The Return of Depression

The chapter title about sums it up.

My mother started getting much worse when I was around 22-23. During the time I first started working and dating, she had actually improved somewhat. That is it to say, she only shouted and screamed every week or two, as opposed to every other day. She did not demand that we go out to dinner with her all the time (just some of the time) and there was a marked decrease in the amount of times she thought a robber had broken into the house at night.

But things took a turn for the worse. Perhaps it was her workload, her illness, or a dozen other factors – she cannot remember and I know better than to dive into that morass of twisted memory again to figure it out. One thing was certain though – her hyperthyroidism had indeed gotten worse and she was more wan and ragged that I can ever remember her being. She looked terrible. She was terrible.

The rages and shouting and screaming had started up again, worse than ever before. They were unpredictable, violent and intense. You never knew what might set her off. You could leave the butter on the knife and she would start up. If you didn’t close the curtains at night she would go nuts.

She had also gotten it into her head that Meimei was being underchallenged at her school (which she quite liked) and that she should transfer to a better one. I tried to dissuade the both of them but my pleas fell on deaf ears. At this point Meimei was still buying a lot of my Mum’s BS because she was still young.

So my sister transferred to the ostensibly “better” school which she hated and was miserable at. I talked to her about things as best as I could but once I was so worried about how she was doing in school that I actually broke down and cried. (and after my depression I NEVER cried at anything) My mother’s response was to predictably tell my sister not to tell me anything about school ever again.

I also discovered that my mother had been SERIOUSLY messing up my sister. How? Well almost every night she would tell Meimei before she went to sleep about how sick and lazy I was, how I would never get a job and how she would have to support me when she grew up. You cannot believe the amount of therapy that my sister had to go through to dissolve the poisonous messages of those times.

She also went back to refusing to have a domestic worker. So it was little old depressed me who had to sweep and mop the floor again.
The housework – oh how I hated it. The drudgery of having to sweep the floor every day and then mop it again. Not to mention vacuuming. Do the groceries, wash the clothes, cook lunch and dinner. In my Mum’s world your self-worth was judged by how much housework you did and I was always found wanting. It didn’t matter that I was an intelligent young man who wanted to find work that suited him and that he loved, or that I had put a lot of effort into learning Japanese, or that I was helping out Meimei. No, you didn’t sweep the floor today and that meant you were nothing, NOTHING.

I was in such pain that I think at one point I even went down on my knees to ask my mother to hire a new helper. Nothing doing. She glared at me and said that I was a lazy bum for even thinking about asking for it.

My mother also decided for some reason to have her mother (my grandmother) live with us because of some misplaced sense of filial piety. She didn’t really do anything except expect to be served home-cooked food all the time (which put an additional burden on me) and watch TV. I was pretty angry at her for a while because she didn’t stop my Mum from abusing me and actually made it a lot harder for me to go out with friends and do anything.

We couldn’t communicate (language barrier again) and she also made cooking a lot harder by trying to teach me dishes but instead adding lots of water to each one to stretch it out – probably a habit learnt from the war. Not a pleasant experience for anyone. She eventually left when one of her other sons was willing to put her up – she was as traditionally Chinese as they came and sons always beat daughters in her mind

Things with my Dad were not improving either. Relations between myself and Auntie Judy had gone from bad to worse. My father, a wounded child himself, proved himself to be completely unable of fulfilling any family expectations, in either his new or old family. What took precedence, of course (like most abused children) was his family of origin. One call from his brothers, sisters, uncles or anything who born the same surname and he would be off like a rocket to help (ineffectually) or attend one of those interminable family meetings in which his siblings spent hours staring and blaming each other for things that had happened before they were born.

On top of all of this, I hadn’t yet processed the grief of being fired, the stress of working, or anything else that had happened. Everything was just piling up inside. But I could not kill every foe, slay every demon, especially since those that I loved were constantly dumping more and more on me.

So it was kind of a given at that time that I would have fallen back into depression. Of course at that time what I felt was that the world had ended. Again. I had to go back to the clinic, get meds, take the meds, and try desperately to fall asleep, all the time hating myself, the world and everything in it. Again.

It was different this time, of course. For starters, having gone through it once, you are a lot more prepared for the second round. This is not to say that it hurt any less. But it didn’t crush my soul with the same intensity as before.

What was it like, you ask? I think the best way to describe it would be more of the same, but less. I could taste food now, after a fashion – my sensations hadn’t been numbed to the extent that they were before. There was still a grey, pallid air around everything that seemed to suck the life from me. Thinking was hard, and often painful – like fighting through a thick peasoup fog into order to formulate coherent thought. I was often tired, and though several things could pierce the miasma that surrounded me (namely, music, games and anime) my normal state was still one of fatigued gloom.

