It’s been eight months since I last wrote here. I’m starting to crawl out of another major depressive episode. If I remember correctly, the last time this happened it also took me about eight months before I began to find the will, courage, and ability to open myself up to other people again. 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.
I heard these magic words on February 13, 2013: “Karen, don’t let the fact that others may go through harder things allow you to make light of your pain. It’s never ‘just’ anything when it comes to hardship. You have just as much a right to the compassion and empathy of your brothers and sisters in Christ as anyone else with problems. Really, no matter what one is going through there’s always someone worse off, you can’t let that invalidate your suffering.”
Some context: For a few weeks, I’d been noticing signs of a depression relapse and was trying to come to terms with it all. My new friend, D, sent a Facebook message asking how I’d been lately. Now, our friendship had begun on rather interesting note. At a large Christmas gathering of Christian students at UChicago, D publicly shared, for the first time, about having struggled with severe depression for 7 years (and counting). That night, we talked for a really long time, exchanging stories of depression and faith. So when I received his Facebook message, I felt I could tell him about the recent onset of mild depression. But I also added, “I almost feel ashamed cus I know that what I go through is really small compared to your depression.”
That was when he told me the magic words that would stick with me as mild depression turned into full-blown clinical depression, as I crawled toward recovery 8 months later, and as I began talking to others struggling with various issues (mental or otherwise).
Almost every person who’s opened up to me, at some point expresses shame about asking for help because there are many out there who are worse off. And I’d tell them about what D told me, that I care about them and what they’re going through. Period. We don’t allocate compassion based on relative magnitudes of suffering. God’s infinite love means infinite compassion. There is more than enough to go around.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)
Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?
It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.
This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:
I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.
No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.
And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:
An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.
The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.
Note: Taking a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!
How is it that of 300 or so subscribers to my blog, there are at least a hundred I haven’t met in real life? I definitely wasn’t expecting this when I first started this blog 3 months ago.
Last night, a good friend remarked that this recent post was a breath of fresh air. “It’s nice when you post about less heavy stuff once in a while,” he said. I suppose as blog followers began expanding beyond my little social circle, I subconsciously began cutting out potential posts that would be irrelevant to a readership that probably looks something like this:
There are other spaces for college rants and food cravings and other self-indulgent posts, I thought, like Facebook. But then I realized, for people who don’t know me in real life, I must come across as either (A) a super intense person, or (B) someone who takes herself too seriously. Well, in a sense, B is kind of true — I take myself very seriously — but the same way I (try to) take others very seriously, and C.S. Lewis puts it really well: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendor.” Sorry, that escalated quickly. But seriously, though.
Let me end on a lighthearted note, with another random recording my friend Ben and I made over the weekend.
Colors of the Wind! What could be more lighthearted than Disney? (Maybe try to ignore the possibility that this song could be an environmentalist’s anthem, or an attack on white supremacy…)
But thank you, thank you for your interest in the things I write/post. It’s been a huge encouragement to know that I have thoughts and life experiences that are worth sharing. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading about yours too. 🙂 Even if we don’t know each other, I’m thankful for the common calling(s) we share, wherever you find yourself in that Venn diagram.
What WebMD says, and what I’d add* (in itallics):
“Most people feel sad or low at some point in their lives. But clinical depression is marked by a depressed mood most of the day, particularly in the morning, and a loss of interest in normal activities and relationships. This “depressed mood” is greater in magnitude and complexity than what many people mean today when they say they had a depressing day. You also do not need to have suffered any devastating setback in order to have depression. Symptoms are present every day for at least 2 weeks. It could last a few months, a whole year, and even multiple years. In fact, you could have been depressed for as long as you remember without even knowing it. In addition, according to the DSM-IV — a manual used to diagnose mental health conditions (though you should also talk to people who have been diagnosed to find out how it is really experienced) — you may have other symptoms with major depression. Those symptoms might include:
- Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day. Just because you can give convincing and plausible counterarguments to your loved ones’ reassurances that you are not worthless does NOT mean you are not depressed.
