Treasure hidden in weakness and suffering

The phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” never sat right with me. I was never sure why, until recently.

It brings to mind a kind strength that is callous toward pain and indifferent to weakness. Or a cold strength of ambition that propels you forward, faster, higher, while paying no heed to what you leave behind. Maybe I’m reading too much into a quip, or maybe I’ve come to desire a radically different kind of strength.

The strength I desire could be mistaken for weakness. You could say that what hasn’t killed me has made me weaker. Weaker in that I feel pain more acutely, mine as well as others’. Weaker in that I am aware of my own shortcomings, and those more forgiving of others’. And weaker in that I relinquish all desire to live life in pursuit of self-glory, instead accepting whatever God places before me, determined to find the graces God has prepared in any given time and place. In accepting weakness we become spiritually stronger.

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I love the above quote by St. Vincent de Paul — it is an invitation to learn the art of suffering well. It’s easy to recognize the value of suffering in hindsight, but let’s aspire to lovingly receive and carry our crosses.

Again and again I discover why the saints insist that suffering is medicine for the soul. Suffering teaches me the most important lessons, purges the most stubborn of bad habits, inspires my highest aspirations, and turns my eyes toward eternity.

Related post: When you know your “good days” are numbered

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Under Reconstruction (Round Three)

Round Two began about six months ago. The fog of a long depressive episode was beginning to dissipate, and my mind and soul glimpsed a new horizon. At the time, I wrote the following:

I wish it was as easy as “picking up where I left off”. But the damage and hurt I have inflicted on myself and the people who love me are all very real. There’s a lot of rubble to sift through, a lot of re-examination, mending, and rebuilding to be done. With God’s grace and guidance I will find healing. Not just restoration, but transformation. I have faith. I am reminded once again of why I named this blog “Under Reconstruction”. From this point on I will let God rebuild me, my life, and my relationships in whatever way He deems best. My Creator knows best.

In the months that have gone by, I have learned and grown a lot — this blog catalogs that journey — so I didn’t think there’d be a Round Three. Yet here I am! The above words are eerily relevant. Except this time, I’m emerging not from a depressive episode, but a hypomanic episode. If being depressed meant being in darkness, being hypomanic meant playing with fire. The initial spark was very much welcomed. A spike in energy was nice, a boost of creativity was fun, a healthy self-esteem was thrilling… But I made the mistake of not watching the flames, and I allowed them to get too big. I was enraptured, hypnotized by an illusion of grandiosity and invincibility. I made mistake after mistake, I got burned, but what I regret most is that the people closest to me got burned as well.

But I know there is mercy and healing to be found in Christ. For my mind and my soul, for those I’ve hurt, for the relationships I’ve damaged. That I know full well. It will take time, but a broken spirit and a contrite heart He will not refuse.

And this time I’m learning that I’m never “done”. There is always more to learn. More weaknesses to be unearthed and weeded out. More calls to repentance. More forgiveness to seek and grant. And in every fall is a reminder of my weak, sinful nature, and a call to continually surrender my will to the Eternal and Unchanging. And always, always a call to love better, serve better, sacrifice better.

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“Surely, I wait for the Lord; who bends down to me and hears my cry, draws me up from the pit of destruction, out of the muddy clay, sets my feet upon rock, steadied my steps, and puts a new song in my mouth, a hymn to our God.” (Ps 40:2-4)

I may not be writing as much as I attempt to sort things out internally. But you’ll probably see more doodles — where words fail me, I’ll let them fill the void. Thank you, again, for accompanying me on this never-ending journey! Peace be with you. 🙂

“I’ll be back! I always come back!” (That’s a quote from Bride of Chucky, but no, that’s not relevant.)

A smooth-sailing life is no adventure!

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I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

–Theodore Roosevelt

A new season, a new diagnosis

If you’re a frequent reader, you may have noticed that I’ve been posting at a markedly reduced rate. The arrival of spring has, for me, coincided with a new season in life.

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Frankly, ideas no longer come to me as readily as they did over the last few months. Or if they still still do, then perhaps it’s the words I need to convey them that are no longer at my beck and call. I’m aware of how my fingers no longer chase after words that once spontaneously spilled onto the keyboard.

Does it bother me that it now takes a more deliberate, concerted effort to condense my thoughts into the written word? That socializing is no longer as easy breezy? That I now get tired more easily and sometimes struggle to stay alert at work? That I now need afternoon naps and more snooze hours? A little bit, yes, but while all this might sound like a melodramatic lament, I’m actually surprisingly okay with these developments.