I think when most people think of depression they think of a state that is close to sadness. That’s not quite how it was for me. The word itself describes it well…”depress” – to push or press down. And that’s how it felt – that something was constantly pushing down on me, an invisible burden that I could push aside temporarily but never be completely rid off.

It did have one upside though. (I can’t quite believe I’m writing this!) It sent me back to Psycare, which was truly life-saving. There was a brief time (2-3 years, around the time I had my girlfriends) that I wasn’t taking any medication and wasn’t in therapy and it looks like things were looking up (EVEN despite having lost the dream job) Now things looked down again but at least some help was available.

Dr Hudson had recommended me to his erstwhile compatriot, Dr Tan, who was a psychiatrist as skilled and talented as Dr Hudson – which is to say, absolutely fucking amazing. The latter insisted I see Dewi Atras, a therapist at the same clinic that he worked at.

Which was a totally new experience for me. I had not realized psychologists could be so, well, assertive! If psychology were a martial art, Dr Hudson and Florence were definitively of the “gentle fist” variety, but Dewi was most assuredly not.

I would see Dewi more than a few times in the next 10 years or so, typically when the folks at Psycare were busy. I will always be grateful to her (and in awe) of her vast store of knowledge and accurate grasp of seemingly any situation. Technique-wise she was much more CBT focused than Psycare, but a good therapist is a good therapist and they will be effective whatever their methodology.

I did most of the same things that I had done with the first depression. I read books, I played games, I watched anime. It was not as bad…but that’s a bit like saying that 2nd degree burns hurt less than 3rd. I can clearly remember one evening where I was in a deep spiral of despair and my sister was kneeling beside me frantically trying to coax me out of it. My mum passed by and scowled, as if it was our fault (and in her mind it probably was!)

Slowly but surely I came out of it. The second depression lasted maybe two years or so. There came a point where it began to lessen, then abate somewhat, and that one day it was just gone, and I was normal again – or at least, what passed for normal in the circumstances I was in. The crisis was past, in some ways, but in others, it had never really ended. There would be more pitfalls in the future, but I was growing stronger as well.

It was very difficult to talk to anyone about my depression (either the first or second one) How could I? Firstly, there was my Mum’s injunction that it was somehow shameful to have a mental illness of any kind (no matter that it was not my fault) How very Asian of her. I did not exactly have positive experiences with the few people that I told. Back during my teenage I once told someone in a random chat, hoping for at least some kind of connection. She told me about how she was watching a Chinese vampire hop around. Not very helpful. I think she just didn’t know what to say and wanted to change the subject? It hurt a lot then though.

In any case this contributed greatly to my hatred of Singapore. (though like most things in later years I would realize that this problem is not confined to Asian countries) My friends in the US (generally through the EVA ML) seemed to understand depression and didn’t think I was crazy. No one else here seemed to. Combined with every other problem that I had with the country, I often wished I was somewhere else – anywhere else but here.

Writing this chapter has brought with it a lot more reflection. I think that perhaps I never really acknowledged how hard the second bout hit me. The party line I told myself at that time is “hey, at least it isn’t the first depression again, you’re not suicidal” – which was and is still true. I’m sure there were the usual minimization, displacement and repression as defense mechanisms in the background as well. But coupled with the second bout of OCD that arose during my sister’s exams (I’ll write about that later) it was quite back-breaking.

I think what made it the worst was that it came exactly when things were looking up. Despite the fiasco that was my first job it was a great learning experience. I had a marketable skill, (even if I was quite raw and untrained). There were things to do, places to (potentially) go to. And then it all went down the drain again. I thought I had finally fought and won and triumphed over the darkness, but it was not to be.

My greatest fear at that time was that my sister would succumb to depression at the age of 15, just like I had. By the time I was in my early twenties I had some modicum of psychological knowledge, but perhaps not the wisdom, maturity or perspective to put it to use. Once again we were all firmly trapped in the Family Story of how depression had a clear Beginning and End. And so all I hoped was that Meimei not follow me down the same dark path.

Truth be told, we were up against a lot more than just depression, though I didn’t know it at that time. Depression was simply how everything in my family manifested in me, and the catch-all phrase that encapsulated everything that was the problem. But it wasn’t so much of a wrong diagnosis as a misguided one.

The maturity of years lends us perspective. I can see now how unseen threads pulled everything together, that what I once thought were unrelated incidents had a greater tone to them. There were reasons for things that I couldn’t see, that I couldn’t even begin to imagine. But those would only be revealed in time.

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