The Year of Doing Hard Things: Reclaiming Myself

Shibuya Crossing | Tokyo, Japan

Hello December, 2022 had it all.

At the core of it is really a deep questioning of identity. Layers upon layers.

A big part of it was learning this year that my father has finally been given the diagnosis of bipolar, after well over two decades of onsets. It felt such validation but also mostly intense confusion. Like, why did it take so long?

All that I was made to wrongly believe about myself in my teenage years – at the onset of his condition – that has gone on to mostly breed my susceptible fall into toxic relationships. From friendships, work, to romantic relationships – many would call it “it’s complicated” or “long suffering” – often by choice which is why it’s so tragic.

It’s like I thrive off being the “last friend standing” when everyone else have checked out on a difficult friendship. It would take me way too long to start drawing necessary boundaries in such relationships until I was completely burnout from it or be dealt a traumatic end to it. On the flip side though, being a mostly very private person, I ended up also having a very loyal, small inner circle.

I learned most of it the hard way but it also led me to a place today where I can quickly identify good vs. toxic bosses, etcetera. Even so, particularly in the work and romantic relationship departments of my life, there are far more experiences of allowing myself to be treated carelessly. And often only leaving when it has been soul crushing.

The popular word they use these days is ‘gaslighting’. It was always bounced around if my father was the problem or was it my mother? My mother excusing or covering up for my father’s erratic behavior – for not knowing better herself – did not help too.

In a recent workplace, the gaslighting got so out of hand, it took God sending a senior leader on my team, who called to meet a day before my departure just to tell me he had simply witnessed it all on the sidelines and called it a spade a spade – for when I had no proper words for what I had experienced. I will never forget how being treated carefully feels like from then.

As a young person I was always confused why my mother chose to suffer through what we then-didn’t have a name for my father’s erratic behavior. Is that love? Or is that fear? It took well over ten years before we could even type it as “clinical depression” when medication became inevitable after he got into an accident.

But it was also so much more than depression, and it kept coming back… worse?

The severity and frequency of these mood swings can have a considerable impact on a family’s day-to-day life. The bipolar parent may spend all their savings during a manic episode, creating constant financial instability for the family. Or they may stop going to work during depressive episodes, resulting in the parent continuously being let go from positions. The mood swings can create a highly anxious, unpredictable household.

— “Growing Up With a Bipolar Parent

We (or rather my father really) may have been bankrupt at least twice since his onset. We moved every year in the first four years of my teens, so leaving home on my own by seventeen wasn’t that big of a thing for what I was put through at that age already.

Earlier on, I was mostly angry my mother did not make it ‘easier’ for me to seek help. At his first onset, I was in my early teens — and I didn’t know what to call it, or if I was really the problem for my father’s behavior. If my parents had been divorced, it would give me something to reach to and explain away why “home” was such a dark place.

Instead I got nowhere sharing it with people. I’d go to school with scars covered up.

I was attending a “socialite” all-girls high school where “wholesome families” was the norm. I was thirteen, and an incident that left me deeply scarred was when a classmate, who was supposedly a good friend then and a model student for the most part (and oh, a Christian!) questioned if I was just being unnecessarily dramatic when I tried sharing about it. Later, I know it was just inconceivable in her (young) mind that dysfunctional families exist. No surprises, I didn’t become a fan of Christians growing up.

The good news is I started inner healing work fairly young, coinciding with eventually encountering Jesus when I was nineteen. It helped too that leaving home to a different country meant I led separate lives from my parents, and raised myself working two or three jobs while at uni with my mother supporting with whatever little she could.

And because of the inner healing work done, there had been reconciliation between my father and I for the most part. While in uni, I received a random email from him one day where he apologized for his behavior towards me in my teenage years (that I still did not how to talk about what it all was – it was just so intense that I can’t even read my teenage journals without feeling nauseous).

I later moved back home for a season to seek full closure for myself. I still think that was one of the bravest thing I did in life. But sadly, half of the three years was plagued by repeated onsets that I distinctively remember after one of his onsets, I left and checked into a hotel. I asked a best friend in Singapore, who knew my family well, to do a “staycation” for my own sanity sake.

Growing up in this type of dysfunctional environment makes it nearly impossible to escape unscathed as children need to feel emotionally safe, loved unconditionally and free to be children and not caretakers for parents who are alternatively volatile and needy.

— “I Have a Parent with Bipolar Disorder

The big difference in those three years in Singapore is I had a very secure church community of friends who loved very well, I had a fantastic flexible lecturing job and students, and I was actively serving in the local sports scene and doing overseas missions in Cambodia, and I often took solo travel trips around the world too to give myself the space I needed to continue to heal.

But, in some ways it also felt like it undid any reconciliations as much as it feels like a release and without resentment. I then left home again at 25, after three years of seeking closure in Singapore, and I want to say I never looked back since but I did allow for him to be at my wedding a few years after.

My therapist in the Bay Area, who happens to be born in Singapore to understand the culture quirks too, asked jokingly: “Did your parents end up suing you for not giving them money?” We both had a good chuckle from that. (This news story for reference.)

The best friend I wrote about earlier ended up overnight cutting me and her other close friends off to pursue a toxic relationship herself. I lost a dear friend whom I still think of a lot, and perhaps spent far too many years questioning or self-blaming if it was my fault when close relationships would end in rather traumatic ways. Or, was it the type of friendships or relationships I would be ‘drawn to’ to only be wrecked by it.

Because mostly, the damage my father’s behavior did to my self-perception in all the life relationships I am or was “lost” in is something – now that he’s properly typed as bipolar – I feel I can begin the hard work of what many children of bipolar parents would call “the journey to reclaim myself”. (I’m also writing these out hoping others in my shoes will feel seen – something my younger self deeply longed for.)

I was no longer living at home when my father’s clinical depression diagnosis finally came around about ten years ago, and it was then the first time I could really first reclaim a proper voice to what my teenage self went through – not all but – mostly.

Now that it has taken these ten years to really dig deep to get to my father’s bipolar diagnosis this year, I feel like it’s the first time I can really properly “see” myself — and able to assess reclaiming myself in light of past and present relationships in my life.

It’s a hard thing to – and let’s just say – it’s led to a cascade of hard things to do this year. Going into 2022, I had thought childbirth and postpartum would be the hardest thing to do this year for me physically, and in our marriage, and in my faith or calling.

Turns out, it was only the tip of the iceberg.

So long, 2022.

Part I: The Year of Doing Hard Things

Part II: Unsettled, Unequal and Uncomfortable Things

Part III: Royal but Ordinary Victorious Things