Clarity helped me find some light in my life, a life that started to change the moment I married my husband 19 years ago. We lived in different parts of Asia due to his several work relocations. From having a promising career in midwifery, I came to Clarity with very little self-esteem, feeling helpless and hopeless. My physical and mental health had deteriorated from the beatings and tantrums that I had received from my husband, and I had hoped to find some part-time work to maintain my sanity.
I tried many agencies within the Church, including going for confessions and healing retreats, and even managed to bring my husband to some of them. He found them helpful but his beatings and tantrums usually returned after a week or so. I had been advised many times previously to move out of my matrimonial home. I made attempts to do so, but over time I stopped trying as my energy was focused on protecting my two sons who were also being beaten by their father. My family and friends also stopped helping and I felt very alone. My sons and I depended solely on my husband for our maintenance.
Apart from providing me with therapy sessions, Clarity brought me to visit a women’s shelter so as to better introduce me to forms of help available to women in situations of domestic violence, as well as to broaden my circle of friends and support through the befriender’s system. After undergoing a series of therapy sessions with Clarity, I felt empowered and I even started to write in to clinics around my area to look for a job.
I was anxious about the notion of dying and would get emotional whenever I spoke about my two young daughters. Some days, the feelings were so intense that I felt like ending my life. I imagined myself to be a lousy father and feared that I would die without warning and leave my daughters uncared for.
As a result, I would try my best to spend quality time with them. Yet when I was with my daughters, I would feel restless and irritated with the two girls, leaving me burdened with guilt. I would struggle with these anxieties throughout the day, despite keeping myself busy.
During the therapy sessions with Clarity, I started to gain insights into what commonly triggered my negative thoughts and emotions. I recalled that I started having anxiety attacks after one particular work trip to India. An incident involving bad turbulence on a flight had traumatised me so much that I often recalled the episode whenever I struggled with my own thoughts of death. In addition, I was also in Mumbai during the terrorist attacks, and although I was not near the targeted sites, I felt spared and lucky to be alive.
Once back home, I began to read all the press coverage relating to the attacks. It was over several therapy sessions with Clarity that I was helped to work through my traumatic memories and anxieties, replacing my negative thoughts with positive ones, and I also learnt to use relaxation techniques to help calm myself.
After the sessions, I have since been better at being able to enjoy the company of my daughters, and have developed a new understanding and better acceptance of myself.
I have eczema - a chronic condition of skin inflammation that makes my skin hypersensitive and prone to flaking, cracking and oozing of pus. The implications of another flare-up go beyond physical challenges; that is besides having to endure another episode of intense pain, I could face termination of my job as an engineer.
With a newborn in tow, the responsibility of being the head of a young family weighs down acutely on me. As a caregiver, my wife, Sarah, is my greatest pillar of strength, but she too was showing signs of burn-out - mood swings, insomnia, being emotionally tensed and stressed. For many months, my skin condition left me bedridden and even performing a basic task like showering had become excruciatingly painful. Previously outgoing and athletic, my active lifestyle had also taken a turn for the worse.
“I can cook, clean, and take care of your every physical need; but watching you cry in pain, and not being able to help – that emotional hurt is indescribable,” Sarah had said.
Yet we still managed to find tiny rays of hope shining through this dark cloud. We found faith in Christ after our Christian neighbours reached out to them, and provided us with support and encouragement. Initially resistant, we gradually relented and found the relief we had sought for.
“God provides help through His children,” Sarah said without hesitation.
We have learned to gratefully accept assistance and support from family, friends and good-hearted strangers whom we believe have been sent by God into our lives.
Through a chance meeting, Sarah was led to Clarity Singapore, where we both accepted counselling to manage the stress and problems of coping with eczema. At the sessions, both Sarah and I systematically worked through our problems with the counsellors. We were able to gain a clearer perspective on our options, which helped us face their problems with greater confidence.
Counselling at Clarity is something Sarah always found relief in. She is much calmer. Sarah agreed with me. She said, “My counsellor is not just a listening ear. She has the expertise to help, which is something friends sometimes do not have. I leave each session feeling enlightened.”
Seeking to wean off steroids (a common form of eczema medication), I also found much improvement in my condition through alternative natural forms of treatments, and we have also started a support group for those suffering from similar conditions.
