Yesterday, I made this announcement on Facebook to family and friends:
"A season of change//
2016 has been a year filled with change. Joel and I transitioned from being in a long-distance relationship to being newlyweds. I moved back to Singapore after having lived in Melbourne for 7 years, leaving a large part of myself behind. We bought our first apartment. I started work as a junior doctor in the Singapore public health system.
These would be big steps for anyone (but perhaps more so for me - as it turned out, I'm not quite as tenacious as I'd thought), and the summation of these changes far exceeded anything I'd anticipated. The complexities of my new roles in life, of new priorities, of new responsibilities, on top of a stark homesickness for a country that was not my own and feeling strangely isolated in the one that was (and the confusion and identity crisis this brought) did not sit well.
I floundered, struggled, despaired.
It is perhaps ironic then, that more change comes in the wake of this. The past few months have been an interesting and difficult time for Joel and I, with the arrival to this next decision fraught with much uncertainty, fear, and challenge; perhaps the biggest one our young marriage has faced yet. But Joel has been incredible throughout all this, and has shown me what it truly means to love. We have made this next decision together.
I am humbled to announce that Joel and I (and Tobey!) will be migrating to Sydney in mid-August.
We both have been offered wonderful jobs there, each of us within days of our application, and both job offers happening in the same week. We will be within minutes of my sister, I will be working at the same hospital as a dear childhood friend and Joel will be at a highly reputable tattoo parlour in Bondi.
The two one-way tickets have been bought, Tobey's quarantine paperwork is underway, and we are packing!
It is amazing grace that opened door after door so smoothly to make us feel this is the right way to go - even after we were so sure we'd settle here in Singapore. On my wedding day, I awoke with a still small voice that said:
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.
It is with this assurance that we make our next step. A faith adventure, if you will.
Thank you to my amazing husband (his Chinese name is 主恩 - literally, God's grace), for being love itself. Thank you to our parents especially, and to our family and friends that have stood by us in this time and offered support, encouragement and help in one way or another. I know just how fortunate I am.
It's an exciting time for Joel and I! Please pray for us as we make this leap of faith together.
Now here on Dayre, I can further explore the complexities behind this decision. I didn't want to explain too much more on Facebook; it feels like I have to curate that space more, somehow.
Everyone has sent me very encouraging messages and left positive comments, but I can't help wonder if I'm being judged anyway...likely I am, because people will talk no matter what, and everyone has their own opinion of things because we're all different. I've decided that that's OK!
In the end, only I am responsible for my own happiness, and even then, only mine.
It all started with a nightmare.
The first nightmare split my days into the Before and the After.
In Before, I was doing OK. I was still scared and a little anxious, but I was finding fulfillment at work. I was somewhat happy. And it was all so new that I told myself I had time to learn, time to adapt, make friends, get used to the public health care system.
In Before, I was still looking around expectantly when someone called, "Doctor!" because I didn't realize they were calling me 😂
In Before, I mostly slept through the night. I awoke tired and grumpy on some days, didn't want to go to work on others, but it was always manageable. I had good days, bad days, completely horrible days, but the main thing was I was still finding fulfillment in my work. The smile of an old uncle, the thanks from a worker in his hospital bed, the knowledge that I comforted someone - this would fulfill me and it would bring me a measure of joy.
In Before, I had hope.
Then the nightmares started.
I don't know how they did, or why they did. There was no trigger, no real-life event that happened, to precipitate this. I wasn't particularly anxious or upset about anything.
One night I went to sleep, and I just had a nightmare.
It was a terrible drifting in and out of half-consciousness, dreaming about sick patients, watching them crash in my sleep, struggling out of that sleep to try and resolve the situation, always thinking, thinking, thinking how to save them, what to do.
When the night finally ended, I would, shocked into reality by my alarm, have to then drag myself up from this night-long battle, exhausted, into work, and hope that the nightmares did not become a reality that day.
Night after night this happened. The result was that I was exhausted, anxious, on edge and miserable all the time.
My nightmares never made it that far to reality. There would of course be similarly sick patients, but I would always have help and they were fine, in the end.
But somehow in that exhausted, anxious state, I could not truly differentiate what happened in my mind while half-asleep, from what happened in reality. On call, I would brisk-walk down the hospital corridors at 2am and it would feel so exactly like my nightmares that I was so sure that, like in them, something bad would happen before morning.
