A week ago, I had badly bitten the inside of my lip, which resulted in a painful, glaring ulcer. I began to naturally orient myself around the source of pain. I would eat food and expect to feel the sting (it did). I chewed only on the right side of my mouth. I avoided fried foods. I flinched whenever I drank hot soups. When brushing teeth, I would get really gentle near the ulcer, because even the slightest prickle of a single brush bristle would cause the pain to flare up. I slept on my right cheek. You get the point.
Today, without thinking too much, I brushed my teeth. Suddenly, I realised, that all the pain was gone. Zilch. Subconsciously, I was no longer engaging in pain-avoidance. I began to reflect on the week, and realised that I had been eating, drinking, sleeping, and brushing my teeth without a second thought.
I guess, it made me wonder…
Do we always consciously realise when our metaphorical wounds are healing ? The unremarkable, quiet healing of the ulcer was slow and gradual, and perhaps, that is the way it works for all the other things that have hurt and haunted us, at some point in our lives. I suppose it’s not the same as letting yourself passively sit by for things we do need to confront, but there is a comfort in realising that not all healing takes place consciously. Within us, healing is already taking place. With time and age, comes the weathering of rough edges, wisdom, and bits of newfound courage. Perhaps one day I’ll wake up and realise, oh, it’s been a while since I’ve felt this way. It’s been a while since I’ve felt scared. It’s been a while since I worried too much. Sometimes, the demons outgrow their homes in our hearts, and they simply opt to leave.
Until we get to that point, we must continue to do the small, unremarkable things. Showing up every day. Trying. Getting through, getting busy. Life moves on, both in our external worlds and within us.
Today, I suddenly realised that my ulcer had healed. It was so unremarkable, I barely noticed it. I guess that’s a good thing.
It’s been a challenging month. Within this one month, you took the plunge. You uprooted, flung yourself across the oceans again, and tried to start over.
It hasn’t been easy. You’ve found yourself the object of unwanted affections, you’ve dealt with less than ideal housing situations, you’re going through the grief of a funeral, the dissonance of being disengaged with something that used to fill you with purpose and flow, and the demotivation that comes with it. Then there was the “Great Big Scare,” and even now, there are moments when the anxiety ticks at the back of your mind, reminding you of its presence.
The sprawling metropolis is dirty, gritty, chaotic. The streets are constantly buzzing with construction. Even the suburbs are less pleasant. There is a smell of manure in the air. You try to be positive. You watch out for the pops of colour, the blooming flowers in your neighbour’s garden. Some nights, the stars twinkle above you, bright and beautiful. Occasionally, there is a pleasant breeze. And then there’s your room. Spacious, with orange toned wood floors. You’ve tried to fill it with love and peace. The bedsheets (pleasant mints and greys), are chosen with care. A mermaid tail blanket lies on top. You’ve made a DIY marble whiteboard. Fairy lights lie on an accidental milk-crate table. Small touches.
What else does it need?
Maybe a rug. Maybe an interesting wall mural.
You won’t have that unsettling love letter violate anything further.
This is my space. I am going to reclaim it.
You write on the board.
Visa. Banking issues. Drop by Auspost. Do your readings.
Something gets erased, another 10 pile on.
You curl up into a ball.
He met you in the city. Tall, well-built, quite handsome.
You dismiss him as a fuckboy. Men who approach women out of the blue to tell them they’re pretty are usually up to no good. Plus, he’s probably younger than you are.
“Younger than 25? No way, I’m 29.”
“Hey, I’m X. I’m a lawyer.”
For some reason, you let him tag with you onto the bus. You talk about everything and nothing. Your arms touch. He asks for your number.
Conversation, it’s flowing.
Ping, ping, ping, ping.
You’re getting texts. It’s your grandmother. She might pass on anytime soon.
You stop typing the report. In the library, your eyes well up with tears. Before you know it, your vision is blurring.
It’s so lonely here.
You forgive him a little too easily. He’s got a gentle way of speaking. He shows up in his car after you texted him, after that hellish night, after you told him you needed his support.
