Hands down, this has been one of the worst years of my entire life, from health to burnout and beyond, and snakes in the grass discovered way too late. The only thing that kept me sane this year was the humbling love of friends and family.
This year was a year of battles, but not the kind I’m used to. See, I took something more than oval facial structure and a love for pork and cobblestoned streets from my psychotic Iberian ancestors. I inherited an unhealthy love for stacked odds. The more impossible a goal was, the more I wanted to ace it.
I still don’t know exactly what I was looking for in those stacked odds: the euphoria of victory, the confirmation that I had a truly exceptional mind, one that didn’t need any help to turn a desert into a tropical garden, or the knowledge that I was worth something because I could win, at such horrifying odds.
I have been cultivating this unhealthy taste for battles with the odds stacked against me for a while now. My choices in the past few years are testament to that. Getting involved in local politics, taking on GE 2011 with only a couple of months of preparation. Writing speeches on an empty belly and caffeine fumes, speeches that were broadcast live on national television to the accolades of even some PAP supporters, who, despite their puzzling allegiances, recognized a damn fine speech when they saw one. And that was just my hobby, the thing on the side that kept me busy and fiery.
My day job was another story altogether. After bouncing around from one freelance gig to another, I decided that I wanted to build something of my own. So I did. I built something that would let me play with words for a living.
I wore so many hats in that first year of setting up the company, I lost count of them all, and I got into the nasty habit of wanting to do everything myself, because it had to, just had to be perfect. I learned to rely on my gut, because it was always correct.
We went from strength to strength, and achieved a lot for such a tiny and young company running on the funds we had, getting some big names in our client list in just the first year, and some very sweet contracts in the second. If something didn’t work, we moved on to the next idea at lightning speed. We were running on sunshine, Earl Grey, adrenaline and whatever clever ideas my brain could toss out, and we did exceptionally well with what we had. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more.
It wasn’t about the money (though that was precious scarce at times). It was about the achievements. Our current progress wasn’t enough. I wanted more. It wasn’t enough to sit and plan; I had to be out there, getting stuff done. I could see how all our ventures and new business ideas would work out, in my mind, right down to the minutiae, and it frustrated me immensely that they weren’t a reality yet.
On top of that, I was under constant, insane levels of stress. I needed to make this work, and not just work: I needed to make it spectacular. I needed to be the major breadwinner of my household very soon, and time was not on my side. I needed to prove to myself that I could do this; that I wouldn’t fail. So many needs, and none of them were really about me. That was my biggest mistake: forgetting that I had needs, too.
By the end of 2012, after a year of performing exceptionally well on a salary of almost nothing, I was well and truly burned out. A long vacation went a long way towards dissolving some of that burnout, but it didn’t change the basic problem: I lived for battles with stacked odds, and I thought I was invincible, because I’d been doing it for so long.
The danger of having an extremely lateral-thinking and formidable brain is that you get used to the fact that you contain entire universes of possibilities in your mind. You get used to the vastness of your mind, and the power that goes with it, and you forget that your body, unlike your brain, has much stricter limits on it. Your brain tells you that the universe is yours, but your body just wants some rest and maybe a hug.
This year, my body made a unilateral decision: it decided that it had had enough. Probably as early as the beginning of the year, when I started losing weight although I’d been eating something like 4,000 calories a day (probably more, if you count dessert) on vacation for the past six weeks. My body was warning me, but I didn’t listen. I ploughed on with my manic need to push the company to where I wanted it.
I took on another battle, a personal one, with stacked odds: one that I never should have taken on. I regret nothing in my life, although there is a lot to regret. I only regret this particular battle. It affected me until late June, when I decided that I’d had enough, and that the situation was endangering my family even as the individual whom I was trying to help was refusing assistance – assistance that was costing me a lot in terms of time, energy, and sheer mental and emotional trauma.
When I started having mood swings and hand tremors on vacation in October, I realized that something was very wrong. I was in tropical paradise with a lovely boy who cared about me, and I simply couldn’t be happy.
I was tired all the time and couldn’t stop eating. My entire personality changed, and the worst part of it was that I could, as if from a great distance, see that this wasn’t me, being irrational and emotional and generally insane, but it happened anyway. I felt like my mind and emotions had been hijacked by an alien with serious PMS.
When I got back, an iridology test pointed to hypothyroidism. A blood test showed that it was sub-clinical hypothyroidism, which means that I’m going to have full-on, clinical hypothyroidism sooner or later. I felt cheated, because I’ve been suffering from decreased brain function, burnout, lack of motivation, and great difficulty in waking up the whole damn year, without knowing something was wrong with me.