- Impaired concentration, indecisiveness. And diminished mental and intellectual capabilities. You think you are or have become stupid.
- Insomnia or hyperinsomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day. Most of the time, it is not from fatigue but from a desire to escape reality or to avoid being reminded that other people are better than you.
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day (called anhedonia, this symptom can be indicated by reports from significant others). This includes not just hobbies but basic self-maintenance like eating well and dressing in a presentable manner.
- Restlessness or feeling slowed down.
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide. Or fantasizing about other scenarios that would spare you of self-awareness, such as losing your sanity completely or being in a vegetative state.
- Significant weight loss or gain (a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month).”
(*I’m in no way accusing of the wonderful people behind WebMD of misrepresenting depression. I’m trying to show that symptoms of mental illness aren’t going to be as identifiable as symptoms of physical illness, and that they’re much more complex than cookie cutter bullet points may lead us to believe.)
Earlier today, I talked to an old friend, with whom I recently got reconnected, who struggled with depression for 2 years without even knowing she had a diagnosable, treatable condition. I can’t begin to imagine how confusing and terrifying that must have been for her. When I was told that my recurring feelings of stupidity and loss of social skills were the effects of an illness, it was a godsend. Later, I did somehow got to a point where I convinced myself that I wasn’t depressed, and had always been this “pathetic” — but at least some part of me was able to cling on to the hope, no matter how tiny, that I might not be as pathetic and worthless as I believed myself to be.
I can understand why so many sufferers of depression wouldn’t suspect having anything remotely close to a mental illness. The first time I suffered a bout of depression, it was minor depression (this condition is unfortunately named — the suffering of people with minor depression isn’t minor). Having never personally known anyone who’d been depressed, the medical word “depression” wasn’t quite in my vocabulary, and it naturally didn’t cross my mind that this pervasive sense of sadness and hopelessness was a symptom of a treatable mental condition. At some point, a mentor did mention to me that what I was describing sounded a lot like mild depression. Unfortunately, due to my misconception that depression had to be triggered by a devastating life event, I acknowledged his concern but quietly concluded that I couldn’t possibly be depressed. It was only after I’d recovered that I did more research and realized I might actually have had a form of depression.
If you are presently supporting a depressed loved one, I cannot stress enough how important it is to sincerely seek to understand how they are experiencing and perceiving themselves and the world around them. Lackadaisical attempts at understanding, such as simply reading Wikipedia articles, lead to false conclusions that the depressive mood goes away with exercise, spending time with people, or thinking positive. Unhelpful attempts to help only cause depressed individual feeling even more alone.
If you are presently battling depression, know that talking about how you feel is not a sign of weakness, nor a selfish cry for attention. You are merely talking about the symptoms of an illness that, in spite of having been medically recognized for several hundred years, remains shrouded with misconceptions. The people who love you want to understand and will stand by you.
If you have recovered from depression, know that telling your story is immensely encouraging to present sufferers. It is also an empowering means to affirm to yourself that you have overcome this frustratingly debilitating illness, and that it does not and has never defined you.
“I have been with the same man for over 27 years. He has always been supportive of my depressive episodes. I only found out recently, that he was keeping a bunch of stuff inside. He was frustrated with me, and didn’t understand. Even though he reads my blog, I have given him articles to read, and I have described the illness to him until I feel I can’t talk about it anymore. He still doesn’t understand … That doesn’t mean he isn’t loving, supportive, helpful, and patient. He is all of these things and more — he will just never understand that depression doesn’t go away simply by taking a walk, being with other people, healthy eating, exercising, or thinking it away.”
