I am more or less back on an even keel after another manic depressive cycle triggered from remembering and writing down the previous chapters. It was bad, I had persistent migraines, I was unable to focus, I slept very little then I slept a lot. This unexpected break in the chronology of memory became the basis of this chapter. As I reread and revised the previous chapters, I excavated even deeper in the recesses of my memory to uncover why containing my struggle was paramount, why I wanted to disappear at 13. I was dishonest with myself then, but I can be honest now – as a child, I knew I was a monster..
The one period of my life I cannot remember then and now was kindergarten. My birth certificate stated I was born left handed but my dominant hand is my right hand. I asked my mother and she told me the kindergarten teacher had tied my left hand behind the chair every day and forced me to use my right hand to pick things up, to write, to eat. i was punished if I failed. My conversion was a success they said. There was a typology of status growing up in Singapore at that time that was understood when you stepped into a home; it starts with ceramic tile floors like my family had, to carpet, to wood parquet, to marble floors – worthless limestone metamorphosed by constant heat and pressure.
Since childhood I always felt too old too wise to inhabit my body, I felt like I was a man in his 40s. Others commented on my maturity and precocity. I knew I was different – I did not have the same emotions or empathy as other people. I could not comprehend and was incapable of feelings of trust or love. To me the basic interactions and affect between people were not genuine but merely proforma words and gestures, a script I mimicked from observations to mask my true response. I was unmoved by death and tragedy, I thought the sadness of others was just an act.
My mother caned me almost every day at the slightest provocation, the slightest mistake, any time I slipped up my mother’s image of the perfect family, the perfect son, the eldest grandson; anything that made her lose face in front of relatives, friends and colleagues. My typical flat emotionless response enraged her more and I would be caned until welts formed and I cried from the pain. Each time she whipped the cane across my body, she told me she was beating me because she loved me. Well, I don’t need your love. I don’t need this love. I don’t need love.
Once she caught me buying a soft drink on my way home from school and she beat me mercilessly. Why did I waste my pocket money? Did I not know how hard she worked? Why don’t I take a close look at the disfiguring caesarean scar I gave her? It only made me curious what lies and broken rules I could get away with without getting caught. I was a product of societal obligation, born from her disappointments and aborted dreams, I accepted that. One day when I lost or stole some money, she beat me until her arms were tired and made me kneel in front of the ancestor’s altar to repent from shame (it was supposed to be the most humiliating punishment from what I gleaned from Chinese TV dramas). I knelt from morning till evening with my head bowed, I inwardly laughed to myself; stupid bitch, don’t you know I have no shame? I could gladly defile your ancestor’s graves if I felt like it.
Although I read voraciously across different subjects (because I got bored easily), I was not a model student, my grades were uneven. I found rote-based school and homework tiresome and did not bother paying attention or complete homework on time. Unlike most classmates who doodled when they were not paying attention, I drew up elaborate plans for fantastical fountains and gardens. When it came time for important exams, I was able to apply myself and easily coaxed different classmates into lending me their notes and sample answers. I knew people would be repulsed by my casual cruelty, playing people like chess pieces so I repressed those tendencies and kept them in check.
I was in Junior College, an anomaly broken off from my previous school affiliation, I did not know anyone and I was bored. The other classmates had known each other from their respective affiliated schools and had formed their little cliques who sat together in class and during lunch in the school canteen. I found them dull, the sort of earnest unimaginative high achievers who did homework 6 weeks in advance. I was sitting with one of the cliques during lunch when the monster i had been keeping contained slipped out. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” was recently released in the theaters and someone mentioned they would like to see it. Suddenly I was curious how far I could push the buttons of these people and I slipped into the conversation, mentioning rave reviews that I had never heard nor read until I got the entire clique excited about watching the movie. I left the first clique chattering excitedly and charmed my way into another clique, casually mentioning to one of them that their girlfriend in the previous clique was thinking of skipping the rest of school to watch the movie. And so I flitted from clique to clique stoking interest and planting ideas. I then watched from an elevated position on the stairs leading to the canteen and saw the cliques begin to converge around the same canteen table (this was playing out better than I’d expected I thought). One of my classmates saw me standing on the stairs and came up to me, “Come join us, we’re all going to skip school after lunch to watch ‘The Hand the rocks the cradle'” he said. “That sounds like fun” I replied and followed him. How droll, they actually thought it was their idea.
