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)

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When you know your “good days” are numbered

The first time I tasted a depressive episode in 2011, I didn’t think it was anything more a one-time glitch in an otherwise emotionally healthy life. And then in the winter of 2012, it returned, and this time worse in manifold ways. Eight months later, I emerged stronger than before, declaring to myself and the world that I wouldn’t fear a relapse. But the truth was, I didn’t really believe it would come back. It was a vague possibility in my head, but nothing more.

No prizes for guessing this one, but it did return the following spring. Again, and this is highly likely due to inadequate treatment and self-care, this one was also worse than its predecessor. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to conceptualize what that might even look like. Before I knew it, I was reduced to a human ball of invisible, destructive thoughts — sometimes sobbing, sometimes suicidal, other times both.

I am now well, and am beginning to grasp what it means that this is going to be a recurring theme in my life. As I pour my refreshed energy and extended wake time into the passions God has placed on my heart, I am also aware that I cannot lay claim to my present capacities indefinitely.

What do I do with this awareness? I don’t know what the “best practices” are (feel free to share any advice with me), but I’ll probably have many tries to figure this out anyway. But typically, my approach these days have been to “seize every moment”. I try not to sleep beyond what’s necessary for my health, I try not to say no to an invitation to a meal/coffee/conversation/adventure, I try not to reject the appeal of someone in need. I also assess the gifts and talents God has bestowed on me (for example, my voice, my writing, and then those drawing skills that seemingly came out of nowhere) and consider how I can use them to bless others. I reflect on the special passions He has planted in me, such as my love for children, the youth, and the developmentally disabled, and consider how they ought to inform my vocational decisions.

On a more proactive, self-protection side, I’ve been making good on this hypothesis: that if I took advantage of the times when I’m not depressed to learn more about depression (from reading books and articles, and talking to experts including my own healthcare providers), I will eventually become better at handling depressive episodes when they do return. These on top of responsibly staying on medication and being disciplined about self-care, of course.

Now, and you’re probably already thinking this: though I write this from the perspective of someone diagnosed with “recurrent major depressive disorder”, these musings are relevant to any living human.  Our good days are numbered, our days in general are numbered. We don’t know what tragedy might befall us, and when it might. We don’t know what we might lose tomorrow. And then there are also the things we can reasonably expect: the changes that will come with old age, and of course, the fact that we will all die.

Maybe these aren’t things we often think about, and I might even be coming off as if I were still in the thick of depression. It’s also often said that to think about the end of life prevents us from living our lives, but I patently disagree. I believe there are few things more important to how we live our lives than contemplating the temporality, and fragility, of life on this side of eternity. Accepting the vanity of our present pursuits is the beginning of discovering our true purpose, and the true meaning of our lives.

It’s getting easier, these days, to acknowledge our mortality on a mere theoretical level, without really allowing it to sink in in our daily deeds and interactions. Perhaps because modern society has gotten so good at marginalizing death and suffering. Those things are hidden away in hospitals and hospices. Even the things that aren’t hidden from plain sight — like the plight of the homeless, and our brothers and sisters languishing daily under systemic injustice and oppression — we’ve somehow been trained to phase them out of our interior lives. Because it’s more convenient (not to mention more lucrative for corporations) that we are kept distracted by illusions of invincibility and the pursuits of temporary pleasures.

But fight that. I invite you think reflect on these realities more often than you might be used to. I speak not from a preacher’s podium, but from someone who’s been brought so low she had no choice but contemplate these unpleasant reality checks. This is not to rain on anybody’s parade, because the contemplation of “unpleasant” truths is necessary bitter medicine to a pride that needs humbling, a temper that needs taming, a coldness that needs thawing, an indifference that needs shattering, and a soul that needs healing.

I have come to trust in the Great Physician who administers this medicine, and I trust Him with my entire life and being.

Swallow the bitterness in faith, and then we can begin to taste the goodness of life in its fullness. I’m still catching new glimpses of it each day. A life where I am not the center, where I can delight in giving more than I do receiving, where I can truly delight in the joys of others without envy (for the most part), where I rejoice simply in knowing that I am a beloved child of God, where I look forward to an eternity in my final destination.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian really ought,
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

(From “If I Can Help Somebody”, arranged by Ray Liebau.)

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Congratulations on making it to the end of the “heaviest” post I have written in a while. Leave a comment with your thoughts — I would love to hear from any perspective! 🙂

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…

You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person

When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary not because they are afraid it might be contagious (hey, many don’t even recognize it as an illness!), but because they are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

A friend once apologized to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been reaching out to you or being there for you. I’m not like J — I wish I were, but I’m not. But know that I’ve been praying for you, okay?”

