An appointment with the Divine Physician

I know that many of you read this blog for the positive voice I bring into difficult topics like depression and bipolar disorder. Some of these posts might make it seem like I’ve figured it all out. But in recent months, I learned that I have not.

I’m hurting a lot. I’m still traumatized by the aftermath of an unrecognized, mismanaged, unmedicated hypomanic episode. I’ve learned a lot through all of this, but every day I wish I didn’t have to learn the hard way. I understand now that a lot of the mess I created could have been avoided if I’d had a better understanding of bipolar II, if I hadn’t underestimated it, if I’d recognized the symptoms early and nipped it in the bud, and if I’d been more consistent and proactive about taking care of myself. What is most painful is the realization that I could have avoided hurting myself and someone I love most dearly. But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t. And as I’ve grappled with these thoughts and emotions, it’s pushed me into another depressive episode.

But in this time of darkness, I am discovering my true love. It is exactly what St Augustine wrote: “In my deepest wound I saw Your glory, and it dazzled me.”

I see my therapist and my psychiatrist, but there’s no surer, truer healing than to be in the presence of Jesus. Day after day I approach him just as I am, a wounded child. I cry, but not the same tears I cry to a friend, to my family, or even the tears I now cry to myself as I write this. When I cry to my friends, underlying all of it is a thirst for affirmation that I’m worthy of love, of forgiveness, of second chances, and that I’m not too broken to be fixed. And when I cry to myself in my room, I know deep down that those are but tears of self-pity. These tears often deepen the wound.

But when I cry before the Blessed Sacrament, I feel free. There’s no need to struggle to articulate my pain, there’s no need to pretend to be strong, to manage other’s or my own impression of myself. I’m exposing my wounds to the one who sees it all, knows it all, feels it all. The fears, anxieties, frustrations, and regrets I’ve been carrying around all day, they fall off my shoulders and lie unhidden, unravelled, and undressed before the Divine Physician. I need not even articulate my pain, my needs, or my requests. I know He’s already working on those wounds and scabs, administering medicine far more effective than anything anyone could conjure or procure.

And each time, I walk away with the graces I need to take this one day at a time, and with ever-increasing trust in Him. Jesus, I trust in you.

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.

–J.R.R. Tolkien

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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

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! 🙂

Supporting Chiara and finding our Calcutta

A few days ago, on the last day of 2014, I wrote a letter to Chiara Natasha, the 15-year-old Indonesian girl who lost her immediate family to the recent AirAsia tragedy. I’m not usually the type to try to contact people who don’t know I exist, and when I do, I certainly don’t do it so publicly. But reading about Chiara’s plight struck me in a particularly profound way, as I feel a sense of affinity with her due to our similar backgrounds.

My sister and I were once, like her, schooled in Singapore while my parents were based in Indonesia. Jakarta, where they were, was but a 1.5-hour flight away, and for years we’d rely on planes to periodically shuttle either my parents to Singapore, or us to Jakarta. And when I later moved to Chicago for college, I would fly home for part of my summer breaks, and my whole family flew to Chicago for my graduation. Thoughts of aviation disasters frequently crossed my mind, but I’d chalk it up to too much Hollywood. It shattered me to learn that my worst nightmare had happened to a girl significantly younger than me. She immediately felt to me like a sister, even though we’d never met.

The letter quickly became one of my most widely-shared posts, and thanks to social media, the letter not only reached Chiara, but she also replied, in spite of my initially worries that I might come across like an intrusive busybody (I wonder how often such concerns hinder us from reaching out to someone in need?). Praise the Lord!

What happened next was also a surprise. I began receiving emails and Facebook messages from other people who read the letter and, moved by Chiara’s situation, wanted to help in some way. Many, like me, have no specific ideas on how to help, but just want to be available as sisterly figures if needed. Others came forward with more concrete offers of assistance. For example, C mentions that a few friends working for the Ministry of Education would like to help Chiara explore the option of pursuing a government scholarship; R, who works for a multinational corporation, asked if he’d be able to ease the financial burden of continuing studies in Singapore, and is also actively looking for a volunteer professional psychologist should that be helpful; V is offering to sponsor a Bali vacation for Chiara and however many friends she might want to take if she took the offer. Just to name a few. (For anyone concerned about privacy and safety, be rest assured that I’m taking appropriate measures and am not trying to figure this out all by myself.)

I’m so honored to be able to witness such a beautiful outpouring of solidarity, and I had to share this with you. Isn’t this a much more productive, not to mention compassionate reaction to a tragedy? Grief should never be reduced into a mere public spectacle. I partially blame the media for encouraging such a response, and the following frontpage headline is but one example:

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An invitation to a pity party at best, an exploitation of others’ tragedy at worst. I cropped out the blown-up photo of the grieving girl.

