Zooming In

A Big Life

After living a big life abroad, 2020 forced Garick Lee back home to his childhood home, his childhood bedroom, and thoughts of his childhood self.
Zooming In – Garick Lee

Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.

After living a big life abroad, 2020 forced Garick Lee back home to his childhood home, his childhood bedroom, and thoughts of his childhood self.

This podcast collection was made possible with funding from Lotterywest.

Photo credit: Jesse Roberts

Copyright © 2022 Garick Lee.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storytellers. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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Sisonke: Welcome to Zooming In, a podcast about the lives and feelings of regular people who are like you and me. People seeking connection and love. People who are just muddling along, trying to be human. I’m your host for this episode, Sisonke Msimang.

Garick: Yeah, I don’t remember much of the move to Australia. I do remember some, like the only thing that sticks out to me is this really bad joke. I think I was six at the time, so it’s excusable. But yeah, the word Aussie kind of sounds like “to take a shit” in Cantonese.

Sisonke: Garick is softly spoken with a gentle presence and a good sense of humour. Conversation comes easily with him. He’s full of surprises and stories that you wouldn’t expect. His family moved to Australia in 1988 when Garick was six years old. Like many migrants, his parents made the move so that their kids could have more opportunities. Garick was pretty young when they moved, so he doesn’t really remember much.

Garick: So, I remember making that joke in the car. I remember being in the car and making that joke and the family laughing. And that’s like the only kind of recollection that I have of the move.

Sisonke: Garick’s family was made up of his mum, his dad, and his big brother. The family settled in Morley, a suburb about 10 kilometres Northeast of Perth that has a large migrant population. His childhood sounds like it was quiet, pretty normal.

Garick: My brother was a bookworm. He loved to read. He was always inside reading, and I really liked being outside. I used to get into a lot of sports, like watch a lot of basketball and cricket and stuff. And then I would want to go outside and play. And my brother never really wanted to come outside and play. So, I remember going outside and like playing cricket by myself or playing basketball by myself a lot, ‘cos he never, he didn’t really wanna come out. He was just, he liked to stay inside and read.

Sisonke: Garick has memories of feeling excluded in those earlier primary school days. There was a bit of bullying, and sometimes he felt isolated. At school and at home, he spent a lot of time on his own. He learned to make do by himself.

Garick: And my mum was a stay-at-home mum for the most part. She’s very loving and very sweet, very warm person. My main memories of her from childhood are just her being on the phone all the time, talking to friends and family. She was always on the phone chatting to people. She’s very chatty. And my dad was, I would say he was the strong, silent type. He wasn’t the most talkative person, especially to us kids. I don’t think he had had much to talk about with us kids or he couldn’t think of things to talk about or whatever. And he was always outside as well. He was always doing stuff outside. He was a really handy person. He really liked working with his hands and he was always building things or making things or doing some kind of work outside. I think he saw his role as a provider and not so much as the like an emotional caregiver or that type of thing.

Sisonke: A few years after Garick finished university, he left Perth and he’s lived outside the city where he grew up for most of his adult life. He’s got a really cool job managing renewable energy and energy access projects. He’s worked all over the world. When the pandemic started, he was living in Laos. He thought things would blow over quickly, but as that pandemic unfolded and things started to shut down, he realized that his window for getting out was closing. So, he packed his bags, leaving his apartment as it was in the hopes that in a few months, things would settle. He headed back to Perth. But like most of the world, Garick underestimated how long things would go on for. It’s now been almost two years since he moved home into his childhood bedroom. For some people having this time at home would be weird, but kind of sweet. For Garick, it’s been really tough.

Garick: It’s quite difficult in some ways, quite comforting in some ways. So initially when I moved back, I moved back into my own bedroom and all this, all my stuff is still there. Like all my stuff from growing up in childhood and everything was still sitting all around and around the room. So, the room is a small bedroom, with a single bed in the corner. It still has the sheets that I grew up using. And there’s a computer desk, with a bookshelf on it, there’s a cabinet. There’s a noticeboard, pin board thing, with a bunch of mementos and things hung up, I can’t remember where most of those came from now. And yeah, it’s just a small bedroom that has a lot of remnants from other parts of my life that I never look at and have just gathered over time, on the shelves and in the cabinet and under the bed. And it has been challenging because it’s forced me to come back to a place that actually gives me a lot of anxiety. So, I think Perth gives me anxiety, there’s been times where I’ve been flying home and just feeling on the flight and seeing Perth and just like feeling anxiety come up from just getting close to being back home. Because I’ve spent a lot of time outside of Perth now. I lived in Alice Springs for a year and a half before my dad got sick and then I came home for a year and then I left for seven years. There’s a lot of associations in Perth for me with difficult times of my life and difficult feelings and it’s, yeah.

