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PERSONAL ESSAY

Liza Baccay

The Power of a Massive Failure

I moved to Singapore with what I thought were the sufficient deadly armour of Cebuano pluck, Ilocano grit and Iskolar ng Bayan bravura. My accoutrement was distributed across two bulging suitcases, all meticulously chosen to convey competence and confidence. Further armed with thirteen years of Jesuit spirituality and my favourite rosary, I thought I was invincible. I was going to conquer the world, and Singapore was going to be my first stop. 


I must admit, I looked good on paper. I had launched a novel clinical practice in a major Philippine city, co-founded and managed a pediatric therapy centre, led a religious volunteer organisation for six years, was a busy speaker, had a waiting list of clients the length of my arm, had earned a postgraduate business degree and was recently selected as a fellow for fiction in Asia’s first literary workshop. “Pshhhh, I can do this,” said my over-inflated ego. 


Two months later, I was floundering. I couldn't maintain a full clientele schedule, I wasn't earning the confidence of the team that I was hired to lead and the owners found me arrogant. I could not cope with the demands of the workplace and adapting to a new country. Six months later, I had formed wonderful friendships but had taken a pay cut, had reduced work responsibilities, developed insomnia and dreaded every sunrise which signalled that I had to report for work. Upon a medical examination for flu-like symptoms, the kindly lady physician asked if I had asthma. I did not. Eight months later, I tendered my resignation and paid the pre-termination fee, thus ending what was supposed to have been a two-year contract. Nine months later, I was back in my parents’ house in Cebu. The company I had left behind was in debt, its professional reputation in shreds and my own health was still fledgling. 


This was my biggest failure to date. And boy oh boy, it was big enough to swallow me whole. 


There were three things that moved me to seek professional help. Whilst taking a shower, I found myself having to pause and think hard on what to do after shampooing my hair. This is not my brain, I said to myself. A few days later, while paying for toiletries, I found myself avoiding light-hearted conversation and the eye gaze of the well-meaning cashier. It was just too exhausting. “This is NOT MY BRAIN!”, I thought in rising panic. Lastly, I was starting to have thoughts of hurting myself. My mother put her foot down and insisted I see Tita P, a family friend and a well-respected psychiatrist. 


Tita P was the mother of a childhood friend and this relationship softened the thought of seeing a psychiatrist. I drove myself to the hospital and cast furtive glances as I entered the clinic. There, I discovered that Tita P was overseas but a younger colleague was covering her cases. As I sat on the couch and as a last defence, I looked at the much younger psychiatrist and haughtily told her that I was actually here to see Tita P, and not her. The psychiatrist saw beyond the bitchy facade and asked her anguished patient to tell her story. I talked for 45 minutes. She listened quietly and asked me if I had hurt or physically harmed myself. “No, no, no,” I strongly replied. She asked more questions, took down notes and surmised that my depression seemed to have started when I stopped sleeping ten months ago. I was advised to refrain from imbibing mood altering products such as alcohol or coffee, as emotional “highs” and “lows” were not ideal. I was prescribed medication, and asked to return after a month. 


I took the prescribed sleeping pill that night, and for the first time in almost a year, I slept. I likewise took the sertraline and within one dose, felt a difference. It was a flicker, but it was unmistakable, it was there. It felt a tangible change to the healing of my exhausted brain and shredded nerves. I felt a glimmer of hope. As the days rolled by, I continued to see positive changes. I could digest blocks of information without feeling overwhelmed. I could manage surges in emotions again, such as gratefulness for little tokens of support from friends—a piece of my favourite dark chocolate, a muffin or a toleration of a teary phone call. After the first month, I returned for a check-up and Tita P was there! She observed that my symptoms seemed to have abated and prescribed one last month of medication. She cautioned me to abstain from making huge personal decisions. “You will still be very emotional,” she cautioned. A big step in my recovery was watching the restaging of Milyonaryong Mini, a Visayan comedy classic. There, cushioned by the warm circle of my girlfriends, I roared with laughter once again—deep, hearty, successive belly laughs that seemed to wake the rest of my stagnant spirit. It felt wonderful to be alive again. 


After nearly four months of rest, I returned to part-time work. After five more months, I felt sufficiently whole to return to Singapore. I had spent nine painful months in Singapore, and an equal nine months of restoration in Cebu. My first foray into Singapore was my biggest failure, and yet, I needed such suffering to wrench me away from an old life that was comfortable, but no longer served me. I needed to be broken, so that I could evolve, grow and thrive. 


I returned to Singapore a different person—more humble, less self-involved and more compassionate towards those who were fighting their own battles. I no longer felt the importance to stay within the comfort of cultural, religious or class divisions because of my experience of the kindness of people who were so different from me. There were many—an atheist friend who consistently listened with her whole heart, a Catholic monastery who lent me their silence for a week, a Filipina domestic worker who cooked comfort food for me, a Singaporean family who welcomed me into their home, and of course, my parents who never wavered in their acceptance. My first year back in Singapore was different, as I was now pliable, embracing change and the wonders it brings. 


It has been twelve years in Singapore, and well, change has been a steady constant. I have moved seven times across the island, from Katong to Admiralty to Bukit Timah to Paya Lebar to Sixth Avenue to two addresses in Hillview. Each move makes me remember the two suitcases I lugged with me when I landed in Singapore. They have since expanded to include a dining set, two sofas, a bed, six pillows, a racer bike and thirteen other boxes. Yet, I’ve packed and unpacked so many times that I can readily whittle down my thirteen boxes to just two suitcases once again, and be perfectly content. 


A bright new adventure is always waiting. 

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