Interestingly enough I would read a book with that exact same title that year. (Chinua Achebe’s seminal work, to be precise.) In retrospect things had already fallen apart, it’s just that we were clinging onto the illusion that they hadn’t. But what happened to me when I was fifteen shattered all pretenses in a way that even my mother could not avert her eyes from.
I had a nervous breakdown. Several, actually, just that one was severe enough to get the teachers involved and call my parents. I’ll spare you the details…actually I’ll be honest and say that I’ll spare myself the details, because they were rather harrowing events to recall, let alone go through. There was shrieking and shouting and crying (sometimes all at once) and I can remember that my some of my classmates backed away in fear. I don’t blame them – as frightening as it was to go through, it must have looked worse on the outside.
Like most breakdowns this didn’t just happen out of the blue. In the earlier half of the year my grades started slipping. I started crying uncontrollably. I remember a day where I found myself at some of the stone steps at the back of my school my favorite brooding place. One of my classmates found me and asked me to tell him what was wrong. I couldn’t. I was just too sad and depressed to even form words.
The next day it happened again. This time Zhen Xun was there and since I trusted him I tried to tell him how horrible I felt but I just couldn’t. All I could feel was a terrible heavy feeling inside that threatened to tear me apart. I remember his face, worried and concerned, but I couldn’t say anything, though I tried.
So the breakdowns happened. I think I was in the school band at that time and we were supposed to put on a performance but I started crying and shaking and that was the end of that. I remember a teacher asking me if I was ok and I was like “NO!” What kind of a stupid question was that? Anyone could see I wasn’t ok!
I still can remember the taxi ride back from the principal’s office that day. I sat there, tense and frightened and worried. I desperately wanted my mother to comfort me but all she did was sit there stone-faced with an angry and furious look on her face. It was only when we got home that the storm hit.
I was about to say something but she started first – shouting and screaming at how much trouble I was making for her. What was the meaning of this! How dare I do this to her? And then she stormed off somewhere. I lay on the bed, still in my school clothes, and cried and cried and cried.
Mary was quite stunned herself, but my mother was her employer and so she kept quiet. She looked sad and worried but what could see do? In later years my mother would look back and say that Mary “never stopped her.” Of course she didn’t. She needed to work to send money back home to the Philippines? What was she going to do, fight with her employer? With my mother it was always someone else’s fault.
I write it so simply now but you can imagine what a shock it must have been for me back then. I was already hurting and in pain and depressed and instead of receiving any kind of comfort or assistance I got scolded and shouted at. I probably developed PTSD from that experience – not that anyone even knew what PTSD was at that time.
From this point on things become hazy, and I mean that quite literally. The period of time of my life after this is not one I can recall very well. It’s like looking through a glass darkly, everything blurry, indistinct, and unclear.
And even after all my therapy, there are months that I cannot remember at all – as in, I lived through them, but I have no memory of doing so. I have long since accepted that those are parts of my life that I will never get back.
And you know what? It’s ok. Really. If they need to come back, they will. If not that’s ok too.
Another memory comes back to my mind as I write these words though. I recall when even my young mind knew beyond all doubt that things had fallen apart – knew, but still couldn’t believe.
I’ve locked this incident away in my memory for many, many years…and even when I eventually did see a psychologist I never brought it out. It remained too painful to even think about for the longest time. I write it now because I think that time has finally come for people besides just me to know about it. And I believe that it illustrates just how far gone everyone was at that time.
My Mum had signed us up for abacus lessons because well…every good Asian family does that, right? I can remember being heartily bored during the lessons and I think my sister was too. I’m also not sure what relevance the abacus has in a world where pocket calculators were available, but Mum says jump, and you ask how high. So we sat through an hour or so or incomprehensible instructions (guess what language the lessons were in?) until it was time to go home.
Mum came to pick us up, in a bad mood again…which seemed to be her only mood these days. We were about to go home in a taxi until, unable to restrain myself from having to put up with all that boredom, I said that the lessons were boring and that I would prefer not to go to any more of them. I wasn’t trying to harm anyone. I mean, call a spade a spade, right?
It was probably not the right course of action. My mother shot us a glance of purest rage and fury and walked off. I stared at her retreating back in amazement. What was happening? Aren’t we going home? Where are you going, mom? I didn’t have a chance to say anything – I was too shocked – until she was halfway across the street. My sister clutched my hand and gave me a wide-eyed look of supplication, as if she was asking me what to do. I didn’t know myself. I was…thirteen and a half, I think.