I believe that God wants me to go through this so that I can help other people. It may be a simple calling for me, but I hope that I can reach out to more people as I pay it forward.
Matters of the mind are not always visible to the eye. I am now at the age of 65, and am a cancer survivor. When you see me going about the room cheerily, calling out to everyone with good grace and humour, one may not be able to guess some of the hard battles I have had fought in my life.
One such trial was having to overcome my grief due to the death of my sibling. This tragedy was an emotional burden which had weighed me down for eight years. Although I was never clinically diagnosed, many elderly people not unlike me are prone to depression – which can be triggered by major life events such as death, illness, retirement or even, children moving out. Depression can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race or age: as many as one in five people are at risk of developing depression during their lifetime.
My journey of healing was sparked by an inspiring homily which had moved me to tears. After Mass, I noticed an insert in the church bulletin on professional counselling services provided by Clarity, a Catholic mental health charity and made an appointment to meet with a therapist.
When I need help, I would ask. Though I am told that such honest and open attitude towards seeking mental health treatment is rare, as research has shown that the average time taken for a person to start seeking for help could range between five and fourteen years.
Through participating in individual therapy and being part of a support group at Clarity, I learnt practical techniques to cope with grief. The techniques focused on reducing unhelpful thinking patterns and managing difficult emotions, which helped put my life in perspective. The sessions helped change my mindset. I developed the confidence to move forward without guilt.
Working through various mental and emotional issues together with a therapist can be a tough process, but I would underscore the importance of persistence: There are coping skills you learn, but you must sit still and work on it. I believe that it’s all in your hands, and then, there is also God who is always there for you.
Even with physical ailments and ongoing treatment in hospital, I still maintain a breezy grace and passionate appreciation of life. With Clarity’s help, such receptiveness and determination has enabled me to take positive strides and move on with my life.
I continue to treasure the fond memories of my late sibling, but not with overwhelming grief.
Your eyes will the elevator doors to close as soon as possible. At the last minute, unfortunately, an acquaintance hurriedly squeezes his way into the now shared space, in which the societal demand of engendering polite conversation immediately lingers.
You manage a tentative “how are you”. As on cue, he responds “fine, thank you”. You then expertly manoeuvre this conversation dead-end to the most politically-correct subject in existence – the weather. “It’s been raining a fair bit nowadays, hasn’t it,” you rush to state the obvious. Forcing a polite smile, he agrees and expresses the customary hopes that the skies clear soon. Salvation finally arrives when the elevator doors open at your floor. You walk out, relieved to have your day saved by the weather again.
But we still don’t talk about the weather enough.
We don’t talk about the sunshine that infuses a spring into our step on those fair, happy days. We shy away from pointing out to others the dark grey smudges of wool that sometimes encircle our inner sky, dimming our hearts and shutting out any light of joy. Even more reluctant are we to openly acknowledge the torrential rains and roaring winds that sometimes assault as without warning and which leave us as overwhelmed and helpless as a deer in the headlights.
I want to talk about the weather, this weather. I am tired that we restrict our conversations to superficial identifications of the colours that we can easily see for ourselves overhead. Today, I yearn to bring my emotional climate into the spotlight.
The occasional breeze visits our inner sanctuaries. Being unthreateningly light, it gently ruffles our bearings before quickly departing, leaving us with but a fleeting sense of being shaken. Sometimes, however, these wind are gustier, whistling in our ears and forcing us to ground ourselves firmly. As our eyes begin to water, we attempt to pry them open and become more alert.
But the wind is my ultimate nemesis. It strikes me frequently without warning, greeting my skin with a cool bite before rapidly escalating into a hurricane force that I struggle to contain. As it whips my mental debris into an ominous vortex, my mind becomes clouded with irrationality. I try to seek reassurance from someone near me, only to find myself stranded in a sea of cold, judgmental stares. A catastrophe is brewing on the horizon and threatening to engulf me. The deafening howls completely drown my inner voice of reason as I chart my escape. I start running, but no one is giving way. They cannot comprehend my urgency, and for that I am incensed. But I do not have time to explain myself. I can only keep charging forward and willing my clamping-up windpipe to open until the cascade of fear begins to retreat. And I know that in this blustery emotional climate of mine, it is only a matter of time before the next storm comes bearing mercilessly down. I am always on edge; I am paralysed.
