Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2018 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 53 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the complexity of the future roads we must take, as individuals, and as a nation.
"Just One Road" is an essay contributed by Bernadette Sim.
Sim has over 20 years of experience in human resource management. Her last permanent position was Director of Careers & Attraction with the Public Service Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, covering a wide range of HR areas.
Sim's essay is reproduced in full here:
By Bernadette Sim
A sudden change
At 19, the world was filled with hope and idealism (dignity, respect and other lofty things) and a belief the future was full of possibilities. And while I was never a beauty queen, I was vain enough to feel I could wear heels and be attractive.
At 43, I looked back and I saw I had achieved my goals. Like the Singapore story, I had scholarships, marriage, two sons, a successful career, a car, and a freehold landed property.
And then one day, at 44, I woke up from a coma to find myself half-paralysed.
I was unable to eat, walk, talk or use my left hand. I was disabled, with tubes and scars covering my body and a palm-sized hole in my skull. I felt that I was no longer a person — literally a thing, an unrecognisable thing. I had to take an average of 30 pills to get through each day.
Everyone around me tried their best to help rebuild me to what I had been before. No one knew the right answers so it was a process of trial and error.
My first therapist told me to accept that “the Bernadette you knew has died”.
At the time, I couldn’t understand or believe what she said. Seven years later, I now understand that I could not and would never be the same person again. I had wasted six years trying to find and rebuild myself.
In the process, I lost my family (got divorced, which also meant losing my sons), my career, even myself: my ability to discern and make wise or rational decisions. I found myself trusting the wrong people and allowing myself to be betrayed. I accepted being physically and verbally abused and deceived, I lost my idealism, my dignity and self-respect, I lost hope and any view of my future, I was suicidal.
All this made me question if I had made the right life choices, and if I had been given an opportunity for a second chance on a path I didn’t take.
But the question of whether I had made a mistake in my life choices was perhaps not as simple as that.
Looking back, even before my stroke, I was afraid of looking weak or looking like a failure.
My parents are good people and from when I was young, my dad made clear that he didn’t like me to cry or do things that, to him, were shows of weakness.
So in every situation from my childhood onward, I would pretend to be strong and my drama skills got better. I knew how to hide how I truly felt: scared, insecure, whatever. I also learnt how to look successful or appear confident.
I learnt to brazen it out, in any situation.
This continued through exams and extracurricular activities. Being fat, not pretty — I knew I needed to have a different edge to set me apart, to make me likeable. What helped me through my academics was my ability to memorise things — from Chinese to History to piano exams, to parts in plays.
When it came to leadership roles I learnt to read cues of the team and my supervisors, so I could anticipate things better. When people were angry or upset, I was better prepared to react. Today’s world calls it having high EQ — back then it was survival.
Back to today
When I got sick, I realised that I could no longer “dress for success” or pretend I was better than I was, because there were clear visible signs that I was less than normal.
So my instincts took over, only allowing people to see the obvious physical weakness but not my true struggles.
I pretended I was courageous and able to rise to the occasion. No matter how scared or depressed or how many times I broke down and wept at night alone in my bed, I braved it as much as possible.
I had been conditioned to believe that if I pretended I was ok, I would eventually be fine. I acted tough, like I was able to carry on as normal, to travel and go anywhere and be with anyone I wanted to.
So my social media posts comprised pretty, happy pictures of partying and eating. I knew how to spin a credible narrative, having done that most of my life.
I knew I wanted sympathy but not pity. While it may sound cold-hearted, manipulative and malicious, it was self-preservation.
I had many credible excuses, including keeping my friends and sons updated that I was doing well (and enough anti-anxiety pills to control the sadness if I couldn’t really take it).
All the time, I was praised for having courage to continue. But I had no idea why I was being praised for courage, because I was crying and afraid all the time, feeling hollow and empty. In fact, my fear of pain was a laughing point for some of my "friends".
It wasn’t till six years later, when I read an article about how someone who faced difficulties felt dead inside, that I understood that people thought I should have been beaten by what had happened to me, and found my very survival surprising.
Then one day, I had a moment of realisation in church.
My doctors say it was new medicines that helped me gain clarity. Whatever it was, I realised that I had never truly lost hope or felt I would fail.
I was brought up to believe that whatever happened, I would find a way to make it work. Failure was not an option.
I could be depressed, sad, in despair, suicidal, tired, abused, disabled, sick. But never beaten or defeated.
I think that was something others saw in me but I didn’t see in myself until the end of 2017. I recognised that I had never lost hope and true faith, no matter how weak and troubled I was.
The love and support of my friends and family made me what I had become.
Maybe the childhood trials I faced helped build in me what some call “resilience”, which we aren’t born with but develop over time.
Today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
These days, I increasingly find myself asking — does it really matter what path we take, or not take?
In my case, I believe that there are no “mistakes”, except when we don’t try to make the best of the roads we are on, here and now.
I chose a path and I made it great. I know that where I end up is where I am meant to be.
I believed in romance and happily ever after and I think this part of me keeps me being positive and helped me look for the best in my situation, no matter how bad.
I believe in miracles, which I think is enough for me.
I don’t believe and cannot visualise failures, which I think is ok.
I think there is always a way out; there is always a solution. That God will be with me, and show me a blessing — whether in my choice of marriage partner, career choices, the blessings of my sons, the friends who came with these careers.
At 51 now, after 10 operations (five brain , five spine in seven years), I have a complete skull, even if it’s prosthetic, with approximately 30 titanium clips. I can talk and eat independently, walk with an aid, and am down to an average of seven pills a day.
Like any parent, I would have preferred if my sons were spared any trials or hardships in their lives. I regret that my children were hurt in this journey and their lives were disrupted by my illness but I believe this is also part of their growth and development.
As I near the 10th year of my stroke journey, there is much I still don’t know, but I know one thing with a deep and echoing clarity.
There was no other road I should or would have taken.
Top photo via Shutterstock.