At the time, I smiled and told him not to worry about it. I read between the lines and I read his facial expressions — I knew what he was saying was that he wasn’t good at empathizing and didn’t want to do or say things that might end up aggravating matters. We exchanged hugs and parted ways for the remainder of the academic year. But that night I wept in my room. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I cried over the silliest things after all.

I know why now. I felt abandoned by a friend. Sure, he wasn’t my best friend, and I did have other close friends who were walking the journey with me, but when an individual walks out on your life, his/her absence can’t be compensated by quantity. The next time I saw him, it would be the beginning of a new academic year, and I’d have already recovered over the summer. We hung out again and were friends once more. This was no isolated case. It happened again, and again, with different people.

ozzy

But my friends are not bad people. They are wonderful people. They did not stop being my friend during depressive episodes because they were tired of me. In fact, I don’t think they even intended to stop being my friend. And I’m sure they believe they were doing what was best for me. From their point of view, they were temporarily stepping out of my life so someone more “qualified” could step in to take better care of me. Someone who would have the right things to say, someone who perhaps have gone through the same thing I was going through, someone who could give good advice. Basically, someone who could empathize.

And yes, I wished I had people in my life who fit the above descriptions, and I was indeed blessed with at least one such individual, but it didn’t erase the deep pain of being “left behind”. And one thing I’ve come to realize over a few cycles of depression is this: depressed people don’t need you to empathize; they just need you. A depressed person would rather have you say all the worst possible things, rather than not have you at all.

It is very difficult to understand what a depressed person is going through. That is an inescapable fact. But even a fellow depression fighter/survivor would not be able to understand completely, since disorders of the mind affect each individual as uniquely as his mind is unique.

But a general common theme is that the depressed individual experiences and perceives a reality different from that of the non-depressed individual. I remember despairing not because I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but because I came to believe there was nothing from which to recover. I didn’t believe I had a negative cognitive bias, but believed that it’s others who had a positive cognitive bias, while I saw my existence for what it truly was.

Loved ones of those who are depressed, you have a very tricky and very important task of holding their hand and walking together, even though you are walking in different realities, until you are once more reunited at the end of the tunnel. This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?

Someone very dear to me had no experience whatsoever with depression. He bought himself a book on the topic (The Catholic Guide to Depression, which I’ve recommended multiple times in previous posts) in an attempt to understand what I was going through. It’s safe to say that even after a year, he never came close to understanding, but what mattered was that he never stopped walking with me. He never got tired of me even when I got tired of myself. And he never stopped believing that God would deliver me even when I’d lost all hope. You have my eternal gratitude.

On “zentangling”, life, and God

I haven’t written anything new over the last few days (though there are many thoughts I’m itching to get on paper), because I’ve been…doodling. A lot.

Apparently, this type of detail-oriented (or should I say “obsessed”?) and geometric doodling has a name — it’s called a “zentangle”. I would not have known this if my colleague hadn’t passed me a Zentangle workbook to pass to Omari, my student who’s currently in the hospital.

Annie the Antisocial Anteater
Annie the Antisocial Anteater
Camille the Capricious Camel
Camille the Capricious Camel
Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat
Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat

I am hooked, and think I may have figured out the appeal of zengtangling. It’s a lot like life — you can’t erase any of the strokes you’ve made, but you can adapt and build off from those accidents, misfortunes, and mistakes. In the moment, every detail seems random and incongruous with everything else, but at the end of the day you find yourself with a final tapestry much more complex and beautiful than what you could have dreamed up at the beginning.

And it reminds me very much of God’s continuing work in my life and yours. In the words of a very wise priest, God is a skillful impressionist painter — his work can make little to no sense up close, but when you step back you see a masterpiece.

This has been fun and therapeutic for me, but I also connect deeply to the idea of characters who are so fixated with a certain trait that they forget there’s so much more beauty and complexity to them. I’ve seen it in myself, in people struggling with mental illnesses, in my students, and in how people view those who have special needs.

I’m now thinking of putting them on sale as prints/T-shirts/tote bags/iPhone skins on Society6. What do you think?

How do you maintain your grip on reality?

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. It was barely three months after what had been my debilitating bout of depression to date, and I was a little nervous. To realize that for eight out of twelve months I could have been so wrong about so many things, so blind to so many truths, so caught up in the half-lies of my distorted reality — it was a world-shattering realization. (In my previous post, I write in greater detail about the distorted thought patterns of a depressed person.)

