Speak your mind and body

Performing artiste Ho Lee Ching is shifting the perception on neurological disabilities and mental health

03 Mar 2021 / 14:20 H.

Since the age of eight, Ho Lee Ching has been living with Tourette Syndrome (TS) – a neurological disorder that causes repetitive involuntary movements (motor tics) and sounds (vocal tics) to occur. On top of that, she also has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Anxiety Disorder (AD).

But it was not until Ho participated in Joe Hasham’s Acting for Beginners workshop in 2018 that she actually started to see her condition in a new light.

She was able to momentarily escape from TS as she moved along with the music when performing on stage.

“I felt like I had control of my body and it was liberating,” she said.

“I think it is when I’m able to mentally, physically and emotionally align myself, where my body and mind are moving towards one goal, my tics tend to disappear for a while. Not many things I do can get me to that aligned state, though. So far, only acting, dancing and painting have allowed me to tap into that space.”

It was also during the workshop that Ho first found the courage to speak up about her condition to a group of people, when everyone was seated in a circle to reflect and share about their progress.
“It was a scary thing to do at the time, but I was really done trying to hide it. It was difficult for me to focus in class because all my energy went into trying to suppress my tics. It was so, so exhausting.

“Even with me trying to hide my tics, there were classmates who were shushing me the weeks before, thinking I was deliberately making noises to distract the class,” Ho added.

Ten years later and after many performances to her credit, Ho made her directorial debut titled OCD in 2018 about the struggles and the journey to overcome OCD while raising awareness about mental health.

In her following theatre piece In/Out (2019), she explored what it felt like to be different, while stuck in a perpetual state of being included and excluded in a group of people.

Ho played the character Ruth in Stories for Amah (2019). – COURTESY OF HO LEE CHING
Ho played the character Ruth in Stories for Amah (2019). – COURTESY OF HO LEE CHING

How did you find creative potential even in the most challenging aspect of your condition?

This has a lot to do with the environment I was in. My parents and the people in my theatre circle were very supportive in everything I did, they understood my condition and were empathetic. That allowed me to push myself further without having to worry about how TS would affect or restrain me, or how I was going to adapt to situations.

During Theatre for Young People in 2012, I had a no-nonsense teacher named Chris Ling, who I felt always expected the best from me. I usually tend to work twice as hard compared to others just because of how my brain functions differently, but somehow having someone who expected no less from me, kept me going.

As a performing artiste living with TS, OCD and AD, how do you prepare yourself before going on stage?

Before a show, in order to get in tune with myself, I have to go through an extensive warm-up for about one to two hours. I take a lot of time to do breathwork as I find that it helps me calm down.

If I don’t spend enough time doing my warm-ups, my stage anxiety will shoot up and I wouldn’t be able to get into that aligned state as easily. This anxiety, coupled with me not being able to focus to get into that state, will affect my performance and sometimes even make me tic.

On people with disabilities being marginalised, have you seen a shift of perception in recent years?

As much as I want to be optimistic about this, unfortunately, I don’t think there has been a shift. Even if there was, it’s a small one. Although social media has definitely allowed our voices to be heard more, most of the time, many of us don’t have the energy or resources to make our voices constantly heard.

The disabled community isn’t talked about much either. We need allies who truly understand our situation to fight alongside us, not use us as a prop for inspiration porn, and then claim to be helping us. We are only disabled because of the barriers imposed by society.

Yes, the world is built for the majority who are not impaired, but our lives are as valuable as yours.

With the social stigma attached to mental health issues, how did you create dialogue surrounding it through OCD?

It took me years to be able to talk about my mental health issues, but once I was able to accept it, I felt like a different person. This acceptance pushed me to learn and understand more about what was going through my head.

It was a natural decision to want to encourage people despite the social stigma attached to it, because I know the power and need in creating conversation. Directing OCD led me to set up the OCD Support Group Malaysia on Facebook. There are about 700 people in it and they share their struggles, talk about what they can do and how to seek help.

A lot of these people live with families who do not understand. Being able to find someone who understands what you’re going through can be life-saving.

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