From Darkness

Most of my friends know me as quiet, and perhaps a little anti-social. I do not disguise the fact I usually prefer my own company to other’s. The main reason for this can be traced back to when I was 12-years-old, leaving primary school and entering high school. It was a hard time for me. I came to know those months (about 18 or so) as the Dark Ages.

I found it very difficult to live with my brother at the time. In truth, I hated him. A huge part of me didn’t want to, but I felt that he left me no choice. As I remember those times he punished me regularly, putting me down, dominating me when my will opposed his. I withdrew from him, into my room. It became my Haven, where the door could be locked and the blinds could be shut. The most hurtful thing he could do to me was enter my room, especially because we had sworn on our “brother’s honour” (a pledge, we agreed, was worth more than swearing on our souls) that we would not enter each other’s room without permission. Unfortunately, he repeatedly violated my Haven, going so far as to read my diary and write disparaging comments in it. It was like I left my soul in a bottle hidden in my room, and he had come in, found it and then dipped his hand in it and stirred it around.

Eventually locking the door wasn’t enough to get away from him and I started setting my alarm earlier. Three am was my favourite time of day- it still is-, because very few people stayed up that late, and very few people got up that early. For a few hours, I was completely alone in the world, and I was so happy. I could play RuneScape without being told to get off or without needing to stop for hours. I could do homework (that endless pile which I laid out on my bed every day, six folders and six textbooks, which stressed me more than any 12-year-old should have felt) without competing for quietude. I could talk to my friends on MSN, those in the US at least, and it was like being together in a quiet pocket of a hidden world.

I remember, once, reading the fifth Harry Potter book when it came out. I had been in my room so long, been in the dark so long, I could not recall what time of day it was. All I had was my desk lamp, and maybe on special occasions a handful of candles, as a source of light. The rest of the time my door was closed and window shut. It was awful. I used to whisper things to myself in that darkness. I told myself I was the only one I could trust. That everyone else was an agent of the Matrix, able to turn into someone who could hurt me deeply (as once happened when my friend told me the ending for that Harry Potter book before I had reached it. I had severe trust issues). I came to convince myself there was nothing I could not achieve by myself, through my own strength of mind, body and will. That I was the only one in the world I could depend on, and I could never rely on any other human being. I was alone in the world.

Unfortunately, school wasn’t much of a refuge for me either. Within a few weeks, my oddness separated me from what I knew as the entire student body. I was always a little strange in primary school, trying to meditate behind the classroom, staying after prayer time was over to finish the rosary, carrying a notepad and pen in my shirt pocket, being generally weird… This did not endear me to my peers in high school. I ended up with the nickname “Psycho”, a word that still triggers a deep pain, and for some reason it caught on. No one called me by name after that. I was always the Psycho, or some crueler variation of the name. I counted about six people in the school that did not express their hatred or dislike for me, and none of them expressed their like or affection for me for fear of being associated with the Psychopath. I respected their self-preservation- I wouldn’t have associated with myself either. I was bullied by everyone, it seemed, even those not in my classes, and even by some of the Year 10’s and Year 12’s whom I had never met before.

To help ease some of this anguish I created two fantasy worlds for myself. The first saw me standing on the Final Destination platform, if you’ve ever played Super Smash Brothers. A floating stone platform on top of a broiling purple storm, flashing with lightning. A solitary throne in its centre where, I, Xin, would sit, wearing my armour and my crown, Prince of the Realm, solitary ruler of the all-powerful nothingness. In reflection, I think the storm was my hurt and rage, isolating me from others and hurting anyone who tried to cross it. My other fantasy escape was riding into a village and everyone, all the faceless inhabitants, would turn and cheer when they saw me. They were so happy I was back, and they all loved and missed me. I hated this fantasy because I knew it wasn’t true, and never would be.

I fantasised about killing myself often. Throwing myself off the top floor of the school block would have been sufficient, I hoped. If I ever did it, I would aim to land on Ethan, a student I hated just barely more than Caleb, each of who lead their own mini gangs of thugs and bullies. I learned about goths on the internet from a stranger in a chatroom, and it perfectly described how I felt. If there had been any kind of goth culture present in my life I would have fled to it, but I didn’t know anyone who wore black or listened to particular music who rebelled against society. It would have been just me, tiny 12-year-old me, against the world. It already was, but I didn’t need dark clothes or restricted music to express it. I just withdrew deeper and deeper, running from home to school to home again.

I don’t remember exactly when, but a conversation on MSN changed everything. Her name was Beki, and I thought she was an angel sent from God to help me. It was more likely she was a bubbly 15-year-old girl who saw a sad kid and wanted to cheer him up. I don’t know how I knew her, or where I got her email address, but when I sent her an email a year or two later it bounced back. Wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, I’m so grateful she was the one to offer a hand to help me climb out.