And of course I was working 80+ hours a week, so I also had very little time away from this cycle of work-sleep-work-sleep.
This became my life. Surviving on very little sleep, I would get up at 5am everyday to do it again and again, day after day, with barely one day of respite before I had to start all over again for a new week. I started crying before work, after work, and towards the very end, at work, too. Hiding in a toilet cubicle, clutching my stethoscope so it wouldn't fall into the toilet bowl again (yes, it happened at 3am one night 😩), I would sob as quietly as I could, and as quickly as I could.
A tumult of thoughts and emotions raced through my mind every day. Every junior doctor in Singapore goes through this. Why couldn't I? Why am I so weak? What's wrong with me? Maybe I'm not cut out for this. Maybe this is too much responsibility. I am being too ambitious. I'm not smart enough. I'm so slow. I'm so stupid.
Yet, I managed to hide this all very well. Despite the terror, exhaustion and crisis, I managed to get to work and do a good job everyday.
I received good feedback at reviews, I got praise from my seniors, I was thanked by smiling patients.
But this all meant nothing at this point.
In After, I functioned, but it was with an abysmal outlook. In After, things that used to make me happy no longer did. In After, I became cynical, moody, snappy to the people around me, became someone I neither liked nor wanted to be. I was tired all the time and I started to become resentful towards everything and everyone.
One day, a patient was talking to me, and I suddenly thought, "Stop talking - I don't care anymore. I don't care about your problems. Let me just sleep. I just want to sleep. I don't care about you any more."
I'd lost my sense of fulfillment at work. I was good at it, but I hated it. I dreaded every minute of it. And there was still a good 4 years to go.
In After, I had no hope.
I went to see someone about it, and got some medication to try and help me sleep and to brighten my mood.
It didn't really help, maybe also because I didn't believe anything could help me.
I suspect I might have coped better if:
🌻I had friends at work
🚫My colleagues were nice, but that's not the same as having friends. I felt incredibly isolated - maybe because I hadn't connected with Singaporeans in a long time, maybe because they were all pretty much from the same graduating class, maybe I had just become too different and no longer fit in this culture as seamlessly as I'd expected.
🌻 I had more time off
🚫 It is a sad fact that there is a shortage of doctors in Singapore. I wanted to come back to serve my country and to give to the healthcare and community here. I never wanted to leave and contribute to the shortage myself. But Singapore just doesn't have enough doctors for us to work less, and I was being suffocated by the amount of time I had to be in the hospital. Maybe it would have been OK if I was still finding fulfillment in the work, but I wasn't...
🌻 I was finding fulfillment in the work
🚫 They say if you love your work, you'll never work a day in your life. That's great, but even I'm not that idealistic to think I'd love my job every single day. But I wanted to at least find some fulfillment in it, like I did at the start. I need some small joys at times, to make the bad parts worth it. But that seemed to all be gone, and once I found zero fulfillment, going to work was unbearable, and, as it turned out, unsustainable.
🌻 I could sleep
🚫 This is the main thing. If I could have just slept properly, slept and felt restored, without any nightmares, I suspect I would have been fine. But they plagued me every night, and heaped exhaustion on top of exhaustion. I think a lot of small factors contributed to the sleeplessness. Not just worries about patients or my work performance, but also about how I was integrating back into Singapore culture, about my identity, about feelings of isolation.
🌻 I wasn't so homesick for Australia
🚫 There is this deep, complex feeling in missing a country that isn't "supposed" to be "mine". It feels like some sort of betrayal to Singapore, with a lot of identity confusion attached to it. And yet, I learned how to be an adult in Melbourne. I spent 7 years of young adulthood there. I deeply miss my friends, the environment, and the person I was when I was there. I was confident, strong, and independent, because I had to be. I miss my old life.
Lots of speculation, but I suppose I'll never know what the true reason is. It's probably a combination of all these things. Anyway, it resulted in something I had never expected, and it was scary as shit for both J and I.
We'd made plans to settle here, we'd bought our HDB, we truly thought the next 5 years would be here. We never expected to face anxiety, sleeplessness, tears, hopelessness and despair. It's been a big challenge to our young marriage.
Just because we'd never expected it though, didn't mean it couldn't happen.
