It is important to me

“As long as it’s important to you, it’s important to me…” was R’s reply to me when I texted him about something that happened last week that affected me deeply. I wanted to but didn’t text him back, “It is actually not important.” because I know he is smart enough to tell me otherwise, given that theoretically he has said I always always put myself as unimportant. Are these feelings important? No. Are these thoughts crucial. No. And then what next.

One of the hardest part this week is the overwhelming number of triggers and thus me quite frequently this week experiencing the inability to breathe (not literally), but the feeling that I cannot catch my breath. It is a feeling. I had to open the windows, I had to sit in the balcony. It is all very strange. I know it is a somatic response that I have of feeling intense fear/ trauma. This week was hard because I felt it too often. Almost every morning.

I had to remind myself that feeling fear and that safety is not a thought, it is a feeling. In fact, safety is not a cognito-centric process (we don’t “think” that we are safe). Safety is a somatosensory experience that involves neuroception and interoception aligning to tell the organism that they are, safe. Safety is a feeling, not a thought.

My trauma is not located in just my thinking brain. It is, and I mentioned before, located in the ancient parts of our brain that look for safety, and to be traumatised is to be in a constant state of ‘un-safeness’. To heal trauma, all we have to do is to help make people feel safe, which helps me to lower their defences, engage my ventral vagal complex. If we can do this, the nervous system will heal itself. One of the most challenging issue I faced this week is my complete lack inability to find safety within my own body and in doing so gain a measure of control over what are otherwise overwhelming sensory experiences that inevitably result in intense fear (cannot breathe), rage and intense gut-wrenching shame. Put simply, my traumatised brain and nervous system seeks the sensory experience of safety in pathological ways.

So you bet, I had to remind myself – I am not thinking crazy that I cannot breathe. I truly am feeling it.

Traumatic memory is qualitatively different from non-traumatic memory. If I asked you to recall how you felt as you had breakfast this morning, whatever the feelings you experienced were, even if they were unpleasant, your brain would know that those feelings belong in the past. Traumatic memory is not remembering what it felt like when the traumatic event took place, it is re-experiencing the original emotions but in the present moment. I am 9 or 11 or 16 years old again, experiencing the same (repressed) emotions, but in the present moment.

Yet amongst it all, I cannot be surviving this week, without some of my closest friends’ empathy. One of the hardest aspects of treating trauma as it requires endless reserves of patience and empathy, and sometimes, clinicians can’t do it. Talk therapy is not going to cut it. We need systems that will directly target the neurosceptive and interoceptive systems, and shift them in such a way that they will allow social engagement in the presence of bodily mobilisation…

I do not know how many people I have across who are clearly seriously unwell, and who will ‘soldier on’ because to stop would mean to lose their sense of self esteem. And I was determined to not be one of them. But the many ‘out there’ makes me shed a tear or two sometimes.

“It is important to me…” I guess it is important that both R and myself are able to put those memories where they belong, in the past. And I can have the ability to esteem self, to set boundaries and protect myself, to accept imperfections, to form secure attachments, to be able to meet the needs of myself and others healthily, to be open moderate and contained, and a functional adult ego state.





Gratefulness crippled me

Dear Pei Pei,

I just finished my third round of therapy session with my therapist Reshie. He is a trusted friend and probably one of the best Singapore has to offer in his vocation.

There was an incident, probably when I was 16 or 17. There was a night when with whatever little money I had, I took a transport and ran over to your place to sleepover.

What happened earlier on in the evening… Yi Sheng and myself were home. I wanted to study with him, and to get his attention cube, I threw his Rubiks cube to the ground , so that he would not playing his computer game and we could study together. He got mad that I threw his Rubiks cube, he grabbed me, threw me across the room. He shouted, he panted, he grabbed me up again and threw me all over many corners of the house. Before I could catch up my breath and pick myself up and hide in the room, he was at me again. At some point, I knew I was no feat for Yi Sheng. He was strong, bigger and he was mad. I screamed for help. “Mum please stop Yi Sheng!” She finally came out of her room after all the commotion. She asked what happened. In between fending off Yi Sheng, I had to explain that I incurred his wrath as I threw his item. She continued watching him fling me across the living room, as she stood at the corner, and she didn’t stop him. She then replied, “Well you deserve it for making him mad.”. All of that was not traumatising. Then this part kicked in, “I cannot help you.” She withheld help, she withheld loving me enough to help me. I thought I was going to die. I looked at Yi Sheng, “Please, I know you can stop this. You can don’t be angry. I know you, Sheng. You can stop being mad. I am sorry.” I looked into his eyes and told him that repeatedly. His teenage anger knew no bounds. He was raging, he was out of control. But most of my fear was just periodically looking at mum in that corner, watching all this unfold and she watched on.

