First Published in Wesley Tidings October 2021
Are You Real, God?
“I felt like a hand phone running on low batt all that time,” recalled Margaret Zhang , a professional in the tourism and events industry, who has been supporting her mother with mental health issues for over 20 years.
For years, Margaret had to balance a career in a highly competitive work environment while supporting her family, especially her mother who was battling with mental health issues.
Margaret’s exuberant personality to the world belies the struggles that she has been battling with daily, since she was a child.
Life seemed tough, harsh and difficult since her younger days. Although Margaret was brought up in a Catholic home, and they did attend Church as a family, God had seemed so inaccessible and far away.
“God, are you real? Why are all these bad things happening to me and my family? Why are you not saving us?” Margaret had wondered growing up.
The Tumultuous Early Years
Growing up in her family of four including a younger sister, Margaret had no idea that her family was dysfunctional until she was 40.
Quarrels and tempers flaring up among family members, especially between her mother and the other members, were frequent affairs at home. This continued into Margaret’s adult years.
Margaret’s mother, a trained nurse, was extremely strict with her daughters about their academic performances. For example, as they are a English speaking family, Mrs Zhang, Margaret’s mother, thought the best way to help little Margaret was to “drill and drill” her at Chinese.
“I was made to memorize every word and punctuation mark in the Chinese text books so that I could ace the tests and exams. For end-year exams, this would mean staying up until the wee hours of the morning writing out every single chapter from 2 text books based on my memory. If I made any mistake, I would have to rewrite the whole lesson again until I get it right,” said Margaret.
Photo: Margaret in her younger days
Margaret would grow up feeling that she was never good enough and be her own harshest critic beating herself up for making mistakes and lack of perfection. She used to also expect others who worked with her to strive for perfection too.
Margaret’s mother would blow up at everyone in the house if the children did not do as she said or her husband could not accommodate her for the slightest things. These explosive angry outbursts worsened into Margaret’s adulthood.
“We all tip toed around her in order to have some peace and quiet at home.”
“I knew how hard my parents worked for us and the sacrifices they made to give us the best in life, so I tried to endure everything especially my mother’s temper, her anger management issues and her habit for collecting things which later became a major hoarding problem,” said Margaret”.
In a matter of a decade, things started piling sky high in Margaret’s home. The things her mother could not discard include things like plastic bags, plastic knives that came with cakes, pamphlets, dolls and toys from Margaret and her sister’s childhood, old books, old clothes and etc.
A Chaotic Life
After graduating from the National University of Singapore with an honours degree in Theatre Studies, Margaret quickly established a career in tourism and events management within a short period of time.
Driven by the circumstances at home and fiercely independent from young, Margaret wanted to excel in her career and make a difference to her family’s lives. Putting in 16 hours daily for her job and even working for days with little or no sleep was the norm for her.
In 2000, just barely working for 5 years,Margaret decided to make the biggest purchase of her life – a private apartment. “It was a very big investment considering my pay check then and I had to commit to a long-term housing loan from the bank”
Margaret was longing for a fresh clean start in a new place after experiencing a series of life changing events and setbacks. After a series of unfortunate events, Margaret needed breathing space in an uncluttered environment and a clean space and safe sanctuary for the family to call home, especially for her baby niece whose mother is a single parent.
But to Margaret’s horror, the new place they moved into was soon filled with “junk” – everything from the old home that her mother could not bear to part with, more things that her mother was buying and collecting including old furniture that the neighbours in the estate had discarded downstairs. Margaret’s father also closed his shop in a mall and all the goods had to be moved to the apartment.
Margaret tried countless attempts to keep the clutter under control but it was futile. She felt defeated and her dream of a clean tidy home was completely dashed. She remembers falling ill one day and how impossible it was to rest and get well surrounded by piles of plastic bags. Margaret gave her mother the ultimatum to choose between rubbish or her. Her mother could not give up her rubbish and Margaret left home that night heartbroken.
At this point, Margaret was still seeking the Lord even though it felt like He was so distant. She felt hopeless about her family’s situation. To preserve her sanity, Margaret had no choice but to move out. Her only request was to let her niece have her room as it was the only space in the house that was uncluttered. Although Margaret’s friends told her that she was foolish to provide for her family, especially with a house she did not even reside in, something inside convinced Margaret she had to sustain her family.
Unbeknown to the Zhangs, a perfect storm was brewing in their household.
It is OK to seek Help
The toll exacted on Margaret since she was a child has affected her greatly as an adult. The burden of taking care of her family was also heavy from the time she graduated. Margaret’s life started to fall apart visibly.
It was no longer just cracks beneath the surface. Suffering from depression and anxiety disorder herself, Margaret also had to constantly worry about the well-being of her parents, her sister a single parent and her niece.
By this time, things at home had escalated to the point that Margaret, her dad, sister, niece were all also suffering from mild to severe forms of depression. Margaret’s mother anger issues also seemed to be getting out of control. She became paranoid that people were out to harm her and claimed that she had been plagued by prank calls. Margaret could not help but notice the striking similarities to the complaints that her mother used to make when Margaret was a kid. It was a state of disquiet every day for everyone.
“Even when I went overseas for work or vacation, I had to solve the problems at home. Every time my family called me, I know it would mean trouble again. To this day, I am afraid to get calls on my handphone. My handphone is always on silent mode as I can’t deal with it ringing.”
“I remember years ago a Christian schoolmate at JC had asked me if I have depression or was bipolar,” recalled Margaret. “I was really offended.” Today, this schoolmate is Margaret’s general physician who often points Margaret back to God, especially when she had to battle her own mental health issues as a result of her traumatic growing up years.