The above reads like words snatched right out of my own mouth (minus the part about being married for 27 years). I don’t know if it’s becoming some sort of an obsession/hobby, but lately I’ve been spending a fair bit of time talking to people who are suffering or have suffered from depression and other mental illnesses (thank you, internet!). You get an instant window into the life of a complete stranger, even if it’s a 55-year-old in a different continent. It’s instant solidarity. When I describe my last tussle with depression as “being trapped in a vortex of mind games, self-loathing, and lies that form your new reality,” they get it. But the common understanding extends beyond the complexity of one’s suffering; you also understand how depression (or other forms of mental illness) complicates your relationships with the people who love you, in a way no other circumstance does.
It’s been almost 3 months since I’ve been freed from my last (and worst) cycle of depression. During this time I’ve begun to cherish life more than ever before, and to be more convinced of God’s love for me, as an individual, more than ever before — two things that have led me to become passionately pro-life (more on this another time). As I recount my incredible journey, I tend to focus mostly on the ways I’ve been unshackled. As I praise God, I tend to focus mostly on the miraculous way he sustained and delivered me. But I have forgotten the unsung heroes: my family and my closest friends.
You tend not to see them as “heroes” because they didn’t technically do anything to rescue you from depression. But though they couldn’t and didn’t calm the storm, they waited it out with you. And this wait was in no way passive. They continued to be your friend when you couldn’t be a friend, to love you when you loved neither yourself nor them. The storm was you.
It takes a huge toll. Time, emotional energy, spiritual vigor. All your conversations are peppered with “You don’t understand.” They try to understand but they can’t, and they beat themselves up for it. They push and talk you into going for counselling and taking your meds when you’ve given up. They lose much of the time they had to themselves, because to leave you to your self-torment would be cruel. Their schedules and lives in general begin to revolve around you. And not the you who were a ball of sunshine, but an unfeeling black hole that vacuums up all their attempts to cheer you up and restore your hope in life.
And no matter how much they love you, they’re still human beings with physical and emotional limits, so at some point you do become a burden to them. Except they can’t ever admit it or show it in your presence. Over time, in their exhausted state, your negative thoughts and outlook on life become harder and harder to combat, and seep into their consciousness.
And who’s to know how long the storm was going to last? Not even a counsellor or a psychiatrist can. Are we talking a month? A year? Years..?
That’s but a glimpse of what my loved ones did and endured for me. I did get better, and am now happy to be back in the game, renewed and with a sharper vision for this lifetime. These people may not have healed me, but if not for their fierce loyalty I might not have hung on long enough to be healed. More than I thank them for their joyful service and companionship, I thank them for continuing to support and serve me when it involved much sacrifice and self denial.
And that makes me praise the God who taught and modelled this very kind of sacrificial love.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
This post is dedicated to Grace, Dora, Felicia, Joe, Eamon, Pastor Joshua, Papa & Mama, and everyone who supported me through prayer.
Predictably, as with my last cycle of depression, the first thing I lost this time was my capacity to experience joy. And then I quickly lost my capacity to feel any positive emotion at all. To a point where I started to count self-pity positive, because at least I still considered myself worth feeling sorry for. At the same time, part of me thought, been there, done that. I knew, from the previous time round, how depression rolls. Just give it a couple of months, and I’ll soon be spending more time out of bed than in bed.
But before that could happen, I managed to convince myself that I was going insane. One night, I found myself staring at the same PDF document of class readings for 6 hours and not comprehending a thing. I could read the words on the page but couldn’t piece them together. I could sometimes figure out the logic within a paragraph, but quickly forget what I’d come up with as I wrestled with the next. I began googling brain disorders, because surely depression doesn’t do this to you! I told my roommate how incredulous I was that I couldn’t understand my reading (it wasn’t even Marx or Kant or anything like that), and how I feared I was gradually losing my sanity. I didn’t bother remembering what she said in response. Kind words don’t change anything.