It wasn’t Sheng’s anger that hurt me. It wasn’t that I deserve it that hurt me. It was mum’s “I cannot help you” that I remembered. My entire belief of my self and the world is that – If I did something bad or wrong , I will not get help, I will not be loved, I will not be deserving of anything. That shaped me forever.

Dad came home early by divine intervention. The door opened and dad was in his white long sleeved suit, and I asked for help. He separated brother away from me. I locked myself in my room to catch my breath. I scanned around to watch what items were destroyed. A thumbdrive was nearly crooked – a pity as I cannot remember what data was inside. My hands were sore but not weak. Yi Sheng’s mucas were all over me. He was so mad that he had mucas. I felt so guilty for making a peaceful day into something about my folly. I should not have made him mad. But I had no bad intention – promise. Would they believe me?

I did not know how to face Sheng, I mostly did not know how to look at mum again- in fact I could not look at her for months to come. I unlocked the room door, she reprimanded me and said to dad, “Yeah, she caused the fight.” I looked at her tearfully and could not defend myself. I unlocked the door so that maybe someone – mum or dad will hug me and comfort me. I looked at all their angry faces. I was so embarrassed. I took my little coin pouch. I ran out of the house and found transport to you.

I kneeled beside your bed in tears. Shaking. Spewing in anger. According to Reshie, it was healthy, normal, advisable to be mad, angry, upset. I told you everything. I remembered you listened and from the bottom of your heart, you told me – to be grateful. You told me that I should be grateful that Mum gave birth to me, she nursed me, she educated me, she took care of us. She sacrificed her time to work and was a stay-home mum. I should be grateful, I had a roof, clothes to wear, a roof over my head. I should be grateful to have a mum. And a family.

I carried this gratefulness theory from the age of 17 till the age of 31. It let me cope. It temporarily calmed the pain in me. It put all the madness to silence. I cannot be mad. I cannot be upset. I must be grateful. Even if love is withheld, even if help is not rendered, even if I am not protected, neglect, about to die, no protection, I must still be grateful.

That 17 year old kid (me) was given gratefulness as a walking stick. That concept of bad girls don’t deserve love, made my synaptic pruning one of – I need to be perfect , nice, not angry, 100% amazing, to be pleasing to deserve love. And even if love is not given, I should be grateful. I grew up with zero sense of self-preservation. I had zero ability to deal with protecting myself. I would do anything and everything to deserve love, at the expense of myself.

What is zero-self preservation you might ask? That is if my friends want to go out, I will always say yes, no matter if I liked them or don’t, if I am tired or not, if I am busy or not, and I function in that way because my brain and memory tells me that if I am not an agreeable & pleasing person, I will not be loved. If a boyfriend wants A or B or C, I definitely will do A , B and C, because anything less and if I am a bad girl, I won’t deserve his love. If anyone needed anything, I will myself at the the rock bottom lowest in priority, I will do anything and everything for them in order to deserve their love. Is this healthy? Would it crush me? This is not how a self-empowered adult should be. I was operating my daily living breathing self with zero self-preservation.

If I am in the same elevator as that 17 year old girl, when her brother was so angry and her mum did not help her, her mum did not hug her, did not comfort her, and mostly told her that she deserved to be beaten and did not deserve help, I will NOT tell that girl that she must be grateful. I will cry with her, I will hug her, I will let her be mad and scream, I will not hush her, I repeat, I will NOT tell her to be grateful.

I came to tell you because I love you, and I face consequences in being a healthy adult because I hide behind this gratefulness theory. I tell you because maybe mental health is a taboo. Maybe raising a child so that a child has healthy synaptic pruning is not something most of us are educated about. So when it comes to Jevan, maybe we learn what has not worked and not let it happen.

