living in the in-betweens; ’21

living in the in-betweens; ’21

Let’s not mince words and cut right to the chase: it’s been bad. My twentieth year on this planet has been nothing short of brutal in terms of how much I’ve been put through and all the new emotions I’ve come to learn the names of.

This end-of-the-year piece is never easy for me to write and it was particularly difficult this time around because I looked back on these seemingly distant memories and couldn’t quite pinpoint what I’ve learned, which is one of my worst fears—if I can’t figure out what I have learned, doesn’t that mean I didn’t grow?

In a frantic panic, I retrieved my journals and began ransacking the pages, reading entry after entry, skipping from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes lingering a while longer to decipher the lines between. I came to the conclusion that the only way to reflect on this one hell of a year is by taking an axe to it and splitting it into three distinct parts, so let’s do exactly that.

January to May: It Doesn’t Get Better Than This

There are phases in your life when you feel invincible; like you’re standing on Mount Olympus, feet on holy ground, worthy of everything within sight, like wings are sprouting from your back spanning arms-wide and as strong as an angel’s choir. That was how I felt when the year began.

I had rekindled my YouTube channel, scheduled my writing ahead of time, maintained healthy relationships, and I was still on my gap year with the freedom to explore just about anything I desired. With this invincibility (however short-lived it may have been), I dyed my hair, got a third piercing, and even signed up for Muay Thai classes. A different purpose awaited me every morning; there was always something to look forward tobe it a meetup with a friend, a meeting, a project, a meal, or a simple conversation.

This was also when university planning began; it was no longer just a dream, but a concrete decision that I would be on a plane headed for Manchester in a matter of months. Every fiber of my being was excited; I started browsing through potential accommodations, attending pre-departure webinars, screening the many societies and clubs I could join upon arrival, drawing up plans of traveling Europe during breaks. I had the honor of mingling with other international offer holders through various social media groups (more than I care to keep track of). It only added to the excitement at that moment, even if those groups are now as silent as a graveyard.

One could even go so far as to call January-May Allison overly optimistic and idealistic, and one wouldn’t be wrong. Why would I look down when I was standing on cloud nine? How could anyone set their sights on anything other than a higher level of happiness then?

And that was my faultthat I didn’t bother to look down at how much I had to lose.

June to October: It Doesn’t Get Worse Than This

It went downhill in June. I was a derailed train. A brake-less car. A carriage without a coachman. It’s like Sisyphus finally got the boulder onto the top of the hill and recklessly pushed it down the other side; while he sighed in relief, I, the boulder, rolled without support into the abyss.

You know when people talk about being at rock bottom? This was worse; June to October spelled out a dreadful descent for me into rock bottom’s basement. The kind that is dark and dingy with tally scratch marks on the walls and a pencil-stabbed hole to allow a single ray of sunlight to pierce through. Told you it was bad.

Granted, a singular event happened right before June that threw my five-year plan out the window, but I didn’t foresee the string of uncorrelated events that followed either.

Malaysia was boxed back into lockdown, writer’s block held my fingers in a chokehold, and my chest heaved in waves of anxiety just thinking about moving overseas. I felt my energy sink as if my body was purposefully shutting down to spite me. The days and nights crashed into each other like defeaning cymbals announcing the death of my circadian rhythm. All I found myself doing was consuming an insane amount of content under my covers. This was the period where I binged eleven straight seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and read too many novels for my own good, submerging myself in fictional worlds because I couldn’t bear to look reality in the eyes. Any work I could put off, I did; any words I could not write, I didn’t.

I’ve always been one of the lucky ones to have everything I could possibly need in life; the fact that I have so much to be grateful for is a privilege I actively remind myself of having. I loved my life and myself in the sense that I have so many opportunities that allow me to grow year in and year out; however, as mentioned in my 2021 letter, this year marked the first time I’ve fallen out of love with myself.

It was more of a gradual process than an overnight one. I would look in the mirror and like myself a little less than I did the day before, look at my words and think they are emptier than the previous draft, listen to what I’m saying and feel as though no one’s listening at all, not even myself. It’s well-established that writing makes up a big chunk of my life, so imagine my surprise when I began hating the idea of even lifting the pen. It got to a point where writing couldn’t bring me joy or catharsis because I knew that whatever I put down on paper was true; in essence, if I had written down all the negative thoughts brewing in my head, I would be admitting that they are real. And it spiraled into the question, “What does it say about me if I can so quickly hate on and shed off something that has been a part of my identity for so long?” which only added to the toil of it all. I was stuck in a purgatory constructed by my own bloody hands, and there was no price I could pay to escape it.

My friends tried their best to cheer me up with regular video calls and Netflix parties; some even went so far as to introduce me to the great wide world of gaming (beginning with L4D2: who knew slashing zombies could be fun?). Though I have a heart full of gratitude for them, the problem lay within the fact that I would revert to being upset after the calls had ended. There was no permanent way of warding off the sadness. I knew, deep down, I could not have my happiness dependent on other people, even if they were my friends. Cliché as it may be, I’m the only person in this world in charge of my happiness; nobody owes it to me to scaffold my standing on cloud nine. So, why was it that I’d rather sit among my shattered pieces than put myself back together with the possibility of being a mirrorball?

I no longer want that question to be rhetorical. Before we cross over into 2022, I owe it to myself to formulate the answer. It’s simple, reallyit all boils down to familiarity and comfort. It’s easier to sit in the hurt and the sad than get off your ass and say, “I want to do something about this”. It takes less effort to be helpless than dusting yourself off and trying again. It’s less complicated to accept than it is to change. But what’s easy isn’t always right.