Sisonke: For anyone looking from the outside in, it would be hard to figure out why Perth makes Garick anxious. He had a normal suburban childhood with a supportive family and an extended community. When he grew up, he went to uni, he was professionally successful, he travelled the world, and he went on lots of adventures. But the truth is, underneath the surface, Garick has always struggled with something to deeper.

Garick: So, I had come to the belief over many, many years that I was a really shy and introverted person, and that’s just how it was. I had always wanted to live a big, full life, full of adventure, but I just couldn’t do it. Then one day I stumbled across the symptoms of social anxiety on the Internet and was shocked at how perfectly they described me. Social anxiety, or social phobia, as it’s also known, is more than just shyness. It’s chronic and excessive fear of being judged negatively by others. For me, and the roughly 5% of population with social anxiety, it manifests as a vicious cycle of anxious thoughts, the physical symptoms brought on by the fight or flight response, and avoidance and safety behaviours.

Sisonke: Garick’s journey with social anxiety is ongoing. He is kind of fearless when it comes to addressing it. He’s super focussed on living a big, bold life. A big reason why this matters so much for him is because of his dad and what he went through.

Garick: Okay. So, I was living in Alice Springs at the time and I remember getting this call from my brother and he said, “Something is wrong with Dad.” And he wasn’t very specific. And he said that dad needed some tests and things, and then I think the next day he got another call and yeah, my brother said that he had a brain tumour, had brain cancer. And it’s one of the most aggressive ones, glioblastoma multiform, which is a grade four brain cancer, which is like the worst ones. So, he needed emergency surgery. And so, I basically flew back the next day for that to be there for the surgery. The thing about my dad is he was a cheap ass. He actually used to have private health insurance, but then he never used it cos he was so healthy. So, he stopped his private health insurance and then like a year or a couple years later he got brain cancer.

Sisonke: To get a full picture of the extent of the cancer, Garick’s dad needed to have an biopsy.

Garick: They wanted to get like a, do a biopsy, but somehow, they caused a brain haemorrhage and yeah, basically my dad after the surgery, he wasn’t able to walk or talk and he was in the, I can’t remember if it’s called the ICU, but he was in there for six weeks being monitored very closely and he wasn’t improving. And they basically said that, you know, he’s gonna pass away within a few months or whatever.

Sisonke: The doctors decided that the best place for Garick’s dad was at home with his family, so they sent a bed, a wheelchair, and all the things the family needed to make sure he was comfortable in his last few months. In Garick’s eyes, the doctors had given up on his dad. But Garick and his brother hadn’t. They didn’t want to just sit around and wait. They started doing their own research, looking at the medical literature and listening to stories from other people who had lived through cancer.

Garick: There’s a lot, there’s a lot of stuff out there. There’s a lot of people that have been able to survive and to find out what they did was really useful for us. Basically, there’s a lot of early research that is not that conclusive, but there might be, it, it shows there’s a possible, it could have a possible effect. So, there’s a lot of supplements, off-label medicines, a lot of different treatments and things. And one of the things that I think we learned from one of the survivors is to basically throw the, throw the kitchen sink at it because the way cancer works is it evolves, especially very fast-growing cancers, they evolve around, if you target it with one modality, it’s gonna grow around it. So, you gotta chuck everything at the same time.

Sisonke: Garick and his brother were tenacious, but listening to Garick talk about it, you get a sense of how tender they were too.

Garick: We tried all these things and basically something worked. Because we were, what else were we doing, we were also trying to get him to move better, cos he was just lying in bed all day. And like he wasn’t able to walk and stuff like that. So, I bought a little portable cycling machine. It’s just like something you could cycle, you can put on the ground, you can cycle with your legs or with your hands. Like I would just hold it in front of him and he would cycle with his hands and then put it at the end of his bed. I mean initially he couldn’t move it really, he was kind of like, we were assisting him to move it, but over time we did that every day and he got more and more strength back. Yeah, it was like multiple things that were happening at the same time.

So, one is the movement. His strength got better and eventually we got a walker, we put it next to his bed and we helped him get onto the walker and he would be able to shuffle a few steps. And then yeah, slowly, slowly he got better and able to, to walk again. Yeah. So, he got better over probably a few months. He got to the point where he could walk. Like he couldn’t, he couldn’t, he didn’t have much stamina. He couldn’t run that kind of thing, but he could, he could walk around the house. And then the other thing that improved was his speech. So initially he couldn’t say anything and he, and what I did, I had this idea to get a whiteboard and I’d ask him to write some stuff and he would just, he would try to write, and he would write the same letter over and over again, like it was kind of something was stuck in his brain.