Telling a kid who is so threatened, unprotected, that being mad is not right, that being grateful is what we need to do, is only a sophisticated walking stick that this kid will rely on, but will never be able to be a healthy adult.

I cannot right what is wrong anymore. I can only reparent myself.
But we can do the next generation so much more.

I love you and thank you and I write to you because I love you and Jevan and everyone very much. Because I can see Jevan’s pain, and may there not be a repeat into adulthood.

With a lot of love for you Pei Pei, and a lot more to give,
Xiu

PS: Unknown to you, and with as much love for mum, this is not a stand alone case. Mum has a funny way of punishing. She did not make me breakfast for a year when I was much younger, just because I was a naughty kid. I remembered the table had breakfast for Sis, bro, but not for me. I would pretend to sleep so that I cannot witness that there is no breakfast for me. It went on not for a day, not months, it went on for one and a half years- possibly 500 over days. Once again, bad girls don’t deserve love’, I remembered that for life, and I also remembered that in spite of it all, I must be grateful for having a mum. In fact I do, and I love her very much, I still love her. The outcome- it left me with zero self-preservation and unable to form a healthy adult functioning mode. I am pretty good for many years and decades. But there will come times in my life that the walking stick is not sophisticated enough. Then what do we do? That is the key question.

PSS: A child has about 4 trillion synaptics. 4 trillion! How we treat a child will determine their synaptic pruning into adulthood. As such their cognitive behaviour and ability for the rest of their lives.

The question – what is wrong with me

What is wrong?

The insatiable question – what is wrong with me?

There should be nothing wrong – I came out of the year 2020, a respectable force, a woman that held her head and her team high, a clear conscience of treating every suffering and non-suffering soul with virtue and endless empathy, a business that tide through the hardest. What can be wrong?

Yet, I was swinging between immobilisation – I couldn’t look past this 24 hours – almost like a scared peacock in its tracks and unable to twitch; and anxiety- mostly unwarranted in my opinion.

Truth is, I avoided and put off asking for help or answering what is wrong with me – cos I did not want to be dramatic or have a punchy catch-phrase prognosis to park my emotions or behaviour or find an excuse for myself. I spent a lot of quiet time getting better alone. Better? That was far from happening.

I took a week off work, tried to shut off, did meditation. It helped to some extent, it brought some form of stabilisation but maybe for a day without imminent hostility or triggers.

Realisation

Getting back to work, the business partners meeting was a huge signal that I am not myself. They were doing a recap of Year 2020 – April, May, June…. during the thick of the pandemic. I was triggered thoughts of them abandoning the business yet I couldn’t. I was triggered by recalling the days I struggled to keep the rest of the employees paid, and having to manipulate, toggle, juggle and tip toe around my business partners who were incessantly looking forward to temporarily closing down the business during the lockdown. It is of no fault of theirs, and of no malicious intent. We all deal with the pandemic and its consequences and how to handle it, very differently. We all make very different decisions. I took on a task that I did not know was too much for my 30 year old shoulders. I brought a team of almost 20 Singaporeans to bring 4 restaurants to virtual restaurants for the next 3 to 4 months till the lockdown was over and we could operate brick and mortar again. Kickass it might seem? But it fractured my feelings of my business partners. It crippled my ability to look at this new year without tainted glasses and fear that is immobilising.

“Ah, let’s not mention about the pandemic, seeing that it clearly affects Megs,’ one of the partners said that, again to no deliberate fault. But the line in the sand seemed to be deeper – they are not in my space, they could not understand, empathise. They were capable of abandoning, they were insultful in their decision makings during the pandemic, they are also capable of being dismissive of my trauma. Again, to no fault of theirs- my rational brain always tells me.

During those tough months, I witnessed so much suffering. Delivering food to the COVID-stricken dormitory workers – I have never witnessed living conditions of such; and delivering food to the healthcare workers, I have never felt more deeply for fellow Singaporeans’ risking their lives and fighting through the frontlines. I slogged my way through the night to get the online platforms for our virtual restaurants up and running. There were bugs to fix at night, new products to upload, and there were customers’ data to look through and hopefully customise, personalise their orders. I was up till 3am most nights just doing any technologically possible to get our virtual restaurants marketed and usable. I was in the restaurants a few hours later to pack, deliver all of these orders, and on top of that, train everyone who is not tech-savvy.

