How does organic matter turn into stone? Bit by bit over the years buried under the weight of their surroundings unable to breathe, unable to replenish. Cell walls rupture and the outside seeps in, displacing the soft tissue, filling in spaces between dreams until that too becomes stone.
I was happy as a child, or so I was told. My relatives nicknamed me “little rooster” because I loved to sing. I was also an independent spirit. My parents had to hide the canes because instead of submitting to arbitrary punishment in shame, I would get a hold of them afterwards and toss them out of the apartment window to the road below, and watch passing cars crush them. I don’t remember anything from the time I was happy. All I know are stories relayed back to me from others who saw me then. I was constantly told to behave like everyone else – be quiet, listen to others, don’t be difficult. When I grew older and behaved, I still smiled in photographs because I was directed to, but you could see the emptiness in my eyes.
Certain nightmares began recurring with increasing intensity. I dreamt I was without my glasses, unable to see, in the middle of crossing a street, or driving a car, and people were laughing and goading me into more danger as I frantically tried to get myself to safety. Or I would try to speak but no words came out and my teeth would disintegrate. The most draining of these was the mirror nightmare. The room would be different but there would be a full length mirror or a collection of mirrors at different heights. As I passed by, I would see part of myself reflected in them except it was not me that was in the reflection, it was someone I did not recognize. It might be an unknown leg, or a strange arm, or something I did not recognize as part of myself. I never lifted my head high enough to see the face. I was petrified. “Go away” I had to summon every fibre of my being to scream in and out of my dream, trying to exorcise my reflection. “Go away” I would repeat, summoning my remaining strength to try to scream myself awake. When I succeeded in waking, I would hear the end of my scream – it was unintelligible, a strangled gurgle.
Sometimes my dreams would resume weeks or months apart. They would be so vivid and palpable that I would wake disoriented as if I were living in another dream. At times these dreams would be a continuation of my own life, such as finding something I’d losr or misplaced. I would obsessively ransack everything upon waking to ascertain which was reality. One dream in retrospect was particularly revealing. I dreamt that instead of walking I would bound step to step. Each bound I would go higher and higher, and l reveled in the exhilarataion until I bounded so high that I feared if I would survive the landing, or I bounded so high that that I escaped the bonds of gravity and could no longer set my feet on the ground, and I became afraid.
I knew I was attracted to guys when I was 6. I attended an all-boys school and had crushes on classmates. Yet I saw the merciless taunting and bullying of others and learned to hide my emotions behind an inscrutable mask for self-preservation at a very young age. Even at that young age I knew there was no place for gays in a homophobic comformist Confucian “family values” societ – it meant being shunned, being disowned by the family, having no friends, no career, no way out. I was terrified of fortune tellers and always made some excuse when the family went to get their fortunes told during festivals – I was afraid that they might be able to see who I really am.
He was 15, a year older than I was, scion of a Malaysian plantation owner who sent him to Singapore to study. We were in the same class and were both school prefects: he was rich, handsome, athletic, extroverted and hung out with the popular social cliques – I am the polar opposite.
One day after recess when everyone was making their way back to their seats, he came up to me while I was standing and chatting with a seated classmate. He sandwiched my leg between his and ground his crotch against my thigh.
“Do you like that? Yeah, do you like that?” he cooed.
I was petrified. I lost all feeling in my legs. I had to steady myself against the classmate’s desk.
“Yeah, I know you like this. Like this.” he repeated as he increased the intensity of his grinding.
I tried not to show anything on my face. I did not know how to react. How could he know? Did I slip up somehow? Did he catch me glancing at him? My thoughts spiraled as I felt the blood drain away.
“Want to come to the washroom with me? Why don’t you come to the washroom with me?” he leered as he leaned even closer. The other classmates who witnessed this laughed as if it was a joke. It was not a joke to me, were the rest of his clique lying in wait in the washroom? Would I get beaten up on the way home?
“I’m not like that” was all I could eventually muster. He stopped and I stumbled out between his legs to my desk.
He came around and apologized later that day. But it did not stop, he would continue to bait and taunt me in the same manner; in the classroom, in the corridor for the rest of the school year. Each time I was petrified and unable to move. I started using the washroom in the next building, and only when I was sure it was empty; a quick unzip-whizz-zip action before someone else could come in.
The next year, his family sent him to Australia to study and I never saw him again. Sometimes I wonder if Julian remembers me. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if I did go into the washroom with him.
I avoided sports and group activities. I feared their conformity and camaraderie that would surely turn violent if I slipped up. I dreaded PE classes, not just because i had to change in front of other boys, it took a lot of energy and pain to move my body, teachers would make disparaging remarks about how weak I was despite my build. Yet at times I did not experience pain, but felt like I was flying and not running, each step was weightless and effortless. It was the same in the army, most of the time I would struggle amongst the last cohort in fitness tests and obstacle course, yet once in a while I would be able to scale those same obstacles I used to be stuck at, without effort or pain.
I kept my distance from others and avoided social contact. I had very few friends. I would isolate myself in my room for hours practicing the piano. Music was where my feelings leaked out – my catharsis of fear, pain, sadness, secrets and frustrations. When asked, I made the excuse that I was practicing to be concert pianist. Each interval was an un-uttered thought, each chord an unexpressed feeling, and each arpeggio a deconstruction of my heart. As I worked through different genres of music, I discovered musical theater and found I could conceal yet reveal my emotions between the lines, particularly in the songs of Stephen Sondheim (whose coolly detached lyrics belied a deeper pain). In moments when I was completely overcome, I would sing until I had no voice left. My singing was not just therapy, it was also a missive of love. As I sang, I begged and hoped there would be someone who could hear the pain, who could understand me, who could come to love me.