I used to be a numb and religious follower of the mantra “time heals all wounds”, but this year, I’m calling its bluff. Time does not heal wounds—our actions do. If you sit by and do nothing, the pain might subside, but the wound never closes. People don’t heal or grow unless they consciously decide to learn and move on. I couldn’t attest to that until late October came around.

You see, aside from the storm brewing inside my head, the start date for university inched closer and closer. For the strangest reasons, I’ve had eighteen months to mentally prepare myself for this move, yet I never took the time to register what I would be leaving behind. I didn’t process the fact that I would be waking up in a different bed; that when I would walk out of my room, I couldn’t just wander around to annoy my family; that I would be deprived of the freedom of cruising around aimlessly in my car. I still can’t explain why this happened; it was just uncharacteristic for me to be more worried than I was excited.

Long story short (and, if you prefer the long story, here it is), I was anxious before my flight and even more so once I landed. My days were filled with constant streams of worry and prolonged hours of overthinking—something that seemed to extend beyond mere homesickness. I was convinced something was going to go wrong at some point and I would be unable to recover from it. Everyone kept telling me to give it two weeks, a month, two months, to watch it get better, but I could not find the heart to believe them. I was thinking: “What do they know about the situation I’m in?” which, in hindsight, was pretty stupid considering how my friends have, on multiple occasions, known me better than I do myself.

Suddenly, it was as though I was transported back to kindergarten: afraid of not being able to fit in, afraid of not being able to make friends, afraid of not being able to adapt to the new environment. I was so focused on what I wouldn’t be able to do that I lost sight of what I could do. Where these mindsets came from, I know no better than you.

What I do know is that I made it out of the storm okay. Because boy, oh boy, I would’ve never guessed what came next.

November to December: Living Between the ‘Better’s and ‘Worse’s

If there is some omnipotent deity out there, this is about the time they decided to have mercy on me. Toward the end of October—the 23rd, to be exact—I met a group of Malaysians who attended my university. At the time, I was only close with the one person who introduced me to this cohort; nevertheless, the invitation was extended to me to attend one of their dinner parties.

I look back right now and think about how frighteningly close I was to turning down that invitation because my throat was bothering me and I was low in spirits that Saturday. Still, by some miracle, I dragged myself out of my depressing bed and down Charles Street, siphoned my extroverted self to learn nineteen new names, allowing myself to believe I could belong here, that I could be happy here.

These people have come to be my home away from home—friends I would see every weekend, whom I could call without guilt when I’m down in the dumps, whom I can fall back on in a city still so strange to me. A select few have been a significant contributing factor as to why I managed to get back into the groove of things in these final two months of 2021, and I still can’t believe how much we’ve been through already in seventy short days.

We uncover childhood stories at the bottom of red solo cups and host intellectual debates over a game of pool or table tennis. We persuade each other it’s a good idea to make a Babylon pitstop at 2AM or pull an all-nighter at Alan Gilbert. We have pseudo-therapy sessions over meals and have conversations like we’ve known each other for longer than we realistically do. We scream over first snow and bond over food and drinks like the Malaysians we are. And somewhere down the line, I think we’ve made an unspoken pact to be there for each other for the rest of our degrees (and, I’m hoping, the rest of our lives).

Had you asked me four months ago if I thought I would be okay, if I would ever recover from my pitfall, the answer would’ve been a hard ‘no’. Everything was bleak and grey and black and white, and I had never experienced this limbo way of living. I had low boundaries and high expectations for life, essentially setting myself up for disappointment. But here I am now, writing this, heart overflowing with gratitude for all the ‘better’s and ‘worse’s of the year.

I recall reading somewhere that we ought to stop thinking our lives will only be better once we reach a particular goal or certain calendar date because years ago, we were hoping to arrive at where we are today. I’ve always been too focused on the next big thing that I ignore the little things happening in between.

And that’s my lesson. That’s my growth.

Final Sentiments

Our lives have been primed to become more fast-paced in increments every day. We rarely stop to appreciate the in-betweens of life. When was the last time you stopped to smell the flowers, to bask in the warmth of the fleeting sun, to create a backstory for a passerby in the crowd? Everybody has their in-betweens; you just have to claim a second to take it in.

These are my in-betweens: the few moments of silence after waking up, smoothing the wrinkles out of my pillow, helping my brother pack his lunch bag for school, jamming out to mainstream pop while driving to Gurney to meet my friends, the wafting aroma of my food being prepared at the hawker centre, experimenting with new chords for a song, skipping to the postbox expecting a handwritten letter, buying a new journal to write in, finding a book where all female characters pass the Bechdel test, the dial tone when I’m calling somebody to tell them I love them, editing lyrics of yet another song of heartbreak, rushing from one class to another within ten minutes, the slight panic before raising my hand in Zoom, catching colors that don’t belong in the 4PM sunset, picking out a fresh croissant at the bakery, ranking cookies across Manchester’s supermarkets, deciding what to wear and which hairstyle to do, getting a chicken bake at Greggs, sending mini podcasts to my friends to catch up on life, the fifteen seconds before my microwaved meal is done, and just recognizing when an in-between is an in-between—ever-fleeting, but mine to hold.

So, I ask you this:

Why stay on either side of the line
when you could be dancing in the in-betweens?