Back home: Catching my breath on familiar ground

Returning from the fringe series

Like I said earlier, when I came back to Malaysia from Madison, USA, I had a roof over my head, food to eat (thanks to my sisters-in-law’s great cooking!) and money from a part-time job that paid quite well. So, I was spared the anxieties of physical survival and used all my energies on the ongoing mental overhaul.

I was so absorbed by mental stress that I barely lived, just survived. The job was the only “work” I did because I needed money to live. Besides, it offered a distraction from the thoughts preoccupying my mind! But, I couldn’t do anything else. To this day it is a point of contention with my sisters-in-law that I didn’t do any housework! There wasn’t much they could do because my brothers were known to say: “She’s my sister, you know!” It was a major adjustment for them!

When I first got back, I couldn’t hold a normal conversation with anyone for even half an hour without it exhausting me out! I stayed out of the social circuit, but I kept in touch with good ole’ friends, those I knew before I left for the US. I couldn’t sustain a relationship with new friends and stopped trying. The friends I made were those who quietly and confidently sidled up to me and talked calmly and these naturally lasted a long time — but they were very, very, very few and far between!

The only people I could handle were my nieces and nephews because they demanded nothing from me, and it was stress-free being with them! They are still very close to me.

I didn’t take on anything new. I found comfort and relief with the familiar — family, old friends and the usual routine. That was all I could handle, because, mentally, I always felt like I was  in the deep end, thrashing around in the water, gasping for air. Each day was a mental effort to stay afloat. But the familiar gave me breathing space.

Then, I got the part-time job as an English teacher. I went for something under my capacity because I intuitively knew I couldn’t take on anything challenging. Because I was good in the language, preparing for classes took very little time. I could also choose my teaching hours, and scheduled my time-table so that I got mornings off where I could.

During the free mornings, I would spend hours lying on my stomach, hands in prayer position as I had “quiet time” with God. I don’t know whether it was prayer or meditation or what but I spent a lot of time”talking to God”. I would pour my heart out and tell God — if it were really Him — exactly how I felt about everyone and every thing.

It was during those times that I developed three spiritual disciplines which eventually characterized my faith. I learnt to be brutally honest with God. I would dissect every emotion I felt at that time, describing how I felt and why. Even if I had an inkling of the deepest, darkest thought, I would bring it up to my consciousness, explaining and tracing its origins.

Secondly, after “talking with God”, I would read the Bible, a small portion at a time, and consider its implications on my life and make decisions accordingly. I wouldn’t get up until I felt a sense of release. Then, I could face the day.

I, particularly, began to experience that every time I responded positively to Scripture, it relieved inner mental stress. I could breathe, and the days got easier. That was when I began to take my times with God seriously, and strictly enforced the third spiritual discipline of putting aside a couple of hours every morning for “quiet times” with God. I follow these disciplines to this day.

Soon after I returned, the political science department at UW-Madison, which had offered me a place to do a master’s, wrote to me saying that they were reserving my place and asked when I would return. They sent the same note in the second semester, by which time I knew I was in no shape to go back and wrote back saying so.

A few years later, I felt like the depression had lifted. I use the word “depression” to mean a heaviness over me, not as the mental illness.

I decided then it was time to test my degree in journalism and called up The Star — the paper I had worked for before going to university — for a job. They offered me a position as a sub-editor and I went back to journalism.

NEXT FRI: Learning to live alone

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