A letter to myself

A letter to myself

Note: I found this letter in amongst my files, dated 14 July 2017. 2017 was one of the most pivotal years of my short adult life where I had a nervous breakdown and was barely able to get out of bed, let alone, function as a contributing member of society. I am so glad I had the foresight to write this letter as it happened since we always seem to hear only the positive stories when the storm has passed.

Dear Anna,

It will be inevitable that one day you will look back on this period of your life and ask ‘what on earth happened?’ Well, this letter will hopefully explain away this dark period of your life and the decisions that you made. Importantly, it will hopefully reiterate to you that this was the right decision at the time. I think this is a significant point to highlight because I know what you will be thinking. By the time this shitty period has passed and you are thinking more clearly, you will be asking why you made such a career limiting move at this early stage in your career. Furthermore, you will probably be bored out of your mind and allowing all the negative thoughts to take over. The fact of the matter was you were not functioning. Well, we were not functioning. On a very high level, you appeared to the outside world to be competent, capable and very much able to go about your day to day activities. Or so you’ve been told anyway. No one seems to know how much you were suffering internally and to an extent, I don’t think even you knew either. The human mind is amazing, it has this capacity to normalise even the most abnormal experiences. I guess it’s the only way that we can keep going – it’s a survival mechanism.

The short end of it is that for about four months, things weren’t going too well on the health front. You were constantly plagued with gastrointestinal issues that you thought were related to stress and anxiety and promptly sought help from a psychologist. Done, it seemed like that was sufficient to tick the box and that would qualify as adequately addressing the problem. Throughout this period, you moved out, you went to a job interview, you secured said job and you took on a heavier workload because one of your colleagues left. It is only with the benefit of hindsight now that this can be assessed as a stressful period in your life. Gradually the pressure built. It was a multifaceted type of pressure that flowed from the pressure of doing a good job in your current job, getting better for the next job and all the usual pressures. It only seems now that with the benefit of hindsight you can see that this pressure has been cumulative and built over a decade. Those bouts of insomnia during year twelve, the ‘crazy thoughts’ that swirled through your mind whilst you wandered around the streets at 5am with your mother, all so it would go away. Throughout university, every time an exam was scheduled in the morning, it was just an accepted fact that you would not be sleeping the night before. You put ABC24 on, slipped a Valerian and hoped that you could get two hours of sleep to do your exams. Every year, your body would flail slightly, mostly around June and November, and your lungs would be taken over by prolonged bouts of bronchitis which you just put down to your asthma. Your body was desperately waving these signs which your mind kept ignoring for a solid decade.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that your body has finally decided to relent after years of being abused.

Gradually over a period of two or three weeks, it became more and more difficult to do basic things like eating. Whilst the eating aspect of this anxiety spell had been an issue for months, it had never became an issue that you became physically unable to eat. Whenever it was lunch time or dinner, your throat would close up and it would be a similar sensation to when you’re crying and there is a lump in your throat making it difficult to swallow and breathe. The anxiety that you had worked so hard to contain to ‘out of work hours’ started seeping into work. The strict and artificial boundaries you had created were slowly being ripped down. You would open up your emails in the morning and feel overwhelmed by emails that ordinarily you would have relished had built up in your inbox. Basic things started becoming very difficult. By this point, 8 kilograms had somehow been lost. You found it impossible to get on the trains in the morning without having a panic attack. As a ‘work around’, you would catch the 67 tram and the 20 minute train journey would be replaced by an hour and twenty minutes. In the day to day hubbub of trying to get through life, the absurdity of being held hostage by my thoughts and my body did not become apparent until much later.

Finally, the watershed moment would occur when you fainted in public and an ambulance was called. The many months of gradually restricting your food intake and probably the lack of food absorption made this moment pretty inevitable. The timing could not have come at a worse time given that it was your final week at Victoria Police and you would be starting your new job following a week’s leave. This was the lightening rod moment. The moment where you can say that objectively your body has had enough and was giving you the strongest message that it could that it was completely over it. The months (possibly even years) of stress had reached breaking point and your body was not willing to put up with this shit any longer.