Another irony, the person who stoked the most interest never did watch that movie. I got bored with them and ditched them at the pedestrian overpass and took the bus home instead. Overnight our class became legend, no class had ever skipped school together en masse in the history of the college. We were punished the next day with detention and janitorial work. When the teacher tried to find out who was the mastermind, the class consensus was they had collectively decided to skip school to watch the movie. A classmate and I were tasked to clean all the classroom windows as part of the punishment. She worked the inside pane while I did the outside pane. “Wasn’t that a good movie though?” I asked. “Yes, it was so good” she replied. I smiled as I moved onto the next window.”Yes, this was worth it”
Our secondary school class went on a school camping trip, the first morning I awoke to a bunk of swearing boys who discovered they had been pranked the night before – sticky things, wet things, dirty things, smelly things in inappropriate places. The only ones unscathed were myself and three boys who were responsible. I pressed one of the pranksters, who knew me in primary school, why I did not get pranked. He hemmed and hawed until he finally blurted “We didn’t know how you were going to react.”. Ah yes, that was why I picked a Junior College of a different affiliation that no one from Secondary school went to, and why I picked a University specialization where I knew no one. I had to regularly make a clean break to prevent those from the present knowing about my past, and vice versa.
Yes now I finally remember, I was a volatile child. I guess all that violent daily upbringing had to go somewhere. Although I was placid on the surface, I would erupt violently when provoked. Yes now I recall images of punching and kicking other kids on the floor of the school bus, some were bigger, some were smaller; shirts were torn, there was blood, I was raging, I was calm. Even as a child I knew I had no feeling, no remorse in hurting or even killing someone. I fabricated complex revenge fantasies in my head. I knew I was dangerous, I knew I am a monster. I now comprehend the recurring nightmares I had since childhood that I desperately tried to awaken from. The room was different each time but it had a partially covered mirror or a series of mirrors. Instead of my reflection as I approached the mirror, I would see another being another reflection in the mirror and I would become paralyzed in fear. I used to think I was afraid of ghosts. I now realize that paralyzing monstrous reflection was me. I was afraid of myself, of becoming a monster.
Growing up to stories from “Journey to the West”, the classic 16th century Chinese novel, its tales of virtuous monks subduing demons, and demons cultivating themselves to become human made an impression on my young mind. I desperately wanted to transcend my self, my family, my class or I would end up like my parents, or even my uncles who were gangsters and addicts. So I turned my violence inwards towards myself, actively repressing my impulses, my memories until it became automatic, I had to contain the demon and cultivate virtue to become human. I was the monster and the monk. I was so successful at repressing everything that I came to believe I had a good childhood (and I was a good child) since adulthood.
My mother had managed to enroll me in a prestigious rich boys school, the kind of rich with their own personal chauffeur, a maid to carry their bags, and their own luxury car to take them to and from school; I got in as a charity case and had to ride the school bus for two hours each way. Even if we were in the same class, they would not speak to me. I observed their likes and behaviors and embarked on a metamorphosis as I contained my psychopathic tendencies. My outward behavior slowly changed into that of a model student (though I admit I was not averse to manipulating teachers’ perceptions) and I was made a Prefect. I changed my interests and studied and memorized classical music. I dropped other extra-curricular activities to focus on obtaining the highest proficiency grade in piano from the Royal Schools of Music exam board before they did. I gradually shed my Chinese-ness (and my connection to my grandparents) and naturalized a hybrid accent that gave the impression my family might have been educated in Oxford or Cambridge – not too British to be pretentious, but sufficiently British-inflected to be considered classy. Although I was in the lesser “B” classes, I ranked in the Top 3 or Top 10 for Geography and Chemistry consistently in school exams, trumping the rich kids in the primo “A” classes and “gifted” classes.
When I was 14, I had gained sufficient credibility and cultural capital despite my economic status to be worthy of invitation to one of their “informal soirées”. I was told it was nothing fancy, it was just a barbecue. As I sat in one of the dining rooms of a mansion waiting for servants to finish barbecuing and plate on fine china settings, I listened to the jaded conversation of adolescents where everything came easy. “I feel like lobster, I think I will go to Maine this summer” one of them casually remarked. This was in Singapore and Maine was literally halfway around the world. The boy next to me asked “Do you travel?” I shook my head. I was 14, I was poor, I could not even afford a plane ticket. “Let me give you a great tip,” he continued “the only way to see New Zealand is rent a yacht for two months.” It was the first and last time I hung out with them, they bored and infuriated me. I was better than them, I did not need them. I can make it on my own.