So I took my sister’s hand in mine and we took off after our mother, who was walking at a breakneck pace fit to wake the dead. We wound our way past streets and roads and then through the park, trying desperately to keep up with Mum. My sister nearly fell more than few times – she was only seven or so and the speed that we all were walking was far too much for her young frame to handle. I kept her hand in mine to make sure she was trailing behind me and just kept walking. That’s all I could think of to do – just keep walking. The only other thing that I had the capacity to handle was turning around from time to time to make sure Meimei hadn’t fallen when she stumbled.
That frenetic walk home – all one hour of it – is something I will never forget. The concerned stares of the people passing by, probably wondering what two kids were doing walking so fast. The pounding of my feet on the pavement, trying to balance keeping up with Mum without leaving Meimei behind. The ever-increasing sense of dread and anxiety that grew and grew and most of all…my sister’s sweaty palm in mine, holding on for dear life.
We made it back home somehow, tired and hungry. Still in a rage, Mum told Mary to not give us any food to eat because we didn’t deserve it – but the latter, kind soul that she was, did manage to make and sneak us some instant noodles. I spooned the salty broth into my mouth in shock as my eyes darted from Mary’s back to my crying sister. Surely this couldn’t be happening? What had happened to my home? To my mother?
I couldn’t have guessed, but from then on, things would only get worse.
But back to events as they unfolded. It soon became pretty obvious that I was suffering from severe depression. Let me try and describe depression for you. A friend of mine once said that depression is the common cold of psychology – everyone seemed to have it at least once. I guess she’s kind of right? But depression is generally only a symptom of a deeper issue.
Everything is sad. And by everything I mean EVERYTHING. The food is sad, the clothes are sad, the beetles that you see on the sidewalk are sad. You can’t feel happy. Let me repeat that again – you can’t feel happy. Think of something you like to do, anything. Now think of when you do it, you don’t feel happy. In fact, you feel kind of tired, kind of apathetic, kind of depressed. You KNOW it should make you feel happy but it doesn’t.
Does that scare you? It should. This was essentially my world for quite a few years. That is just the depression alone, of course. Though it might be more accurate to say that the depression arose because of the other things that were untreated.
Ah, depression. How that word encapsulated so much and so many of those years. Everything was depression. I talked about depression all the time with anyone who could listen, and most of those who couldn’t. It was here that the Family Story was born – Kain has Depression and is Not Well, so he has to Get Better. No one at that time could see the multitude of issues that had spawned my illness, and would continue to maintain it for many years.
I think my classmates did try to help in their own fashion, but I would not accept it. Or rather, I could not accept it. A haze of pain had enveloped my life and it was not something their well-intentioned efforts could pierce. They were too different from me and whatever answers they gave seemed false and insufficient.
The two Warrens tried their best to rally my spirits and force the answer out of me. One of them (not Subianto) told me that he was going to follow me home and wouldn’t leave until I told him what was wrong. A true friend then, Meimei would tell me in later years. Yes, I guess he was.
I didn’t even know what was wrong myself! I didn’t even know what depression was. I didn’t know why I felt so sad and upset all the time. I couldn’t answer any of the concerned questions and worried glances that I was faced with. I wanted it all to end myself.
One of the Indonesian guys had a radical solution. Fall in love, he said. Then you won’t be sad. Love will cure you. Good idea but girlfriends don’t exactly grow on trees man.
I think even Connor came around at one point to give me a book called Being Happy! It seemed like the worst book in the world to give me at that time.
The fugue stole everything from my life slowly. I got a few letters from my friends in the US but I was so depressed I never replied. I didn’t even consider writing to Jennifer until about…fifteen years later? I told Nauru I was considering suicide and she told me she was disappointed in me…I shouted back something about SHE being disappointed in ME?
I slipped deeper and deeper into the blackness. Everyone around me was frantic with worry, especially my sister. My mother alternated from screaming and shouting to being solicitous and comforting…well at least I think she tried to be the latter. Nothing seemed to help.
I hated myself. I hated the world. I hated EVERYTHING. Everything seemed to be awash in a miasma of red and black. I wanted to lash out but even as I was consumed with rage I was gripped with a despair that wouldn’t let go, not even for a second.
I can remember a night where my mother, in a futile attempt to cheer me up (as if what I was experiencing was just a bad mood) rang for Domino’s Pizza, “just like we used to have in the US.” The pizza arrived and I bit into the pie in anticipation as my mother and sister watched me expectantly. It tasted like ash. I had to fight to keep the tears from my face.
Things got so bad that my mother finally reversed course and called The Creep himself. I can still remember that first phone call (in four years or so) where he told me haltingly on the phone that he would come back and we’d work things out and it would be ok.