Then began the meds that you had fought four months against. You read obsessively about the side effects of your antidepressant medication, the likelihood of addiction and the prescribed period that one must be on before they can get off it; you became obsessed with the idea of getting off them. Medication for you was a sign of failure, a sign that all the psychotherapy, healthy eating and exercise was not enough to wage the battle of the mind, which explains why you resisted for so long. Furthermore, the side effects were pretty much as described on Dr. Google. On the first week, you tried to go to work the final four days of your job and were plagued by dizziness. Anxiety spiked higher than you thought your body could handle and you were barely able to get out of bed to the kitchen. It was in those moments, I wondered whether there was any point. If I was barely able to pull myself out of bed and do basic things like cook and clean myself, how could I ever go back to being a functioning adult? As the days went on, the waves of nausea, dizziness and anxiety started to level out and I was able to be coaxed out of the house by my partner and my mother who forced me to walk every day.

Weighing on your mind was the new job you were supposed to be taking on the following week. You had rationalised, ‘right, I have one week of annual leave to get on these drugs and be better for my job working in horrific child abuse cases and high volume court work’. You literally spent a whole week rationalising whether or not to take the job. Again, in hindsight, it is incredible to grasp that you thought one week would be enough to ‘get over’ a nervous breakdown that was a decade in the making.

Finally, you jumped. You chose to ‘commit career suicide’ and called it in. And from that moment on, your body and your health takes precedent over all those swirling thoughts. Who cares what everyone thinks about you if you can’t barely get from A to B without shitting yourself.

REVIEW: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

REVIEW: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

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Young adult as a genre has certainly moved on from the one-dimensional fluffy books of my youth. Recently, I have found myself completely enthralled in young adult fiction that has been able to tackle issues of mental health, inter-sectionality and sexuality in an incredibly nuanced and sensitive way. Furthermore, there are simply more Asian-Australian authors who are able to weave in the complexities of identity and belonging in contemporary Australia such as Laurinda by Alice Pung, all of which wasn’t really around when I was a teenager,

Regardless, when I picked up The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, I was still struck by how well a young adult novel could touch on all these issues and I wished that this genre had the same level of sophistication when I was growing up.

In Wai Chim’s novel, we’re introduced to 16 year old Anna Chiu who desperately wants to be ‘normal’. By day, she is an ordinary high school student navigating the ordinary teenage struggles of friendship and academia, but by night, we find out that she holds a significant role in holding her family together as their mother is in the grips of a severe mental illness. The novel never explicitly touches on what the illness is, which enables us to follow Anna’s confusion and frustration at her mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour that culminates in a public psychotic episode in the family’s restaurant that undoes all the barriers Anna puts up.

This is particularly humiliating for Anna, who has kept her home life a secret from her friends and even her boyfriend, Rory, who divulges that he too suffered from mental health issues.

For many children of migrant parents, we can all identify with having with translate Centrelink forms and conversations between our parents and teachers, eating unusual foods and in Anna’s case, having to be a mother to her younger siblings and a confidante to her father, all whilst hiding what was going on at home to her friends and boyfriend.

The parts that struck me the most in the novel were mostly relating to the dynamics between Anna and her father. Her father’s attitude towards mental health is typical of Asian men who have grown up in a certain era; namely, that it is something that is seldom spoken about and if it is, it is something that can be beaten with a ‘can do’ attitude. When Anna’s mother is hospitalised for her psychosis, we see Anna’s father desperately try to convince the doctor that her condition is put down to ‘watching too much bad news on TV’ and that it can be cured by ensuring that she stops watching the news. Anna’s resentment and frustration increases when it appears that her father has not made any effort to visit the hospital whilst her mother is there and he is essentially denying the extent of her condition.

Furthermore, the dynamics between Anna and her father were underscored by this sense of trying to make him proud and to appease him, even in the face of his ever-present barrier of grim stoicism and pride. My heart broke every time Anna tried to suggest innovative ideas to improve the dwindling business of their Gosford Chinese restaurant, and Chim definitely takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions as we see her father slowly accept that his daughter’s ideas are actually worth pursuing and break the traditional Asian mould where children are seen but not heard.

