To Be or Not To Be

Obviously I picked Option One, if not you wouldn’t be reading this. But it wasn’t easy.

Interestingly enough I was also reading a whole lot of English literature at this time, including Hamlet (I must have memorized that damn speech back to back) But I mean the chapter title had a meaning that was a lot more personal – I considered suicide on and off for this entire period of my life.

So my mom wanted to bring me to Australia to study there after my abortive attempt at going back to school. She also had the bright idea to bring her sister and her mother on a holiday at the same time…holidays with depressed teenagers are not the best idea, as she was soon to find out.

I started taking medication around this time – Seroxat, I think it was. We went through quite a few psychiatrists to find one who was suitable. The medication worked pretty ok (I remember being quite happy when I got off the plane) but it was only a stopgap solution to a whole mess of problems.

A lot of the trip is a blur to me. We did see some touristy sights (and even met my cousins who were also in Australia at that time) like the Pinnacles and whatnot, but I was so depressed that I can’t remember most of it. One memory I have of that time though, is being on the tour bus and my sister asking me if I was ok.

I snarled at Meimei so ferociously that a little girl sitting at the side recoiled in fear and ran straight for her mother. Wherever that little girl is today (I’m sure she has grown up into a fine young woman) I am sorry. I never meant to scare you, I was just in a lot of pain at that time. Same goes for you, my dear sister.

Speaking of which, my sister didn’t enjoy the trip very much. No one did. There was some family drama between my relatives as well. I mean, what kind of holiday is it when you spend the 5th day crying down the phone to your father in Singapore who can’t do a thing?
I went to the school that I was supposed to enroll in but after talking to the principal there it was kind of obvious I was too sick to do much of anything, so we headed home.

Things weren’t much better once coming back to Singapore. I think this is where my mother had officially entered “Give Up” mode and simply concentrated on the PhD to the exclusion of all else. For the next fifteen or so years we had no mother, just a crazy woman living in the same house who shouted at us and made unreasonable demands all the time.

My OCD peaked during this time – although at that time I didn’t know it was called OCD. It was really bad. I mean, really REALLY bad. I had the same worries and thoughts every day and at one point I walked around the park thinking of good reasons to put my eyes out, or not put my eyes out.

You remember my worries about how I had to how what the author meant about anything? Those were lightweight compared to what I now faced. Why would a young man of about eighteen years old want to blind himself?

I had somehow gotten into my head – or rather, my head had gotten it into me – that in the state I was in, I would be better off simply learning a trade and sticking to it to ensure a secure future. I liked music, didn’t I? So I should just learn the piano or something – and what better way to ensure learning a musical instrument that to make sure I had nothing else in my life but to do it? There were plenty of good blind pianists (perhaps because they had little recourse but to become good at it) and so if I blinded myself, it stood to reason that I would become a good one too, right?

I’m about as horrified writing these words as I imagine you might be reading them. Seeing them right in front of me in black and white, they make no sense at all, and the might very well be construed as the ravings of a madman. But I can assure you that at one time, my mind insisted every day – every hour – every second! that they were true and that I had to listen to them. I don’t know what was worse – the thoughts themselves, or knowing that they were horrible, hurtful and untrue and having to listen to them anyway.

I was a prisoner in my own skull. Reason warred with unreason in a cycle that threatened to tear my brain apart.

Once again at that time I had no idea this was self-harm OCD. Circa 1998 I don’t think the diagnosis even existed. I was terrified. In addition to already suffering from depression now I had all these thoughts of how I was going to maim and harm myself? It was a wonder I didn’t go insane.

One night it got so bad that I asked my mother to tie my hands to the bedpost so I would not be tempted to poke my eyes out. She just smiled (kindly as I recall) and didn’t. I don’t know how I got through that night, but I did.

There were more suicide attempts, not all of which I can remember. One night I woke up in the grip of intense terror, pain and a raging desire to kill myself. It was like being ripped open from the inside out. I was in great pain and had no way to stop it. Having no recourse at hand I resorted to masturbation. It gave me a certain perverse pleasure to know that the desire to procreate could vanquish Thanatos. That’s also why to this day I am never going to say anything bad about masturbation, ever. I don’t care about going blind and hairy palms, it’s better than dying.

I started really taking care of my sister during this time. After all it wasn’t as if anyone else was going to! She needed to be brought to school. Her homework needed to be checked. I read bedtime stories to her. One night she really couldn’t sleep and I came over to her and chanted the sleep spell from Dragonlance (ask tasarak sinuralan krynawi, if memory serves) and it seemed to help. I held her hand and smoothed the hair from her head. She smiled and closed her eyes and relaxed into slumber.