I say world-shattering because most of us grew up being told to believe in ourselves, that if we believed something about ourselves then that’s true. Or at least, that what we see in ourselves is supposed to be more valid than what others see in us. Never let anyone else have the final say. They are but naysayers. Trust your heart. 

I was finding that that wasn’t so great of a mantra to live by. In my depression, I believed that what I had was not a treatable illness, regardless of what anyone told me. I also believed God had either abandoned me, or He simply hated me, regardless of what anyone told me. Because it sure seemed that way to me.

I remember being 15 or 16 and watching supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks instruct the teenage girl on her show to “go home, take a post-it, write I am beautiful, stick it on your mirror and recite it to yourself every day until you believe it.” The live audience promptly rose to their feet for a watery-eyed standing ovation. I remember grimacing at my laptop screen, not because I disagreed that this girl looked perfectly pleasant, but because all these women were essentially telling her to completely disregard her own conviction. And they expected it to work? I won’t pretend to know how one overcomes Body Dysmorphia Disorder, but I doubt that was it. I don’t think they let the poor girl say anything, but I knew that if I were her, I would have thought supermodel Tyra Banks was just patronizing me by telling me I was beautiful when I really wasn’t. It’s not going to work. Not unless our culture stopped worshipping self-belief and self-determination above all else. Because sometimes, many times and for many reasons, we are going to be misguided and we are going to be wrong.

Who, then, can we trust to tell us truths that can be so counter-intuitive?

Back to the letter I wrote to myself. I hoped for this letter to protect me against depression’s most powerful trick: the distortion of perceived reality. This is part of what I wrote to a future self who might be caught in another raging mental storm: If that’s what’s happening now, hold on to this golden nugget of truth: Many things in life have failed you, but God will not fail you. If you’re going to succumb to the lies of depression, fine, but this is one thing you can vouch with all your mind, heart and soul is true. Otherwise, strive to know more of Him and His plan for your life, his role for you in His kingdom. Go into storms confident that you are standing on solid rock. . . . You are a daughter of God and He loves you more than You could ever know.

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This was written solely to myself, and no one else has seen it till this moment. I thought this would be foolproof. It’s in my handwriting, and it’s sincere — how could future me distrust it?

But I did. About six months later, I opened this letter again and I wanted so badly to rip it to shreds. I read my own words and chastised myself for being so delusional at the time of writing. For the second time, I became obsessed with the theory of depressive realism: depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. While everyone around me insisted that my depression gave me a negative cognitive bias, I believed in myself so much that I thought it was them who had a cognitive bias — a positive cognitive bias. And I, being supposedly depressed, had the more accurate appraisal of myself and the world.

What arrogance, Karen.

I remember my then-boyfriend trying to tell me I was being arrogant. It made no sense to me at the time. How could I possibly be arrogant when my self-esteem is at rock bottom?

It turned out that while depressed, I lost many things — self-esteem, self-love, empathy, love for others — all but my idolatry of my own intellect. I suppose it didn’t help that I’d been immersed in an academic environment that worshipped the intellect as the harbinger of Truth.

Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.

I see now that as a Christian, I must, using my free will, submit my intellect to God. While this must sound like blasphemy to any post-Enlightenment atheist, I declare this unashamed because there is no better option.

To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism. It comes down to the question of which is the more reliable tool. Well, my religion is not quite a tool, but a relationship with the true and living God. He gave me my capacity to think and capacity to rationalize. When my brain is “broken” and doesn’t perceive things quite accurately, I can turn to its manufacturer to tell me what I ought to be perceiving. Thank God for the Church that has been entrusted to guard and dispense God’s truths, so we will never be left as orphans (John 14:18) flailing around trying to make sense of everything given our limitations.

I repent of my life-long arrogance and self-idolatry. I will end this post with one of the most-cited verse of the Bible: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). I used to think this applied mostly to those who “aren’t smart enough to come to their own understanding of things”. I take that back, and I would even add that this is particularly relevant to those we consider to be highly intelligent.

What I needed was not a letter from me. What I needed was God’s Word and the teachings of His Church, and the humility to trust Him over myself.

I know not all my readers share my convictions, so I’ll open this up to you: how do you maintain your grip on reality? Or more broadly speaking, how do you know what’s true?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me an “innocent in hell”

Recommended reading: In Miracles, C.S. Lewis demonstrates how the fact that we can even reason and rationalize is a great argument for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Or go to Wikipedia for a summary of the argument from reason.