Taking ownership of our pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watercolor and ink

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

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

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Watercolor and acrylic

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

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

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

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Hope is not an emotion

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

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

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Ink

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

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

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

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

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‘Niedergedrückt’ by Melancho Blumenbunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Pope John Paul II

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

“It all started with tea.”

A while back, I wrote about one of my students, Omari, who is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A big thank-you to readers who have joined me in praying for him and his family, as well as assisting them financially by contributing to Omari’s recovery fund.

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When I visited Omari today, we were finally able to talk about how he’s feeling about the incident itself, as well as where he plans to go from here. One of my worries had been that he’d be traumatized and never want to return nor associate himself with the Chicago South Side ever again, though that would be understandable, considering his close brush with death (this 17-year-old boy was shot in the face). I made it a point to pray specifically that God would somehow use this whole fiasco to grow this young man in very profound ways.

Well, today, Omari told me that he aspires to be an undercover detective in Chicago, specializing in gang injunction and indictment. I almost cried right in front of him.

When I pressed him further for a back-up plan, he said he’d want to start an organization that helps at-risk youths graduate from high school. God knows how I managed to keep it together at that point. I couldn’t be more proud.

Omari is one of only two students with whom I have shared about my history with clinical depression, and how that has completely changed me and redirected my life trajectory. This 17-year-old African-American boy and this strange Chinese lady now have something in common: God is redeeming and transforming us through the darkest moments of our lives.

Today, I also made sure to tell him about how I knew he was different from many of my other students, in that he recognized me as a fellow human being (as opposed to a slave-driver or a grading machine) right from the beginning. And that’s a huge part of why we’re able to have a meaningful relationship as teacher and student.

At that, he reminded me, “It all started with tea.” I teared up at this point, recalling how he was that one student who thought to ask about the weird Chinese tea I drink every morning, and to actually ask to sample a cup. There’s now a giant bag of said tea sitting next to his hospital bed.

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Related posts: Let’s support the Mott familyMy students are helping me recover from depression

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