Forgive me for my harshness on the media, but I feel very strongly about this. Back to the point. It seems to me that the people of these times aren’t as “heartless” and desensitized as we often make it out to be. I’d like to think many of us are just forgetful. We have this innate, deep-seated desire to support and embrace those who are in need, but that desire often gets buried by the distractions of other pursuits and stimulations. Blessed Mother Teresa, beloved Roman Catholic religious sister whose charitable works in Calcutta inspired the world, once said:

Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.

Amen. Amen. I pray this will not stop with Chiara and others affected by this disaster. Let me also share something my dear friend Eamon wrote in response to the recent spate of Thanksgiving weekend shootings in Chicago.

In light of recent events (Ferguson protests, new FBI warnings over ISIS, and five murders in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend), it can be very easy to become despondent or to lose hope in our society. However, we must remember that these are only the devil’s skirmishes, and that he of all beings knows Christ has already won the final victory. This doesn’t mean we should simply ignore these tragedies, but rather we should remember that good triumphs over evil by means of great love in small matters. Do you pass a homeless person on your way to work every day? Take him to lunch. Are you frustrated with your coworker? Smile and accept his criticisms of your work with humility. Do your best at your job, and offer it to our Lord who spent 30 years of His life building tables and chairs, and of whom people said, “He does all things well!” (Mark 7:37). In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien (speaking to us through Gandalf), “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”

Peace be with you, brothers and sisters. Let’s find our Calcutta every day.

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…

Dear Chiara Natasha

Update: Chiara has gotten in touch with me, thank you for your help in spreading the word!

Dear Chiara,

My name is Karen, and I’m a 23-year-old Indonesian girl. I read about you in stories covering the recent AirAsia tragedy. My heart grew heavy as I learned that you have so suddenly lost the people I imagine had been closest to you. I was filled with an overwhelming urge to get in touch with you, but I didn’t know how, so I started emailing the editors of Singaporean newspapers. But I realized I didn’t want to waste any time. To people who aren’t in deep pain, another day is just another few hours that invariably tick by. But for those in agony, time stalls and you find yourself in an abyss where past, present, and future meld together. And so I’m writing to you here, and I hope you see this. I don’t have magic words or any big promises. To be honest, I don’t know how I can help you, except to tell you that you are not alone. Maybe you have many strangers trying to reach you with a word of comfort right now, or maybe they, like me, don’t know how. Maybe you will read this and you wouldn’t be able to take me too seriously because I don’t know your pain, but I just need to do something and I pray I can help in some way.

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I am and will continue to pray for your father, your mother, as well as your brothers, Nico and Justin. I believe in a God whose love and mercy is unparalleled, and I pray that He, with the intercessions of the saints and angels, will lead your family members’ souls to heaven. And I know I’m not the only one praying for them.

I don’t know much about you other than the few details I could find in those articles. If I gather correctly, you are an Indonesian studying in Singapore. If so, we have at least one thing in common. I was also born and raised in Indonesia. In 1998, my parents sent me and my older sister to Singapore to get a better education. We lived apart from the rest of our family for quite a while, before they were able to join us more regularly when our youngest sister got older. Between then and now, we’ve relied on airplanes to take either our parents to Singapore, or us to Indonesia. Once or twice I’ve imagined the possibility of a disaster, but never too seriously. Words cannot express how sorry I am that this has happened to you. As I thought about you, I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling more alone than you must have felt when you received the news. But at the same time, I also thought, wow, that this girl is somewhere out there right now, wow, she is strong.

Dear Chiara, I don’t know your pain, and I don’t know your fears. All I can offer is any empathy or insight that could come from having been clinically depressed a few times in my life. Each time, reality and facts would become so distorted in my mind that I believed with every fiber of my being that I was alone, and that I had nothing left. I pulled through with the unsolicited help of some very unexpected people in my life. For example, a friend of my ex-boyfriend’s parents reached out to me and became a listening ear and a constant source of support. Who would have thought? Well, God intervenes in our lives in very unexpected ways. Dear Chiara, I hope during this time you will be open to even the most unexpected sources of support. Dear Chiara, this must sound most contrived, but how I wish I could give you a hug.

I am and will continue to pray for you, my sister. Many things may not make sense right now, but have hope in a God who knows and sees more than we do. Where we see no open doors, He sees one that we don’t even know exists. You are very strong, and you are very loved.

Chiara, please feel free to contact me anytime at all. You can email me at: karen.zainal@gmail.com. If you’re not Chiara, feel free to share this with her, or anyone who might potentially know her.

With love,

Karen

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