It all started with a bedtime conversation I had with the boys.
“When I was a kid, I fell down a lot,” I said. “And I got scolded by my mother because of that.”
“Why would your mother scold you?” asked the littlest.
I smiled into the darkness. “Because she said I was clumsy and careless and I should pay attention to where I was walking.”
There was a pause.
And then, his tiny voice piped up, “You are not clumsy, mummy. It’s not your fault.”
I started watching the Korean drama, It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, around that time. I had zero expectations, having no knowledge of who the actors were. I only knew the synopsis intrigued me, after all, it’s not every day that a drama series deals with mental health issues.
But it turned out to be a hugely triggering event for me and that was obviously not something I had bargained for.
To get here, we need to look back at my past, the childhood that I had emerged from.
It wasn’t a pleasant one. My father had died when I was six, leaving my mother penniless, the sole bread winner, and the only caregiver to two young girls. Back then, there was such a stigma on everything to do with mental health. There wasn’t information or help on processing grief, the pragmatic society expected you to get up and get going.
My mother worked hard and for long hours to bring food to the table. She wasn’t educated so there were few options available to her, a widow with two kids. As such, we were left to our own devices. There wasn’t anyone asking me if I had homework, or to go through spelling with me. My mother provided me with our material needs and whatever energy she could muster, and I was to fill in the gaps myself for everything else.
Looking back, I think it was very clear my mother had difficulties processing her grief. She didn’t know how to, and she tried to move on because life required her to do so, ASAP. But mentally and emotionally, she was probably not well-supported most of the time. We didn’t grow up with hugs and kisses, we never received affirmation. I got scolded a lot. I was often left by myself at home, left to fend for my own needs. My sister and I were pegged, she being deemed the “challenging” child and I, the “good” child. As such, she spent much of her attention and effort on my sister, and believed that I would be okay.
And so, there were days when, I think, I had to be both a daughter and a husband to her. Because I was “reliable”. When she couldn’t hold back her own flood of emotions, it all came pouring out in the form of angry outbursts to me. The triggers could be something as simple as me forgetting to take my medication, or defrost something for dinner. I had to bear the brunt of the tirades, my sister preferring to stay out of our home as much as possible.
How could I, when I was a child who did not know how to understand my own feelings? There wasn’t anyone to teach me how to channel my anger or my sadness or my envy or my feelings of inadequacy, or even put a name to what was churning inside.
I had a teacher in school who was horribly abusive – emotionally – towards me and when I finally broke and told my mother about it, she said I had probably misunderstood the situation and we never spoke of it again. I was placed in my aunt’s care during that same period of time, and I felt anxious, scared, lonely and unwanted. My aunt had two older kids and an infant, she probably had no bandwidth to care for me. Years later, when I finally told my mother that I was undergoing fertility treatments, she changed the topic and started talking to me about my baby nephew’s antics.
I don’t want to take anything away from my mother’s parenting, she did the best she could, given the circumstances. And it wasn’t all misery. There were trips to the Bedok library where I spent many happy hours, reading books at the little amphitheater in the kids’ section. We took the bus to Cathay cinema on weekends, where she used to sell snacks at the bar with my godparents. I remember sitting next to the open window, sticking my face and hands out to feel the wind, singing my favourite songs as the bus trundled on. We ate our favourite ice jelly dessert at the Hollywood stall at the market at Bedok Interchange.
There were good memories.
But there were some godawful, and painful ones too.
There were many times when I wanted to throw myself out of our eighth floor flat. To this day, I don’t know why I never did. Maybe it was my innate sense of pragmatism, maybe I was a coward.
But this was my childhood, where I learnt to keep to myself, where I never did identify what I was feeling and how to cope with it, where there wasn’t an adult to be my champion.
To this day, I still feel a sense of disconnect towards my mother. I love her and I understand that she did her best. I am grateful. But at the same time, I can’t be what society expects me to be, that child who provides love and comfort for the parent unconditionally. I just can’t.
And so I started watching It’s Okay To Not Be Okay. And I started crying at every episode. Initially, I thought it was because of a well-written plot and beautifully fleshed out characters played by convincing actors. And then I realised it was because I saw myself in them, I was crying for them and for myself.
When Kang Tae read story of The Zombie Kid out loud, it was me, the zombie kid was me, in need of warmth and assurance. I had food, I had things but I needed that hug. I needed someone to say, hey, I see that you are feeling broken and I am here for you. Like KT, I have been hiding my emotions for a very long time, and have conditioned myself to behave “normally”. I function normally, most days, and I am mostly happy but every once in a while, the dam breaks and it aches.
I’ve never really shared with anyone, partly because I don’t know how to. As a child, I learnt to retreat into myself, into books and my words. I feel like that emotionless princess – talking and laughing loudly to mask the emptiness inside. And honestly, what can I say? What do I say? Maybe I am just waiting for someone to say, let’s talk, with no judgment and plenty of empathy. I don’t need or want solutions, I just want to be heard and comforted.
And like Moon-young, I use my clothes as an armour. I want to be different because that’s how I have felt as a child, I am that kid without a dad, an outsider. And since I am different, I might as well play it up as a focal point and dress differently from people.
One of the show’s key message that hit me the hardest was when Director Oh says that humans are weak, and that we become stronger when we lean on one another. It resonated because all my life, I have prided myself for being strong. To move on. To carry on even when life is hard. That was how I survived my infertility days, when I was jabbed again and again until I could laugh and joke while getting my blood drawn. It was how I could function when my mother received her stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to say that I’m tired and rest.
I’ve always wondered why I can’t be like everyone, to be happy and at peace and comfortable with life. There must be something wrong with me, to have something unseen gnawing at me and to not being able to understand myself with great clarity. My favourite quote is this line from The Lord of The Rings: not all those who wander are lost and it’s what keeps me sane, by reminding myself that I may walk a different path from my family but it doesn’t make me wrong or bad.
But I see now that it’s me and it’s not me. The me of today is partly nature and partly nurture. And I now understand that it’s time to fix me. Fix the parts of me that can’t seem to express myself well to anyone, that retreat into myself when threatened, that sabotage myself and make questionable decisions because I don’t know if I am good enough.
I’m writing it here because I want this year to be about me. I’ve taken the first step to seek professional help because I acknowledge that there’s only so much I can do for myself. I need to learn and grow before I can fix me.
I don’t know where that will take me but I am hopeful. I know that I am very lucky in so many ways and I always feel like I shouldn’t complain. But it’s okay to not be okay. And it’s okay to acknowledge that I am tired and vulnerable and I am flawed.
It’s okay. I’ll be okay.