“My mother died five years ago from cancer. She was responding well to the chemotherapy at first, and she had a very positive attitude towards her condition the whole time she underwent treatment, so we all thought she was going to be okay.
We were making all these plans about our new home at the time. I grew up in a pretty unstable environment so we never had a home growing up. We moved around a lot and always stayed with relatives or in rentals, so we were excited about having our own place.
My mom experienced a lot of struggle in her life, but she had this faith that finally, everything was going to be okay. She believed this cancer was just a bump in the road, since she had already removed all of her reproductive organs because it affected her ovaries.
But then we found out that the cancer had made it to her spinal column. By the time they did an x-ray, there were tumours all up her spine and on the lining of her brain. She died exactly a year after she got cancer.
It was a shock to my system because I never imagined her death in any of my ideas about what the future might look like. In my mind, she was always there, the same way she was always there for my sister and I in my earlier years.
She worked really hard doing administrative work as a secretary to take care of us, even though my dad didn’t approve of her working. He wanted to be one to take care of the family but he didn’t know how to. He was lost and angry and he hurt my mother.
When I was 19, I didn’t go home a lot because it felt like everything was falling apart. We lived in a rental flat on Henderson Road and it was horrible. There were many gangs and lots of alcoholism, drugs and struggling people. I was like, ‘Woah, how did we even end up here?’
I also had to drop out of drama school because I couldn’t afford to pay for the fees anymore. Perhaps if I was less f**ked up I would have been able to handle all of the emotional stuff and work part-time, save money and still go to school. But I wasn’t mature enough.
To deal with my problems, I partied a lot. I was at a party one day and we got raided. I was sober, but I had smoked a joint and taken half an ecstasy pill within the past one day. When they arrested us, all of us were tested positive for drugs. I went to jail for a year.
For the first time, I was suddenly alone with my thoughts and couldn’t escape from myself, which was something I had been doing for God knows how long. I realised I had it good even though I thought everything had fallen to pieces.
I met many women who fell through the cracks – women who were loansharks at 19-years-old; women who were teenagers with children and also working the streets; women whom no one visited. There was this whole underbelly of society that I was completely unaware of.
But the hardest thing about being in prison was seeing how much I had hurt my mother and sister. I had created this sob story with only me in the centre of it. I was so selfish and wrapped up in my own need for escapism that I failed to realise everyone was hurting too.
When my mother passed away about five years after I came out of prison, I went to Australia to finish my degree. I needed to separate myself from the pain and was looking for distance or some kind of alternate reality.
Perhaps I wanted to create an environment where I didn’t remember she existed. It didn’t work obviously, because I remembered her all the time. But that experience of living away helped me to self-actualise.
I learnt how to be a woman who’s responsible for herself. I also learnt that I only have this one life and I’m not going to spend it doing stuff that’s useless. I’m going to live this life as fully as I can because it’s a life that my mother gave to me.
About four years ago, I started a meditation practice called Vipassana. It’s about observation of the self, and through this process, I came to see the pain and anger that I was holding on to that held me back from being free.
I realised that any kind of unhappiness I felt about my dad was unhelpful to me or to him, so I’ve done a lot of work to mend our relationship and forgive him. I blamed him for a lot of stuff for such a long time, which is understandable considering how he treated my mom.
But I really want him to be at peace with himself and help him get rid of all the guilt. I started being vulnerable with him even though I was afraid of being hurt. I also wanted to show him that he could be himself around me because I accept him fully.
We’re now in a really good place. For the first time in 10 years, I asked him to come for one of my performances at the Singapore Writers Festival, and he was so proud of me. I also had a performance of my show Alien Flower in Fundamentalist Fields and this time he asked if he could come.
All I ever wanted was for him to be proud of me. As a child I just wanted his approval and felt like I never got it because I was in lots of trouble.
But he’s released me from some stuff I hadn’t really resolved from my childhood. Now, he can see me be my most vulnerable and vibrant self on stage and tell me that he’s proud of me.” – Deborah, 30
Interview by: Arman Shah