Taking ownership of our pain

I’ve learned that taking ownership of our pain is the first step towards healing. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and it’s up to us to decide whether to let it fester, or to begin nursing it.

We often blame people — be it others or ourselves — for the pain we experience. But at the core of it, it is often not people that we have trouble forgiving. What we can’t forgive is the fact that life has not gone according to plan.

This is why we ask, why me? Regardless whether we direct it to God or to the great void, we always ask that same question time and again.

Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of our most basic expectations of what our lives should look like. Things that don’t make it onto our script: accidents, betrayals, abandonment, disillusionment, losing loved ones, epic failures, mental illness, the list goes on.

For some reason, we keep forgetting that the universe owes us nothing, and that we have no reason to be surprised when things don’t go our way.

But asking why me does nothing except keep us stuck in anger and bitterness. When I think about the times I’ve allowed myself to get trapped in depressive episodes, making no effort to seek recovery, I visualize myself sitting alone in a dark echo chamber repeatedly yelling why me. And we know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

There are seasons in life during which we become hypersensitive to grievances past and present. Personal regrets, self-blame, insecurities, traumas, fears, feelings of having been wronged — everything surfaces. When depression hits me, it’s like waking up one morning and finding that the carcasses I’d worked so hard to bury have clawed their way out of their graves, and are now confronting me for having buried them alive. These are the memories, events, and people I’d hastily buried, because for one reason or another, I couldn’t stand the sight of them at the time and had zero desire to acknowledge them.

We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, and distractions. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch me, and I’m free to start afresh. 

It is with such remarkable success that we convince ourselves of this delusion — the delusion that we can simply start afresh. We know we can’t simply erase selected parts of your life. We know that when we’ve buried something, no matter how carefully we attempt to level the soil, the ground will never look the same again. We’ll always know exactly what lies buried there. We’re not really free, because there is no freedom in walking through life tiptoeing around the potholes that we pretend do not exist. They are the conversations we avoid, the names that freeze us in our tracks, the relationships we have severed, the people we have banished, and all those suppressed memories lying dormant in wait of the right catalyst.

What we can choose, however, is to find a way to coexist peacefully with them. And I don’t mean just to tolerate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the things that hurt us can nourish us.

If there’s one lesson depression has forced me to learn, it’s this: bury the past if you must, but return to water it.

I’ve found that revisiting my buried pain isn’t scary as long as I’m armed with three things: faith, hope, and love.

First, faith in God’s sovereignty and in His promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.

Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause: no relationship is too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that death will never have the final say.

And finally, love. Because love is the gentle and merciful hand that nurses wounds. We have to love ourselves in spite of our weaknesses and failures to open the door for healing. And perhaps more difficult, we have to love the people who have hurt us, just as God does. Sometimes this involves forgiving those who never asked for forgiveness, and commending them to our loving Father. Said St. Thomas the Athonite, the man who cries out against evil men, but does not pray for them, will never know the grace of God.

Leave anger and bitterness at the door. Take faith, hope, and love. And we will emerge healed, restored, renewed.

IMG_8100
Watercolor and ink

This doesn’t mean the pain will disappear overnight. But in the meantime, we would have robbed anguish and regret of their oppressive power over us. We might still feel them, but those feelings can now coexist with the joys of life.

So bury the past if you must, but return to water it. Only then can new life will spring forth, and the same places that once harbored pain will become, instead, wellsprings of hope, love, and compassion.

FullSizeRender
Watercolor and acrylic

The following words by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and professor who suffered crippling depression, have helped change my outlook on life. Read and soak in them:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives — the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections — that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see it in the guiding hand of a loving God.

As always, thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂

Hope is not an emotion

This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.

Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.

Child002
Ink

When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression about three years ago, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.

I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.

But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.

I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Comfort zone?! Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.

Niedergedrueckt
‘Niedergedrückt’ by Melancho Blumenbunt

I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.

It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.

It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already. 

Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.

And so I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.

Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.

And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.

I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.

–Pope John Paul II

Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂

Baby steps in managing depression

A friend recently asked me how I figure out whether I’m depressed (in the clinical sense of the word), or just really, really sad. Based on experience, I would boil it down to asking myself this question: am I mourning a loss or a tragedy, or am I mourning my entire existence? Another helpful clarifying question, one which the people I love can help answer, is: am I still able to find meaning in the things I’ve always cherished, or have I lost vitality in these pursuits and concerns? Of course, these aren’t fool-proof diagnostic tools, but they’ve served as a good starting point for me.

Most recently, I learned to also ask myself this: Am I suffering due to things beyond my control? Or am I inflicting suffering on myself?

Because my current depressive episode was specifically triggered by mistakes I’ve made, I subconsciously began punishing myself. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there’s a difference between humbly accepting the consequences of my mistakes, and actively torturing myself.

This dawned on me when I recently found myself feeling faint from just trying to grade my students’ work. A few days prior, I almost passed out in the classroom. I noticed my ribs beginning to jut out more than usual, and my skirts no longer clinging to my waist. I realized that for more than a month, I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less. Most days it would be a bowl of instant oatmeal, other days a couple of granola bars from my roommate’s stash, some days nothing. I hazily mulled over these observations after returning home from work, and eventually burst into tears while struggling to chew on a cold, half-eaten burrito that had been sitting in the fridge for a week. And then I made a very important resolution. It’s time to “grow up” in the way I handle depressive episodes.