He came back and things were about as far from ok as possible. His idea of working things out was going on a cruise with my sister and my grandmother. I can’t remember much of it (except talking to two guys and watching lots of Marvel vs Capcom at the arcades) but I can tell you that it was not helpful in the least. My Dad? We didn’t talk much I think he spent most of this time worrying whether I had committed suicide by jumping off the boat (to be honest the thought had never crossed my mind) when I wasn’t in the bunk one night.
The cruise ended, and we would go for walks in the park where I would sit down and try to tell him what was the matter, but there was no connection. He just stared straight ahead, eyes fixed on some unseen point in the horizon, mumbling answers now and then. When I was in my twenties and reading a lot more about psychology, it suddenly began clear to me – that he was also in the grip of depression! (though probably not as bad as I was) He had all the signs – couldn’t sleep well, constantly tired and depressed, unable to pay attention or listen for more than short periods of time.
It was understandable considering everything that was going on in HIS life at that time. He had lost a lot of money in China and I think to this day he never really recovered from it. He went from being a tightwad to being downright pathological about money – every penny had to be counted and accounted for. He was hurting from the divorce (though he never admitted it) and I think he was really just shocked at everything that had happened. He was also in no position whatsoever to help in any way – a situation that would continue for some time.
Throughout all of this my Mum still would ask me for help with the PhD. Yes, you read that right. I had severe depression (which sometimes was acknowledged and sometimes totally ignored) but the PhD still needed to be written and so she needed my help. She even asked my Dad at one point and paid him for his assistance.
Mary’s contract had expired and she was set to return home. At the airport she got all emotional and cried (as Filipino’s are wont to do) and I wanted to reciprocate but couldn’t. I think she tried to hug me? Once again I can’t really remember.
I didn’t actually start taking care of Meimei until I was around seventeen or so, but I definitely did start during my depressive period. Parents were useless and Meimei needed care. She was still in grade school and the problems in the family were taking their toll on her as well. When the depression initially hit and reached its peak (fifteen or so) I was obviously unable to do anything, but in later years I brought her to school, checked her homework, talked to her and still tried to tell her stories. She needed a parent and there were none around, so I did the best I could.
After dropping out of school due to my nervous breakdown my mother put me back into school a few months later, probably resulting in the most wretched year of my life. I went to back but that didn’t do me a lot of good. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and I basically sat at my desk doing nothing. Well, nothing except memorize the Japanese dictionary. (More on that later.)
I already hated school and this just cemented it further. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any kind of organized education anymore. I hated teachers, I hated tests and I hated anything to do with them. For the next ten years almost every nightmare I had contained school in some way.
Behind the hate was fear. I was scared. I was horribly, utterly scared of losing my identity to these things, these horrible hated things that I was always being forced into. Would they take me away? Would I lose more than I already had? I had already lost C and C, my childhood, my life, my mother, my father…I didn’t want to lose anything else. I felt that if I subjected myself to instruction, if I “followed the rules” that some part of myself would die.
My teachers were understandably concerned…or rather, some of them were. I can distinctly recall my Chemistry teacher, after learning something about my situation, say “But you must make sure to study!” I was shocked, aghast and hurt. Once when I was sitting in class too depressed to do a thing, my homeroom teacher called me out to stand outside the classroom and scolded me for just sitting there. I can clearly remember staring at the four story drop behind her and wanting to backhand her off the balcony onto the ground.
In later years my therapist would ask me (in one of her rare moments of shock and concern) “What were the teachers doing?” to which I would reply “the teachers were the problem!” Well, they were a large part of it.
At this point of time I’d like to mention that Singapore was in a grip of a national embarrassment known as ranking. Basically, students were “streamed” into various courses depending on their grades. The problem came about because when you got streamed into a certain level, that meant that you were stuck there. As such, the focus on grades became almost frantic and obsessional – even beyond the normal Asian emphasis on them. Plus schools were placed in ranks (hence the term “ranking”) and according to these grades and were allocated funding according to them.
Ranking fever indeed was a large part of my problem with school. I (and many others) had our selves devalued in favor of numbers on a scoresheet. It would haunt the youth of the nation for a good many years to come, and be responsible for many other shattered lives and more than a few suicides.
My mother always talked about how horrible ranking was and how they couldn’t have done anything and it was so Bad and Terrible. And at that time I bought it because how could Mum be wrong? It was school, it was Singapore, it wasn’t my mother!
But Iater I felt that it was also an excuse for poor parenting. My mother could not accept her own guilt and responsibility, and so blamed something else for what she had done. If she wasn’t blaming my father she was blaming me, and if it wasn’t me it was the world or the government.
