Stories of Resilience: Lisa Von Tang
Editor’s Note: In this series, we explore how resilience shapes a person’s character, how it affects our emotional and psychological state and if there are times when we become more resilient to challenges, setbacks and failures.
Resilience is a Phoenix
Writing on resilience is an exercise of reviewing my entire life. By its nature, resilience is about enduring over a long period of time. Year after year, recovery after recovery, it becomes (or is revealed) as a core part of your character—and you no longer need to be resilient; you simply are.
Resilience also has a bouncy, shiny quality to it. Like springing back from a guttural punch with a glowing complexion and yelping a joyful ‘whoopee!’ whereas “Perseverance” has a heavier, adult, tone. I imagine a marathon runner in his last stretch, eyes steely with determination, mind over matter, resolving to keep going no matter what. Or a chronically disappointed wife—“I shall persevere!”
Strength has no context built-in, which makes it less interesting. It’s a rather flat adjective.
I like the term Resilience because it indicates a blossoming following a struggle. Anyone can build a wall after a tragedy (in fact, it’s the most instinctive thing to do). Most people, however, find it hard to melt, learn, and shine on. Resilience not only means getting up after a fall, but rising from the ashes, and transforming into the mythical Phoenix, with more purity, power, and beauty than before. Resilience is not just sheer willpower, it is transformation. Its spiritual alchemy. Its magic.
Image Credit: Warwick Saint
My first introduction to my own resilience was as a child. I grew up in an incredibly abusive household. My dad once burnt my hand with a boiling fork because I didn’t remember a bible scripture properly. And that’s just a PG-rated example of the abuse we endured on a daily basis.
I managed to remain as an openhearted and kind little person until the abuse peaked: My parents then separated, and a bleak period followed. At this point, my youthful resilience was swapped for adult fortitude. I didn’t have enough heart left to do more than just protect myself and survive.
I was twelve, and I had no relationship with either of my parents. I’d been stalked by a paedophile, who would follow me home (as I biked alone) from ballet class. He broke into my house one night (I was safe in my room, but he was never caught by the police). I hung out with some unsavoury types and put myself in some compromising situations. I was considered a “rebellious teen” which is a term that has always cracked me up. As if teens become rebellious randomly, with no cause at all. “Yea, an alien ship came down at recess, and I went onboard and said Hi, and now I hate my parents.” Right.
I grew up, otherwise quite fortunate, in Canada with a mom who was a gifted Chinese immigrant and dedicated to providing for us and making us into successful humans—particularly from an academic point of view. I’ve always been grateful for that Chinese immigrant focus on material success—I feel it saved me in some respect, because it kept doors open. Also, Chinese home cooking deserves a shout-out here! My favourite memories during my formative years are food-related.
At 15, I would ace my exams in high school, then go raving all night. Floating above my misery like a black balloon. Once I started college, I got the opportunity to travel the world and model. I would either take courses by distance if the professor would allow it, or I’d come home to be on campus in between modelling contracts. I did this for a few years, then quit modelling once I graduated and got my first dream job with one of the world’s largest advertising companies.
[Read: Stories of Resilience: Pauline Ng]
I met my ex-husband when I was modelling. He was from New York but living in Singapore. It was an arrow through the heart for us both—tragic, young, foolish, Romeo and Juliet sort of love. I let him melt my last glaciers away. I tattooed the date we met on my wrist. We wrote each other epic prose that would make you want to vomit. We had sex in the most inappropriate places, which still makes my eyes widen with disbelief. He proposed within three months of me moving in.
My first big love looked hot in a suit and would walk to work listening to a mix of Snoop Dogg and Dvořák. He was intellectually brilliant, amusingly strange, and preferred Tolstoy and a glass of cognac to human company. He was also an alcoholic. It was fun in the beginning until it wasn’t.
People never understood why I left him—particularly the women he dated after me. But it crushed my soul how he’d drink to the point of injury, blackout, broken glass, screaming, or hospitalisation—on the regular. Our finest moments involved me throwing a vase just degrees from his head, and him punching the wall next to my head (and breaking his fist). We never actually hurt each other physically, but we did a big number on each other’s hearts. Eventually, you learn not to touch a hot stove.
