I was born in Singapore and was brought up as a convent girl. My mother, Mrs Margaret Joseph, was the Principal of St Theresa’s Convent and was very well known in Singapore.
She was the first lay person to be Principal of a convent, was on numerous national and Asia Pacific committees, and was remembered for contributing a lot into the education system. She was radical in her ideas, starting sex education in Singaporean schools and was a sought after speaker, presenter and counsellor. She was always in the media. We couldn’t go anywhere without being stopped by someone wanting to speak with her. She was friends with everyone, from the President of Singapore to the local roadsweepers.
She made a huge difference in many people’s lives. It was hard growing up. Being in the public eye constantly was hard enough but we had a domestic violence situation as Dad was an alcoholic but Mum was also a workaholic.
Looking back now, I can see that both had undiagnosed mental health issues but it was a different time and culture then. No one knew or spoke of such things.
While I was proud and happy of Mum’s positive contributions to the world, it was hard for me. Her focus was on helping everyone else rather than on being my mother. I learnt how to become a fly on the wall, never rocking the boat, always a shadow. In Asian cultures, you don’t tend to speak openly about problems or issues, rather things are kept hidden.
Then Dad died when I was 10, and Mum when I was 12. Ironically, both died at the age of 53. I had been moving back and forth between my parents and my aunt when I was young and after they both died, I moved in with my aunt completely.
Being both Asian and Catholic, there was a lot of toxic behaviour in my immediate and extended family and unhealthy ways of dealing with things. There was very little awareness of positive coping strategies or looking after mental health. This led to me being highly anxious and depressed.
My first suicidal attempt was at the age of 10, after Dad died. In spite of his own issues, he was my best friend. We connected because we lived in the shadows and understood what it was like not to measure up. When he died, I had no one left. My teen years were filled with extremely high levels of anxiety and depression, hopelessness and a complete lack of self-worth. By the time I was 17, I collapsed at an exam and couldn’t take it anymore. The Principal, who was a friend of Mum, sent me to a psychiatrist who actually used to be her student. This was a huge turning point for me as I was finally diagnosed with PTSD and started receiving the right supports.
I realised the stifling, ultra-conservative and dogmatic environment of Singapore was not a healthy environment for me. I realised I had a choice and that I needed a new start.
With the insurance money from my parents’ deaths, I came to Melbourne to complete my secondary schooling. I didn’t know anyone here and boarded during Year 12 in Mount Eliza. I knew when I got on that plane that I was never coming back to Singapore.
I arrived as an international student, continued on to uni, applying for a student visa annually.
I worked three jobs during this time while attending uni so that I could pay for my international student fees and medical bills. International students don’t have any Medicare entitlements. But having the right professional supports really helped me on my road to recovery.
Soon after I arrived, I started singing and dancing professionally. I tried West African dancing as part of an all-female 11 piece group called Wulaba, was lead singer in a world fusion band called Blue Turban and finally auditioned for the lead singer role with a band called Jadida.
Life was getting better each day. I was building a network of solid friends who were fast becoming my family, accessing the right supports to help me lead a healthier life and I was being creative which wasn’t something encouraged in Singapore.
About a month after I joined Jadida, the band leader, Paul Holleman, asked me if I wanted to ‘hang out’ the next day. We went out on our first date in March.
As we were starting a relationship, we decided to both do an STD test. Unfortunately for me, or fortunately, the test revealed a borderline tumour on my ovary. I didn’t have anyone to help look after me following the surgery so Paul told me to move in with him so he could. This was in May, a whole two months after we started dating!
Among other things, he helped me get dressed and go to the toilet! It was the weirdest, quickest courtship ever!
There was no real reason for me to move out once I got better.
One day, while I was filling in yet another visa application to allow me to stay for the next year, Paul suggested we just get married. He hated the system and saw how stressed I was when I had to fill in another application.
I couldn’t believe it at first and said no. I had all these visions of elaborate marriage proposals and how people had to be in love for ages before getting married. They very quickly dissipated. He said, “Why not? Are you going anywhere?” I said no and he said he wasn’t either. I couldn’t think of any other arguments. So 7 months after we started dating, we got married. I was 25 then.
I have teenage stepsons (from Paul’s previous relationship), and for an Asian woman, that was unusual and took a bit of adjusting. The surgeon had also said that if I waited to have kids, I should have them soon as I could get another tumour and it could become cancerous. My fertility could also have been affected. So much was changing and moving so fast. I was only 25 and none of my friends was even in a serious relationship. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a mother, but within a month of that conversation, I became pregnant.