Finally, the love story between Anna and Rory is not your typical, syrupy teenage love story; Chim does not allow the relationship to verge anywhere near this despite Anna’s desire to be a ‘normal’ teenager. We see the complexities of a teenage romance; of the strains that mental health issues can put on a budding relationship, of the toll of secrets when you try to bury mental health issues because of shame and embarrassment. It was notable to see a typically blokey guy be the protagonist of a complex mental health story and to see a character speak openly about his vulnerabilities and experiences.

I am so thrilled to see a young adult navigate its way down these complex issues facing teenagers in a sensitive and touching way. I remember being so sick of young adult writers, who were often in their late twenties, trying to explain to adolescent me how I should be seeing the world which often felt out of touch and hard to relate to. Perhaps Chim’s brilliant book can pave the way for adults to acknowledge that growing up is not always that easy and that though they may be younger, teens’ issues cannot be reduced.

Ethnic parents: navigating the cultural divide

Ethnic parents: navigating the cultural divide

The usual Asian-Australian trajectory is this: you spend your teens resenting your otherness and wishing that you had a pronounceable last name; you then spend the rest of your adulthood awash with ethnic guilt from your parents and feeling like the world is tugging at you from all sides.

As I have settled into my twenties, I have become more comfortable with my identity as an Asian-Australian. But the more I grow to accept that part of me, the greater the sense that I am straddling the line between the Eastern sense of familial obligation and the Western lure of freedom and individualism. This is especially the case as my parents get older and the dynamic between parent and child starts shifting.

In the 1970s and 80s when Vietnamese refugees made their way to Australia, many Australians reported being baffled that these people, who had just fled war with nothing but the clothes on their backs, would send the pittance that they made in their factory jobs back to their family home in Vietnam. In my own family, my father sent all his earnings from his work as a factory hand at BHP back home to support his mother and siblings, all the while surviving on the bare necessities. I am sure for others like him, living the basic life in Australia was more than plentiful compared to the postwar poverty that engulfed his homeland and all the family members he left behind.

In interracial relationships, the tension between the East and the West becomes even more pronounced, particularly when the issues of family arise. I never realised how deeply I had internalised my parents’ lectures about sacrifice and family obligations until they were recently tested by my partner and his family. For them, just like the Australians in the 80s, it was difficult for them to understand why anyone would willingly sacrifice their own immediate ‘happiness’ for the sake of their family, namely their parents and why one would willingly accept the ‘burden’ of responsibility for their parents.

The South East Asian approaches to family are largely shaped by Confucian philosophies that place an emphasis on filial piety and collectivism. Filial piety refers to the idea that parents are expected to act in their child’s best interests and in return, children are expected to return the favour for their sacrifices by showing them respect and obedience, a routine that is passed on from generation to generation. In practical terms, it also entails that children are expected to care for their elderly parents in the same way they were cared for as a child.

Confucian philosophy is so pervasive in South East Asian societies that it creates a number of practical reasons why family members have to take on greater responsibilities for their ageing family members. For instance, there is a lack of adequate social security (if any) and limited infrastructure to care for the elderly that is independent of family support. In Australia, the concept of culturally and linguistically diverse nursing homes is only now emerging, but many will still prefer to live with their families as this is consistent with their cultural beliefs and easier than overcoming language and cultural barriers that may arise in a nursing home setting.

And so arises the guilt for Asian-Australians like myself who have been raised between the Eastern-Western cultural lines. Which approach is best?

My mother told me that the best part of migrating to Australia was that was an opportunity to form a new identity through the ability to pick and choose the best of each culture. In response, I agreed: the notion of filial piety should not be a universal assumption and parents cannot assume their kids will always ‘give back’. Rather, for parents who have done the hard yards, who have sacrificed so much for their children and raised them with love and compassion, those parents will be the ones who will get to reap the benefits of their children coming back to them. And for my parents, it will not be an obligation, but an active and informed choice made possible by the freedom of being raised an Australian.

