It’s 2 AM. We are walking down the pathway from the hospital. Except that this is no ordinary hospital. It’s the Institute of Mental Health. The doors out of the clinic aren’t automatic. They have to be unlocked by a staff member.
Maybe they are afraid that patients will run out.
It’s true. I do want to run out. As we walk down the path, my dad places his arm around me. My mum is ahead of us, finding a taxi to take us home.
Dad says: “John, whether you get 10 ‘A’s or no ‘A’s, you’ll always be my son.”
I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted my parents to know about what was going on in my mind.
When I called the hotline telling them that I wanted to end my life, this wasn’t how I envisioned "help" to look like. But when the doctor told me that he needed to send me to IMH for further assessment, and my friend informed my parents, the cat was finally out of the bag.
I was suffering from mental distress. Worse still, my parents now knew about it.
Growing up as a high-achiever, I learnt to hide the signs that things were not well with me. Like the result slip that showed that I needed to go for a re-examination. Or the acknowledgment form stating that I had been late for 5 times that term, needing a parent’s signature. (I promptly binned that).
Talking about emotions to your parents is never easy. After all, you don’t want to hurt them. Or burden them. But if I look deep down, what I feared most wasn’t my parents’ reaction.
It was admitting to myself that I needed help. It was accepting that I could no longer do this, and I needed the help of my parents. That, to me, is the hardest part.
Today, you might be a parent reading this and wondering how to get your child to open up about his emotions and to help them to share more readily about the struggles they are fac-ing. Perhaps one important first step is to learn more about mental health.
Understand mental health
"Daddy, I don’t know why I feel so empty. Like everything is just gone in my life."
He looked up from his work. He snapped, "John, stop it. You just need to snap out of it and tell yourself not to listen to those thoughts."
I left the conversation, feeling unheard. Who didn’t want to snap out of it? Of course I wanted to snap out of it! But I couldn’t. That’s why I was even asking for help.
Today, in my work with older clients, I realise that many of them hold misconceptions towards mental health. They think mental health issues are not serious. Because it’s not seen.
How can something be serious if you can’t even see it?
Taking the initiative to understand mental health can empower you to understand your child better. It is the first step towards accepting your child’s condition as something serious, and not simply something that he’s pretending to act out.
Always be there
You’re sitting at the table with your child. With your phone.
A notification pings. At that moment, you’re making a decision – will you pay attention to your child or your phone?
It’s so easy to be there, but not there. To look away for one moment.
But it’s in these small moments where you lose the trust of your child. It takes years to build trust. And only a few seconds to lose it.
When this happens repeatedly over time, your child may begin to question: "Am I really that important?"
Wherever you are, be there. Fully there. Fully present. Fully engaged. Don’t try to be with your phone and your child at the same time.
For the sake of supporting our family, my dad went through job after job.
There were days when I wouldn’t see him because he was out working. He would work in his day job from Monday to Friday. On the weekend, he would be driving a taxi. He would wear this blue cap, pulled low over his eyes, to avoid being recognised.
Every time we visited our grandmother, Dad would park further away so she wouldn’t see his taxi.
In parenting us, he rarely tried to show us that he had it made in life. He shared from his own failure, his own disappointment, and his own life.
Even though he was a parent, he was willing to show himself as human. He presented as a human who had failed, but was willing to help us work through our own failures.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word
"Sorry for not being a great father… please forgive me. I will try to be a better one in future."
Rolling out of bed that morning, I sat reading his text.
That morning, my father had left for the airport. To help me in my transition to university in the U.K., he had taken a 14-hour flight to join me. He helped prepare my room. He bought a clothes cupboard for me. Whilst I was at the introductory lectures, he went around searching for good grocery stores for me.
But deep down I was angry with him. I never wanted him to tag along to the U.K. I wanted to settle down on my own, show my independence. I felt that my dad was being a burden to me.
The last evening, he wanted to spend some time with me over a meal. We walked and walked for 15 minutes in the cold, not saying a word to each other. I trailed behind him. I watched him in his thin shirt, rubbing his hands together to keep out the cold.
When we arrived, the pub was closed. I gave him a look of raw disappointment.
But shouldn’t I be the one he’s disappointed with? For all the effort he had spent taking time off, flying 10000 miles, and helping me settle down, I had only treated him with disrespect.
Yet he was the one who apologised to me.
That’s when I realised that for all his imperfections, my father showed a willingness to humble himself.
His humility created a space for us both to show up as we are – real, broken, and authentic.
For my graduation, my parents flew all the way to the U.K. to celebrate the occasion with me.
I haven’t seen them so dressed up before. My mum donned a dress that she has not worn since getting married. She looked ravishing. My dad put on a suit.
However, on graduation day, I left them in a café, totally forgetting that I was meant to show them around the university. I was busy nursing my own sad feelings over the recent death of a friend.
When I return after 2 hours, they are still there waiting patiently. When we go out to take pictures, they are excited. But I know the 20 minutes I spent with them hardly made up for the 2 hours they had spent waiting at the café.
The next day, I came to my senses and called them to apologise for not bringing them around.
It’s okay, John. It’s really okay.
I choked up. Time and time again, I’ve disappointed my parents with my actions. But time and again, they have accepted me.
As I am. Where I am.
With all the love they have.
For all the how-tos, tips and tricks about helping your child open up, maybe sometimes, all you need is a patient and persistent love.
© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
John is excited about building healthy, multigenerational workplaces where young people can flourish with purpose and passion. He writes at liveyoungandwell.com.
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