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! 🙂

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Learning to love my name again

Since day 1 I’ve observed how students love doodling their own names. That’s the first thing many of them do given any downtime, boys and girls alike. Along the margins of their notebooks you’ll find their names in cursive, block letters, graffiti-style…

More recently, my colleague had the brilliant idea of creating an “Honor Roll” board to put up the names of students who are getting the target minimum B in their regular Math class. Everyone got busy writing their names on individual notecards. Boy did that activity take much longer than expected. For the first time, some were meticulously using their best penmanship, even decorating the borders and background, and asking to start over on a fresh card when they messed up. A far cry from the pages of their Math notebooks (you’d think they’re deliberately trying to veer as far from the margins as possible…).

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I mentioned this “phenomenon” to my RCIA instructor, who pointed out that name-writing is a powerful form of self-identity and self-expression . It makes sense that this impetus would be particularly strong during formative and experimental teenage years.

Your name represents you. It’s how you represent yourself to others, as well as to yourself, and is something people associate with you. While deep in depression, I developed a profound shame of my own name.

I wasn’t too surprised by how I hated seeing myself in the mirror — that happened the previous two time I was depressed and was a natural consequence of an unhealthy self-esteem. What was new this time round was how I hated seeing my name, hearing my name, and worst of all having to say my name.

While deep in depression, I had neither the mental energy nor agility to understand why this was happening. It’s clear to me now. I had come to attach my name to everything I have done, but most of all my failures and mistakes.

I had come to despise my own existence. And your name, after all, is like footprints of your existence — it’s attached to virtually everything you’ve done: essays, standardized tests, consent forms, report cards, college applications, job applications, diplomas, awards, text correspondences, email correspondences, credit card purchases…

Since I was so plagued by overwhelming shame for everything I have ever said and done, I naturally began to be ashamed of my name. It is nothing less than soul-crushing to come face-to-face with your own name, one with which you’ve lived for more than two decades, and find that you’ve done nothing but sabotage and tarnish your own legacy.

Meeting new people was torture because it meant having to introduce myself. I’d reached a point where I’d begun to feel alienated from my own name. Saying my name had become like saying the name of an enemy! I hated having to wear my name tag at work. I squirmed in the inside whenever I had to introduce myself to colleagues and students. It made it hard to be fully present in any situation when you’re subconsciously trying to dissociate yourself from your name, your identity.

But as I make my journey toward full recovery, I am learning to be kind to myself. I am learning that there’s a depressed Karen, a non-depressed Karen. A proud Karen, a humble Karen. An insecure Karen, a confident Karen. A selfish Karen, a selfless Karen. A Karen who makes mistakes, a Karen who does things right. A hypocritical Karen, a genuine Karen. A Karen who wasted many opportunities, and a Karen who is learning from her mistakes. A Karen crippled by doubt, a Karen who walks by faith.

I am not perfect. I don’t mean to say that to suggest that I’ll just have to live with that. Instead, I am saying this: every up and down, every failure and success, is an important part of my journey toward becoming the Karen that God created and ultimately desires me to be.

Hear me, coastlands, listen, distant peoples. Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

I will end with this beautiful passage taken from The Inner Voice of Love, the “secret journal” of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who went through a debilitating cycle of depression:

There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgent, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. You can tell your story from the place where it no longer dominates you. You can speak about it with a certain distance and see it as the way to your present freedom. The compulsion to tell your story is gone. From the perspective of the life you now live and the distance you now have, your past does not loom over you. It has lost its weight and can be remembered as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding toward others.

Can you identify with any of this? Have you ever attached shame to your own name? What’s the story?

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

My students knew I was depressed before my colleagues did

During our training, we were told that students are far more perceptive than we’d expect. Students can tell if you don’t care, students can tell if you’re fake, students can tell if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. These are all true, but who knew they’d also sniff out my depression?

They didn’t exactly read it from my face, but there are plenty of other signs they could pick up.

I was in the hospital visiting a student who’s recovering from a traumatic injury (and overall near-death experience), when I decided to tell him about my history with depression. It thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about how we can commit to learn and grow from life’s tragedies.