He actually shows up.
He feels bad, he says. It took him 50 minutes to get to you, because of the jam.
His hair is mussed up, his clothes are ill-fitting. He usually puts so much care into his appearance. He rushed over, straight out of bed.
You recognise that this is what he should be doing anyway, but you can’t help but feel a little touched.
You’re too soft.
It happened again.
You plead a little softly, but in the heat of the moment, you’re losing yourself as well.
He pushes into you. You’re not sure if he sees you tearing up. You’re crying for him, after everything you’ve learnt about him that day. He’s broken. You’re broken. You want to comfort him, but you’re deeply conflicted. You want to trust him. You want to believe it isn’t true.
You find yourself sinking into a dark ocean.
Bird-boy has gotten you chicken nuggets. A make-shift dining table, made out of crates, lies in the middle of the room. You both eat, chat. It is an easy chemistry. It is safe here, although you’re not sure for how long. But you’re mentally and emotionally drained, and you don’t want to think about it. You will selfishly take refuge in whoever offers it. That night, the both of you fall asleep to the sound of birds.
The next morning, you book a plane home. You’re going to make it for the funeral. The texts haven’t been coming. You want to get away from it all. Perhaps this was for the best.
Motivation doesn’t matter. Feelings don’t matter. You’re going to do what you need to do anyway. You are going to grit your teeth and move on, one step at a time. You’re going to submit those assessments. You are going to look for a job. You are going to email your professors. You are going to say hello to your housemate like nothing happened. You are going to show up for classes. You are going to put your mind to the things that need taking care of.
You imagine wires, connected to your heart. One of them is beginning to fray. You wrench it out of its socket, and drop it. It stings, but you know that you’ll catch fire if you let it stay inside you.
Turbulence, it will pass.
You better get going.
I must remind myself, that it is easy to think about good thoughts, to be tolerant, brave, and peaceful, when I am not challenged.
The storms are beginning to shift. Be brave, I tell myself. Be brave.
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
In Psychology, we learn of a term, “blooming, buzzing confusion,” which describes that of a newborn baby’s first experiences with the world. The rhythmic ebb and flow of voices, the explosion of colours, the texture of a flower petal, the taste of milk — each of the senses tingling distinctly, then coalesced into one. The world must seem so beautiful and yet so terrifying, as it unfolds upon itself in rapid speed.
Five years ago, I set foot into Brisbane. I felt like a newborn baby then. My hair was cropped short. I had one suitcase full of clothes, my laptop bag, and a boatload of mixed emotions and confusion. I had been yanked out into the blinding world. My life which had previously been on pause, was suddenly hurtling on in “fast forward” speed.
If I could replay my life in montages, perhaps this would be a fitting time. I remember each fragment of my memory with the precise emotion it evoked, along with the sounds, the smells, the sights.
I remember my first venture into Brisbane city, where I shared a meal with a newfound friend. It was mediocre Korean food, but it felt like the most delicious thing to me. They served Kimchi and mayo salad in little metal bowls, which I was excited to learn that I could refill. Also, I made a friend! My heart was as full as my stomach.
I remember the initial anxiety of sitting in the bus, and constantly fearing that it would stop me in a strange and unfamiliar place. Once I took the wrong bus, and it drove along a beautiful jacaranda path, before ending up where I intended to go anyway. Distracted by the flurry of purple flowers in full bloom, I briefly forgot about my anxiety. That day, I learnt that sometimes, it was alright to be lost.
I remember the sandstone walls of my university, and how they spanned along the hallways of the Great Court. Over the course of the years, I would walk along these hallways as a different person, each time. Something was always quietly, furiously shifting, within me.
I remember taking refuge from the pouring rain in Hartley Teakle, a slightly dilapidated building, but not without charm. Tutorials had been cancelled, and I was the only student there. I pulled out a chair, and sat in silence, surrounded by nothing but research posters and Biology charts. I plugged in my headphones, and disappeared into my own world. I even remember the song. Outside, it continued to rain.