Junior doctors and lawyers, we must overcome our Stockholm Syndrome

Junior doctors and lawyers, we must overcome our Stockholm Syndrome

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Image via Michigan Health Lab

Many comparisons can be drawn between the legal and medical professions. Both professions are steeped in elitism, entrenched from long histories of tradition and societal respect. For junior lawyers and doctors, entry into these professions is defined by rigid paths of vocational training, which is highly competitive and heavily relies on the collegiality and support of your senior supervisors and peers. Tragically, both professions have also been touched by spates of suicides at the junior level and increasingly high levels of mental illness amongst its ranks. Despite this, both professions have been slow to address the systemic issues that give rise to mental health issues and little has been done to address the entrenched attitudes that dismiss mental health issues or worse, perceive mental illness as a personal weakness that justifies why some people aren’t ‘cut out’ for the profession.

We have a problem

The statistics are in and it is now is undeniable that people in the legal and medical professions suffer from a disproportionately higher level of mental distress than the general population. A 2013 report commissioned by Beyond Blue found that doctors suffered ‘substantially higher rates of psychological distress and suicide attempts than the Australian population and other Australian professionals’. Alarmingly, 24.8% of those surveyed had suicidal thoughts within the last 12 months, with 2% attempting suicide during this period.

These findings closely reflect similar studies conducted in the legal profession. In Courting the Blues, one of the most comprehensive studies into Australian lawyers’ experience with mental health, the authors found that respondents reported a higher level of psychological distress not only when compared to the general population but also when compared to medical students.

Interestingly, this report also gives us insight into attitudes towards mental illness. 50% of respondents thought that their employer would be discriminatory about mental health. This was higher in the student population at 62.6%, likely because they have yet to have experience in the workplace. Whilst most of the respondents reported positive attitudes towards people with mental health issues, the report found that a significant number of people still held negative attitudes about mental health such as the 19% of law students who believed that people with depression are dangerous. In short, we have a well established problem that needs strong leadership and significant reform.

Stop using resilience as a cop out

 What prompted me to write this post was the response to a recent Insight episode on SBS that explored mental health amongst medical students and junior doctors. The overall consensus was that the crippling hours coupled with an unsympathetic work culture led those interviewed to experience depression, anxiety and suicidal ideations.

What pissed me off was reading a letter to the editor published the following day from the dean of one of Victoria’s medical schools. In this letter, he acknowledged that rostering could be improved as a means of improving mental health but concluded by saying that ultimately doctors needed to develop resilience to deal with the hours, stress and daily trauma. This struck me as such a cop out and a real divergence from a rare opportunity to actually reform aspects of the profession. By putting the responsibility solely on the individual, the profession can essentially wash its hands of its culpability.

Following the suicide of her sister Dr Chloe Abbott earlier this year, Micaela Abbott spoke at an Australian Medical Students’ Association conference saying that it wasn’t the lack of resilience that killed her sister, rather it was the systemic failures within the profession. It strikes me as insulting to insinuate that doctors or lawyers who suffer from mental health issues or commit suicide are somehow less resilient than others as a means for entire professions to avoid having to do the hard yards and critically examine the entrenched cultural problems. I’m not denying that resilience is a crucial tool for everyone but the roots of mental health problems are multifaceted and cannot be solely blamed due to a person’s lack of resilience.

In the legal profession, firms have rushed to introduce mindfulness programs and yoga as a means of ensuring their employees’ wellbeing is being looked after. Again, these solutions place the responsibility solely on the individual to build coping mechanisms to deal with the large workloads, hours and stress, rather than addressing any structural causes of these problems and attempting to address the harder issues of workload allocation and billing structures.

There are solutions, but…

There are certainly practical solutions that can be utilised to overcome this rise in mental health issues. For lawyers, it has been suggested that the abolition of time-based billing will alleviate some of the pressure placed on lawyers. Time based billing involves billing clients in six-minute increments, something which strikes me as inefficient and also destructive as many are expected to bill 7 hours a day which usually requires a minimum of 10 hours in the office  (a conversation for another day!). For doctors, it has been suggested that rosters are amended, with the AMA Safe Hours campaign leading the charge to regulate breaks and shift hours. Overall, the recommendations for reform rest on practising safe work hours.

