R U OK?

article-wellbeing

Today is R U OK Day – sharing my story


I’m ok now, thanks for asking, but eight years ago I wasn’t. That was when I heard of my father’s passing on the other side of the planet and realised that the world wasn’t like I understood it. What someone believes makes up who they are as a person—I felt disoriented. Only when I was able to look at the content of my beliefs and accept the new reality, I started to find my north.

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with anxiety but it takes a lot of mental energy to visit the past. While I gather energy and time to write, I’ll share here a story I wrote for the WellBeing magazine. Hope it will help someone feel ok.

Story: Calm beyond the storm

Not sure how to ask someone if they are ok? See the R U OK? website for guidance.

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Happy birthday dad, although you can’t hear me

This is the time of the year that I wish I was like those people that believe the dead are watching over us, can see and hear and connect with the living—although the thought of my deceased friends or family hovering over watching me in the shower or bedroom is quite disconcerting. I didn’t have the chance to say good bye to dad, so every time it’s his birthday that sinking feeling of disappointment and frustration with myself comes out to haunt me.

So dad, although you can’t read these words, that insane part of me insists in writing that I have always loved and always will. And there isn’t one day that passes that I don’t wish I could change history and be at your dying bed holding your hand and saying that your life mattered.

I know your life wasn’t perfect dad, but I loved you with all your prejudices and imperfections. You tried your best, you were one of the unsung heroes of this world that survive dysfunctional families, poverty and mental health issues. These heroes don’t make the headlines but they are the people that, like you, get out of bed in the morning for their daily toil, to simply do what is right.

One of the stories that always plays in my mind is of your determination to go to university without any financial or emotional support from your parents. You came to value an education you never had access to. How hard it must have been to find the will to study when sometimes you could only afford two meals a day. You overcame dire adversity to later give opportunity to those in need. I remember you driving sick people to hospital and in many situations helping the poor improve their lives.

Of course, there were things I din’t love about you, like your blind devotion to your work, your jokes about people of colour or beliefs about the role of women in society, but I learned to read you between the lines. I knew these came from a place of pain, shame and hurt and not of greed or hatred—your family hurt you a lot. I can’t forget when your mum came to visit the tiny premature twins just out of the incubator and said “oh, but they are so ugly.” I can’t fathom growing up in home like this, where your mum never noticed you needed glasses, until an older sister realised you were being picked at school for being stupid because you could not read the blackboard.

This side of you thought me not to take people at face value, we all carry a lot of baggage and have our demons to face. And you did a great job at stopping the cycle of rejection and neglect. I think the four of us felt very much loved and cared for.

There is one particular line you wrote down in the copy of The Little Prince you gave to mum when you were still dating in 1967, quoting the author: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” You saw potential in myself and in others when sometimes we saw none. You showed us to hear the voice of the heart and to respect everyone, regardless of their colour or social status—you may have spoken about white supremacy but your actions told another story. I remember when my four-year-old brother threw the house keys at a distance and said to the nanny ‘it’s your job to get the keys’. You saw the scene and told him how to treat people and to go get the keys himself. You wanted to open a workshop to give disadvantaged kids skill to get a job. You had so many dreams.

But life presented you with a hurdle too high to overcome. The nasty captain of depression hooked and brainwashed you, forcibly inducing you to believe lies over truth. It’s a shame that eventually you stopped seeing your own potential and your successful past faded in the background, no matter how much we told you were worth it. 

Life is unfair and yours was cut short by cancer. You would be 72 today. I’ll always remember you as a generous soul with many dreams and a hero that thought me how to hear the whispering voice in my heart.

How much awareness is too much?

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for almost three years. Well, truth be told I have lapsed here and there, but for the last few months, I have managed to maintain some form of meditation everyday. Mindfulness meditation has helped me in many areas, but most notably it has changed my relationship with my anxiety. No, meditation hasn’t provided a miracle cure – I’ve read of people who swear they have overcome clinical depression and anxiety with meditation but I’m yet to experience that myself. But meditation has helped me manage the anxious thoughts better and gave me some control over how to respond.

A byproduct of the practice of mindfulness is that I became more aware and compassionate with the suffering that goes on in the world. The flip side to that is that sometimes I can feel overwhelmed – there is too much suffering and my resources to help are limited. So one area that I thought I could help was by becoming a vegetarian – at least I would not be contributing to the suffering of animals. I always found it hard to justify our meat eating habits and eventually I made a decision to no longer eat meat.

I’ve been abstaining from meat for over seven months* and although it requires more planning and I end up having to cook meat for the rest of the family more often than not, I’m happy with my decision.  During this process I also learnt that meat consumption contributes heavily to our carbon footprint – so an added bonus to the vegetarian diet.

The problem was that changing my diet made me more aware of the link between what we eat and our health. I did some research and I read a lot about the benefits of a gluten-free, sugar-free, low carb diet, rich in pro and prebiotics and how this diet contributes to a healthier gut. I’ve found the research around the topic quite compelling, specially around the correlation between the health of your gut and your mental health. So I decided to give it a try, removing gluten and sugar from my diet. I was hoping go on this diet for two weeks but only lasted 10 days.

Unfortunately, in 10 days I did not see any benefits – I was feeling weak and tired, sometimes grumpy and more constipated than I normally get. I understand 10 days is not enough to consider this diet a fail but I got really discouraged. I thought I would see or feel something positive after 10 days to keep me going. Maybe I should have planned more (gluten and sugar at the same time, what was I thinking?) or spoke with a doctor before even considering it.

But I guess the bottom line for me is that it got me thinking if I am becoming too mindful of too many things. There is a limit to how many causes one can embrace, how many fights one can fight and how many problems one can solve. It does not matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot add one extra minute to my day – 1440 minutes is all I have and I already have a lot in my plate.

I can’t help being aware of what’s happening around me. I still want to be compassionate. I still want to be there for my friends and help those I can. But this experience was just another reminder that I need to be careful and not bite more that I can chew. And maybe a bit of gluten or sugar is something I can swallow after all.

 

* Confession: I’ve had a bit of fish – as I’m lactose intolerant, sometimes I end up left with very little options, specially when eating out.