I had no reprieve. No plane ride to a favourite island to switch-off.

The only form came through coming home and seeing Ben prepare a warm bowl of soup or a cup of warm tea on the table, ‘Hey, sit down and have some before you begin working again’. I usually give a couple of calls to my business partners by the time I got home, and had to strategically manipulate them to agree to keep the shops open and manipulate them further to agree to pay all the staff 100% of the salary.

I remembered anguish nights that the business partner will say “I will only pay them 75% of the salary.” I manipulated. I lied that it was illegal. All in my mind was, these Singaporeans working with us, I will not forsake them, and I will not, under reasonable government wage subsidies, see them drawing lesser salary during this difficult times. They shall not fear. They will work hard in the virtual restaurants, we will churn out food, we will deliver, we will get paid and we will in turn pay salaries.

After a long day, lying next to Ben, it felt safe, a sense of closeness, and this strong guy watching me through my tears and holding me and feeling all the trepidation of my heart and telling me that my kindness inspires him, that he is so proud of me, and stroking me to sleep. I sleep and rouse awake to battle another day.

Co-dependence?

We decided on our own terms that Ben will leave Singapore in mid-December, and unexpectedly and without warning, my system went on a crash. I did not know how to survive without his presence.

“Am I co-dependent? If I am, that is a problematic behaviour I am exhibiting in relationships.” I thought to myself. I googled co-dependency. It didn’t quite sync , doesn’t sound like me.

I met Ina for the second time in January and casually told her about my tiredness, thoughts, immobility and resentment. She told me it might be a small t-rauma.

How can it be? I am born in the safest, cleanest country in the world. I came out of 2020, alive, earned the respect. Does it render me to be traumatic? Or was I dramatic.

The week went by, and I found myself bursting in tears whenever I or the team tried to push me to plan for year 2021 or if the previous year was mentioned in any way, shape or form.

Even when business has recovered (and profitable) by now, my business partners will without mindfulness, yet with no ill-intentions chip in, “We could have saved more money if we had let go of more staff during the lockdown. We didn’t need that many of them. What a waste!” My mind went on a red-alert- I know how it feels, because the back of my eyes were burning and I retort with no restraint, “Then, if we had let everyone go, god forbid, who are we left for manpower when we were given 48 hours to reopen into restaurants? Would these staff wait for us and stay with us? Weren’t the revenues we reaped so well in the last two quarters of the year not because we have kept crucial important staff during the pandemic?” My tone was rude, uncourteous. Unbeknown to many, this particular moment was the cliff-drop for everything within me. My guts that I was daily sewing back together, almost felt like it spilled open – and nothing could piece me back together. Principles clearly did not align and there were irreconcilable differences- stark ones. The relationship was terribly fractured on my end, and on theirs, they clearly felt my attitude issue- and this hostile defensive attitude of mine continued for the next few weeks.

Topics would get halted, my tears continued to trickle. I consider myself high-functioning, but I started to lose myself and making a fool of myself during professional meetings by being emotional- over something almost so irrelevant already – the past year.

Reaching out, finally

My tears flowed, my head ached. May be I was tired. I took a week off, as every of my peers suggested. It was futile, I came back work energised for a day but deeply troubled the next. This is very unlike me.

I reached out to Ina – can I see Reshie, please? He is her husband and a trained clinical psychologist in trauma. I read through his profile, I wondered if I was facing PTSD. Sounds like it.

Meeting him for the first session was easy. He was familiar. We had dinner together before in Bali. I know his background – the downs he faced with trauma, and if he could come out of this hole, I was already convinced I was going to be ok.

So first up, was to open up. I narrated all of that to him. Very soon the tissue box was whipped out. I have seen this before. I did not spare myself to use it. I drank some water and continued my story. I am ok to open up, that part wasn’t hard – sounds like complaining and ranting isn’t it.

I looked at him to wonder if there was a diagnosis. He very scientifically explained the science behind Complex Trauma and told me, I ticked not one, not two, but all of the boxes.

“Feeling better that you know what you are facing?”, He asked.