My Dad still couldn’t find work, and as such was still depressed. I think he finally found some work delivering dental supplies for my aunt’s business. It didn’t pay well and he was actually in and out of jobs and houses for a number of years.

I started journaling as a way of at least attempting to deal with whatever was going on. Journaling! Over the past eighteen years I’ve accumulated over 2000 pages of paper and at least two megabytes worth of pure text. That’s a lot of self-reflection. I never looked back at what I journaled (though I often remembered it) It was a way to get things out, not something to brood about.

The “relapses” started happening at around this time, and a greater misnomer there never was. A relapse would imply that you went back to a worse state from a better state. But there was no better state to proceed from! I have no idea who started using the term (me? my mother?) but it stuck for the greater part of two decades.

What exactly happened during these “relapses?” then? Basically they were nervous breakdowns of a loud and violent nature. When things got too bad I would start screaming and shouting and basically bringing the house down in paroxysms of pain, rage and sadness. They’re kind of hard to describe. I’ve been told that they sort of look like I’m going insane – except that I’m not and that I was the one who needed the help.

They would start with a pressure building in my skull – kind of like a headache, except with none of the pain but double the discomfort. Something inside me was screaming to get out, but couldn’t – because if it did it would mean I was Not Well, or the Neighbours Might Hear, or any one of a number of catrastrophic occurences. So I tamped it down, and the burden would spread from my head to my shoulders (which were as solid as granite for a number of years) and all the way to every part of my body. My fingers grew heavy with tension, my stomach contracted into itself. To say I was keeping a lot in was an understatement.

And then when the dam burst – as it always did – the emotions that I had been repressing would burst forth with all the fury of a volcano. I would shout and scream my lungs hoarse, and occasionally engage in physical feats like running through the streets at breakneck speed or tearing cupboard doors off their hinges. Pretty terrifying to watch from the outside, even worse to experience from the inside.

My family lived in fear of “setting me off” . From their perspective it looked like anything could trigger a relapse – mentioning one of the taboo topics (generally anything related to work or school) a bad day, losing horribly in a cherished game. I could go from smiling and laughing to screaming my head off in less than a minute sometimes. (talk about Gone In Sixty Seconds…) In fact, one of the earlier possible diagnoses of my condition was bipolar disorder…which would definitely explain the mood swings. Except that they weren’t. They were just feelings – perfectly legitimate, healthy feelings – struggling to escape, and when the household injunction against emotions (because, you know, they were dangerous?) proved too much to bear, they instead exploded from my body by the shortest and most violent routes possible.

These would happen on and off for more than fifteen years. About half my life, give or take a couple of years. I had more than a hundred of them. Screaming fits in which I just let everything out because there was no other way to do it. I didn’t feel much better afterwards though – why would I have? There was no one to bring me out of it, give me water or feed or soothe me. I felt like I had been rubbed raw and torn in places inside and out, but there was no succor to be had, from my family or anyone else.

The family lived in fear of the threat of relapse. Anything might “set me off” and then I would go crazy. Anything was permissible as long as it did not lead to the dreaded relapse. Whenever I would get emotional about anything my mother’s eyes would widen in alarm and she would go around asking if I was alright. Are you alright? Are you alright? That was the constant refrain at home for the next fifteen years.
I have no idea what my parents were doing. No one had any idea what anyone was doing. I would go so far as to say no one knew anything about anything. At that time everything was just more confusion, more pain, more screaming and then more pain. More than ten years later everything from this period would come into the light, and as I revisit this I can’t help at marvel at the difference between how calm I feel now and how terrible I felt then. I can remember deep down thinking “What the fuck are you guys doing? Do something! DO SOMETHING!” Anything! Help, help! Anyone! Please, please…please…but no help came.

And I would often shout exactly that into the cold, uncaring night. Meimei tells me that over the next twelve years or so, whenever the shouting and screaming got really bad that was what I always said. Help me! HELP ME! Why wouldn’t anyone help me? Why didn’t anyone love me?

My Mum would simply take a look, say “I can’t deal with this” (or something similar) and retreat into her room, leaving Meimei to take care of me until my father came. When he finally got his own apartment (a few years later) it was quite far away from us and it would always be a wait of about forty-five minutes before he would arrive.

And do absolutely nothing. All he did was stand around aimlessly, a stunned look on his face. Oh, he tried to hug me sometimes (rarely, he wasn’t very physically demonstrative) and talk to me, but that wasn’t very helpful.