My beautiful daughter Mira was born in 2003. It was such a difficult pregnancy and birth but when I heard her cry for the first time, the whole world stopped. All I could see was her.
It was hard having a young child without family or any other experienced women around me to offer support. Paul and I were also so used to being completely independent but there were lots of tough times that we had to pull through. As we didn’t have the usual courtship and had kids straightaway, we had to deal with the ups and downs of parenting at the same time.
We were still writing music, recording albums and performing with Jadida. I also added bellydance and Bollywood dance to the repertoire, had duos and trios and did jazz, blues and soul music. Music was how we met and we kept that going in spite of everything.
I had been a classroom teacher and taught primary and secondary. When I had Mira, I took some time off. During that time, having a young child and two teenagers, I decided I had enough of dealing with kids at work and at home so I went back to uni and studied organisational psychology. Having experienced pain and suffering myself but also then learning healthier ways of coping and living, I felt that there was a lot I could do to help others.
Eventually I got my Masters in Psychology and began work as a psychologist in the corporate world.
In 2018, I began developing pain in the balls of my feet. It didn’t seem to have any connection to how much I walked. Deep down I knew something was wrong, but I was in denial.
One morning I woke up with swollen fingers. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with my second autoimmune condition – rheumatoid arthritis. This began almost two years of Hell.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease where an overactive immune system attacks the joints. My bloodwork wasn’t good and so the treatment had to be aggressive. They essentially started me on low-level chemo drugs. The side effects were diabolical. I suffered from hair loss, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, upset tummy, physical weakness.
The treatment felt worse than the disease. I had to give up singing and dancing, which was hard as that’s where my social network was. Then again, I was too weak to even socialise.
The only thing I could hold on to was work. I had to be able to do something, to feel human, to make a difference.
The second drug I was given was a bit better but gave me sun damage and hives but I had to stay on both for a year before Medicare approved me to access a biologic drug.
The biologic works a lot better and I no longer feel so sick. But things are still different. My body doesn’t feel quite right. I worked out that my main triggers are cold weather and stress and have to mentally adjust to what is officially a disability.
There are many things I can’t do anymore. I can’t dance much or go on long walks with friends. I can’t do intense workouts at the gym or chop vegetables and open jars. I get tired easily. These days I can vacuum the house but need to take two or three rest breaks in between. I have to mop on a different day. It feels like my performing days are over. I did a gig in between lockdowns but sang with a walking stick to keep me upright. I have a big voice and singing is a physically intense activity.
But I have found other things I can do especially with my intellect.
In addition to completing my PhD in Organisational Psychology, I am writing a book with an old school friend on non-heteronormative styles of motherhood in Singapore. These women are single mums, migrant mums, rape victims or terminally ill mums, etc.
I’m also a senior lecturer at an up and coming NFP called Futureskills 101 which is an educational platform making available a range of corporate programs to disenfranchised communities in the Asia Pacific region. I’m also developing and working on content for a health and wellbeing app called Starting 5.
In my free time, I do a lot of volunteer work though I can’t do as much as I used to. We regularly donate to certain charities but I also knit wildlife pouches for Wildlife Victoria and scarves for asylum seekers through West Welcome Wagon. I’m a lot slower than I used to be because my hands don’t work very well but I’m still plodding along.
It’s been an intense year. While other industries were shutting down, psychologists have ramped up our services and there is no end in sight. People are really suffering, many are scared and uncertain. It’s put pressure on psychologists who are getting tired as well. It’s been a difficult year and we have to be really careful about self-care practices and how we manage the work we do.
Not having to travel for work has helped with my fatigue levels. It’s also been a lovely time as we have connected as a family with board games and long drives. The family has really helped me more with cleaning and I am working on accepting what I can do rather than what I can’t.
In 2021, I will continue to work out what my life can be now. Some doors have closed, but what other opportunities are there? I am passionate about mental health and wellbeing and want to get the message out there that it’s okay to be human, to feel and to struggle. We are all beautiful works in progress, learning and growing and evolving into these amazing superheroes.
Check out Beulah and her husband Paul – who was previously profiled on 17 June 2020 – on the Jadida website http://mdiart.com/jadidawp/
Or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jadida312
Or Instagram: #jadidaband
Beulah’s story, along with 140 other Humans of the Inner West, can also be found on www.humansofsky.com.au.
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