I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I know that it made me realise I didn’t want to be sad and hurt and alone. As much as I had tried to convince myself it was good for me, it was a source of strength and the only way to get through life, I didn’t want to believe it anymore. I reached out to Beki asking her to help me, and she told me that I had to want to help myself first. Something inside me shattered, that wall of resolve I had so carefully built. And so I realised that I didn’t have to be alone, that I didn’t have to be the Prince of Darkness anymore. It was like my life was spent wandering a misty forest at night, and Beki had come in with a lantern and dispelled all the fog and I could follow her out. Another metaphor that struck me at the time was that I had been in a house where all the curtains were closed and I never left the darkness, but she grabbed those curtains and ripped them apart so that the sun could pour in. And my God, outside was beautiful; the light was so clean, the sky so empty and yet so full, the grass green and welcoming. Why had I kept myself from this for so long?

After that things changed, little by little. It wasn’t an instantaneous transformation- I wasn’t suddenly the most popular guy in school, surrounded by friends and cheer. But it wasn’t all bad, either. As the age group and maturity of my peers increased, the name Psycho faded into memory, still fresh for me, but not for others. I made a few friends over time, including Ivy and Jack, and my return to the social world slowly built from there. I became part of a clique of friends known as The Core and I had many stupid and enjoyable adventures. Perhaps I’m making it a little too black and white- it wasn’t all good times, but it was certainly better than it had been.

But a little part of me still finds it hard to trust. My childhood wasn’t full of violence or sexual abuse, but it was still traumatic, and it’s still shaped the young man I am today. I’m not sure why I decided to write a blog post about it, but I wanted to share with the world part of the reason why I am the way I am. Something tells me I should be sorry that I don’t call you just to chat. That I should be sorry for hardly ever texting you to see how you are, or to invite you to spend time together. That I should sorry for not letting people come to my house and always going to theirs instead. But I’m not. I need to be alone, sometimes. I need the boundaries of my walls, my room, my house, sometimes. And I need you to understand that even though I like you, it’s still hard for me to let you in past those walls, physically and metaphorically. My soul is bruised- it can’t take much pressure- but I still like you enough to spend time with you, to ask you how you’ve been and to go to (many of)  the things you invite me to. But I’m not like most of your other friends, and I make no apology for that. I just wanted you to know, and I hope you’re okay with it.

The way of achieving through doing nothing

Just thought I’d mention quickly, my mother was mistaken when she said she would be able to support my unemployment as I took a semester off, which is fine. Having addressed the misunderstanding, I’m okay to get a job in the near future, but not before I spend more time getting to know myself.

Also, randomly, I’ve been training at the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts (http://www.wuweidao.com/, or their more updated website, http://www.martialartsandyoga.com/). It is (physically at least) the most excellent dojo I have ever seen. It has mirrors, boxing bags, focus pads (which also double as makiwara), ropes for a wide variety of exercises, shields, sparring gear, heaters and fans, a muk yang jong (or wooden dummy, used in wing chun), a Body Opponent Bag (a soft, humanoid punching/kicking stand), weights, balance boards, yoga mats, skipping ropes, chi -shi (traditional Japanese weights) among other things. Its flaws include not being square and having wooden (instead of tatami) floors, but these are negligible juxtaposed with its boons. As well as teaching the comprehensive hybrid art of Wu-Wei Dao (whose philosophy is difficult to describe in English, but is along the lines of achieving through effortlessness, or nothingness), Shihan Dan teaches a unique form of taiji and other internal arts. The instructors at the club are ridiculously experienced and skilled, with tremendous knowledge, strength and spirit. The students are mostly highly skilled with great attitudes, and it’s been wonderfully refreshing to see that there is so much I don’t yet know. Apart from the expenses of yet another martial endeavour, I am tremendously happy and grateful to be training in such an amazing space, with such amazing people. I have a grading coming up in two weeks to see what rank I will hold in the club- while I was a brown belt (2nd kyu) in shinto-ryu karate, Wu-wei dao is much more thorough in its grading criteria, and it’s very probable I’ll be bumped down to 6th kyu or so. Regardless of what rank I end up getting, I’ll keep training there as long as I keep learning.

That’s all for now! Sorry for the overload of martial jargon. I rather recently realised that the vast majority of my Japanese vocabulary is either about where to hit someone or how to hit them. I think that says a lot about me.

Bloody capitalism

I don’t really know what purpose I hope to achieve by writing this blog entry, but I’ve just got a lot on my mind and some of it is spilling out. Here is as good as place as any for the spill to fall.