But before I could elaborate, he cut me off: “Oh, I knew that. I saw that book you were reading.” He’s referring to The Catholic Guide to Depression (How many times have I referred to this book on my blog? You’d think I was getting paid to plug it…). I have a rather messy workspace in the classroom, and would leave my non-class-related things at random corners. Now I wonder how many students saw my little orange bottle of antidepressants.

On a separate occasion, I was letting my students know ahead of time that I wouldn’t be in school the following day. I didn’t expect anyone to bat an eyelid, but one of them began “badgering” me.

“Why?”
“I need to see my doctor tomorrow.”
“Oh, during the day? What’s wrong with you?”
“We can talk about this after class.”
“No, just whisper it to me.”

While his desk mate was paying no attention, I casually explained, “I will be seeing a therapist tomorrow. The first appointment has to be during the daytime. Don’t worry, I won’t have to miss school for this in the future.”

Of course, he wanted to know more, this time with a hushed voice and a look of concern in his eyes.

“Wait, so what’s wrong with you?”
“Just finish your work, and we can talk more after class, okay?”

The sweet boy just wouldn’t have it, so finally I whispered, probably against protocols of appropriacy, “I was diagnosed with depression. But don’t worry, it’s under control.” I did not expect him to whisper back, “Oh, I think I have that too.” But I’m thankful he did — otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to support him as comprehensively as I now can.

Sensing that there is much potential for this “secret” to be “used” for good in the classroom, I told another student. This particular student wasn’t struggling with anything particularly atypical of a high-schooler, but he struggled a lot with motivation. He found it hard to want to do anything that was difficult or unfamiliar, which you unfortunately encounter a lot in Math. I was getting a lot of “I don’t want to do this anymore” and “I’m calling my mom” from this boy.

One day, I sat him down and told him about how hard it was for me to go through college while depressed. I shared this not to guilt-trip or shame him, but to explain how things would have turned out much different had I lived according to the mantra of doing only things that are easy or comfortable. I also shared how my deepest regrets from my younger days are exactly that: forgoing many opportunities for growth simply because they weren’t within my comfort zone. “You know, that’s why I still can’t ride a bike today.” That drew a chuckle, but I knew I finally had him in a way that would last a longer than my previous ‘life lectures’. The message was clear: we won’t grow if we’re never uncomfortable.

I believe there is room for vulnerability (in appropriate doses and at appropriate times) in the classroom. It makes you more human, a concept many students find difficult to grasp.

And it helps establish genuine relationships. Some believe it’s better to keep things “professional”, but I doubt that’s universally applicable. These relationships, in turn, will help you teach. Not just classroom material, but lessons in life and virtue.

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A candid shot taken by my colleague

Related post: My students are helping me recover from depression, “It all started with tea.”

The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it

I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and my own 12 years as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their primary language, English.

My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.

I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.

I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.

The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.

Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?

You'd think this was a parody flashcard.
You’d think this was a parody flashcard…

I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good” my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.

In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.

A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.” Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.

What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it. 

I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.

If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.

Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!

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Please don’t be a teacher if you’re not going to love your job

At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen  getting confused between simplifying algebraic expressions and solving algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to the root of the problem: they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.

My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?

Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big — no — monumental disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).

They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time kids spend in school. The average American child spends 1,260 hours in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.

Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford the results of classrooms operating like this:

A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don't have that technology, but this depiction isn't too far from the truth...
A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don’t have that technology, but this isn’t too far from reality. This is lazy, homogenized education.

As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their whole lives.

For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too afraid to find out the answer anyway.

I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.

I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:

1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.

2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.

And of course, acting upon those recognitions.

If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.

Let’s support the Mott family

Omari Mott Get Well Fund

Imagine my shock when one of my students told me that his table partner had been shot in the face. “I’m not lying, everyone’s talking about it,” he insisted. I had to wait till the end of the last period to give said student’s mom a call. “Mrs. Mott, I heard from a few students that something happened to Omari over the weekend, so I just wanted to check in to find out if everything is okay,” I said with as much nonchalance as I was able to feign. If it was all a false rumor, I didn’t want to offend her unnecessarily. If it was true, I imagined the worst had happened and I didn’t want to say anything that might aggravate matters.

