coincidentally a year before “normal” teenage. (whatever the fuck that was) You could rebel? Go out? Do things in your own way? Get angry and scream and shout and never be worried that you’d be thrown out? Date girls? Throw parties? Oh My Fucking God. It sounded like Paradise.
Except that of course I never had that experience. I grew up nonetheless, but it was an adulthood gained by tooth and claw, in spite of parents and not because of them.
Don’t get me wrong – teenage is never the most pleasant of experiences. (well maybe it is but I certainly wouldn’t know!) I know plenty of people whose teenage was crap. But I never even got to have one.
All these insights and understand did do their part in quelling the (justifiable, I mean add) rage and the pain that I felt against my parents. I was understandably angry at my mother’s treatment of me and my father’s overly conflict averse nature. But I grew to know why they did the things they did – most probably because of their own family backgrounds and because they didn’t know better. All the games I played, the people I met, and my own explorations into the different cultures of the world opened things up more and more, and that wider perception also extended into my family problems.
The search for truth would continue over the years, and more and more would come to light. After twenty-five or so things had calmed down enough at home so that there were no immediate issues to be dealt with in every session, and Florence and I were able to buckle down and get to the deeper material. Slowly but surely truths were coming to the surface. I had become strong enough to weather most of the emotional storms and I was shedding my complexes one by one – fixer, savior, denial, blame. I no longer believed everything I was told and I had a better hold on that infernal critic. I sharpened the blade and the path continued to open.