Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Suicide and Discipline

on February 7, 2014

While we lived in the second house, the grey boat shaped apartment building, two things happened which were maybe unnoticeable to outsiders, but definitely life-changing turning points for me.

The first concerned discipline. Up till then, Mama had been the primary discipline handler in our family. Papa discussed encyclopedic topics with us, played with us, read with us, and checked our report cards. Mama, on the other hand, was the nurturer, the hugger, and the punisher. Apart from the famous chocolate episode, Papa never ever even tapped us. Mama, however, was very generous with her hand. She would slap us — quite painlessly, actually — on the buttocks, hips, shoulder, back, arm, whatever body part was handy at the time. She would also use her knuckle to knock our heads. These were automatically dispensed if we dared “talk back”, or show disrespect in any form. Until one warm afternoon. That moment is still deeply etched into my memory, so earth shattering was its impact. I was around eight years old, and was supposed to be sweeping the floor. I do not remember what I had forgotten to do or done wrong, but Mama had been nagging and nagging while I reluctantly pushed the broom here and there. Enough! Enough! Stop it! I had had it. In my head, I talked to myself, “talking back” impudently to Mama all those words that I longed to shout out but never dared to. So here I was, sweeping and sassing in my head, when suddenly, inadvertently, those words actually came out of my mouth! I froze in horror! O. M. G.! How did they escape from my tongue? I winced in expectation of the slaps or knocks. But none came. I stole a look at Mama. She was sitting in her chair, busy sewing, and acting like nothing had happened. But I was very sure I did say those words out loud! I heard them! Did she not care any more? Surprise overtook shock and I stayed frozen for a while. Then I resumed my sweeping, totally blank and stunned. Mama had not reacted. Mama had not reacted. I talked back and Mama had not reacted!

Years later, I asked her about this episode. She did not recall the exact time but said that she and Papa had had a talk around that time and had decided that we, the girls, were growing older and bigger, and it was time to stop using physical forms of punishment. I myself do not endorse physical punishments today, however, I must say that up till that memorable afternoon, I had been an obedient and cooperative child. Did my teachers not repeated it again and again on my report cards? Well-behaved, well-mannered, just too shy. What lucky parents!  But sometime after that, I discovered I had turned into a bad-tempered brat, with a volatile temperament, and given to flights of rage.

slam door

I clearly remember another tell-tale episode in the third house, on one hot summer day.  The whole family camped in my parents’ bedroom during the summer, since that room had an air conditioner. Our mattresses were covering up all the available floor space around Mama and Papa’s bed. Something bothered me — I cannot even remember what that could have been —  and I flared up. I actually shouted quite rudely, apparently to the air around me, but obviously intending it for my parents. Then, frightened by my audacity, I turned and ran out of the room before a reprimand or rebuke could reach me, verbally or physically. I slammed the door, made for the bathroom, slammed again its door as violently as I could, locked myself in, and sat on the toilet cover. There, I felt as if in a sanctuary. Let them sweat and try to get me, I’m just not coming out. I remained there maybe an hour, or maybe three. I am not sure. But I finally emerged carefully, and tiptoed back into the bedroom. My parents were lying on their beds, reading magazines and newspapers, and not paying me any attention whatsoever. Just like nothing had ever happened.

Papa and Mama probably meant well. They were recognizing in me Papa’s temper and thought it wise to let me be. But I now see how unchecked behavior whirls into a vicious cycle that climbs higher and higher and spawns a new character. That year gave birth to a new me, one that was given to temperamental flights of rage, and which caused my family years later to nickname me Mu Lao Hu,  the “Tigress”.

The second event which quietly changed my life also happened that year.  It was an evening, hot and humid, like all evenings in Jeddah. The window was open, and the lilt of Arabic music floated up from the coffee and tea house below. I had been pondering a lot about God, life and death.

heaven and hell

Does God really exist? Does Heaven really exist? Does Hell really exist? Do our good and bad deeds really count and decide our destiny in the afterlife? What if all this is not true? What if there is nothing after death? How could I possibly know? What should I do then? How could I live on, not knowing what to follow as my compass? I looked up into the dark night, and the stars, and wondered. A scientist at heart, I decided that the only way to know was to experiment. How? Well, what if I jumped out of the window right now? I could then die, and find out right there and then, whether there was really an afterlife, and whether God really existed. The thought was so appealing that I came as close as possible to the window and leaned out. But then, what if I did not die? What if I broke something? Ouch, that was bound to hurt. On the other hand, maybe I would die after jumping out, but what if there was no heaven and no God! Then what? Too late to come back and enjoy this life a bit longer.

That thought did it.  I straightened myself and went back to my chair. Better stay in this life and live it even though I did not know for sure that God existed. What choice did I have? I had to go on believing in God and pray and do good deeds even though I was not sure, not really really sure that all this was for real.

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