I spoke to my Mum yesterday and she was under the impression I’d be returning to study next semester. Fair assumption. She pointed out four months holiday, going to two countries (apparently we’re going to China for Chinese New Year- that should be exciting, but I’m really not feeling excited. Just a little sick at the extra expense- more on that in a minute) should be holiday enough, and that I should just get my degree over with so  I can start studying. It actually makes a lot of sense, but I’m just not feeling enthused about it. I wanted to take time off to heal, to explore myself, to get to know the world, but I just can’t do any of that when I’m worried about how I’ll have enough money to survive.

That’s what’s really bothering me. Money. It always seems to come down to numbers in a bank account, bits of plastic and metal. I once read that few people kill themselves for love, but many kill themselves for money. And it shouldn’t stress me- I currently don’t have any debts, and I have a small supply of money as a buffer for impecuniousness. But I sat down and did an estimated budget over the coming months, and I’ll run out in 2-4 months. So, my envisioned holiday in the sun, playing games, reading books, meditating, is unsupportable. That’s what it comes down to. I can’t afford to live during my time off, and this is very stressful to me. I know I’m worrying about the future, and I’m by far not the only person in the world to be experiencing stress about this sort of issue, but it’s driving me crazy. It’s been all I can think about since yesterday when I had that conversation. I know that in the future, after my holidays, I can get a job. And that if I move into the Hero Base, or if my Mum retires, I’ll be eligible for welfare payments (whether I’m studying or looking for work). So the chances are, circumstances will change which will present an avenue that will prevent me from starving to death. But it’s still pretty upsetting to know, ceteris paribus, that I’m going to run out of financial resources in the near future.

I should probably stop projecting about an uncertain future. I should stop catastrophising- I’m not actually going to perish from starvation in four months time. I should stop… what’s it called, the faulty belief system where you put things in black or white. It’s not a matter of “get a job or starve”. But my circumstances are still unchanged regardless of how I see them, and it appears to me that I’m not going to be able to enjoy unemployment. And I’m okay with that, because I’d rather live.

So. First things first. De-stress. Then, use that calmness to study. Start and finish assignment for submission by tomorrow, buy present, go to dinner (expense!!), train, meet housemate, go to party late, possibly go to uni to study…. Bah, stop projecting, too many variables. Take it one present moment at a time. Laters.

Curious mountaineering

To my utter surprise, my mother told me this morning that I shouldn’t get a job while I take next semester off.

 

It’s a little hard to express how unexpected this was. From everything I’ve observed about my mother, she feels I should always be being productive, always be working or studying in order to work. I should have a high, reliable income and lots of social status and respect wherever possible. When I told her I wanted to take next semester off, I expected more resistance than I got. I told her how I’ve been feeling and why it was so important to me, and she supported me. Abaaah?

She’s retiring at the end of the year and doesn’t know how she’ll keep supporting me, so I was feeling a lot of pressure to find work in order to survive. The Hero Base is looming (in a non-ominous way. A nominous way, you might say) which would require a consistent stream of income, but Mum has agreed to support me until I finish my degree, even if that means paying much of my rent for me. Naturally I’ll do my best to get a job once placement is over (or maybe even while I’m on placement, though working extra in addition to 40 hours of unpaid work a week for four months isn’t very appealing), but it was a tremendously beautiful gesture of her, for which I am very grateful. I wish now I could refund the expenses of this upcoming holiday, but the tickets are booked etc. etc. My life, apart from the very small stain of study requirements (which are actually more enjoyable than I’m giving them credit) is looking very much up. How did all this happen?

“The Vampire Bat”

“The Vampire Bat” (2006)

Angry bats cry Death Eternal! Fangs glisten, hungry. Instinct joins kill, laughing. Murder; no obituaries. Predators’ quietude, rapacious screams. Thundering ululations, venomous wings. Xenophobic, yet zealous.

We are NOT all the same (even if we look it)

At my Working in Indigenous Australian Contexts lecture this morning, I heard a story which reminded me of one of my own stories which I hadn’t thought about since it happened a few months ago. I thought I’d share it here because (I feel) it’s quite a lovely story, and one I should record somewhere so it doesn’t slip into the oblivion of memory.

 

On my way to work one morning I was sitting on the train at Perth station, waiting for it to depart to West Leederville. A woman rushed into the carriage and sat down across from me on the nearest available seat. Her face was red, her hair in a wild mess and she was shaking. My first thought was that she was experiencing drug withdrawals. My second was that she was experiencing a psychotic episode. Sadly it was my third thought that considered maybe something had happened to her. Regardless, it wasn’t my business to ask. At least, it wasn’t until she started yelling at my neighbour and I. At first I was bewildered- was she mistaken? I didn’t recall ever meeting her previously. She was swearing, saying things like I was ruining her life, and that my people should go back to our own country… Ah, it clicked. She was racist.