In this way I did not completely turn into stone.
The constant vigilance against being discovered and being beaten, and propping up a façade finally took its toll when I was conscripted into National Service for two and a half years. I heard of and witnessed the aftermath of “blanket parties” where a blanket is thrown over the victim before they were assaulted by multiple people. No charges could be laid as assailants could not be identified. I was always petrified that something might happen to my hands, some injury sustained from army training and duties, that would make me unable to play the piano. My mouth was already gagged by society, if I could no longer speak with my hands I would surely die.
Looking back, I think that was when the major depression episodes started as I would experience periods of extreme lethargy and listlessness. I developed PTSD after I left the National Service, the mere mention would trigger massive panic attacks.
While in the army, I managed to keep my sanity during guard duties and other mind-numbing exercises by counting down the time singing in my head a 3 minute aria here, a 4 minute song there and so on until the time was up. At some point I would mentally sing the “card scene” from Carmen; I didn’t know why then but in hindsight the aria’s fatalism of being resigned to destiny must have resonated with me.
The final straw was falling for a straight classmate in university who leveraged my feelings for him. I knew him by sight since our first year, but we weren’t close as we were only in one class together and he was, I felt, a manipulator – a dangerous person who can push people’s buttons to get what he wants, so I kept my distance. One semester he started getting friendly with me, which was odd since we did not have a class together. He would talk to me during lectures, drag me together with his gang for lunch, and hang out after classes. Naturally I was suspicious, since I knew his character and kept appropriately aloof. One day he pulled me aside and talked about his ambition to start a company and invited me to join him. I rejected him outright (I could see where he was leading when he started his spiel and honeyed tone about how we worked well together, how amazing it would be etc. ). Still he never stopped courting me (if that’s the word to use), he would wait for me after lectures to have lunch together, or to go home together (despite my attempts to shake him off). He would confess in a solemn tone his innermost feelings and thoughts (which in retrospect are a bunch of fabricated lies, and full of contradictions). I just continued keeping him at bay, not rejecting nor accepting him either.
Then a major depressive cycle began (that was when I started thinking of disappearing) and as I became more and more depressed, my resistance to him gradually broke down. I do not know whether it was sheer coincidence or whether he sensed it, but he redoubled his efforts. I began to doubt my assessment of him, I thought he must be sincere. He was neither rich nor handsome but I grew to appreciate his quirks, his carefree sense of humor. He would devote all of his attention on me (as I said, he knew how to push people’s buttons) and being in such a vulnerable state, my resistance could not withstand his “kindness”. We were candid with one another and I thought perhaps this was someone who could see past the PTSD, see past the depression and appreciate who I am. One night we lay side-by-side on the grass and talked about our philosophies and ambitions as we picked out the constellations – it felt like the meeting of souls. That was when I realized I had fallen hard for him.
Then he asked me again to join him in starting a partnership company. He set forth a whole list of conditions such as him owning 80% of the stake, managing the company while I was responsible for program development etc. – in short, he would profit off my work but I would bear the liability. I was so besotted at that time that I agreed without hesitation, just to continue to stay close to him. After we officially registered the business at the Registrar, we were walking downtown and decided to rest a while on the steps of City Hall and talked. We talked for over 6 hours on those steps until we had to leave to catch the last train home. Those 6 hours were the best times of my life in Singapore, it felt as if I had found the missing part of my life (him), that together we could do no wrong, that I finally belonged (for someone who was an outsider all his life, that was really something). For once I was actually happy, that there was actually some reason for me to live.
Shortly after, I swung over to my manic phase. I would single-handedly process paperwork, design and program software, while he’ll just pop in once in a while to see how things are going. With manic energy, I threw myself into work but over-reached developed acute Repetitive Stress Injury, it meant I could no longer use my hands. I was devastated, I was unable to work on the computer. Much worse I was unable to play the piano like I used to – my nightmare had come true and I fell from from a crushing height of mania into deep depression. I was catatonic, I endured the incapacitating mental and physical anguish. I finally sought professional help in secret when it got the point I knew it would be easier to end it.
I wrestled with depression and RSI for a few weeks before I decided to make a clean breast of it. When I told him about the RSI and diagnosis (then misdiagnosed as “just” depression), the only thing he was interested in knowing was when I could be cured and could continue to do work. I was confused, I thought he cared. His response had startled me, once again, I became suspicious of him, that he wanted me solely because I was useful to him, not as a friend or anything else. I asked him where I fit in the scheme of things, he was unable to give me an answer. I was in more turmoil for weeks until I decided to confess my feelings for him to see exactly where I stood. His non-reaction confirmed my suspicions. Then he made my life miserable, he refused to let me withdraw from the partnership, he threatened me to reveal to everyone I was gay and mentally unstable if I did not continue with the work despite my physical and mental condition, and refused to have anything to do with me in University.
My bipolar depression soon spiraled out of control, all I wanted was disappear far away without a trace. Until I started writing these essays, I had concealed my suffering from others for over two decades. I contained it all behind my fossilized facade. I also have not bared my heart to anyone since.