He couldn’t really write. And that improved over time as well. And actually, the thing that came back before writing English was writing Chinese. So, he grew up going to Chinese school. So, he was able to, I still have photographs of those early days. It was like, there was so much hope and like happiness amongst the family, seeing, seeing that kind of thing. Amazing to be a part of. It’s probably some of my happiest kind of times. And that being a part of that, seeing the, at like at some point I think he said something, I can’t remember what, but yeah, just like with everything else, it was just like, a little bit at a time, he got better. I think the kind of like the peak was he, this was when he was able to walk, he was in the karaoke room and my mum turned on the karaoke system and my dad was able to sing some songs. And I have a video of this actually and my mum was crying. It was such a beautiful thing to see.

Sisonke: They had made such huge progress with their dad, but they were also aware that nonsurgical interventions would only work for so long. So, they made plans for surgery. Brain surgery isn’t cheap and Garick’s dad didn’t have any health insurance. Still, they decided to go for the most well-known neurosurgeon in the country. They flew to Sydney to see Charlie Teo and he operated, removing as much of the tumour as he could. Straight away after the surgery, Garick’s dad was talking better. And a few days after that, he was walking better too. Then he started radiotherapy and chemotherapy. It was an expensive and extensive process, but it worked. Garick’s dad ended up living for another five and a half years when he was only supposed to live another few months after the original diagnosis. Before the surgery, Garick, hadn’t been very close to his dad. Remember, growing up his father had been the strong, silent type, but his illness brought them closer. In fact, it had made everyone closer.

Garick: I think it brought us a lot closer together. I mean, at that point I, you know, I was living in Alice Springs and I don’t think I was calling home that much and was living my own life. And they had actually come visited me in Alice Springs and we’d gone to Uluru, me and dad and one of my aunties. But yeah, at that point I didn’t, like we didn’t have great communication with dad and dad was always yeah, difficult to communicate with ‘cos he wasn’t able to talk about his feelings basically. He’s very, you know, conditioned in the old-fashioned old school, Chinese way to not talk about your feelings to not, there’s a lot of things, you know, you can’t talk about basically. And that kind of culture. And I think we were really different as well, like different, different interests, different people.

And so, it was hard to find something to connect with him on. But yeah, when he got sick, he you know, he’d always seen himself as a provider as very strong and independent and he suddenly became completely dependent on us for everything. And I think that was really difficult for him. It was one of the difficult parts. So, one of the funny things is that, like my mum would tell us every day that she loved us. My dad would never say those words, like not part of his vocabulary. But after he got sick, my mum would force him to say it. So, he’d tell us he loved us every day. Yeah. So, I think it helped open him up a bit.

Sisonke: Garick’s dad got so much better after the operation that he was able to travel back to Malaysia. The family took the trip together to his hometown and one night they were all sitting around in the bedroom of one of their relatives and Garick took out his phone and he decided to record his dad telling stories.

Garick: It’s me, my mum, my dad and my brother. And I had this app which had, I think it was called StoryCorps, and they have some recommended questions and I went through the recommended questions. And so, one of them was: What was one of your greatest accomplishments in life? And he said, “I didn’t accomplish anything. Frankly speaking, I’m a loser.” And that was like such a heartbreaking moment to hear him say that. And I have the interview still, like I think still on the app or whatever. And I’ve listened to it a few times and yeah, it’s just very heartbreaking to hear him say that, that he didn’t feel like he accomplished anything in his life.

Sisonke: Garick felt sad for his dad. It pained him to know that this man who had raised two successful sons and had been brave enough to move across the world to make their lives better, considered himself a failure. Garick wondered whether he would be in the same position in 30 years, time looking back regretfully, worrying about why he hadn’t been the man he had always wanted to be.

Garick: Going through that whole experience with dad was like a huge turning point in my life. Just yeah, that kind of realization that I needed to make some changes. If I wanted to live the life that I wanted to live a fulfilling life. And yeah, obviously I hadn’t accomplished anything back then at that age. But that’s not really what it’s about. I think like, I don’t even, I’m not trying to accomplish anything now, but it’s just like living a full life is the accomplishment, I guess. I feel like when it was diagnosed and everything, we had a bit of a difficult relationship. Like it wasn’t, wasn’t like, you know, bad relationship or anything, but we just didn’t connect on much. We weren’t very connected. But I always did feel this obligation, it’s a very Asian thing, to the parents. And I knew that if, you know, if they ever needed me to help with them with something that I would be there. And that was the, I feel like at that point when I went back, it was very much obligation based and yeah, through the time that I spent, I didn’t spend the full five and a half years with Dad, I spent a year at home before I went overseas. And I think, you know, what he went through really helped me to realize that I needed to go overseas and do all these things that I wanted to do that I had been maybe too afraid to do. So, he helped me a lot with that. So, I have a lot of appreciation for him as a result of this whole, this whole journey and yeah, a lot more love for him now than when he was diagnosed.