I remember the peace I felt, when I sat in my first Psychology lecture. It had been a lonely, disorientating week of fumbling through sign-on systems, clashing timetables, and mixed up tutorials. I sank into the ambience of the lecture —the murmuring of students, the flipping of notes. The lecturer was teaching us about different parts of the brain, something about the frontal lobes. I looked around and thought, I’m a university student! I’m finally a university student!
I could go on and on about the memories I had, at risk of sounding like a John Green novel. I have far too many to choose from.
Enjoying hotpot with housemates, and laughing until my sides split from their antics. Getting drunk under the stars, to the symphony of an open orchestra. Making up songs with a friend, deep into the night. Conversations with Mr President, who made me feel like it was alright to ponder deeply about the universe. Meeting a strange medical student, who insulted my hands, but also stole my first kiss. Puking my guts out from alcohol poisoning, because I was foolish enough to drink over a broken heart. Running home with the biggest smile breaking across my face, because I had successfully presented a speech. Pulling off an art exhibition, where I had people openly appreciate my art for the first time. Driving to a prison facility with friends, to observe kangaroos. Crying alone in the computer lab and absolutely hating myself, over my honours thesis. Starting a design course, and feeling flow for the first time in a long time. Finishing it, and growing weary and lost again.
Happiness, friendship, warmth, love, magic.
Disappointment, loneliness, depression, despair.
Brisbane has given me the opportunity to experience an incredible spectrum of emotions, each one felt deeply and profoundly.
During my last week in Brisbane, I started to write farewell letters. The amount surprised me. I had written more letters than I had realised. I met up with the people I could meet, tied up loose ends, and enjoyed each “final” conversation. As the day dipped into night, I always felt a little sadder. It was as if I realised that something beautiful was about to end. If anything, I suppose it was testament that I was leaving behind something precious. And perhaps that alone, is something to celebrate.
I left Brisbane with two suitcases, my hair, grown past my shoulders, and plenty of bittersweet memories. I wept silently and thankfully, in the plane.
To my beloved Brisbane, I will remember your jacaranda trees.
Recently, I was practicing how to break a heart.
I practiced in front of mirrors. I thought about what to say as I brewed my tea. I tried to imagine the best possible scenario to talk it out. I rehearsed the dreadful speech again and again, rearranging the words in my head, in futile attempt to lessen the pain. When we were together, I would have sudden moments of silence and sighs, as if trying to expel the crushing weight of guilt and sadness, along with my breath. My boyfriend would ask if I’m okay, and I could only say “yes,” unsure of how I could verbally quantify the mounting emotional conflict I was feeling, or why I was feeling it.
Three days ago, I sat down and told my boyfriend,
“We should take time-off.”
We were on a bench, in a park. It was a sunny day. Children were playing, carefree. A happy group of Down Syndrome people waved to us.
Despite all that, inside me, a storm was churning.
This was it.
Even with all the rehearsing, the speech was clumsy, clunky, awkward. I spewed off all the reasons why I wasn’t in a mentally good place. Emotional baggage. Biases. Chemistry issues. Communication issues. Fear of holding him back. Fear of unintentionally using him. Hurting him. Hurting me. Being unfair to him. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
He remained calm, resigned, understanding. He’s heard it all before.
His gentleness and compassion for me broke me even more. My heart cracked with every word I said.
Even then, I still wasn’t brave enough to suggest that we completely “break up.” I said it, faltered, retracted it, decided that maybe we need time-off. A proper time-off. A “trial breakup.”
What was I trying to achieve? Was I delaying the inevitable, like a coward? Was I giving it time in hope that things would work out? Did I hope it would be “gentler” than an actual break up?
A gentle heartbreak is a paradox. No matter how much you sugarcoat it, even when dripping in sickeningly sweet words— there’s nothing quite as gut-wrenching as knowing that you’re pretty much doing the equivalent of taking an invisible knife and stabbing someone in the heart.