For years, Margaret sought the help of psychiatrists and counsellors to do something about her mental health struggles. Tired of going around in circles with no significant breakthrough for her family’s situation, she decided to seek God as the final resort.
Turning Points in Wesley
Margaret friend Yhad brought her to Wesley Methodist Church. At one of the services she attended, Margaret spotted an advertisement for counselling in the Wesley Weekly.
With trepidation, Margaret decided to give the counsellor from Wesley a try. At their first meeting, Margaret could not even cry. She was just so emotionally dry and depleted.
Both the counsellor and Margaret persevered and they both went on to journey together for three years.
“That was the Lord’s first demonstration of love to me through Wesley.”
Wesley DISCIPLE Bible Study Programme was a Turning Point
At the same time, Margaret realised that she did not know much about God whom she was seeking desperately for help with her circumstances. So she decided to sign up for the Disciple 1 (D1) class. Margaret discovered the joy of reading the bible and found hope in the Good News and together with her classmates journeyed to D4, D3 and D2.
These proved to be another turning point for Margaret’s spiritual walk with God.
Photo: Margaret (second from right, top row) and her friends from her Disciple classes
Small Group from Wesley
Margaret decided to sign up to join a small group to study God’s word. She was placed in the small group, Serving Hearts. Said Mae Tan, the small group leader of Serving Hearts, “Margaret joined us in 2014. I remember her as very bubbly and pleasant who is always ready to help others. I admire her grit despite her going through a tough journey from young. She has been a blessing and inspiration to us all.”
Today, with the help of Mae, Margaret has started a bible study group with a group of friends with mental health issues.
God’s Provision of Help through Friends
While all these changes were going on in Margaret’s life, hersituation at home had descended to deeper chaors. Family quarrels and fights intensified with increasing threats of suicide and violence. Besides health and fire safety concerns, there was mounting fear of personal safety and Personal Protection Order (PPO) application was almost made.
In 2017, after dealing with another tiring episode which involved responding to a call for help by some family members to rescue them and relocating them to safe place, Margaret cried out to God out of sheer desperation.
With the prayer and practical support of her Small Group and DISCIPLE class, Margaret mustered the courage to coax her mother to follow her to the hospital for a medical check-up to assess her mental and physical health. Margaret’s mother had to be admitted against her wishes and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized for about three months.
Capitalizing on the time her mother was treated at the hospital, Margaret’s family and her friends from Church decided to start clearing the house of four decades of things accumulated over four decades. It turned out to be quite an exercise.
“During the time my mother was hospitalized, my friends from DISCIPLE and Serving Hearts small group came to help me and my family, they rolled up their sleeves to help me clean up the apartment.” Margaret marvelled. “Despite their busy schedules, they all took time off to come by to help me. When I was tired from the packing, they would tell me to take a break. They would pack food for me and my family. My family members were shocked my friends would volunteer to help me plough through all the mess at home to help us. They are like family to me.”
“I thought to myself, so this is what God’s love looks like.”
In total, the total quantity of items discarded by Margaret and her friends (including 10 from Wesley) filled up two 20-ft dumpsters.
Photo: Helping Hands and Feet by Margaret’s friends from her Small Group and Disciple Groups
A Breakthrough in Mom’s Mental Health by God’s Grace
Mrs Zhang was hospitalized for a total of three months. The doctors had diagnosed her with schizophrenia coupled with early onset of dementia.
Coming out of the hospital after a 3-month stay, one of the first things Margaret’s mother said, “A rock has been lifted from my heart.” Margaret’s initial fear that her mother would come after her was allayed. But seeing her mother in a greatly weakened state with an altered personality that was not recognisable filled Margaret with guilt wondering if she did the right thing. And again, in the most helpless and troubled of times, she called out the Lord in desperation.
Praise God for hearing her and His ways are higher than man’s ways. Margaret’s mother experienced a rapid improvement in her mental and physical ailments. Within just 3 weeks, she was restored not just from all the stubborn and fiery symptoms of the past but also all the lethargy and frailties that came later. Her tremendous progress surprised of the doctors and her medication has been reduced to the minimum dosage. Her chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are also gone. God has transformed Margaret’s mother, mended and strengthened her parents’ marriage and restored the family.
Finally, after 40 years, Margaret witnessed a breakthrough by God’s grace in her family. For the first time in decades, everyone could have a happy Christmas dinner in 2017 with genuine smiles from the heart.
“My mother has become a new creation with a renewed mind. She remembers the past but has forgotten the hatred in her heart.”
God is So Real
Against all odds, God had delivered miracle after miracle to Margaret and her family. Margaret has never ever imagined her mother could have a breakthrough after so many years of struggles. She almost could not believe God is so good to help her mother get so far in life.
As for Margaret herself, her journey with her Disciple classmates and small group members has been one of nothing but authentic sharing of God’s love and grace. Through each small act of kindness bestowed on Margaret and her family, God’s love shines bright and His promises ring loud.
“To everyone with mental health issues struggling out there, whether you are suffering yourself or a caregiver, please know that you are not alone. God is with you always and He will send his angels and people to help you. Please know you can reach out and you can count on your Christian community to journey with you. You just have to seek Him first and trust in God’s perfect plan and His perfect timing for you.”
“After everything that I have gone through, I God is so real. It is true that what is impossible for man is possible with God. I finally understand the meaning of His peace that Jesus has given us”.
Read also: God is Stronger than My Circumstances
You don’t have to suffer alone. If you need to reach out to someone for help for mental health issues, you may contact Wesley Counselling (6336-1433), National Care hotline (1-800-2026868), SOS (1-800-221-4444 24 hours)or IMH Mental Health Helpline (6389-2222 24 hours).