So I moved out, and got my own place. It was an HDB flat in Lavender. It was not glamorous. But I was free. I was about half a year into my first start-up business, a multi-label retailer for independent designers. I had spent a year at Ogilvy & Mather as a brand strategist, but then realised that the bureaucratic nature of corporates (even awesome ones like O&M,) wasn’t for me. I was prepared to work harder, feel the results, and trial and error my way to success.
Work was killing me, because I was using it to hide from my disappointment over my divorce. I worked myself into the ER many times, that I wondered if hospitals had punch cards for VIPs. I was pulling 16 hour days. I hadn’t learned how to “be supported by others” in my life yet, and was awful at finding the right people for my team. While I hired some great individuals at my first company, no one I hired was the right fit. When you don’t have the right people to achieve your goal, it’s not a neutral situation either—it goes backwards fast, and unfortunately, you’re still paying for it.
Being a 24-year-old, ex-model, boss lady, was not easy either. As a workaholic, I didn’t see many friends outside of the people I worked with. I needed their human company. But as soon as you become friends with an employee, it really messes with the authority structure that’s needed to run a business. It’s easier for men I believe, but women aren’t just handed respect as a given. You need to fight for it, tooth and nail, and prove yourself to be competent, before you can avoid judgement.
I would leave work, exhausted. Try to sleep without a sleeping pill. Have anxiety and give up. Then start all over again. I dated. I travelled. I got into a new relationship. And then finally, at the age of 29, I had an epiphany that would change how I approached life. I realised that I was living in a fortress to protect myself from the bashing I had gotten from the world, but I couldn’t bloom in there. I couldn’t even properly receive love and support from in there. It was grey. I had to trade Fortitude for Resilience.
This epiphany started through a dear friend of mine from San Francisco messaging me, “Lisa, why don’t you focus on Self-Love?” I had been confiding in her with regard to all the pressure and anxiety I was experiencing. “Self-Love? What’s that?” Now it’s a buzzword, but at the time, it was a foreign term to me. I googled it, and realised that it was about leading a life of self-respect that you enjoy. This may sound like common sense to those of you who grew up in healthy environments, but it was a revolution for me. I had grown up supporting people around me, and had carried that habit into my work life. I had also carried that habit into my love life. I was always the Big Spoon. She also introduced me to a spiritual guide, who helped me connect back to the earth, and cultivate joyful living.
Suddenly, I could see with clarity that I never had before, that I had internalised a lack of love from my childhood, and it was dooming me to outcomes that perpetuated a state of misery. I was pretending I was okay with just surviving on crumbs from others (in work, and in love life) when I desperately needed a bigger piece of the pie. This inherent lack of Self-Love had stormed its way through my first company, blocking me from finding the right support, and I couldn’t do the same jam anymore.
I let it all burn to ashes. My first company. All relationships that sucked energy and were not supportive. I took responsibility for all outcomes in my adult life being my fault. And decided to commit myself to a life of joy, even if that meant a complete reconfiguration. I was finally learning what it meant to be resilient. I felt happier than I had in years. I felt shinier. I felt younger. I felt beautiful.
I also left a relationship that I knew wasn’t good for me. I had been campaigning for marriage and kids, and when it finally came time to build the nursery, I realised I was selling myself short. I realised that I’d be happier on my own than with someone who wasn’t able to prioritise me in his life and legacy plans. Self-Love. I’m telling you, ladies. It’s like the sky clearing after the storm. Nothing is foggy anymore.
I have to mention at this juncture of the story, that many of the people who were not right for my company (or bedroom) were still very good people. They just weren’t right for this particular journey. I take responsibility for the collateral damage that grew out of my nasty habit of martyring myself. You can’t explode in growth without an amazing team backing you. I know that now.
2018. 31 years old. The new company is doing well. I’m doing my dream job and have been for a few years now (a conversation for another article). My bonds with my loved ones continue to deepen. I’m happy as a default, and I realise that joy is my guiding light—as it should be yours. I don’t say this as a hippy by the way. Even from a strategic business point of view, I see ‘joy’ as being a clarifying elixir for how I choose people, how I decide on our plans going forward, how I design and create.
I roll like a Phoenix now. No matter what happens, I know I can reach within myself and find even more strength, even more clarity, and even more beauty. I don’t need fortress walls anymore, because I know that I have the ability to bend, rebuild, and always turn my heart back towards the Sun.