Amidst all this commotion a man got on the train and sat down next to her. His body language and familiarity in addressing her indicated he knew her well, though he might have been a stranger. He asked her what happened, and through the tears and tremors she revealed that she had been assaulted by a young Asian man in a convenience store. From her discription of the events, she was trying to buy a magazine or some such and he rebuffed her, coming around (or over) the counter and spinning 360 degrees in the air to land a kick to the side of the head. She spit at him in hurt, and he threw her to the ground and tossed her bags onto the road. Humiliated and in pain, she grabbed her belongings and ran.

West Leederville was approaching. I knew I could walk away and no harm would be done to either of us, but my heart went out to her, and I wanted her to know it. As the train pulled into the station, I got up from my seat and got down on one knee in front of her and said “I’m really sorry that happened to you.” In a flurry of words, she apologised about yelling at me and made it clear she knew we weren’t all the same, she was just upset. She shook my hand and I smiled at her, and I went to work a little flustered, but quite pleased. It was a scary thing to do, but I’m very glad I did it, for what little difference it made. The other Asian on the train she yelled at just sat there looking away as she told her story, and I’m grateful I didn’t take the same path he did.

And also, I’m just a little bit impressed that an anonymous Asian ninja could jumping-reverse-turning kick someone in the side of the head in live combat. Not that it justifies what he did, but there’s a lot of pressure trying a high-risk flashy attack like that, and I’m surprised he pulled it off. Still a horrible, horrible person.

The Tinman

Last night as part of my work as a Student Recruitment Officer I helped give a short presentation on the basics of what social work is. The presentation was titled Head, Heart and Hands, and described these three key elements that make a good social worker. Head includes theoretical foundations of practice, approaches to work and knowledge of how to do things well. Heart covered the reasons for working, the drive for justice and compassion that fuels what we do. Hands are the skills required to practice effectively- no good having the best intentions and knowing all the theory but being unable to do anything with them. Social work is not possible with any less than all three of these elements, and somewhere along the line, I lost my heart.

 

When I was seventeen, I was full of ideals, dreams and hope to making the world a better place. In my mind I saw every child with food in his/her belly, homes for everyone to live in and a people who treated each other with kindness and respect. That’s still my dream, but I came to social work under the delusion that by providing food, homes and an example of respect and kindness everything would be okay. But as I’ve learned, teaching a person to fish will keep them satisfied for only a few hours, and I don’t have enough fish to go around. Real social work involves changing the structures in both a person (their perspective, their habits, their lifestyle) and society (organisations, social policy and collective ideology). And yeah, I’m smart. I’m unusually intelligent for someone my age- by no means a genius or the cream of the crop, but I’ve got keen insight and a way with words. And yeah, I can use that knowledge to be very good at things. I’m brilliant at most of the things that I love doing. But I’m having trouble caring again. I’m reverting to a selfish asshole version of myself that will see someone being mugged, and I’ll give them the finger because it’s their problem. I don’t like this potential me, but I feel like it’s too hard to care any more, and I’m getting pushed further and further away from being kind and compassionate.

 

I guess it’s a kind of burnout. I’ve cared so much that I’ve poured my well of compassionate out, and before it gets the chance to refill, I keep feeling obliged to scoop what little of it I have and pour it on people. I’m quite sure that if I take a break, the holiday I keep dreaming of, a real one not just a short reprieve from an otherwise soul-draining life, I’ll feel better. If I really truly commit a few months to just taking care of myself, doing what I want, being what I want, I’ll be able to come back to social work full of energy and optimism. But right now, if I were to start practicing, I’d probably do more harm than good. It’s not an easy decision to make, but I think I have to drop the course before it hurts somebody in an irreparable way. I’ll pick it up again some time, but it’s quite clear to me that I’m not ready to be a grown up. I’m not ready to be a professional. I should be excited about the possibilities of my next placement and the sort of opportunities I’ll get from it, but I just hate it. I hate the idea of more work with people I don’t really care about. Fuck, I just hate everywhere my life is going right now.

 

I need to do something before I pour out the rest of my soul and have nothing left to give. I’ve been so dangerously close to that feeling these past few months, gaining a little, losing a little, often more than I can safely lose. I’ve reverted to just saying nice things all the time, to hide how empty I feel. Normally it is my philosophy that people don’t say the good things about each other, they focus always on the negative, but lately I’ve just been spouting light compliments so frequently and so carelessly it’s being brushed off as flattery. I can’t keep pretending to care.

 

‘course all of this might just be because it’s a cloudy day and my spirits are down. It’s been known to happen. But it doesn’t change how I feel, and I don’t think that I can risk having cloudy days on prac. I think I need to defer my course, and find a way of just dealing with all my social work peers who don’t understand, and my mother who will think I’m wasting my life. I just can’t keep doing this.