For my part, I tried to pep talk myself out of it every morning. I counted my blessings. I had so, so much compared to heaps of people. I was privileged. I had the honour of helping patients on their way to recovery. I was living in a beautiful country. I had a wonderful husband. I had a supportive family. I had enough money. I had resources of and access to education, information, entertainment, recreation.
I now know firsthand that you cannot force yourself out of anxiety just by having a positive outlook, no more than you can fix a broken leg or a sore throat just by "thinking happier thoughts".
I've known this all along from medical school and doing my psych rotation, but to experience it firsthand, I think, truly reinforces it.
In a way I'm glad because now I'm equipped to know exactly how patients feel, and what the worst possible and least helpful things to say are. The thing is, people who don't know what else to do, say them with good intentions and to be helpful, without knowing just how much worse it can make someone feel.
🙊: Just think happy thoughts! Cheer up!
🙊: It's not as bad as you think - you just need to surround yourself with more positive things.
🙊: It will get better with time. Hang in there.
🙊: Don't think so much, OK? Don't be so negative.
Well, positive thinking worked for...3 days, and then it started to wear me down. By the time 4 weeks had gone by, it was futile; by the 8th week, I couldn't even think these things any longer.
The real crux came when I went on annual leave.
I had my annual leave the week of May 30th. J and I went to Sydney, to visit my sister.
It was while I was there that the true fury of anxiety, misery and hopelessness hit me like a great force. You'd think that being on holiday would help - that it would be the much-needed break to get me back on track, to restore me, to recharge me again. It wasn't. Somehow being away and having a little space to examine my life from the outside showed me just how unhappy I was.
I cried every single night and morning I was there. I tried my best to enjoy the days but at the back of my mind was always the sickening dread of having to return to the hospital, to do 4 more years' worth of calls before I could even think of leaving. The nightmares came, vivid and harsh, despite the tablets I took to help me sleep.
Above all, anger ran through me. Why can't I just relax? It's an f-ing holiday and my stupid brain is being all crazy again?! What is wrong with me???
On the plane back from Sydney to Singapore, I cried every moment I was awake. I would cry, doze off in my exhaustion, wake up 15 minutes later, and cry again.
At the end of 7 hours, I had made my decision.
A bit of context: I have a 4-year bond to serve in the Singapore public health system, in exchange for having my last two years of medical school tuition paid for me. To break this bond, I have to return the amount of tuition plus 10% interest.
It is not an impossible amount to pay off, but neither is it a small amount. If I didn't take the grant, I would have had to pay this amount (less the 10% interest) to my university anyway.
But I took the grant for a reason. I took it because it meant less financial stress on my parents and myself. It was "free" education for two years, in exchange for guaranteed work for 4 years, in my home country where my family is.
I knew what I was coming home to, but I didn't truly understand. How could I, having not gone through it? I was comparing medical student in Australia with junior doctor in Singapore, and I was using all the information and experience I had at the time to make what I thought was the best decision.
I didn't truly know what working 80 hours a week in a job that would chip away at my fulfillment, identity, and happiness would do to me. I never even expected that the job could do that.
So I had a choice, and on that plane ride back, I made a list - leaving my job.
I started with the cons:
⛈ Loss of financial security
⛈ Having to pay back the bond amount
⛈ Disappointing my family
⛈ Falling behind my peers
⛈ "Wasting" my formal education
⛈ What would I work as, if not a doctor?
I have no marketable skills. I've never worked in any other industry. What could I possibly do? How would Joel manage our finances?
Maybe I haven't tried for long enough? Maybe I haven't tried hard enough? Why am I so weak? Why can't I just suck it up and do it? No one likes their job right? It's part of life, why can't I just f-ing man up and be an adult about it? Do I really want to cripple our finances because I'm too spoiled to handle toughness? Am I really going to throw away my years of nursery, kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, IB, bachelor's and master's because I don't like working???
I was my biggest critic, and I shot myself down from every angle. It was impossible to leave my job, I thought.
To be honest, I wasn't even sure WHAT exactly was making me so miserable and anxious - I just was. I didn't know if it was medicine, or medicine in Singapore. I still don't.