Eventually things got too much for me and I dropped out of school and as such was unable to take the “O” Level examinations. They are roughly the equivalent of a high school leaving examination in other countries, but at that time (and to a degree, even now) Singapore was very fixated on the ‘O’ Levels. Many jobs were “gated” by them – you had to have ‘O’ Levels to be a taxi driver, a salesperson, to work in a store – you name it, you needed it. It was basically a high school education, and it seemed that to order to do anything at all you had to have one.
My lack of them would pose a huge problem in some respects to me later in my life, but at that point I was just too depressed to do anything. Continuing with school would have been impossible.
I can still remember the day I left. My dad brought me to the school gate, but as usual, I was the one who had to do the dirty work. The clerk stoically handed me my papers and a teacher came up by the side and said “don’t give it to him if he gives you any trouble.” I was so angry I could have killed them both, but I just took the papers and left.
These and other factors contributed to what would become a raging inferno of hatred against Singapore. I still hadn’t been able to adjust back from the US and now there were so many other problems that all those issues got pushed WAY down somewhere into my subconscious. Filled with negative emotions as I was, all I could see were all the problems this fucking country had – besides the school system that is.
People literally didn’t speak my language. I still couldn’t speak Chinese with any degree of proficiency – not only that, my previous experiences had left me with an abject fear and hatred of it. My muscles would lock up if I heard it, and I would be terribly frightened and be unable to express it. Being confined to English wasn’t conducive to me making friends or talking to the general public, to say nothing of buying food, clothes or sundry items.
EVERYONE seemed to speak Chinese! Somehow this wasn’t a problem when I was a child (mainly because I would go around with my parents) but now it seemed to loom out of every corner and street and person I spoke to. It was so difficult to get anything done or to make myself heard.
Speaking of being heard…the people were so hidebound, insular and narrow-minded! Everything was this rule or that rule or what you could or could not do because the government said this or that. Again, this never bothered me much as a kid – I just went along with what the adults said and as for the government? Find me a kid under the age of twelve who has a definite opinion on government policy.
No one seemed to want to talk about games or anime or philosophy or anything interesting. It was always school this and work that, and of course that old favorite, money. Money, money, money, it’s an Asian’s world.
The seemingly endless queries about “what I was doing now.” Ummm, I was surviving. But of course I couldn’t say that. I had to flail around for a suitable answer and according to my mother it was so shameful that I wasn’t working or schooling that I had to cover it up by any means necessary.
Mental illness was an unknown equation. According to most people it didn’t even exist and if you had it you were crazy and should be locked up. Of course not EVERYONE thought this was the case, but that was the prevailing social climate at that time.
No one understood and no one seemed to care enough to understand, or even try to. I would erupt in a crying fit in public and all people would do was stare and walk away.
It became a reversal of my days in the US. I hated Singapore and I loved the US…but with a lot more energy than I had when I was kid. I was a teenager with emotions running rampant and they indeed raged within me extremely powerfully, all the more because they could not be released.
You would think that things could not get any worse at home, but they did. My mother was convinced that I was “lazy” (because I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed sometimes) and I was only manufacturing my illness in order to “get attention.” So in order to cure this laziness of mine, she had me sweep the floor every day, as well as mop and vacuum it once a week. Keep in mind at this point I was getting steadily more suicidal. What’s worse than trying not to kill yourself? Having to do housework and groceries while trying not to kill yourself of course.
By the way at this point I still was pretty ambivalent with respect to my Dad. The poison that my Mum had left in me from America and now in Singapore was still there, and I didn’t quite trust or believe in him. I mean, I wanted to. Home life was terrible and I would have dearly liked to trust another parent or adult who had the means to support and protect us. However, all we had was Dad, not the best of parents in any circumstances.
Speaking of parents, what were they doing? Nothing helpful. My Mum was still divided between the PhD, panicking, and shouting at us. Dad wasn’t much better. He suggested a whole bunch of useless things, including going to technical college (did I look like I was in any shape to go to school?) and taking Ecstasy. Wow, so you’re gonna feed a sick a kid a date rape drug to make him feel better? Way to go. Even in the depths of my depression I think I managed to shoot him a disgusted look.
Neither of them actually spoke to each other about what was going on or how to fix it. They hadn’t spoken for most of my childhood – what makes you think they were going to now? My Mum expected him to come and help in some way, but he was too out-of-it and too frightened of my mother to engage in any meaningful dialogue. More dysfunction.