If this is going to be a recurring theme in my life, I can’t and don’t want to always count on being babied. A close friend recently told me, “Take care of yourself as you would care for your own child.” I thought about that. There will come a time, perhaps especially when I have my own family (if I do), when I’ll want to be able to take care of other people while depressed. Before I can do that, I first need to know how to take care of myself, regardless of how I feel about myself.

Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while it’s a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I need to do to stay healthy and better poise my mind and body for a speedier recovery: eating well, exercising, spending time with people, putting my best effort into my work, and so on.

Yesterday, I finally made a trip to the grocery store. Did I feel self-conscious and anxious asking for help? Yes. Did I think that every stranger I saw was secretly thinking bad thoughts about me? Yes. Did I think I was useless and stupid for not being able to find cilantro? Yes. Did I regret leaving home at all? Yes. But most importantly, I did what I needed to do anyway. I then cooked myself enough food to last me at least the next three days. It’s not the most balanced or nutritious of meals, but it’s a start. Baby steps!

Experience does help. This being my fourth depressive episode, I’m now quite familiar with depression’s arsenal of tricks. When someone at work stares at me and my mind instantly jumps to ridiculous conclusions, I’m able to tell myself to ignore the thought. When I’m having dinner with friends and I find my mind preoccupied with thoughts like…I’m too stupid to engage thoughtfully in this conversation. My friends invited me only because they feel bad for me. I have no friends. I don’t deserve friends…I’m able to tell myself that those aren’t true, no matter how true they feel. In being able to identify false or distorted thought patterns, I’m able to direct my behavior accordingly. Conduct that lesson no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Meet that friend no matter how scary it seems. Finish your lunch no matter how undeserving you feel. The more I push myself, the more I feel myself getting better.

I attribute these milestones to a combination of factors: the mitigative effects of mood stabilizers (which I was already taking prior to the onset of this episode), consultation with my doctor, wisdom from experience, and honest communication with the people who care about me.

As a Catholic, I must also add that most importantly, access to the Sacraments has granted me access to extra graces I previously didn’t have. And there’s no better reminder that I’m loved than to receive Christ, who gives me His body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

I still remember talking to Fr Peter, way before I entered the Church, while in the thick of depression and a major faith crisis. He advised me to “get this under control” by seeking a diagnosis and proper medication, before adding, “And you might want to consider becoming Catholic.” I had no idea at the time, but he really knew what he was talking about. Previously, my despair would know no bounds and suck me down a bottomless abyss. These days, it’s clear that there are limits to how much I can actually despair. As rough as things get, I know that I’m building my house on solid rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock (Matthew 7:25).

Perhaps when the brain fog clears, maybe in a couple of months or so, I’ll be able to write a more articulate post on the theology of suffering and how it’s helped me. But for now, this will have to do.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂

An appointment with the Divine Physician

I know that many of you read this blog for the positive voice I bring into difficult topics like depression and bipolar disorder. Some of these posts might make it seem like I’ve figured it all out. But in recent months, I learned that I have not.

I’m hurting a lot. I’m still traumatized by the aftermath of an unrecognized, mismanaged, unmedicated hypomanic episode. I’ve learned a lot through all of this, but every day I wish I didn’t have to learn the hard way. I understand now that a lot of the mess I created could have been avoided if I’d had a better understanding of bipolar II, if I hadn’t underestimated it, if I’d recognized the symptoms early and nipped it in the bud, and if I’d been more consistent and proactive about taking care of myself. What is most painful is the realization that I could have avoided hurting myself and someone I love most dearly. But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t. And as I’ve grappled with these thoughts and emotions, it’s pushed me into another depressive episode.

But in this time of darkness, I am discovering my true love. It is exactly what St Augustine wrote: “In my deepest wound I saw Your glory, and it dazzled me.”

I see my therapist and my psychiatrist, but there’s no surer, truer healing than to be in the presence of Jesus. Day after day I approach him just as I am, a wounded child. I cry, but not the same tears I cry to a friend, to my family, or even the tears I now cry to myself as I write this. When I cry to my friends, underlying all of it is a thirst for affirmation that I’m worthy of love, of forgiveness, of second chances, and that I’m not too broken to be fixed. And when I cry to myself in my room, I know deep down that those are but tears of self-pity. These tears often deepen the wound.

But when I cry before the Blessed Sacrament, I feel free. There’s no need to struggle to articulate my pain, there’s no need to pretend to be strong, to manage other’s or my own impression of myself. I’m exposing my wounds to the one who sees it all, knows it all, feels it all. The fears, anxieties, frustrations, and regrets I’ve been carrying around all day, they fall off my shoulders and lie unhidden, unravelled, and undressed before the Divine Physician. I need not even articulate my pain, my needs, or my requests. I know He’s already working on those wounds and scabs, administering medicine far more effective than anything anyone could conjure or procure.

And each time, I walk away with the graces I need to take this one day at a time, and with ever-increasing trust in Him. Jesus, I trust in you.

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.

–J.R.R. Tolkien

More than we desire peace, we desire meaning

[I]t can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology “homeostasis”, i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

–Viktor Frankl (neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor)

One thing I’ve learned about friendships and difficult times

“Often love is offered to you, but you do not recognize it. You discard it because you’re fixed on the same person to whom you gave it.”

–Henri Nouwen

Doodled by Karen Zainal
Doodled by Karen Zainal

I thank God for the troll, the coconut trees, and the sludge monsters in my life. 🙂

P.S. I’ll start writing proper, full-length posts again soon…