Before I knew it, my world had descended into an unrecognizable level. My roommate was sitting on her swivel chair next to my bed one night. She had a colored pen and paper in hand and was drawing out a visual chart of my last 2.5 years at UChicago, accounting for the ups and downs, making sure to record the significant events that had once made me happy, and accomplishments I had once been proud of. While I appreciated the effort, I could not believe. I believed that I did write the script for a successful play, but that was sheer luck and even the lamest of Singaporean humor would have been a novelty to an American audience. I believed that I was once so proud of a paper I wrote on Mormonism, I shamelessly emailed it to a bunch of people. But of course I was just delusional. What was I thinking? I couldn’t bring myself to imagine what people must have thought of me when they read it. I had come to believe that I was hopelessly stupid. Not just average or slightly below average. I was flat out stupid and had always been.
On the first day of class of spring quarter, I left The Sociology of Reproductive Rights nearly in tears. I had felt so naked in class. Surely they could see through my eyes and see my fear? Surely they could tell I was only pretending like there was anything interesting to introduce about myself? Surely they agreed that I didn’t belong in this school? Or any school at all, for that matter. I walked aimlessly around campus, my mind swimming in a new idea: I would flourish in a primitive, hunter-gatherer society, where one’s sole aim was to survive. My roommate called me, as part of her new daily routine, to make sure I wasn’t alone. She was alarmed when all I could say was, “I’m just wandering around. I’m not sure where I’m going.” And this was after the previous night’s “I wish I was a human vegetable.”
I couldn’t overhear any conversation without thinking, “I could never talk like that.” And while I used to look at families with little kids and swoon, I now couldn’t help but think, “Someone like me should never be allowed to get married. Or have kids.”
The last 21 years were wastefully and delusionally spent. I resented the people around me for colluding to trick me into thinking I would ever be a functional, let alone valuable member of society. I didn’t even know how to be a friend. The people who are my friends are my friends because they’re too nice to not be anyone’s friend. I, on the other hand, was sick, twisted, cold, uncaring, unfeeling. I’d always been and had simply gotten tired of putting on an act.
I stopped dressing well, why fool others and yourself with a polished exterior, only to hide how filthy you really are? I stopped eating well, why treat your body nicely if you feel you’re better off dead? Looking into the mirror was a painful experience. It would show me how ugly I was, inside and out.
One day, during the summer, while a couple of friends played beach volleyball on the sand, I sat at a nearby bench with my journal. I started off praying to a God who seemed to love everyone but me, but it quickly turned into pure self-berating. I wrote: My heart is a filthy piece of trash. If only I could dig into my ribcage, yank it out, and fling it out of sight.
Then I reveled in a new idea: if I’m wishing this hard that I would cease to exist, there’s no way it wouldn’t come true. It thought it was genius. It would save me.
Did I know I should never take happiness for granted? Sure, anybody who’s ever been unhappy knows that. I didn’t know I couldn’t take hope for granted. I always thought of hope was a choice: you can choose to have hope, or you can choose to wallow in hopelessness. Until I came to a point where I could not accept any source of hope, be it from family, friends, myself, or the Bible, because I was so convinced there was no way out of the pit I had unwittingly dug for myself. And then there are those things you thought you could never lose. Your intellect, your capacity to reason, your sense of humor, your wit, your interests. When such things are lost and later restored, you learn that nothing apart from your decisions is yours. You’re not entitled to anything. You didn’t earn anything. You don’t say you found your sanity. You say your sanity was given to you.
How I got out of that dark pit of endless mind games is a whole other story. And a mysteriously wonderful one. But for now, I want to end with a few precious thoughts: I was thoughtfully and lovingly created by a Heavenly Father. When I find hope I cannot refuse, it is a gift from him. When I have compassion on others, it is from him. When curiosity propels me to seek truth, it is him. All that I am and all that I will be are from him, and so I’ll strive to spend the rest of my life stewarding these things for his kingdom, his people, Him.
I echo the words of King Nebuchadnezzar uttered some 2,500 years ago: “At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:36-37) Praise and glory to the Lord who gives and takes away according to his perfect will.