The Lymph Inflammation That Changed My Life

I don’t like thinking about the time I wasted. But that’s what I did – waste my teens away.

It would be 4 a.m. in the morning and I would be wide awake. Playing games. Or, looking back on the day’s notes from class because I hadn’t paid attention in class. Studying. Or, just nothing.

I would have one hand on a mouse and another hand dirty from eating snacks. Just an hour past midnight and I would have emptied six packs of biscuits.

There were also those canned drinks. On good days, I would drink a can. On bad days, more.

I knew it was unhealthy. But I didn’t care.

I didn’t feel good about myself. But I changed nothing.

The only thing I did keep a discipline to was to make sure I went to bed before 6 a.m.

Not that I wanted to sleep that early. I wished I could stay longer. But 6 a.m. was the time my mom would get up and I didn’t want to get caught sleeping late.

I kept at this rhythm for a good five to six years.

Until one day, I couldn’t anymore.

It was as though my body had formed a silent protest over the years and one day, I lost.

The tunes were changing, and I was last to know.

*

‘Koko, let me in! I really need to poo!’ I shouted to my brother inside.

I was standing outside the toilet of a hotel room in Singapore and knocking hard. A violent ache was taking over my body, first from my stomach, and then downwards. I felt my calve muscles weaken, my legs collapsing inwards. Cold sweat dribbled on my forehead, my temples.

‘Just wait a while, I’ll be done soon!’ he shouted back.

I clenched my fingers onto the flat door of the toilet door.

‘I don’t – I don’t, I can,’ I said in a much-weakened tone than before. I was slipping away.

Colorful lines were forming in front of me. Then a flash of darkness. And then, another. My legs continued to weaken and I lost balance.

I heard my brother walk toward the door, but before he could open it, I fainted.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but when I came to, I felt an upward pressure on both my armpits. I looked around and my parents – one on each side – was holding me.

Did I fall? I wondered.

They carried me to the bed.

If I had ever felt helpless in my life, this was one of those moments. Inside of me, I cried. I knew what I had done that led to this.

I knew it was my fault.

*

That year, I turned 15. I was in secondary four and our trip to Singapore was supposed to be a mini-getaway for my family.

I told my mom I didn’t want to go.

‘I need to study,’ I told her, ‘and, I hate going to Singapore.’

The memory of being scolded for punching on fresh bread on a trip just five years ago was fresh in my mind. Putting no fault to myself, I thought Singaporeans were rude.

In the end, I relented. My mom told me there would be no one home to prepare food for me anyway.

That year, Facebook hadn’t been invented yet. Or, it hadn’t taken the form it has today. GPS was in its infancy, and unreliable. Smartphones (or phones) were for the rich and not everyone had internet everywhere they went.

So when my parents saw me faint, they didn’t really know what to do at first.

They laid me on the hotel room bed and gave me a glass of water with some Chinese medicine for ’emergencies’.

While I was trying to keep myself awake, my mom went on as Chinese mothers do when their children get sick:

‘I told you not to simply eat things. You never control your food. And your habits are so bad. You fainted just now. I’ve never seen anyone do that in this family.’

And she was right. Just days before the trip, I continued drinking, sleeping late and snacking on food I shouldn’t have.

I don’t know how it happened or when it happened but a bump had started developing on the left side of my neck a week before the trip – unnoticeable at first, and then, too big to ignore.

Even so, I continued indulging in my habits.

My mom knew I had very bad habits. But I was pretty sure, she didn’t understand the extent of damage I had done to myself.

*

When we got back in Brunei, the doctor prescribed me antibiotics (or something. I don’t really remember the exact concoction). I had an inflammation of my lymph node. My neck looked something like this (except twice the size) for many, many weeks:

I couldn’t stand or walk very far. I was sleepy most of the time. On bad days, I didn’t have enough energy to go to school.

So I spent a lot of time on my bed. Even though I was getting further and further behind in class, I never had the energy to catch up at home.

People say you become the most aware of your transgressions when you feel like you’re on the brink of death.

At 15 years old, I saw myself waste away in bed. On some days, I lost my ability to even get a glass of water because I didn’t have enough energy to walk more than ten steps at a time.

In my mind, I regretted wasting so much time doing nothing important.

Gaming. Eating. Playing.

I cried.

At night, I dreaded another morning spent lying down. I thought painfully of the days I could walk for hours.

I wished, I really really wished I had taken better care of myself. If only I didn’t always sleep late. If only I didn’t eat that. If only, if only.

Although I didn’t really know what was the real cause of the inflammation, I knew that it probably wouldn’t have been that bad had I taken good care of myself all the years.

I felt hopeless and gave in to my hopelessness for a few months.

Until one day, I decided I could just lie there and do nothing… or stand up and start doing something.

*

The other side of pain is reward – mathemata pathemata. Things suffered, things learned.

I don’t think I would have started on my journey to a more healthy life had I not fainted in that hotel room that night.

That year, I did something I had never done in my life: exercise.

I started with walking. Since I couldn’t walk for more than one minute a time without losing all my energy, I challenged myself to walk for one minute and ten seconds.

Although it sounds trivial today, at the time, it was pretty challenging.

I kept at this almost every day, increasing my time a little bit each time until one day, I could go on for 20 minutes. I was sweating all over but I felt accomplished.

Before I knew it, I had recovered.

When I got my energy back, I felt whole again. I made a promise to myself that I would change my habits.

*

Step by step, my journey of improving myself physically led me to the doorstep of my very first karate class.

I was already exercising myself quite a bit at home, but I felt I needed a new challenge. So when I saw a booth with the label ‘Karate Club’ in college one day, I signed up without hesitation.

It was the first or second week of my Lower Six year and we were all asked to go to the club fair. Our college had made it compulsory for each student to sign up for at least three clubs.

That year, I was 17 years old. My coordination skills were horrible and I couldn’t run for more than three minutes.

I didn’t get tested for this. I found this out when in my first Karate class when my sensei asked us to perform a move with my left hand and left leg and I did it with my left hand and right leg.

And when he asked us to run for 15 minutes, and I felt like I was dying even before three minutes had passed.

I was probably the weakest one in that class that day. But, even as the class got smaller each week with students dropping out because they felt the training was too painful, I persisted.

Even when I had an exam that week, I persisted.

It’s not because I had extraordinary skills of persistence, but each time when I told my sensei, ‘Sensei, I’m not coming next week because I have an exam to study for’, he would look me in the eye and say, ‘that’s an excuse. How will three hours a week affect your studying if you have been studying properly all this while?’

And he was right. By the end of my two years in Form Six, I had skipped less than five classes and still ended up with straight A’s for my A Levels.

The same thing happened again in college. Even when I went for Karate class 4-5 times a week, I managed to graduate with First Class Honors.

Although I appreciate the improvements to my physical health thanks to Karate, what I appreciate more from starting Karate is the No-Excuses mental framework it has built in me.

*

It’s been twelve years now since my first Karate class and fourteen since my lymph inflammation.

I can now run longer than 15 minutes now and my coordination skills aren’t too shabby.

I don’t sleep at 4 a.m. anymore. In fact, I’ve been able to keep my sleeping schedule consistent 70% of the time at 11 pm at night for more than ten years now.

I’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu twice, peaking it once. This is something I never imagined I would do.

I’ve traveled to 15 countries, started my own business and even helped my mom do the same.

Everything that required me to be physically fit.

I can’t imagine if the lymph inflammation didn’t happen… where would I be today?

Probably dead.


Sometimes, bad things really do happen because that’s the only way to make way for the good things to exist in your life.

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