It’s not the most pleasant feeling, but at least I’m not terrified. Two years ago, I had no idea what was happening to me, so best guess was that I was losing my mind. I vividly remember having a horrifying existential breakdown in front of my computer while struggling to comprehend some class-assigned readings. In retrospect, I probably over-exaggerated the problem. It probably wasn’t quite that I understood NOTHING, as I ran around exclaiming in despair to me helpless roommate. More likely, I simply could no longer read, comprehend, and process at the super-speed I’d come to regard as “normal”.

And when it happened a year ago, I assumed it was the onset of another bout of depression. It happened to be crunch time for my B.A. thesis, the pinnacle of my undergraduate career, and also the dreaded job hunt season. I grappled and clamored and clawed to keep my head and my “sanity” above the quicksand, only to get sucked right under. Before I knew it, I found myself on the floor of The Stacks, spilling tears and snot all over musky old books (I apologize to everyone who had to touch those books after me), freaking out about being “the most pathetic human being to ever exist” and begging my hapless boyfriend not to make me get on the plane to Pittsburgh for a final interview.

In this space I’ve freely written about my travails in “recurrent major depression”, but never once mentioned my brewing suspicions of a misdiagnosis. Over the last few months, I’d begun to suspect that my “condition” should rightfully be termed and treated as bipolar II. With each article read, each forum scoured, and conversation had (with friends who have had similar experiences, friends in med school, helpful folks on Quora…), I grew increasingly certain. But it was only about a week ago that I received affirmatives from my general physician, as well as a psychiatrist.

I don’t simply drift in and out of depression — I ebb between a few months of depression, and a few months “hypomania“, a lesser known term. You can easily find descriptors of the common symptoms of hypomania, but generally, I would classify them all as basically being a Super version of yourself: quicker, more creative, more productive, more sociable, more adventurous, more energetic (but on the flip side, often more impulsive, which can lead to poor judgment and bad decisions). A word they often use is grandiosity. But me being naturally more reserved, the grandiose, less inhibited version of myself often just seemed healthy, confident, and fun.

Doesn’t sound bad, does it? In fact, you’d find many people with bipolar II asking questions like, “How can I extend my hypomanic episodes and shorten my depressive episodes?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way because your brain is essentially on over drive during hypomanic episodes, so to indulge in it would likely result in a harder crash. And I can only imagine how drastic spikes and falls, left uncalibrated, would mess up one’s brain in the long run.

I now wonder: How was it humanly possible that I churned out an average of 4 full-length blog posts and 2 original drawings per week? And all without sacrificing my full-time job, volunteer commitments, self-directed study plan, occasional Netflix binges, and a healthy social life? No, now it doesn’t quite seem humanly possible. And I am accepting that it’s not supposed to be.

My “superpowers” have been taken from me. And that’s more than okay. When I speak of a “new season” in life, I don’t mean a new season marked with reduced activity and inspiration, because that wouldn’t exactly be the first time. It is a new season in that I am now aware of what’s going on in me. I know what body of knowledge I should be tapping into. I know when and where to get help if needed. I know what to encourage, and what not to. I know what feelings can be indulged, and what shouldn’t. I have a good relationship with my psychiatrist and therapist, and I am actively involved in making decisions about going on/off medication, making plans to learn to self-regulate where possible, and so on.

Why did it take me so long to consult health experts about my brewing suspicions? I was afraid. I didn’t like the idea that the periods in my life where I actually liked myself and liked being me, I was in fact just “hypomanic”. I yearned for those to be “normal”, not things that might potentially need to be repressed, regulated, corrected, or even medicated. Basically, I was afraid to acknowledge that I might not really be me when I’m at my best. But over the last few months, I’ve come to realize that there’s no such thing as a “real” you. The depressed me is still me, the hypomanic me is still me, and same goes for everything in between.

Perhaps I’m not as “consistent” as I would ideally be, but who is? We’re at times lazy, at times driven. At times selfless, at times self-indulgent. At times insecure, at times self-assured. At times fearless, at times cowardly. And at times we are lost in the fog, at times we find a good vantage point to see past the fog, and at times we even find our footing in the midst of it all.

I am learning to be okay with uncertainty, and with a lack of control. And it helps to realize we can only ever have perceived certainty and control. When we think we know what tomorrow will bring, it’s really just an illusion, isn’t it?

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

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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)

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…