Then I made the pros list:
☀️ It will make me happy
☀️ I will sleep again
☀️ I will smile again
☀️ I might love medicine again
☀️ My relationships will improve because I will have time for them once more
The first list seemed so much more practical and responsible. Needs. Responsibilities. Priorities. The second, in comparison, seemed almost silly - a flight of my own fancy, frivolous wants and ideals that shouldn't take precedence over very real problems.
How was I going to look after patients, when my own physical, emotional and mental health was shot to pieces? How was I going to be a safe or effective doctor? How long could I keep up my façade, before something gave?
It is my first and foremost responsibility to ensure that I am OK myself, before moving forward to try and look after someone else. It is my responsibility to my patients, and ultimately to myself, to know where my limits are. That is safe medicine, and good medicine.
I was so terrified of being a bad doctor that I failed to see that stepping back when I need to actually makes me a good doctor. This takes courage to admit, because no one wants to say that they need a step back.
There's no choice of going to work at a different hospital, because there is only one employment body for all of Singapore, and we are placed where the manpower is needed. So leaving the job entirely was the only way I could get out of it.
When the plane landed, I sent out the necessary emails. There was no turning back.
It was such a big thing to do, now thinking about it. I had no plans. I only knew I could not go back.
I wanted to be the tenacious one, the one with resilience and fortitude, the one with the strength. The one who made it through the grueling training of the Singapore public health system.
But perhaps my definitions of tenacity, resilience, fortitude and strength were wrong to begin with.
So on that plane I made a decision. I was going to leave my job.
Our family has been so supportive throughout this. I can never be grateful enough that I have the encouragement of both sets of parents, who told me that happiness is the most important thing, and who offered advice, financial help, and assistance with the administrative things.
My dad told me that he thought 7 years away was too long, and that he guessed that I would have a hard time fitting back in, though he'd hoped otherwise.
I am also beyond thankful that I have the privilege to even be able to make a choice. I realize that others who may be in a similar situation just don't have the ability to make such a choice, and that many people are stuck in real-life nightmares for years and years.
It is with a humble and grateful heart that I share my story, and I truly understand how fortunate I am, to be able to even have the choice of leaving an unhappy job.
During one of our discussions with J's parents, it inevitably came up that it would be a shame if my medical career was not given a second chance, considering I had slogged through 7 years of university and 2 degrees to get to this stage.
Why not apply back to Australia, they suggested. I dismissed the idea almost straightaway, because it seemed like one of those things that could never happen. I was already looking on JobSearch for other things I could do, like being a research assistant.
After all, my issues of anxiety, nightmares and exhaustion would not go away by moving back to Australia. It would be the same job, only the location of these issues would be different. They'd still be there.
Or would they? I began to think. The hours were certainly shorter (50 per week compared to 80). I'd get some weekends off. The culture valued personal time off. And...my whole life was there, wasn't it, aside from my family? My friends are there. I got married there. I love the culture.
Then I looked at this picture.
Then it struck me - these are my closest friends. My best girls, my support system, the ones I chose to be closest to me on my wedding day. And 4 out of 5 of them aren't here in Singapore. They're in Australia, with the exception of @tiffyctf who's in Germany, because she's marrying Fatty Angmoh (one more month to go before I return the favour as a bridesmaid at her wedding in Germany!!! 🎉). I was so lonely and I didn't even know it.
For years, I had it in my head that I would come back to Singapore after my studies. It made sense. My family is here. J is here. I would come back to work, and we would settle down here. Our babies would get to be showered with their grandparents' love, and I'd finally be home at last.
After all, the times I'd returned to visit Singapore over my summer breaks were always enjoyable and happy. I got to catch up with people, got to eat missed foods, got to spend time with my family.
So never did it once occur to me that home would have shifted, that perhaps J should be the one coming over to Australia instead, and that the heavy price I'd have to pay for falling in love with another country and its people was getting to see my family twice a year instead of once a week.
Now the possibility hung in the air full of promise like a palpable cloud, it could not be taken back. For the first time in a long time, I felt something like a sort of glow - it was hope.
Thus began the frantic applications for Australian hospital positions. I didn't have high hopes to begin with, because there are notoriously a very scant number of places for international people. I decided to apply anyway.
But guess what? The day I decided to apply was exactly the day after applications closed!!!
Australia has an annual application period and intake for all junior doctors. The new work year begins in January and so applications usually take place in June the previous year.
How coincidental is it that applications closed the night before I decided to apply!?
IS THIS A SIGN?!