He also had this idea that he had to physically restrain me if I got violent. I don’t believe that I was ever violent to people. Somehow somewhere deep inside I knew who my loved ones were and that I would never ever hurt them. They didn’t seem to think this way though. Though I can understand why – I once took a cupboard door off its hinges and punched a wall. (note to self : Do Not Punch Wall, Bad For Knuckles)

So without parents what did we do? As a little child my sister became responsible for me, and I for her. We were what…about ten and sixteen or so? Yeah, that’s about right. If any relapse happens my sister had to pick up the pieces. When I wasn’t having a relapse, I had to do everything. Two children surviving by themselves with no help at all.

Poor Meimei. She did the best she could. She talked to me and always tried to soothe her brother’s wounded spirit. She knew me so well that sometimes when I was in the depths of depression or about to break down, she would ask me questions about Japanese grammar or something that she knew I would never be able to resist, even in the state I was in at that time. And she was right! I would drag myself out of whatever pit I was at that time to talk about what I loved.

Around this time my mother was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. It was really bad and even in the midst of all this I can remember feeling sorry for her. It at least partially explained her rages and scolding and diatribes. Over the next ten years whenever this period of life was brought up in conversation she would always say “my hyperthyroidism was very bad” as if it explained everything.

What was Dad doing? Nothing, as usual. He was still in abject fear of his ex-wife and couldn’t talk to her any more than he could in his twelve years of marriage.

I tried visiting him and his wife a few times but it didn’t end well. I guess I should mention Aunty Judy at this point.

My Dad remarried when he was in China and actually came back to tell me once (before all the depression started) that no matter what happened Meimei and I would always come first. I was in full Dad Is a Creep Mode at that point and didn’t really pay attention either way.
We would always come first…how ironic those words seem to me today, nineteen years after he first spoke them. That was not to be the case at all. Or was it? I’ll let the story tell itself.

When I first met my Dad’s new wife neither of us could speak to each other. I spoke English, she spoke Chinese. She wrote me a letter once in the simplest Chinese possible for her and I couldn’t understand a single word.

I tried staying over at my Dad’s place (a rental apartment he got from his brother) for a bit to get out of my house but it wasn’t any better. I was on medication at this point but still not doing too well. Aunty Judy used to hover around me asking me worried questions that I couldn’t answer.

I didn’t really get along with her. In fact, I don’t think ANYONE got along with her. Most of my Dad’s family considered her a gold-digger (and I’m not sure that they were wrong) She had married my father in part because she thought he was a rich man’s son…and I’m sure was quite disappointed when she realized that being a rich man’s son didn’t automatically make him rich.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but my Dad was definitely the poorest son of a family of multi-millionaires. I doubt at that time if he had five figures to his name. He was way behind on alimony payments at this point and I remember being really angry at him for that. How dare he make Mum suffer even more? At that point I still believed that everyone besides Mum was the problem.

Her own issues became more and more evident as the years went by. She was basically a child who never grew up and had married my father because he was near the same age as HER father when he died suddenly. She expected Dad to wait on her hand and foot and was quite unrepentant about that fact.

She lived in what my sister and I in later years would call the Ying Gai Shi Jie – The World of Should.

You should go to school. You should earn money. People should be nice to me. There shouldn’t be rain on days when I am free. Your father should do everything for me. And when things didn’t go her way she would pout and cry and flounce around. Like I said, basically a child.
I was too far gone at that point to really register this stuff, but in later years I would be so angry that I wished that she would just like, commit suicide or something – though I never said that of course. It certainly looked like she would be happier that way! I mean, if you wanted everything to be a certain way, and it wasn’t that way, and it kept on being the way that you DIDN’T want it to be…well then you were never going to be happy right?

You probably have sort of guessed at this point that my Dad was not the most emotionally healthy of people. He essentially married his wife again, just with different issues this time.

I had some relapses over at Dad’s place and Aunty Judy was terrified. I could be pretty scary if you didn’t know what was going on. So what with all the communication problems and her fears, we decided that I should just go back to staying at my mother’s house.

The most amazing thing about this period is that I have never really covered it in therapy. Yes, you heard that right. I somehow buried it somewhere so deep in me that I wasn’t even fully aware of all of it until I starting writing. But it happened and I do remember it and so here you are.

This is where you’d expect me to say that this is all bringing up horrible memories and I feel that right now I am dying again but somehow the words are compelling me to continue onwards and…no. I’m actually writing this in a state of perfect calm without any emotional disturbance whatsoever, and there is absolutely no repression going on either.

Why? Well you’ll have to get to the end of the book to know that. Sue me, I like to tease.

But back THEN there WAS definitely a whole lot of repression going on. It was the only way we could survive. I repressed my feelings about Dad, about school, about my own feelings, about almost everything. My God I can’t quite believe what I am writing. When I think about what I must have been going through…how the hell am I still alive?

