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”

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“But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

I previously shared the following note on Facebook, but it is something that I also want to share with everyone who reads this blog. It’s been hinted throughout several recent posts, but never explicitly mentioned: I am on my journey towards formally entering the Catholic Church.

“About a year and a half ago, I began investigating the Catholic faith, because I had the honor of getting to know a few Catholics who made me wonder if there was more to it than what I’d heard all my life. Due to personal circumstances, this investigation fluctuated a lot in consistency in depth. But a constant theme I kept encountering was that many of my opinions on the Catholic Church were rooted in misconceptions, if not blatant falsehoods.

In more recent months, it has become increasingly clear to me that I am headed in the right direction, and that this is where God is calling me. I have recently shared this with a few people, and a few others have asked, so I thought it would be good to share: I have decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church this coming Easter.

This might come as a surprise to friends who’ve only known me from my “anti-Catholic days” (you guys know what I’m talking about…). I would be more than happy to chat and share more about the journey thus far! I don’t have answers to all the questions you might have, but I’ve learned a great deal over the past year and I’m excited to share what I do know.

I am confident that I’ve found the Church established by Christ himself — and in it I’m finding true worship, true charity, true solidarity, true humility. And wisdom that comes from above, and the hope that will not put me to shame.

I look forward to being fully initiated into the Catholic Church and the Christian life, and I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey, be it through honest conversations, challenging questions, practical guidance, and above all, prayer.

And of course, praise and glory to God, who masterfully uses the greatest joys and greatest adversities in life to lead me to Truth.

This has been the prayer of my heart, and it glows brighter and brighter as I delve further and further into the faith: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

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Two pieces of art I’ve been working on. Both depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (the left in Japanese-style, and the right in Indian-style).

Special thanks to:
Cristy Acosta, Rick Moreno, Eamon Ford, Kelly Ann Zainal, Justine Zainal, Papa & Mama, Karmyn Sindlinger, Michael Ford, Cristina Ford, Isabel Ford, Jonathan Heynen, Kelly Pudelek, Dominic Chiu, Lucas Manuel Williams-Serdan, Larry Bilello, Stephanie Burda, Tom Quiner, Connor Boyle, Chloe Pawa, Fr Peter, and Fr Thomas.

You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person

When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary not because they are afraid it might be contagious (hey, many don’t even recognize it as an illness!), but because they are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

A friend once apologized to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been reaching out to you or being there for you. I’m not like J — I wish I were, but I’m not. But know that I’ve been praying for you, okay?”

At the time, I smiled and told him not to worry about it. I read between the lines and I read his facial expressions — I knew what he was saying was that he wasn’t good at empathizing and didn’t want to do or say things that might end up aggravating matters. We exchanged hugs and parted ways for the remainder of the academic year. But that night I wept in my room. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I cried over the silliest things after all.

I know why now. I felt abandoned by a friend. Sure, he wasn’t my best friend, and I did have other close friends who were walking the journey with me, but when an individual walks out on your life, his/her absence can’t be compensated by quantity. The next time I saw him, it would be the beginning of a new academic year, and I’d have already recovered over the summer. We hung out again and were friends once more. This was no isolated case. It happened again, and again, with different people.

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But my friends are not bad people. They are wonderful people. They did not stop being my friend during depressive episodes because they were tired of me. In fact, I don’t think they even intended to stop being my friend. And I’m sure they believe they were doing what was best for me. From their point of view, they were temporarily stepping out of my life so someone more “qualified” could step in to take better care of me. Someone who would have the right things to say, someone who perhaps have gone through the same thing I was going through, someone who could give good advice. Basically, someone who could empathize.

And yes, I wished I had people in my life who fit the above descriptions, and I was indeed blessed with at least one such individual, but it didn’t erase the deep pain of being “left behind”. And one thing I’ve come to realize over a few cycles of depression is this: depressed people don’t need you to empathize; they just need you. A depressed person would rather have you say all the worst possible things, rather than not have you at all.

It is very difficult to understand what a depressed person is going through. That is an inescapable fact. But even a fellow depression fighter/survivor would not be able to understand completely, since disorders of the mind affect each individual as uniquely as his mind is unique.

But a general common theme is that the depressed individual experiences and perceives a reality different from that of the non-depressed individual. I remember despairing not because I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but because I came to believe there was nothing from which to recover. I didn’t believe I had a negative cognitive bias, but believed that it’s others who had a positive cognitive bias, while I saw my existence for what it truly was.