I would have loved my parents to actually be present and help with my mental illness instead of driving me further into the abyss. That didn’t happen and far from getting help things only get worse. Finally despite her deep dislike and disavowal of all things psychological (psychology is only for sick people, you’re just lazy!) my mother eventually threw in the towel and tried to find a psychologist for me. We wouldn’t find one that clicked until much later.
It’s around this time that Zhen Xun went back to America. His family was also in bad shape, though I was too out of it to know exactly what was going on. He had “found God” at some point in the same way I had “found” fanfiction and anime. He became increasingly difficult for me to understand and I felt a gulf growing between us. My rational side found whatever he was talking about to be nonsense at best and downright insane at worst. My depression was worsening and I wasn’t getting help from any quarter and now my friend wants to talk about this man in the sky?
I should remind you at this point that this was me at fifteen or so. Everything was crashing down around me and now my only friend had “done gone and got religion” as Mark Twain might have put it. I was not a happy camper. So if what I write sounds bitter and angry, that was because it was.
What Zhen Xun found probably helped him a great deal. He certainly seemed happier. But it was not for me. He would tell me in great detail about his church services, and even about some of his experiences. It felt false and artificially euphoric, like some old man with a white beard in the sky was going to wave a magic wand and fix all the problems of the world, kind of like the Simpson’s version of God I guess.
But we were still close. We didn’t even have that many of the same beliefs or interests. He loved Babylon V to bits, I was only mildly interested in it, vastly preferring anime and video games. He was passive, I was active. What was our bond? America? Horrible families? Literary works? We had a deeper bond than that, but I did not know it at that time. Still, I was sad to see him go – or rather I would like to say that, but the truth is that I was too numb to feel much of anything.
The day came for him to return to the States. I rode with him and his family in a taxi to the airport – it must have been the tensest ride of my life. Well, next to the one that I took back after my first nervous breakdown that is.
I saw him hug all his church friends at the departure gate and suddenly I felt a vast and terrible hatred rise within me. How dare this “God” guy take my friend away! I swore then that I would be strong, stronger than anything, that I would not need to rely on anything other than myself. I would solve all my problems alone or die trying.
And so he left, my last real friend in Singapore. It would be some time before I made any others.
In retrospect, much of that was internal pain. The depression had grown into a black beast that ate at my insides. Like I said, I hated everything. And by that I mean EVERYTHING. A year after Zhen Xun’s departure I can remember going down Orchard Road (the main commercial thoroughfare of Singapore) on a bus and wishing that everything would crash and burn and die in flames. I thought it with a fierce intensity that now both saddens and surprises me.
This also left me with a hatred of Christianity that really wasn’t all Zhen Xun’s fault at all. Though I found his talking to me about his conversion experiences kind of irritating at times, I think it was more the actions of the other Christians that I had met at that time. Singapore was Conservative Christian Central, and I met a few other Christians who wanted to “fix me” and to whom it seemed salvation was just a hop, skip, and jump away.
The “advice” I received ranged from the abrasive to downright insulting. There was this guy in school who told me (after I briefly outlined some of my problems) that if I didn’t convert to Christianity that “something bad” would happen to me. I asked him for more specifics but he didn’t seem to want to provide them. Years later, thinking back on that I realized that it more or less amounted to spiritual blackmail. Hey, so you love your family huh? Well, you know, this Jesus guy, he knows where they live…I don’t know about you but the it seems to be that channeling the Godfather (no pun intended) isn’t a great way to get converts. I also had an aunt who would jump and sing and talk about Jesus all the time who frankly frightened me quite a great deal.
I think once in utter desperation I even tried praying. It didn’t work. I still felt that chasm of despair within me, and there was no relief at all, despite what everyone else had been saying. Everywhere else around me there seemed to be people that turned to this “God” and away from their own problems. That was no way to move forwards. I concluded that they were talking nonsense and that religion was truly an opiate for the masses. (my Dad’s influence again? Quite possibly.)
It would be a decade or more later until I began to consider the fact that I may have been praying in the wrong way…but once again I won’t spoil anything.
My therapist has told me in the years that followed that it was a miracle I survived. I can well believe it! Writing all this down I am struck by disbelief again. One highly abusive parent, the other depressed, a sister to take care of, depression (and OCD in the background, as well as PTSD) mounting and traumas sprouting left, right and center. I don’t know how I managed frankly.
But I didn’t make it all alone. No one makes it all alone – anyone who says otherwise is lying. Jesus had the Twelve Apostles, the Three Musketeers had each other, and even Mario had Luigi (and Starman, and fire flowers, and mushrooms) There were things that helped, though most decidedly NOT friends and family.