It’s a sentiment that I have repeated many times over the years to many different people in different ways, but now looking back at it right in the face…my therapist was right. It IS a miracle I’m still here.

As you might have guessed from the chapter title, I was suicidal. Very much so. This is what I often call my “suicidal period” – from roughly fifteen to nineteen. To be strictly accurate when I was nearing the end of teenage (eighteen to nineteen) things became better but not that much. I was still suffering from acute depression – even if you’re not trying to kill yourself you can still be pretty damn sad.

My first suicide attempt was actually just before I had the nervous breakdowns in school, when I was fifteen or so. I can recall it quite clearly. I was standing at the balcony of my house, and was feeling bad. Like, really bad. As in, “this is so bad I don’t want to live anymore” bad.

Suicide is…not something a lot of people talk about, and with good reason. I can remember those moments only semi-perfectly (probably a good thing) I got closer and closer to the edge of the balcony and I felt a…pressure of some sort.

I didn’t think all those thoughts about “how easier it would be to end it all” and “I’m so sad about this or that” – though I have no idea what other people think during moments like these. I was, however, aware of a certain desire to kill myself.

I got closer to the edge (literally as well as figuratively) and I sort of…swayed near the balcony? It’s unclear. I think I was in a kind of will-I or won’t-I mood. It’s hard to describe these things. I put my hand on the balcony railing.

And then my mum came out to check on me, muttering something about “don’t have a teenage suicide.” I don’t think she knew how close it got. I allowed myself to be dragged back and into bed.

There would never be another experience like that (which I am grateful for!) but during the worst of the period (which included the Self-Harm OCD) I would cross the road and think of stepping out and just ending everything there and then. I passed bleach and thought of swallowing it. I avoided tall buildings because they were quite, quite, tempting. Same goes for knives. Not a pretty picture.


what nobody told me about suicide
is how
everything slows down.

you’re looking down and of course wondering if
this is a way out
or you’re making the worst decision of your life.


the cars start moving at a snail’s pace
and you can see everything clearly,
so clearly
it’s quite beautiful, in it’s own way
even if it is the beauty of precious glass objects just
before they hit the ground and

and your heartbeat sounds like a pendulum
each second ticking away before the decision is made
each second passing, louder than before
closer –

then you look up.

and death rushes away
and the world rushes back,
and then everything is normal once more –
well, not normal, per se
But for some reason you’re not trying to kill yourself anymore.

You’ve considered it.
Come close – but something instead said no.

Or rather, yes.

I don’t remember any magic moment in which I stood in the rain a la The Shawshank Redemption and screamed I WILL LIVE! but I do remember more or less swearing off killing myself after a certain point somewhere in my 20s.

Maybe it was Yun Mei that did it. This is a good time to mention her.

Meimei had a friend her age by that name. Given the situation at home Meimei was obviously experiencing a lot of problems in school as well. But she told me one day about a friend of hers who wouldn’t see a doctor and asked her to talk to me instead.

Much as I was suicidal and depressed at that time, I thought that I should try to help. I was reading up about psychology and keeping my mind as sharp as I possibly could, considering the circumstances. I was mindful of the injunction against counseling anyone while not a certified therapist, but that was an emergency and desperate times call for desperate measures.

I talked to her. It seemed to help. She was in a terrible situation as well (involving her family and her school – much like mine actually) and I was seriously worried that she would kill herself…just like I actually was seriously worried I would kill myself. There was a period of time I spoke to her almost every day for a month and she seemed to get better.

Perhaps due to this Yun Mei and I grew quite close. She was the only other person I have allowed in my entire life to call me big brother. (I asked Meimei’s permission first, which she gave) She would remain a dear friend for many years until she went to study in Australia and came back and…but that is beyond the scope of this book to recount.

But back to killing myself – or rather, not killing myself. Somehow I didn’t do it and I didn’t quite know why. Years later I would call the Good Samaritans in a moment of desperation and the man on the other end asked me “have you ever attempted suicide?” and I said yes. He asked me how many times. I said that I had thought about it at least a thousand times. (a figure which is not an exaggeration)

Then he asked why. I never really thought about but now writing this the reasons come back. I wasn’t afraid of death. It would have been far preferable to my existence at that point. But if I died, I would most likely take others with me. The way she was at that time (incredibly emotionally unstable) it was highly probable that my mother would have followed me soon after – if she hadn’t, she would have had to live with her only son having committed suicide. Then what would have become of Meimei? My father, already guilt-ridden himself, might have also killed himself. Or if not, he would have led a life that wouldn’t have been that different from dying.