Loved ones of those who are depressed, you have a very tricky and very important task of holding their hand and walking together, even though you are walking in different realities, until you are once more reunited at the end of the tunnel. This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?

Someone very dear to me had no experience whatsoever with depression. He bought himself a book on the topic (The Catholic Guide to Depression, which I’ve recommended multiple times in previous posts) in an attempt to understand what I was going through. It’s safe to say that even after a year, he never came close to understanding, but what mattered was that he never stopped walking with me. He never got tired of me even when I got tired of myself. And he never stopped believing that God would deliver me even when I’d lost all hope. You have my eternal gratitude.

How do you maintain your grip on reality?

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. It was barely three months after what had been my debilitating bout of depression to date, and I was a little nervous. To realize that for eight out of twelve months I could have been so wrong about so many things, so blind to so many truths, so caught up in the half-lies of my distorted reality — it was a world-shattering realization. (In my previous post, I write in greater detail about the distorted thought patterns of a depressed person.)

I say world-shattering because most of us grew up being told to believe in ourselves, that if we believed something about ourselves then that’s true. Or at least, that what we see in ourselves is supposed to be more valid than what others see in us. Never let anyone else have the final say. They are but naysayers. Trust your heart. 

I was finding that that wasn’t so great of a mantra to live by. In my depression, I believed that what I had was not a treatable illness, regardless of what anyone told me. I also believed God had either abandoned me, or He simply hated me, regardless of what anyone told me. Because it sure seemed that way to me.

I remember being 15 or 16 and watching supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks instruct the teenage girl on her show to “go home, take a post-it, write I am beautiful, stick it on your mirror and recite it to yourself every day until you believe it.” The live audience promptly rose to their feet for a watery-eyed standing ovation. I remember grimacing at my laptop screen, not because I disagreed that this girl looked perfectly pleasant, but because all these women were essentially telling her to completely disregard her own conviction. And they expected it to work? I won’t pretend to know how one overcomes Body Dysmorphia Disorder, but I doubt that was it. I don’t think they let the poor girl say anything, but I knew that if I were her, I would have thought supermodel Tyra Banks was just patronizing me by telling me I was beautiful when I really wasn’t. It’s not going to work. Not unless our culture stopped worshipping self-belief and self-determination above all else. Because sometimes, many times and for many reasons, we are going to be misguided and we are going to be wrong.

Who, then, can we trust to tell us truths that can be so counter-intuitive?

Back to the letter I wrote to myself. I hoped for this letter to protect me against depression’s most powerful trick: the distortion of perceived reality. This is part of what I wrote to a future self who might be caught in another raging mental storm: If that’s what’s happening now, hold on to this golden nugget of truth: Many things in life have failed you, but God will not fail you. If you’re going to succumb to the lies of depression, fine, but this is one thing you can vouch with all your mind, heart and soul is true. Otherwise, strive to know more of Him and His plan for your life, his role for you in His kingdom. Go into storms confident that you are standing on solid rock. . . . You are a daughter of God and He loves you more than You could ever know.

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This was written solely to myself, and no one else has seen it till this moment. I thought this would be foolproof. It’s in my handwriting, and it’s sincere — how could future me distrust it?

But I did. About six months later, I opened this letter again and I wanted so badly to rip it to shreds. I read my own words and chastised myself for being so delusional at the time of writing. For the second time, I became obsessed with the theory of depressive realism: depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. While everyone around me insisted that my depression gave me a negative cognitive bias, I believed in myself so much that I thought it was them who had a cognitive bias — a positive cognitive bias. And I, being supposedly depressed, had the more accurate appraisal of myself and the world.

What arrogance, Karen.

I remember my then-boyfriend trying to tell me I was being arrogant. It made no sense to me at the time. How could I possibly be arrogant when my self-esteem is at rock bottom?

It turned out that while depressed, I lost many things — self-esteem, self-love, empathy, love for others — all but my idolatry of my own intellect. I suppose it didn’t help that I’d been immersed in an academic environment that worshipped the intellect as the harbinger of Truth.

Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.

I see now that as a Christian, I must, using my free will, submit my intellect to God. While this must sound like blasphemy to any post-Enlightenment atheist, I declare this unashamed because there is no better option.