I did not choose to inhabit this life of turbulence. Who would crave for such unrelenting daily tension? I am tired. My exhaustion imbues in me a natural cynicism towards the proposition that things will ever get better.
However, I realise, in those rare, calmer moments of introspection, that if I try hard enough, things can get better. I may not be able to tame my inner storms at present, but I can refuse to let them overwhelm me. Until each tempest dies down, I can build up my psychological defences and learn how to dance in the rain.
Today, I sniff the first whiff of rain and again sense that another gusty thunderstorm is on its way. This time, however, I shepherd myself quickly into the storm shelter that I have constructed especially for these occasions. As the winds defiantly howl around me, I quietly retreat into my inner sanctuary of calm. I imagine my lungs as a boundless vacuum that I slowly oxygenate, inhaling deeply and then exhaling and cleansing myself of the mind-numbing disquiet before it seizes the opportunity to cripple me. I focus my energies on the muscular tension of exercise or the splash of colour that my brush slowly imprints on the blank canvas, allowing the sensual dimension to gradually displace the hurricane of “what-ifs” in my mental space. In the background, the storm eventually runs out of wind, and I am safe.
While I began as a novice, I have gradually become more familiar in manoeuvring my capricious emotional climate. Through my days of building storm shelters and seeking refuge from the winds, I have learned to grasp the patterns in which they strike, much as a consummate navigator learns to find the North Star. I have become aware of my triggers and, more importantly, the unhealthy cognitive patterns that promise me little but a downward spiral towards a nervous wreck. And with this knowledge, I am empowered. No longer am I at the mercy of the winds; I am their captain. Through sheer resolve, no more am I an impotent tenant of my emotional climate; I am its architect.
Unfortunately, happily ever after is an occasion selfishly reserved for fairy tales. Over time, I have come to realise that the most difficult to fend off are not the storms, but accusations from those around me that I am too eternally preoccupied with battling my inner demons to ever be capable of achieving anything substantial. In their eyes, I am weakling. But I know better. I know that in refusing to allow the storms to overwhelm me, in reaching out a feeble yet resolute hand for professional assistance, in remaining optimistic that things would get better even when I was utterly battered, I have displayed courage in my own right. Far from emasculating me, the storms have emboldened me to persevere in the most trying of circumstances. While they once threatened to incapacitate me, in learning to tame them, they have rewarded me with personal growth.
Of course, I still weather today the same breezy days and occasional mini storms that constitute the natural anxieties of daily experience. Sometimes, the fear that the hurricanes may restrike with a vengeance still lingers in the recesses of my mind. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the knowledge that even if they do, I am not powerless. I can be in control, so long as I consciously choose to do so.
And I sincerely hope that more of us can reassert control over the storms in our lives. But this can only begin if we are collectively willing to open up about our inner weathers. Perhaps the lucky few amongst us are naturally blessed with sunnier and calmer dispositions; perhaps we are simply the others who possess more mercurial temperaments. Regardless, let us be open with one another because we all have something to teach and learn from one another.
So let us talk about the weather more often. It isn’t just a conversation topic for the elevator.
The rat race that is Singapore’s education system is laced with kiasu-ism at every rung. From young, we are all taught to be scared to lose. In a meritocracy that punishes individuals labelled as less-deserving with the same fervour as it rewards those, it deems meritorious, the consequences of failing to prove one’s worth can be dire. Facing an unrelenting pressure to stay ahead of the pack, we are afraid to lose ground. In the competition for opportunities to climb upwards, we are afraid to lose out. But for me, it was in this very rivalry that I lost myself.
My acquaintances would disagree, and I think I can understand why. Having been awarded a prestigious scholarship at the age of 18, one that many regard as a guaranteed “helicopter” route to the upper echelons of Singapore society, they must perceive me as having emerged victorious from the race. If I now possessed privilege and would eventually possess power, how could I possibly be anything but secure? I probably appeared to be an open-and-shut case of happily ever after.