“Oh you mean, complex trauma? Well I did not think I did not have it, I searched about it and thought I was close enough, but I also did not expect you to confirm it.” It truly brought me no comfort or relief or any feeling to know that Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) was my diagnosis.

“Am I making a molehill out of my situation?” I asked that maybe three times during the session. He reassured it was not.

Scientifically-speaking


In short, he explained, the basal ganglia (found at the center of the human brain) has overtaken all of me at this stage and overpowered all of my neocortex (which is implicated in conscious thought, language and reasoning), and of course, we have the limbic system (which consists of various component brain structures, such as the amygdala and hippocampus). I was neocortex > basal ganglia for the most of year 2020 = extremely high functioning. Now it is just inverse.

For more understanding, in MacLean’s triune brain model, the basal ganglia are referred to as the reptilian or primal brain, formed since 200 million years ago, this structure is in control of our innate and automatic self-preserving behaviour patterns, which ensure our survival and that of our species. The primal brain is also in charge of, example… Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and… Reproduction. Notable behaviour patterns include defence of self, family, and personal property, physical communication, and socially approved actions, such as handshakes, head nods, and bowing.

We might not be living in the same world as primitive man, but we are still met with threatening and potentially dangerous situations. The brainstem is responsible for keeping us safe now, as it was for early man. The health and functioning of this brain region largely determines our ability to detect and respond to threats. At the most basic level, the brainstem helps us identify familiar and unfamiliar things. Familiar things are usually seen as safe and preferable, while unfamiliar things are treated with suspicion until we have assessed them and the context in which they appear. In my case, all the series of things have put this reptilian brain on threatening alert, way beyond my control and emotions and put me on a path of avoidance, distrust, negativity towards moving forward with these surroundings.

Some pen notes from his session:

“How shall Integrity face Oppression?
What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception
Decency in the face of Insult
Self-Defense before Blows?
How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction, and Lies?
What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

There are so many answers and so contradictory; and such differences for those on the one hand who meet questions similar to this once a year or once a decade, and those who face them hourly and daily…

Some are born with trauma, some walk through trauma, and some have trauma thrust upon them.”

I am now tearfully spent after the session. I texted the only person I knew that knew all of what I was facing- Ben. He was juggling his Friday meetings and my outpour of texts after the session.

Once again, I doubted myself and asked him if I was self-victimising or am I making a fuss out of nothing. He reassured me right away and with certainty, “No no not at all. It is important that you recognise the trauma. I know you, and I know it is overwhelming, and for all that I see you take on last year, I think this is serious and quite complex.”

Yes, the question of what is wrong with me is answered.

Now is just a week of empowering myself with the truth that I am facing CPTSD.

I booked in next Thursday’s session with R.

I think we might need lesser tissue paper now that the story is thoroughly narrated. I am keen to just sort this out. It is 5th February today. I felt like I wasted the first month of January just on the pendulum of still in the tracks and anxiety and resentment.

R passed me a book he rushed out in the year 2020 on how to deal with trauma. It will be a binge-read. I might not feel too far from the truth or block myself from all the feels.

Pros & Cons

When you find yourself weighing the pros & cons of your partner,
it is probably time to part ways and move on,
because when you are with the person you’re truly meant for,
you find that their faults, their flaws, all those little quirks that make your skin crawl,
are the very same things you can’t imagine a life without.

Write

If I stop writing, we die.

Rolling over next to you this morning, it is a moment between dream and reality. I uttered, ‘Are you mad at me?’ You were probably in between waking up and sleeping, and did not talk much.

I was fully convinced of my dream. I hugged you closely. ‘You are not mad at me right?’ I think I made no sense to you.

Pulling you even closer, I sniffed you. You tried kissing my forehead, I shifted away – I had not washed my hair for a couple of days, I don’t smell perfect. I always want to be perfect around you.

I fell back to sleep. You got up, changed into your newly tailored shirt. I opened one eye to look at your new shirt. It was the blue shirt with the dark blue inner collar. ‘You look great.’ You kissed me once before going to work. I wanted another kiss, ‘One more’, and you leaned down and kissed me again.

You went off. I snuggled into the sheets alone. The smell of the sheets, the smell of you.

Good morning.