Monday, Sept. 01, 2008 - 11:10 a.m.
All births are traumatic, but hers was more so, as her conception, like her country's, was accidental. An unwanted outcome from an unhappy union. This sudden, undesired existence paradoxically also bears her fear of annihilation. She is guided by this leitmotif of fear, that the state of non-existence could arrive just as suddenly.
What she is today: forty-three, 'accomplished', and depressed. Her psychiatric development parallels that of her country's, and it is such a perfect imprimatur that the two may even be said to be interchangeable when analysed.
The beginning of her sadness lies at the end of a Prime Minister's teardrop. He had gone on television to announce the birth of the new country, freshly expelled from what was its greater whole, perhaps the only country in the world to be formed by de-annexation. An independence embraced not by ecstasy but by sadness and fear. It is a country filled with people who were all refugees in one way or at one time, people who suffered that tenuous connection to a truer (mental) motherland, the corollary of which is that they lived in an extended state of disconnection. The country itself can be said to be a refugee, whose sole possession was the ground it stood on. What is unrecorded by the television cameras of history is that immediately after the electromagnetic tear was shed on the television screen, people all over the country checked how much food they had in their cupboards.
The country's prevalent anxiety at not-surviving seeped into her. It leaked from the skin of the Indian grocer who used his hands to scoop the rice grains from a colossal brown burlap bag into the smaller, re-usable hemp bag that her mother handed him. Her mother's anxiety diluted rice into porridge at meals to make the bag of rice last longer. She was constantly told that she had to study hard and succeed, which presumably avoided the state of not-existing. No one knew what non-existing was like, but it probably involved being hungry, or working as a road-sweeper (a spectre repeatedly invoked by her mother).
At school she found success, and realized that it was formulaic: focused repeated practice; thinking (specifically, introspection and contextualization) was ancillary. She did not have many friends. This early success in school gave her the erroneous impression that life, despite its infinite possible outcomes, is fixed by a formula as well. During this period the economy grew to everyone's surprise; family incomes rose and everyone moved into the beige, new flats, but anxiety and insecurity still permeated everyone's thoughts. Her family bought her a bicycle but she was only allowed to ride it for one hour a week, for fear that it might interrupt her mission. She had discovered a new skill which she would practice for the rest of her life - the postponement of pleasure, an act of balance where the centre of gravity begins externally before it becomes internal.
During my interviews with her, this idea of the bicycle recurred several times. Cycling to her, represented the epitome of freedom, in leaving the pressures she faced at home behind. Yet at the same time, the departure from home frightened her, as home represented what was known and stable.
Pleasure (freedom) and fear have become entwined and inseparable in her mind, leading to her perverse but (internally) logical conclusion that freedom may cause her destruction. Therefore, she consciously limits her own freedom; this causes conflict, and subsequently, frustration and unhappiness. What makes you happy now, I asked her. The car, the house. The children. The things others say will make you happy, she said.
We can see how her anxious, neurotic personality developed. Her unwanted birth was simultaneously an early rejection episode; on the backdrop of national and parental insecurity (exacerbated by their refugee status), and she grew up desiring parental affirmation in the form of academic success (her parents' existence was in her hands, she was told). She became rigid and un-original in her thinking, narcissistic about her past achievements, and her fear of annihilation grew paradoxically with each 'A' on a test. She believed that the higher she climbed, the higher the fall. There were always other people out to get her, plotting her fall from height, she believed. This belief was paralleled and reinforced by the Prime Minister, who appeared regularly on television, or on the front page of the national newspaper, with a scowl and an up-raised fist, intoning - they (communists, Malaysians, etc.) are out to get us.
She is trapped in a circle where anxiety leads to success, which leads to more anxiety and often, false achievement and delusions of persecution, or of greatness (to preserve the coherent internal narrative of her success). Her strategy in school has atrophied her thinking faculties, and she has little creative animus in dealing with challenging scenarios. She is most comfortable in structured settings, but completely at a loss when there is none. Change frightens her, and she clings onto what is constant, even if it is the fear of annihilation or of disintegration.
As I stated, she shares her psychiatry with her country.
I first saw her a few weeks ago as an outpatient. She had experienced an acute depersonalization episode then, and has felt depressed since. She was driving around Jalan Besar one afternoon, and had stopped outside a condominium to ask the security guard for directions. To her surprise, the old Malay man turned out to be Mat Tarzan, a Malay strongman who had performed at New World Amusement Park in the 1960s. The condominium itself stood on the site. Before it was torn down twenty years ago, she had gone to New World as a child several times, watched Mat Tarzan bend iron bars around his throat, and pull lorries with his teeth. Now he was a thin old man in a blue, loose fitting uniform. He had purposely taken the job at the condominium, to be near his glory days at New World (if not temporally, then spatially).
Everyone went to New World. Her mother had brought her there after she topped the class in an exam. She remembers the soft fluff of her first stick of cotton candy on her face, the grin on the hard plastic horses of the spinning carousel, the circumference of memory. New World. Blinding, bright, buzzing electric lights. Restaurants, dance halls, house of mirrors, boxing bouts, cabarets. Western music blaring out of speakers. The falsetto of a failed songstress from Shanghai (another refugee). New World. Everyone went to New World. The python wrestling striptease queen Rose Chan, the Hungarian boxer Felix Boy who had one fist bigger than the other, the 'taxi-girls who would dance the cha cha with you for ten cents a dance.
How did you feel after all these memories suddenly returned?
What did you do?
I drove around for hours.
Did you want to escape?
Where did you go?
I don't know really. I just kept driving. I just wanted to keep moving.
What disturbed you?
That everything has changed. (silence.) I don't know who I am.
She revealed that on that night, she experienced a dream she frequently had in adolescence, but one that had not visited her in years. In the dream, she was in the house of mirrors at New World, looking for something, but (like always) she did not know what she was searching for. She ran and got lost in the maze of distorted images, desperately peering into the different mirrors. Some reflections frightened her, other mirrors were empty. But time would always run out, and she would wake with anxiety and palpitations. (She was actually looking for herself).
The development of a healthy psyche involves a process of integrating the opposite aspects of one's characteristics, to produce a singular, unified mental representation of oneself (Freud's Ego or Jung's Persona), a Self that is presented to the outside world. Without an adequately formed Self, the individual suffers from unrealized potential and the spectrum of neuroses.
This patient, I believe, is incomplete.
Her sense of Self has been constructed from the outside in, by the exigency to survive and the fear of annihilation, which were both imposed on her and then self-sustained. Her Self is derived externally, rather than from an internal and organic source. She sees herself as an unwanted daughter, a survivor who must keep surviving. That is what she has been told, but she has never stopped to reflect upon what her own definition is. The source of her unhappiness and anxiety, ultimately, is the lack of belief in herself. This is of course, the only natural consequence of not having a Self to believe in.
How do you see the future?
I'm worried. For myself and my children. I want to retire in Thailand, its cheaper there.
Perhaps being a refugee is more of a chronic state of mind rather than a physical deprivation - the trauma of departure causes one to never believe in the permanence of a home. Then she surprised me by saying the following:
But sometimes, I think that things will turn out alright.
What makes you say that?
(She stares out the window, beyond the leafy trees, at the jammed cars on Adam Road trying to get home during evening rush-hour.) Because when I look at my children, I realize that they are not like me at all.