Flying Cape’s Define Success series visited her to find out how she has reinvented herself a decade on as a mouth artist, a table tennis player representing Singapore at international meets and most recently a telemarketer. Christina – the cheery lady with the dimpled smile and quiet determination graciously shared her story with us.
Tell us about what happened that fateful day in 2005.
My husband and I were on a road trip in Malaysia when we met with a serious accident. I had no bruises, no bleeding and I thought I would be ok in a while. It was only when I was back in Singapore that a doctor told me that I had a spinal cord injury and that I would never be able to walk again.
I sank into depression for a while. Suddenly, I was aimless. There was nothing left in life to look forward to. I had just gotten married 2 years before and now I was a burden to my loved ones. I thought “si le suan le” (just die and that’s the end), but then I knew that my loved ones would suffer even more if I just left like that.
Those were dark days. In the Prisons Service, we did IPPT regularly. I ran 2.4km almost daily, and played many different types of ball games. I swam, went diving and generally led a very independent lifestyle. After my accident, everything changed. Can you imagine – from being an active and independent person, now I had to practice even something as simple as sitting up from a lying-down position. I lost all appetite and didn’t want to go for therapy.
What helped you turn the corner?
Definitely my family. My husband quit his job to take care of me. I stayed with my mum, a part-time cleaner. There was physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Insurance and the social worker covered part of, but not all, the expenses. So my parents and relatives all chipped in to help out.
I also had a great doctor. As I was covered by civil service insurance at the start, I had access to the best doctors. But when I was asked to leave the service 2 years later in 2007, I had to downgrade as I could not afford the same level of medical care. My doctor continued to see me and help me, even though he didn’t have to. Till today, I am seeing him every 6 months for blood tests, check-ups, etc. But what he helped me the most with was my mindset.
He always reminds me,
You lost your legs, but not your brain or your mouth – if you need anything, ask. There will be somebody who has the answer.
You practically re-invented yourself, going from a prisons office to a mouth artist. How did you do it?
In 2010, I was better physically though my mobility was still severely limited. In the 5 years since my accident, I did nothing. I was too lazy to do anything except read some books and watch television. I had an inferiority complex, and thought to myself, “what can I do anyway?”
And then I went on an outing for the physically disabled. That was when I got to know Tetra Workgroup, organized by Tan Tock Seng Hospital. I can only say I wasted 5 years, I really should have joined them earlier.
This is all thanks to the volunteers who never stopped calling. There was this person Thomas who was himself suffering from a spinal cord injury even more serious than mine. He was in chronic pain but for 5 years, he called me every time there was an outing. One day, he said asked why I kept saying no.
He said: Just try!
Those were the 2 words that helped me re-integrate back into society.
The first event I attended was a dinner. There were a lot of people there, most of whom I had never met before. But I had a feeling of familiarity, because their story was just like mine. I received strong encouragement from the group. People invited me to events, to their houses and showed me that there are so many things to do out there. Disability is not the end.
One day, at a friend’s place, I encountered mouth painting. My dad was artistically inclined, but I was never interested in it. My new friends asked me to give it a try but I declined. It was only when Thomas had to stop painting due to his medical condition and said he would give me his art supplies (“so they would not go to waste”) that I tried mouth painting for the first time.
Today, I am a certified mouth artist. Every 3 months, the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists organization (MFPA) will collect my paintings and submit it to their Germany headquarters for review. They would choose the ones they like and make it into postcards, storybook covers, jigsaw puzzle, accessories, etc. I get paid some royalties for this, and then I can also sell off the painting later. Painting has given me a new career.
The MFPA believes in continually upgrading our skills. They gave me a scholarship which I am using to take lessons from an able-bodied art teacher from the Watercolour Society. The President of the Watercolour Society himself Marvin Chew has been teaching my friends and I for about 4 years now. Prior to knowing Marvin, I had approached other teachers but was rejected because they said they didn’t know how to teach a mouth artist.
Painting gave me a fresh start and the courage to open up to “normal society” again. I started to meet able-bodied people through my mouth painting demos. That helped to build up confidence.
Then I googled to see what type of sports disabled people could take up. I found table tennis. Exercise helps me to be more focused. I love the feeling and challenge of being in a game. Now I feel that my life is back to normal. I have my career, my hobbies (sports) and my family and friends. There is more that I can do.
You have come a long way! So what’s the next season in your life going to be about?
I dream of having my own art exhibition and have my paintings recognized by people. I hope to represent Singapore in a sport.
In Nov 2016, I attended an 8-day course at the SG Enabling Village, to learn how to be a call centre professional. It’s my standby plan, in case I can’t make it in the painting scene. It was a great course with 6 attendees, assumed no prior call centre knowledge and was very hands-on. I had to learn typing all over again too, to key in data I get from the calls. I am very grateful for the social workers who helped me get fitted with the special typing tools and the imported larger-than-normal mouse.
It all goes back to what my doctor told me: “ask”. If I don’t have the answer, ask and maybe somebody else will have the solution.
That’s how this custom-designed mouse came about.
So I want to do my part to motivate and encourage people, especially those who are disabled.
Christina shares a heart-breaking fact: Thomas, the person who did so much to help her bounce back to a fruitful, fulfilling life, in feeling down and withdrawing from the group a little. The chronic pain and depression is real.
So now it is my turn to call him and ask why not come for the next gathering. We all help each other that way.
Sometimes when I meet disabled people, they tell me that they have “nothing to do”. And I always say
You look out for what you can do and just kick start it by doing. Then more will happen. Just start, and keep trying.
Good advice, for everybody both able-bodied or not. A lesson in resilience and realistic positivity indeed. Thank you Christina for sharing your story.
Inspired? You can connect with Christina Lau here.