It turned out to be true. But truly by the grace of God, the bullet had missed all vital organs, and was lodged mere centimeters from his spine. Omari was going to need some facial reconstruction because his jaw had been shattered, but he isn’t paralyzed, and suffered neither brain damage nor loss of vision. Most importantly, he’s alive.

The surgery was successful, and Omari’s going to look good as new in approximately 6 weeks, but the road to recovery is going to be very challenging. For 6 weeks, he will have his jaws wired shut and screwed together, which means no talking and no food or drinks. It also means being fed intravenously, and having a tracheostomy tube inserted into his windpipe to facilitate breathing.

IMG_0190 It’s been heartbreaking to see my most amiable, free-spirited, curious, and creative student in such a state. Imagine what it must be like for his parents. I once showed up after work at 4 PM, and his mom hadn’t eaten anything all day. Amidst all the physical and emotional exhaustion, their love for their son has been most evident. Over the last two weeks, Shelby and Zimberland have been by his side almost 24/7, which is important because Omari wouldn’t be able to call for help should something happen while he was unattended, and have not been able to work since the shooting happened.

In another wonderful bundle of answered prayers, Omari is now eligible to be transferred to a transitional care facility (that typically only admits those aged 18 and above) with 24/7 care, and even an extra bed that would allow his parents to get better rest. The change in environment is going to be welcome change for his emotional and psychological well-being. And there, Shelby and Zimberland would also receive proper instruction on how to attend for Omari when he’s eventually discharged to recover at home.

Brothers and sisters, I ask that you join me in praying for the beautiful Mott family, as well as assisting them financially during this difficult time. You can contribute any amount securely through the Omari Mott Get Well Fund set up by his father. Our contributions will help to subsidize the costs of transitional care and rehabilitation. There, you’ll also find a personal message from Shelby and and Zimberland Mott, two incredible, tireless, and selfless parents.

It’s already a tremendous blessing to be able to teach a wonderful young man like Omari; to see him fighting strong and remaining in good spirits (smiling and giving thumbs-ups) has been truly inspiring. And through this ordeal, God has also granted me the honor of getting to know his amazing parents, who truly embody Christ’s self-giving love.

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Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Related posts: “It all started with tea.”, My students are helping me recover from depression

Who do you live for?

I share a particularly close relationship with one of my students. Today, I asked him: “Do you think your life is valuable?” He answered, “Sometimes.” I proceeded to steal 10 minutes from my Geometry lesson plan to discuss this further. We arrived at a common realization we’ve both experienced: you can’t always live for other people. It’s not sustainable.

We have both been at rock bottom for different reasons. In the deepest throes of clinical depression, I’d found myself absolutely abhorring myself, to the point of emotionally abusing myself as long as I’m awake, and being unable to look at myself in the mirror. I tried to keep myself going for the sake of the people who love me: my family, my then-boyfriend, and my close friends. But as my condition got worse, I would often think to myself: “Sure they’d be devastated if I were to take my own life. But realistically, they’d move on at some point. They’re not going to grieve forever.”

My doctor once told me, “You’re right, you can’t live for others. You have to find it within yourself.” But that, too, isn’t a foolproof mentality. Like I said earlier, it was it was impossible to live for myself while severely depressed. I simply wasn’t a fan of me. While I often tell this student about all the ways he is amazing, about the importance of loving himself and seeing his own potential, at the back of my mind I do know he needs more than that. And I hope he finds it someday.

So who am I living for?

Well, I live for my God. The God who breathes meaning and purpose into my existence, my relationships, my career, my joys, and even my suffering. In Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. I could crack or crumble, but the mighty hands that hold me never will. May I allow the recognition of His unfathomable love to fuel my every breath, thought, word, and deed. I pray the same for you, my brothers and sisters.

I know I have readers who don’t share my Christian convictions. Regardless, I would love to hear your answer to the same question I had to ask myself: “Who do you live for?”

(Addendum: I know I wrote about the importance of pouring ourselves out for others in my previous post. I am not negating any of it. But all the reasons I have any desire to serve others are rooted in God: He created us all and He created us all to love Him and love one another. Without God in the picture, living for others eventually became exhausting and “hollow”. But the moment God becomes the source, His goodness animates everything it touches.)

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Related post: My students are helping me recover from depressionHow do you find your “passion”?