So yes, I did in more ways than one have my family’s lives resting on my shoulders. The man said ah, then you’re not scared of dying. You only cared about what happens to your family. He was probably right. I loved them and wanted to protect them, and I couldn’t do that if I was dead! Besides which, to die would have been the easy way out. There was so much else to live for, even though it totally did not seem like it then. Besides which if I died think of all the games and anime and girls that I would be missing out on!

Over the years I would have many other opportunities to think on this subject. Death has a way of simplifying matters. Either you are alive or you are not, it doesn’t get much more basic than this! And having looked and thought and considered it so deeply on more than one occasion, it ends up changing your view of existence profoundly.

My so-called life ground on. Each day was a blur, broken only by video games, books, anime and of course that light in the darkness, Evangelion. When I played games I could be happy, I could be doing something I really loved.

I don’t know…I don’t think I “played” games so much as I went into them, went into that other world to bring back what I needed to survive in this one. This is another moment in which I will reiterate that I would be dead without video games. I continued to write FAQs and connect with people all over the world. I actually amazing enough wrote some of my best FAQs and fanfics during this period.

I read everything and anything. Whatever helped keep the pain away. I read whatever people on the EVA ML recommended, sci-fi and fantasy, philosophy, psychology, English literature. Neuromancer, Jane Eyre, Childhood’s End, Dune, Saul Bellow, Kafka…anything and everything.

I also amazingly did make some friends as well. They will be described in a later chapter. I would have dearly loved to tell them what was going on but I couldn’t bring myself to do so for various reasons. I didn’t really know it myself! I was still taught that depression was my fault and that I should keep everything secret. Only crazy people went to see shrinks, remember?

People kept on asking me about the ‘O’ levels and the trauma of that just kept getting worse and worse. I hated exams, I hated Singapore, I hated myself, I hated everything. I hated studies and qualifications of any kind with a hatred that twisted and writhed from the deepest parts of my soul.

The entire notion of a normal life was completely foreign to me at this point. I was glad to just survive each day. I couldn’t leave (I was too young) and I couldn’t stay at my father’s place either due to the Aunty Judy issue.

Whew. That was a lot to write. I had better give you a break here. Go drink some water or walk around or something. I sure did.
Dad would come over sometimes – I’m not sure why? Probably out of a sense of guilt. All my Mum would say was “ask your father” and “I can’t deal with this” and my Dad would arrive, sort of potter about without doing much, maybe cook a meal or two. My memories of this time are always of him near the stove making instant noodles (he loved them) for a late night snack and then we would always eat them together. I didn’t ever feel much better after that though. Then he would get on his motorbike and ride off into the night and I would watch from the same balcony I tried to commit suicide on.

There were some really REALLY bad times that I sort of shudder to relate here, even after years of therapy. Once things were absolutely going to pieces and I was shouting at Mum to give me some kind of reassurance that things were going to be ok. None was forthcoming. After a while she collapsed to her knees and sort of just sat there on the floor of the apartment, insensate. I remember pleading with her and shaking her shoulder, saying “Mummy, Mummy” and she was like a zombie.

I’m not sure she even registered my movement or voice. Her hair was lank and her eyes were unfocused. She looked half-dead and wasn’t responding at all. Looking back now I think she had completely shut down as a safety mechanism – but what was the danger? Her son, looking to her desperately for love and support? Strange as it may seem, that might have been exactly the case.

I was shaking from head to toe myself and I felt near the breaking point – of suicide or going insane I wasn’t quite sure. Everything seemed to be pressing down around me. I called my Dad and of course it would take him forty-five minutes to get here, so I did what I could do to pass the time – I watched Evangelion of course. Hey, it saved my life once, why not again?

After getting halfway through my favorite episode my Dad arrived. He looked worried sick and I asked him to call the mental hospital so they could admit me. He didn’t and held me instead. I hate to say this, but it wasn’t terribly reassuring and to be completely honest watching Evangelion was a lot more helpful. I made it through that night using reserves of willpower I didn’t know I had. I sent him back home after a fruitless hour or so and as I watched his motorcycle zoom away into the night, I wished that he could have helped me more than he did.

Somehow I kept it together. It was just day to day, day to day. I hated hearing that phrase. My Mum would repeat it like some kind of mantra over the years, living from day to day “that’s all we have” and “that’s all we can do” But it was true. The only problem was that she never tried or seemed to want to make things better, instead just shouting, screaming and dumping more on my poor sister and I.

Like I said I picked the better of the two choices and that’s why I am here today. But it wasn’t easy.

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