However, none of this will ever be implemented until those within the profession recognise there is a problem and do something about it. This needs to come from all levels of leadership. These ideas will be difficult, if not impossible to implement, unless there is consensus that something needs to be done about it accompanied with a huge attitudinal and cultural shift.

We have been brainwashed

In numerous conversations with junior doctors and lawyers, many recoiled at the possibility of challenging the crippling work hours they are expected to perform. Junior doctors routinely work two to three hours over their rostered hours due to the cultural expectation that if you were really serious about your job, you would be ‘putting in the hours’. This can result in 12 to 14 hour shifts. Imagine that next time you’re at the hospital.

It is a similar story at most top and mid tier law firms where 3am finishes are the norm, particularly in the litigation world where it is expected you will be on the beck and call of the client.

As a junior lawyer, I get it. It is impossible to challenge the status quo when your non-existent career is at risk. It’s viewed as career suicide. But we also need to critically examine these conditions, compare them to other professions and realise that this is not acceptable and that we can play our small role in advocating for reform by acknowledging it as a problem rather than blindly resigning ourselves to it.

During those conversations with junior doctors, I sat there dumbfounded whilst they competed over who performed the most overtime and was even more astonished when they said that working 14 hours is not a problem, it was merely a rite of passage for a junior doctor. When I raised the possibility of rostering reform, one person said that it would be ‘impossible’ to reduce the hours doctors work without disrupting patient changeover. It was so disillusioning to think that this culture had this junior doctor so deeply within its clutches already to the point where he was resigned to the fact that it will never get better. It is even worse to think that he is likely to do nothing to make it better for the next generation of doctors.

Ultimately, no regulation or yoga or mindfulness will ever work unless these cultural issues are addressed, particularly at the senior level. Whilst building resilience is an important aspect, we also need to critically examine the wider problems leading to this significant mental health problem in these professions. We need senior lawyers and doctors to get rid of this notion that they need to put juniors through the ringer because that’s what they had to go through during their early years and start leading the charge with making things better for the next generation. But for the younger generation of doctors and lawyers, we need to switch our critical minds on and get some perspective. These are, objectively, unhealthy practices.  Without recognising this as a real problem, things will never change and some of our most brightest and talented peers will continue dying.

 

In Defence of the Humble Library

In Defence of the Humble Library

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Image via quirkbooks.com

At a time where Netflix and iPads reign supreme, it is easy to overlook the old public library. It seems logical that with all these technological advances, public libraries would be as obsolete as video stores. However, this is certainly not the case. Rather, libraries have become a vibrant hub in the community that gives people a reason to come together, something that is important in our increasingly disconnected world.

If you have stepped foot in one recently, one stark difference will be the absence of rows of books. In keeping pace with the times and also to maintain their relevance, many libraries have now transformed that space into community hubs that welcome people from all walks of life. You can banish the thoughts of the dimly lit rows of musty books and replace it with tables of students studying, senior citizens playing chess and children enjoying story time. Having recently spent more time in my public library, it was striking to see the sense of connectedness that the library brings to all its consumers. It is one of the few places where entry is not barred by age or socio-economic status and now, no longer barred by your hatred of books.

So often, we hear about the isolation and loneliness encountered by our senior citizens. This is exacerbated for those who are not computer literate or are non-English speaking. However, when I saw the rows of senior men from a range of different backgrounds playing chess, it was particularly heartening to know that community can still be fostered in spite of the fast paced modern world. During another period of the week, I observed a group of elderly women at the ready with their knitting gear, ready for an afternoon of knitting and catching up. During story time, I saw hoards of kids from different backgrounds run enthusiastically towards the kids area. Behind them were their parents, grandparents and other assorted family members, all of whom came from various cultural backgrounds and ages. It would seem that story time (and the opportunity to have a break from child minding) has the ability to unite in a way that transcends language and cultural barriers, much in the same way as chess and knitting club.