Yet, beneath that reassuring facade was a whole cauldron of emotions constituting who I truly am. The gnawing sense of insecurity that was my familiar companion throughout childhood and adolescence was not alleviated but reinforced by the scholarship I received. Since it was the fear of being inadequate that so helpfully whipped me forward and into the terrain of success, I reasoned to myself, I could not afford to rest on my laurels lest this success leave me as swiftly as it arrived. No, I had to keep moving, and fast, especially when I was now being evaluated in competition with a crop of highly competent and equally driven scholarship recipients. So consumed was I by fear that I eventually stopped questioning myself whether I actually wanted what I was striving so hard to achieve. I focused all my energies on climbing the ladder while losing sight of the wall onto which it was leaning. Fear embedded itself even more fiercely into my tenuous sense of self-identity.
On and on I spiralled downwards towards full-blown panic attacks. It started with the uneasy sensation of being held in a chokehold by a pair of invisible hands that I could not seem to tear off. Suddenly, I found myself unable to breathe at all. The more air I gulped, the number my body seemed to get, and the more I felt myself losing control of it all. Everything happened so fast that my memories to date are still hazy. One moment I was contemplating downing a handful of pills, the next I was in a psychiatric ward, and before I knew it, I was placed on mandatory medical leave and found myself, for the first time, out of school.
Having used my productivity as a singular metric of my self-worth throughout my life, the new idle me suddenly found my identity razed to the ground. Being out of classes and unable to participate regularly in projects and activities, I was bitterly conscious of how far I was falling behind my peers. Every unproductive day that passed reminded me of how utterly useless I was.
Despite not knowing what to do with the one resource that I now had plenty of —time— this extended period of rest, in retrospect, ended up benefiting me in unexpected ways. Finding myself liberated from societal demands for the first time, I was allowed to survey and scrutinise my life priorities from a vantage point. For once, instead of harshly interrogating myself if I was working hard enough, I had the mental space to conjure the less pondered upon but vital follow-up question – why was I calculating my worth in terms of my productive output to begin with?
Looking back, I had parents who, having had to deal with the problematic childhood of my brother, pinned all their remnant hopes on me that I may one day do them proud. For every little achievement that I managed during my education, I was handsomely rewarded by my teachers with yet more recognition and opportunities – apparent blessings that turned out to be but a disguised curse that condemned me to a vicious and perpetual cycle of insecurity. My introspection fired up my instinct to blame. No doubt, I have been privileged to have society recognise the efficient worker in me. But in this same recognition, it was society that brewed my anxieties and brought upon my eventual downfall.
For some time, I fashioned myself as a victim of the circumstances that I grew up with. I was, therefore, rudely shocked by a claim that I came across during Clarity’s self-worth workshop – that we ourselves are responsible for everything in our lives. How could I possibly be held responsible for the sky-high expectations that my friends and family heaped upon me through the years? The answer I received was that while I could not control these external conditions, I always had a choice of my personal response to them. This did not sit well with me. I turned the finger of blame inwards and towards myself. It was my fault that I allowed the way society regarded me to completely dictate how I perceived my worth. And thus, all my resultant anxieties stemmed from my pathetic grasping at this superficial sense of self. My victim mentality was irresponsible; my undoing was my own doing.
I carried on in this mindset of self-blame until we were given seeds to sow in a pot of soil before the workshop concluded. Imagining each seed sprouting into a young seedling and, eventually, a young plant, it struck me as to how similar I was to the life form I was nurturing. Just as my plant would manifest itself in different forms across its various life stages, so too would I always be in flux, and hence, a perpetual work-in-progress. And just as it takes the seed of today to produce the seedling of tomorrow, so too will my past, however misguided, inform me as to how I may best live in the present and future. No, the breakdown arising from my narrow definition of self-worth was neither a mistake nor something that I deserve blame for; it is a valuable lesson. I didn’t know better then, but I do now, and to punish awareness and self-improvement would be absolutely uncalled for.
From the Ground Zero that was the state of my personal identity post-breakdown, the only way, fortunately, is up. I am picking up the pieces. I am slowly learning and reminding myself every day that I am much more than the output that I churn out. Society will continue to judge me based on how much I produce and inundate me with reminders that I am not doing enough. But I refuse to allow society’s perverted characterisation of individuals as economic units to influence how I see myself. I may not always be able to maintain this mental distancing without backsliding, but I know that I will keep trying, drawing strength from the knowledge that the path towards change is never linear.
And I now know that in this world of never enough, as long as I consciously choose to be my own kind of beautiful, I will always be enough for myself.