Although those who knew me after my transformation had no inkling of my violent past, my contained violence could still be triggered at times, particularly when faced with unfair rules and arbitrary treatment. A few times it led to my destroying and walking away from extraordinary career accomplishment and starting all over – but that is a topic for another chapter. Once during an unarmed combat session in the army, after I was unfairly picked on and punished by the sergeant for weeks, something snapped and I pummeled my opponent until they had to separate us even though we both wore protective padding. I did not think there was anything wrong, I felt calm and composed nor did I feel any pain or impact from the blows but apparently I had a scary expression on my face that frightened those watching that I would not stop until he was dead.
I had thought I felt broken because I was bipolar, but that wasn’t it. I was already broken as a child, containing my difference and suffering within; I just got more broken along the way. When I decided to make the switch from opera to performance art, my first publicly performed piece SCHOOLING OF DESIRE was subconsciously about just that.
As I was piecing together these memories and behaviors, the word psychopath popped into my mind. I found the PCL-R diagnostic tool and took it as I was now and although I scored high in certain dimensions, I would not currently be classified as a psychopath. I retook it as I was then and found I would have scored high on most dimensions except those involving breaking the law (which are necessary to assign the label), I probably would have scored high on those questions too if I had been unable to contain those tendencies, or gotten caught when I shoplifted while I was young.
Everything made sense when I read more about psychopathy, unlike bipolar depression which is caused by a variation in brain chemistry, psychopathy is due to a variation in brain structure. Now I know why I never experienced nor understood the high others got from drugs such as painkillers, marijuana and opioids, and why I did not get addicted. Perhaps that was why the medications used to treat bipolar depression did not work as expected for me. I neither experienced nor understood others’ accounts of being ashamed for being gay or when they were diagnosed as bipolar or other mental condition, because I had no sense of shame. What others would characterize as luck or bravery, my low fear affect and response enabled me to clinically assess and react in near death situations. I could see why I did not recognize the onset of mania until it became unbearable because the grandiosity, need for stimulation, impulsivity were twinned with psychopathy and my containment of it. And I finally understood why for me, the onset of bipolar depression was not just about feeling up and down (as other bipolar sufferers described) but was extremely traumatic even during euphoric mania – because it brought emotions and intensity of feeling this psychopath had not experienced before, could not comprehend, and unable to properly process.
How ironic, my rare and terrible variations in brain structure and brain chemistry that caused me so much suffering, was also my superpower and key to my survival.
When I was 10 they discovered I was almost blind (uncorrected myopia over -7 dioptres). Until I wore my first pair of glasses I never knew people had identifiable faces, or trees had leaves, or there were clouds in the sky. I thought they were stylized representations in drawings and textbooks. I had gotten by by listening. As a child I thought adults must have special powers because they could identify someone at a distance without hearing them speak first. Until my vision was corrected, I was ridiculed and punished by teachers in class for causing trouble, for pestering them I could not see what they were writing on the blackboard. Similarly I was unable to participate in games or sports, the other children would laugh and taunt how I would trip and how terrible I was at it. I learned to withdraw, to keep to myself, to superficially conform.
As I contained my psychopathic tendencies from childhood, another personality began to evolve, or perhaps began to emerge in my adolescence. One thing that did not quite fit the profiles of psychopathy or bipolar – that detachment from self that enabled me to observe my actions and thoughts; that I understood I had psychopathic impulses that had to be contained as a child, that I recognized I was in the throes of bipolar depression as a young adult. I felt that my need for seclusion and regulating social distance went deeper than simply containing my psychopathic tendencies and concealing my bipolar depression from others. After further research I found I checked all the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria of Schizoid Personality Disorder – a rarely encountered and studied disorder. I had goosebumps when I read Salman Akhtar’s profile of overt and covert characteristics and recognized myself; it was the perfect description of me, my outward behavior and my inner thoughts. I laughed when I saw one of the early descriptions of the disorder from the mid 1920s included overly “fondness for nature and books”. Perhaps that was why I only felt whole when I did those solo backpacking trips.