That same night, I cried and cried and cried. I buried my face in his shirt, my face soaked wet with tears. I didn’t want to let go, but I knew I needed to. We hugged for a “final time,” and he was off.
Right now, it’s Day 3, since the “break up.”
I’m still hurting.
Emotionally detaching from a bond is painful. You’ve dug your roots into each other. You’ve become comfortable. We’ve cleaned each other’s ears. I’ve stuck my fingers up his nose. We’ve laughed at stupid Internet videos together. His hands know exactly where to nestle, along the curve of my body. I’ve fallen asleep to his heart beat. He’s seen me in my worst, my most selfish. I’ve seen him cry, sulk, flare up in anger.
There was a growing vulnerability and intimacy that we shared, even if it was synthetic, even if it took time.
I do miss him, terribly so. I miss waking up to text messages. I miss being held. The gaps between my fingers seem hollow. I fight the urge to text him and take it all back.
I know it’s not going to be easy. But at least, maybe my conscience will rest a little easier, this way. My stupid heart won’t have it any other way.
I wish relationships didn’t have to be this complex, but maybe it’s only as complex as it needs to be. Maybe this is the right thing to do, for now. Maybe in five, ten years —we will look back and realise that this was one of the best decisions we ever made. Maybe I need to remind myself, why, after all this time, after trying so hard, something in me still felt compelled to do this. It’s no one’s fault.
And then, on the other side of rationalising, there is sadness, and a lonely, blue silence, screaming to be filled.
I hope you’re okay. I think of you, I miss you a lot, and I’m sorry. May time bring us clarity, peace and healing.
Step 1. Come home to an empty house.
Step 2. Plop on the couch and try to beat your friends at an online video game. Spend approximately one hour on the phone (I’m playing Endless Lake, with beautiful visuals and an ambient soundtrack).
Step 3. Cook. Methodically, slowly, patiently. I marinaded some mince and soaked some rice. Planning to cook century egg congee tomorrow. For dinner, I decided to make grilled mackerel, with miso soup, and sautéed bean sprouts. I basted the mackerel with sweet unagi sauce and roasted sesame sauce, for a finishing touch.
Step 4. Tuck into a hot meal. The fish was amazing. I had dinner to a Youtube channel called “The Art Assignment.” The video was arguing for a “Case of Copying” in art. It posits that copying itself could be a form of art. That revered artists aren’t exactly doing anything original — they copy and are copied themselves. However, they have the advantage of social approval, which allows the copying to be seen as novelty. It was an interesting point.
Step 5. Take a hot bath. My mirror was steamed up.
Step 6. Make a cup of hot tea. Tonight I’m making “Riotous Rose” by T2. It’s filled my room with the smell of rose petals.
Step 7. Play a sad tune on the piano, and try to imagine that you’ve overlayed auditory sound effects on it. If I were to ever make my own musical track, it would be full of quiet piano and ambient, dreamy vocals— the sort of sound you hear when you combine a microphone, and reverbs.
Step 8. Put on the sweater you like.
Step 9. Let it sink in.
Try to remember that one of the most important things you will ever learn to do in life, is how to be alone. Who am I when there’s nobody around me? What am I when I’m stripped bare, and I have nothing? Will I ache for the warmth and company of another, or can I feel satisfaction and peace, and fulfilment, within my own presence?
It’s been a while since I’ve been alone, and it’s a bit like learning to breathe again. At first, the instinct is to run back to warmth. Anyone will do. You sit in uncomfortable silence, then you sit with it. You allow yourself to panic, then you find yourself calming down. You’re alone, you’re still okay. You trust that this is temporary, and there are many forms of company, just as there are many forms of loneliness. Sometimes loneliness hits right in the face of company. Sometimes silence is company itself.
Tonight I had a good dinner, by myself. I cooked and cleaned in meditative silence. I watched an educational Youtube video. I reached out to other people I care about. I made myself a mug of hot tea. Now I’m all rugged up in a nice sweater, listening to Breathing Underwater, in a series of acoustic musical sessions called Mahogany Sessions.
I’ve missed myself. It’s been a while.