For most of my time in high school and VCE, the library was my de facto office. It provided the sterile lighting and minimal comfort that was conducive to studying. I remember the irritation that I would feel when I could hear the screeches coming from the children’s play area or when people were talking too loudly, selfishly thinking about how much these distractions detracted from my studies. In reality, the amount of time and energy I spent focusing on these distractions probably outweighed the actual distraction. Now that I have had the time (and maturity) to step away from my selfishness, it is almost embarrassing to think that I was trying to take this away from people. For some, this time in the library may be the only time in their day where they get to step away from the mundaneness of reality, whether that be to take a break from looking after the kids or simply to take a break from their crushing loneliness.

If you haven’t been to your local public library in a long time, I encourage you to poke your head in and have a wander. At a time where the funding for public libraries is largely precarious and reliant on local government, we need to vote with our feet and ensure that these community hubs are sustained as we move towards a potentially paper-free future and greater isolation.

Why has ‘busyness’ become an excuse for being an asshole?

Why has ‘busyness’ become an excuse for being an asshole?

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Everyone is just oh so busy these days and it seems like we are more than happy to use this as an excuse for not treating our fellow humans with common decency. But one has to wonder, at what cost?

Recently, I was listening to a podcast with Mia Freedman where she expressed her disdain of phone calls. Personally, phone calls always elicit a sense of anxiety for me because, unlike emails, you have to think on the spot and often have to detour off my prepared script, especially when dealing with an emotional client. However, I recognise there is definitely a place for phone calls both in the professional world and in my personal life, especially because there are so many things that can be lost in translation via text. The subtleties of tone and subtext cannot be easily translated in cold, hard letters. When delivering particularly hard news, there is no alternative to making the call, no matter how hard this may be.

Freedman said that those who left her voice messages were ‘selfish and arrogant’ for daring to impinge on some of her precious time and that she needed time to ‘psychologically prepare’ herself before to engaging in a phone conversation. Alarmingly, this view was echoed by her co-hosts in the podcast, leaving me wondering whether it is widely reflected in modern society. In the age of smartphones and the multitude of platforms we can use to communicate with each other, have we lost the basic art of being able to communicate? As a society, what have we come to when the simple art of human communication is deemed to be ‘arrogant’ or ‘selfish’ to others? Or perhaps it is just the case that we are hiding behind our devices and the façade of ‘busyness’ to the detriment of our relationships.

It seems clichéd to say that we have never been better connected before. The advent of the internet and the smartphone has opened up numerous avenues of communication but it has also created socially acceptable ways for people to be avoidant and flakey. When scrolling through the endless notifications across Facebook, text, Whatsapp and Snapchat, how many times have you simply forgotten to message someone back? Or perhaps you made a mental note to respond to that person but months later their message remains unanswered? Modern communication is somewhat analogous to the cereal aisle at Woolworths. There are now so many options to communicate that many of us are overwhelmed or paralysed by the barrage of information coming at us. And naturally when one is overwhelmed, the logical next step is avoidance.

What further justifies this behaviour is our busy modern lives. Every time I’ve asked someone how they are, 99% of the time the response is ‘busy, busy!’ Technology coupled with our increasingly casualised workforce has meant that we’re all working longer hours and sacrificing a lot of our time with family and friends to stay afloat in the job market. We end up feeling justified for not responding to barrage of messages because we’re ‘too busy’ to respond to the trivialities of when you’re going home for dinner next or what movie you’re going to see with your partner. As with the Freedman example, resentment slowly trickles in as you become annoyed that these people are snapping away at your precious and seemingly limited time. Often, those who cop the brunt of this are those who are the nearest and dearest to you.

Despite these pressures, we have to find a way to remind ourselves to be connected to others in a meaningful way. At the end of the day, your job isn’t going to give a shit if you succumb to illness or disability. I call bullshit on the notion that you can be too busy to pick up the phone and have a proper conversation with people. We are all capable of prioritising and making time for what matters most. Let’s call it out for what it is: if you’re hiding behind your smartphone and your ‘busyness’ as a way of avoiding people, you’re probably just being an asshole. Pick up the phone.