'No, we will live, we will survive'
The British Psychological Society theme for 2020 – 'From poverty to flourishing' – caught my attention recently, reminding me of a true story of resilience based in Singapore. It is about a boy I met around the mid-1990s – Tim.
Back then, I was working as a youth worker while pursuing my part-time psychology degree. My key responsibility was to conduct outreach to the lower-income neighbourhood, especially with latchkey children and youth who dropped out from school. I found Tim (pictured above) loitering around the neighbourhood a few times in the same old tattered t-shirt. On one occasion, while I was giving free tuition to a boy, the boy spotted Tim and told me that Tim needed help for his studies too. The following week, the boy invited Tim to come along, and that was when I got to know him.
Tim was ten years old, and frequently bullied by his peers due to his small build. Once we had become acquainted, I asked for his permission to visit his parents. Although reluctant initially, he brought me to his apartment.
When I saw the condition of Tim’s house, it triggered an urgent sense I needed to help Tim’s family. He lived in a small rental apartment that had only a cement floor and was barely furnished. The house was gloomy and dark, with broken windows and shattered glasses on the floor. Electricity and water supplies were cut due to debts and arrears. They had to survive without food and water on some occasions.
Tim's mom seemed to be suffering from a serious mental health condition. She could not even care for herself, not to mention care for Tim’s basic needs. It was a clear sign of child neglect. According to Tim, her condition deteriorated after the passing of Tim’s father. Almost every night, and usually past midnight, his mom would wail eerily. Neighbours thought the house was haunted. Tim recalled a couple of occasions when his mom tried to throw him out of the window, to end their lives together, but her attempts failed when the neighbours spotted them and stopped her or when Tim woke up from his sleep and resisted his mom physically. Whenever his mom started crying aloud, lamenting that she had nothing left to support him, Tim, at his tender age, would rebut strongly and firmly with “No, we will live, we will survive. I will take care of you”.
Tim’s ordeal prompted me and my team to render all the necessary help for the family, and urgently. Tim’s mother was later diagnosed with the condition of schizophrenia at the mental health hospital.
I introduced Tim to a community church around his neighbourhood to get social support, and also referred the family to a social welfare agency for financial help. When Tim’s mom was hospitalised for treatment, he would stay over with different adult church members. Tim continued to receive help from his schools and various agencies until he graduated from tertiary education. There were also a lot of street gangs around Tim’s neighbourhood, so steering him away from negative influence was also part of my goal for Tim. Thankfully, he found a few good peers in church and they are still keeping in touch until this day.
As I explored some of the psychological interventions, I found that my approach was somewhat similar to Dr Julian Rappaport's 1970s theory on prevention and empowerment for the individual in community psychology. His research brought about social change and empowerment to the poor and the minority children in the community. If Tim were to do the test on the Adverse Childhood Experience scale, he is likely to score high and might be at a higher risk of various adult problems. Instead, Tim thrives and flourishes as an adult. According to Dr Jack Shonkoff, director of the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University, there were people with high ACE score who did well in life, and having close relationships is the key to building resilience. Tim had many positive experiences with various adults who cared for him during his formative years. His story showed us that community support is crucial, no matter which cultural background we come from.
How Tim flourishes today
Today, Tim is 36 years old. I have seen how he not only survived but thrived over the last two decades. As his life mentor, I have had the privilege of seeing how he has triumphed over many life obstacles and continued to pursue his dreams. Tim used to operate a Chinese steamboat stall which has since closed down due to high rental. He said he loves to see people enjoying food and it makes him happy because when he was young, he didn’t have enough to eat. Tim also enjoys reading home décor magazines since he was a teenager. He started his own interior design company a few years ago called Dezigner Labs. Having missed the chance to grow up in a nice home environment, it gave Tim pleasure when he designed his client’s home.
During primary school days, many of Tim's classmates would brag about their overseas holiday trip. When they asked about his holiday trip, he would pretend not to hear them. Tim’s dream of taking his mother abroad came true when he brought his mother and fiancé on an overseas trip some years back, both of them on a plane for the first time.
For more than 10 years, Tim’s mother hasn't experienced a relapse or admission to the mental health hospital. Surprised by her recovery, her psychiatric doctor asked Tim what he had done. Tim simply replied that he spent most of his evening and night with her. 20 years ago she would stare into space in a daze all day; today, they interact just like any one of us.
Tim's story is truly an example of a journey 'from poverty to flourishing', and I believe there are many similar stories out there yet to be told.
- Philip H. Ang is a psychologist in Singapore. He is a graduate member with the British Psychological Society, and has a Master of Science in Psychology. He works with children and youth with emotional and behavioural issues and conducts talks and training regularly related to mental health. He had also coached and mentored many individuals from all walks of life in the area of resilience.
Tim gave his full permission for the story to be shared.
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