The thing about the standard medical markers for hypothyroidism is that they’re pegged at such high levels that people can exhibit symptoms without ever reaching even the sub-clinical hypothyroidism levels on a standard thyroid function test. I have to get tested every three months so we can catch it, and I don’t know what this spells for the future of what I’ve built so far.
I lost my brain and my fire, too. It took me twice as long to do a simple copyediting task. I couldn’t plan. I couldn’t do much at all. I could barely write. I suffer no delusions about the virtues of my personality; the best part of me has always been my mind. On top of behaving oddly and irrationally, I had about 20% of what I normally had in terms of my brain power.
I felt like a tiny, useless piece of lint, less than nothing. All I’d ever really had going for me was my mind, and I didn’t even have that any more. I’d lost most of the fierce ambition and drive that is an essential part of my personality months earlier, and I had zero interest in things that I used to love to distraction: writing, my company, building things, creating, even cooking. I didn’t know when my mental capacity was returning, either.
I’d forget things much more frequently than usual, making my already tenuous grip on reality even shakier. Physically, I was a mess: fat, retaining tons of water, and tired all the time. I’d gone from awesome to less than nothing in less than a year, and I didn’t know who the girl in the mirror was any more. It was terrifying.
Ultimately, it was freeing as well.
I’m better now than I’ve been in a long while. I still get tired easily, but my brain function is at 60% of how it is normally. I still need to sleep about 12 hours a day, but I at least feel like doing something apart from watching TV when I wake up. The mood swings have gone, and my personality is more or less back to what it is in my normal state. The weight gain is still there, but I’m not piling on water and fat from a normal two meals a day any more, so I’m grateful for that. I’m getting excited about building things again, for my company and beyond.
The lesson I learned this year is the kind that money can’t buy. I may love battles with stacked odds, but I have to pick them. I don’t have to give up these battles, but I have to be super selective about which ones to engage in. My mind might be a blade, and it might be fearsome, but the body that wields it needs to be taken care of as well. I know now that I am still flesh and blood, and not invincible, no matter how it might feel so on a good day.
More importantly, I’ve stopped thinking about needs the way I used to. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, (I never did, but I didn’t see this till now) but I should make good use of the brain I was given and the heart that comes with it. I don’t need to be the major breadwinner, because we will survive no matter what happens; it would be nice to be able to take care of my mother, but she is still hale and hearty enough to do so. I don’t need more.
I’ve written a book, and another is on the way. I’ve already helped so many writers, at different stages of their writing journey, from the workshops and mentorships I’ve given. I could walk away from the company and get another job, something part-time and relatively stress-free, like providing caffeine to the public, and nobody would think less of me for doing so.
I could quit tomorrow and take two years off to do nothing but dive, if I so desired. I could travel and write for a year, if I really, really wanted to. I’m not boxed in (why did I think I was?), and I have options.
Only now, after all the dust has settled, do I see that my life is overflowing with promise and opportunity. More importantly, I realize for the first time that I don’t have to charge ahead, guns blazing, at full throttle, 100% of the time. I can have what I want, when I want, in my own time, because the possibilities are endless. The winter is gone; the shadows are disappearing in the light of day.
meta story and me
I’m not afraid any more, and having lost the power of my spectacular mind for a while, I realize that my old fears about not being smart enough were unfounded. They were more than unfounded. It was the capability of my brain that duped me into a false sense of invincibility. I’m done with that.
There is no such thing as invincibility. Superman has off days when kryptonite is involved, Jean Grey thought she was badass enough to control the Dark Phoenix and survive (that didn’t work out so well), and even the vampires in my books get their asses kicked on occasion. And this is just fiction, the optimistic ‘what if’, the meta story.
In fantasy narratives, the hero has to fail before they succeed. They have to suffer a defeat, journey to the underworld, lose part of themselves or something/ someone dear to them before they’re allowed to continue. This may be the meta story, but it’s painfully apt when it comes to describing human experiences. Real life is far, far messier than narrative. I am not invincible: that is a dangerous lie. I am, however, as formidable and awesome as I allow myself to be, as long as I remember one thing, just one important fact: I am not invincible, and I need to allow myself to fail before I can succeed.
It’s only when you journey deep into the underbelly of your psyche, when all your wit and charm and cleverness is stripped away and you’re down to the raw, visceral prototype of your Self, that you can see clearly. The tidal horror of losing yourself makes you hypersensitive to truth, receptive to moments of clarity. That soul-chilling nakedness brings wisdom. This meta story weaves steel and grit into the tapestry of your own story.
Goodbye 2013. You’ve been a bitch and then some, but I learnt what I needed from you to ensure that 2014 and beyond is awesome. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.