Everything since my adolescence clicked in place; the persistent feeling of being an observer, of playing a persona when interacting with others, my growing aversion to self-disclosure and praise (because I did not know how to properly react), the recurring feelings of suffocation that I had to free myself to be independent, and why I had little interest in sex with others and no longer had orgasms from I was 13. My manic-induced hypersexuality phases were extremely unpleasant and I got into abusive situations because I conformed to my partner’s expectations and desires, just as I did in daily interactions to appear socially acceptable and “normal”.
I now understand why I stopped being in photographs at 13, there was a cognitive disconnect between what I saw in them and what I am. They were a reminder, a document, of an empty shallow unreal performative life at odds with my deep and intense inner self. I fantasized about disappearing without a trace; I wanted to erase the false compliant document and my monstrous true self who can never participate in this life. I was convinced I would not live past 30. I was weary of playing the part. I was terribly lonely.
I never understood why other people thought of death and suicide as terrible things. I was not afraid of either, I was afraid of surviving the attempt. If I survived, everything I had contained would be inevitably revealed. That to me was worse than death. In my mind, the rational solution was to disappear without a trace and I spent weeks and months figuring out how to pull it off. I remember now how I developed acrophobia. One of my chores was to clean the windows every weekend, I would unlock the safety grate in order to clean the exterior pane. Each week it became increasingly tempting to jump from the 8th floor apartment, and I had to do my best to resist. I was not afraid of dying, I was not afraid I would jump, I was afraid I would survive if I succumbed, and so I became afraid of heights. I was no longer acrophobic after the first Grand Canyon backpacking trip.
My refuge from the outside world was the safety of my internal world – my room a physical manifestation of that sanctuary. Even my current room today is full of books, art, stones, objects, photographs, plants from which I can withdraw to. I would spend hours rearranging its contents, generally living in my thoughts. I stopped reading fiction at 16 because the fantasies from books started getting jumbled up with those of my internal world and became increasingly difficult to distinguish from the real world.
My sister had a menagerie of stuffed toys that were gifted to her over the years. As she and I played with them, they became alive. They each had a distinct personality, a memory, a back story, and evolving relationships with each other. They were living feeling entities that could get hurt, so I handled them with great care. One day my mother tossed Benny, a cream puppy, and Clementi, a maroon raccoon, into the garbage chute because they were well-loved. She thought they were dirty. I went berserk “I will never forgive you, you murderer.” and was besides myself for weeks. Although my aunt (who had originally bought Benny and Clementi) purchased the same stuffed animals as replacement, they were irreplaceable. I accepted them into the menagerie with new names and personalities and continued to grieve for Benny and Clementi.
As we grew older, my sister became interested in clubs and boys while I withdrew further into my room my world. We used to fight over who had which animal during bedtime, now I had all the animals with me on my bed. I had long extended conversations with them. They lived out the life I wished I had. They consoled me in my moments of darkest despair. When I first left Singapore, my sister and I would exchange an occasional email. In one of those emails, she told me she had packed up and stored the stuffed animals. It was no longer the same, she said, their personality is gone,
Until that night when I was forced to flee Singapore, I would sleep surrounded by my family of stuffed animals, contorting my body so I would not crush them, they were my buffer against inconsolable loneliness from the outside world. My proxy of a dream to be able to live authentically, that there was someone out there who could accept and love this broken monster.
I was constantly sick as a child, at least once a month I would be at the doctors for some ailment or other, I was on antibiotics for most of the time. When I was 10 my mother and aunt took me to a famed practitioner of Chinese metaphysics (geomancy, astrology etc.), he divined that the characters of my Chinese name (which my grandfather had given me and roughly translates as “boundless fortune”) was at odds with my destiny. He gave me a new name that matched my life path which roughly translates as “encompassing sage”. I did not think too much of it then, but I remembered it in my mid-20s when I was asked by immigration why I had two very different names in my passport. It was prophetic after all at that point. Immigration picked the first name on my passport as my official name, which was the old name. After I obtained citizenship, I legally changed it to my new/current name – after all I was not made for an easy life, I was born to suffer – it is what it is. I am the monster and the monk.