Sisonke: Inspired by his dad and determined to build a life that he could look back on and feel proud of, Garick decided to address his own social anxiety.

Garick: One of the things I did while I was back home for that year like helping dad out was I started this group therapy course for social anxiety. And it was like an in person group that would meet once a week, and it taught me a lot about social anxiety. And I think one of the main things, one of the really helpful things was the exposure therapy that they would put us through. So as part of that group therapy course, we would have to go down the street, we’d go into a random shop, we’d talk to a random person. It was all these things that we had to kind of like tackle that social anxiety, like some of the kind of challenges that we had to do while we were in this group on the street were like singing in the street and all these yeah, these random things. I don’t think I had the courage back then. I don’t think I did the singing in the street, but yeah, I don’t think I would have a problem with it now. I think there was so many things that I found difficult in that group therapy course, but it was like, it was the impetus. It was like the start that made me realize I could get better, I guess could tackle this thing.

Sisonke: After his dad died, Garick was in and out of Perth. He came back for short visits and to see his mum, but he was living a really big life outside of the town where his family had settled. Back in Perth, he quickly realised that the tools he had learned to use to manage his social anxiety weren’t working so well. He had learned how to manage his anxiety, but he still really hadn’t understood where those anxieties came from. By leaving Perth, he had avoided having to really face up to the truth. He was coping, thriving in many ways in his life overseas, but being back in Perth meant that Garick had to unsuppress a lot of his childhood memories. So, it’s been hard coming to terms with the fact that the social anxiety that has plagued him for so much of his life began right here in this bedroom, in this house, on this street and in the classroom, down the road. So now he’s opening the door and he is looking inside partly because he doesn’t really have any other choice, but mostly because he’s ready to. He’s gone down a number of paths, seeking answers, different types of activities and therapies. Garrick wants to get to the root of the fear and the shame that has haunted him for his whole life.

Garick: Yeah. I think, you know, there was a time when I was a kid that I experienced a lot of pain and hurt and yeah. And then the social anxiety was kind of like a protective mechanism to kind of prevent that happening by avoiding people, by being super, what’s the word, like cautious. Yeah, very cautious, but also just overthinking you know, being kind of predictive about what other people were thinking, being just a lot of yeah, kind of self-judgment as well. Just all these kinds of mechanisms that go around, what social anxiety is, to prevent me from getting hurt by other people. I mean, I think, yeah, you have to, you have to connect with those parts, and you have to kind of integrate them or you have to understand them. You have to yeah, bring compassion to them. And that’s like, that’s how you, you heal those parts.

Sisonke: There are no clear answers, but Garick feels like he’s close. Being back in Perth has forced him to remember who he was and to accept, for that shy child, being teased for having a funny accent or ignored by popular kids, would’ve been excruciating. He wasn’t his brother who could hide away in books or his mom who could chat all day on the phone. In some ways he was more like his dad. He had big feelings and he found it hard to express them. So, he’s had to look at his younger self with compassion. He might not always have the answers and there’s no finishing line to living with social anxiety, but it’s a process of learning to live with it, understanding yourself, being patient with yourself. And most of all, being kind and compassionate to yourself.

Garick: I have a four year old nephew, my brother’s kid. And I love him so much. He’s like so sweet and adorable. I guess what is so special about him and you know, a lot of kids, is they’re so authentically themselves, and he’s so authentically himself all the time. There’s no pretence there, he’s not acting a certain way to avoid certain consequences of whatever. He’s just himself and whatever happens, happens. And I think I kind of remember being that way as a child, so I can relate to that kind of freedom and yeah, just being immersed in life and enjoying everything, which is what I really appreciate when I spend time with him. He gets so much joy from little things, from everything. So, like flowers and leaves, just everything in the environment. Just being alive.

As an uncle, I’m hoping I can help guide him and provide wisdom from my life, lessons from my life to help him grow up with maybe, less fear, less anxiety, to be more fully himself. But even just understanding how to deal with difficult feelings. Yeah, I do have the fear that life will happen and it will kind of extinguish this kind of uniqueness, authenticity, that I see in him. And yeah, I just want to reinforce the message to him that it’s okay to be who he is, basically.

Sisonke: There’s no doubt that Garick’s experience with social anxiety has contributed to the sensitive person that he is today. He’s able to pick up on how other people feel, to empathise with them and whatever big and complicated emotions they might be feeling. Although being in Perth hasn’t been easy these past 18 months, spending time with his nephew has been pretty special. I think Garick’s nephew is pretty lucky. He has an uncle who feels it all too, and will make sure that his little nephew, even when he’s not so little anymore, knows he’s never, ever alone.

This podcast was produced by the Centre for Stories with funding from Lotterywest. Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar land in Western Australia that believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories, or to make a tax-deductible donation.

Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode Garick, and to our production team: executive producer Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting and interviewing by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.