I ignored it, if it was. I sent out 41 applications. A few replies came back to say sorry I had missed the deadline. Many simply ignored me.
This came in my inbox one day.
It's God's grace. It truly is. Not by any work on my part - it's just grace.
I was excited yet worried.
⚒ Applications had closed for the January 2017 intake - would they want me?
⚒ I was an international citizen, and not Australian
⚒ If they wanted me to start straightaway, I can't - I promised my best friend I'd be at her Germany wedding
⚒ What about my working visa?
⚒ What about J? Would he be able to get a job?
⚒ What about our HDB?
⚒ What about Tobey 🐶??
And then, the still small voice again:
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Within the same week:
The hospital called me back. They offered me the job, to start this year. So I wouldn't be considered with the January 2017 intake, and hence my application is separate, and I'm not too late! ✅
The hospital would sponsor my visa, and J can come on it and can work on it, too! ✅
My start date at the hospital would be after Tiffe's wedding, so I can happily attend it and enjoy myself, before making the big move! ✅
J started to talk to people in his industry and tell them about my job in Sydney, asking for advice. Within a couple of days, he was offered a job at a prestigious tattoo parlour in Bondi! ✅
We got approval from HDB to begin the process of applying to have our flat rented out! ✅
We found a pet mover to export Tobey to Australia! ✅
Words cannot express the depth of gratitude I feel for the grace I've been shown, and the support I've been given.
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. - Matthew 10:29"
"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? - Matthew 6:26"
And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.
It has certainly been a difficult time for J and I. But God is so, so good. He's opened all these doors in just one week, things that I never even thought possible, never even considered before.
We were so sure we'd settle in Singapore, so sure we'd build our first home here; yet God has other plans. He shook me up, taught me my strengths, weaknesses and limits, let me fall into the abyss so He could show me the way out again, then told me the way to go through our loving parents.
For so long I've been trying to do it on my own strength, when I simply cannot.
Medicine has always been a calling for me. It needs to be, in order for me to do it - because otherwise it wouldn't ever be something I'd choose on my own. The stakes are so high, the responsibility is immense, the job is hard, with long hours; it is at times thankless, full of shit (literally, too), and in the end the hourly pay is less than many other jobs.
I desperately want to love it again, so that I can do it with passion. I want to be that idealistic person who actually, truly loves their job, the way I imagined it to be when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed medical student.
I have hope for the future now. I didn't for a long time, until last week.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
And so, we're going!
We will be leaving Singapore on August 22nd. These next couple of months will be quite a whirlwind, with the preparations for the move, and also because we will be away in Germany for 2 weeks end-July for the wedding.
I also just wanted to say thank you to everyone who's bothered to follow my journey this far - your encouragement really warms my heart and touches me. I am deeply moved that strangers would reach out to share their own stories and to also wish me well.
Much thanks goes to J, who has been an incredible husband throughout this. He got up everyday with me at 5am, made breakfast, pep-talked me for the day. He bought my favourite food for dinner, "accompanied" me during my calls via text, and did every little thing he could to make my life easier. He talked me through it all, listened, held me when I cried, and when he could not reach me in the depths of my despair, crawled in and sat with me until I surfaced again.
He is giving up his comfort zone, his family, his friends, and his 9 years at his beloved 8 Volts Tattoo to move continents with me, for the chance that I can find my joy again. He was the one that waited 3 years for me to come back, only to then agree without a moment's hesitation to leave, for my sake.
J's Chinese name is 主恩; translated, it means God's grace.
Thank you for saving me a second time in life, my dearest J. Who knows how many times in my life you'll continue to save me, but it will always be a reminder of God's amazing grace towards me.
Grace - underserved. That's what makes it so beautiful.
To everyone who is going through a similar experience, I don't have much advice to give because I'm floundering about myself as well, and I haven't done a particularly good job of anything. I can only say that I sincerely hope that there will be a turn in the near future for you, and whether you believe in a god or not, that grace of some kind will find you.
Please don't give up. I know we are total strangers, but sometimes it's easier to chat with strangers, and if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to email me at email@example.com to ask for my number. We are set on this earth to help one another, and even if I can only listen, I shall be very happy to do so.
Remember - everyone around you is fighting their own battle, and some are more invisible than others. Have courage, and be kind.
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2016
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