To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism. It comes down to the question of which is the more reliable tool. Well, my religion is not quite a tool, but a relationship with the true and living God. He gave me my capacity to think and capacity to rationalize. When my brain is “broken” and doesn’t perceive things quite accurately, I can turn to its manufacturer to tell me what I ought to be perceiving. Thank God for the Church that has been entrusted to guard and dispense God’s truths, so we will never be left as orphans (John 14:18) flailing around trying to make sense of everything given our limitations.

I repent of my life-long arrogance and self-idolatry. I will end this post with one of the most-cited verse of the Bible: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). I used to think this applied mostly to those who “aren’t smart enough to come to their own understanding of things”. I take that back, and I would even add that this is particularly relevant to those we consider to be highly intelligent.

What I needed was not a letter from me. What I needed was God’s Word and the teachings of His Church, and the humility to trust Him over myself.

I know not all my readers share my convictions, so I’ll open this up to you: how do you maintain your grip on reality? Or more broadly speaking, how do you know what’s true?

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

Recommended reading: In Miracles, C.S. Lewis demonstrates how the fact that we can even reason and rationalize is a great argument for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Or go to Wikipedia for a summary of the argument from reason.

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

People suffering from clinical depression are often likened to an innocent in hell by medical professionals and their loved ones. It always stems from a well-meaning attempt to lift the depressed individual from the quicksand of self-loathing and self-beratement. You are not any of those things you say you are. You are not evil, you are not selfish. I know you. You are an amazing person and you are suffering due to no fault of your own. Basically, an innocent in hell.

I disagree. Yes, it was never my fault that I was depressed, but I am in many ways flawed, just as you are. I am not innocent, just as you’re not.

The only difference is that those who are depressed feel the weight of their flaws, and the flaws of others (though mostly their own), far more intensely than those who are not depressed.

While deep in depression, I mulled and mulled over how I hadn’t fulfilled my duties as a daughter, how I’d been too absent as an older sister, how I was too uncaring as a friend, how I was a terrible girlfriend, how I’d been irresponsible with the resources entrusted to me, how I’d wasted so many opportunities in my life, how I was terribly hypocritical as a Christian. All those things are true to a certain extent. It’s just that while depressed, I was so crushed under guilt and regret and I wasn’t able to be realistic or to move forward.

And as we all know, depression distorts our perception. The key word here is distort. Depression doesn’t just make stuff up out of thin air to torment you. Depression reaches into the recesses of your memories, pulling up real memories of real thoughts you’ve had, real things you’ve said, and real things you’ve done (or have not done, as the case may be). You become hyperaware of these things — your flaws, deficiencies, failures — and that’s all you can think of. You’re so aware, too aware, that these images eclipse any positives you might still remember. And yes, it later magnifies them, such that you come to think that the damage is so big that you can’t ever do anything to rectify things.

And then the self-fulfilling prophecy is set in motion. Believing I was an irrevocably depraved person, I started thinking and behaving like an irreparably depraved person. I would sometimes try to drag my then-boyfriend down into “hell” with me so I wouldn’t be so alone in my inescapable misery. I shudder at this confession, thinking about how I acted like the thief who “comes only to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).

Too often, though, we are told that “depression lies to you”. I cannot count the number of times I heard this while deep in the throes of depression. I have a big problem with this phrase. It creates in the mind of the depressed person an impossible dichotomy: either I am the horrible person I make myself out to be in my head, or I am completely innocent of all the things I am accusing myself of. It seemed like wishful thinking to believe the latter, and so I’d stubbornly cling to my own (distorted) assessment of myself. The fact of the matter is that I am neither of those things, and there exists that middle ground we are so afraid to tread: I may not be a good person, but I can change that. And I have to start somewhere. Will you help me?

Thanks to medication, counseling, prayer, spiritual direction, and the support of those who love me, I am now a lot better. But I choose to remember the things that were brought to the surface while I was deeply depressed. They are real and I am making use of the energy and optimism I now have to seek healing. In myself, I am hoping, by the grace of God, to overcome my flaws. And in my relationships with other people, I am seeking to love and serve better, with Christ as my guide. He, after all, is the great physician.

There is great temptation for those coming out of depression to frolic in “the land of the living”, leaving all the pain behind. I fell into this temptation as I recovered from my previous cycle of depression. I was too eager to see myself as a good person, and I swept all my failings back under the rug, where they’d been for so many years of my life. But I now believe that God allows us to go through suffering not just so we can appreciate its absence. Suffering can grow, refine, and even heal us. We just need to sift through the rubble to find those hidden treasures. St Faustina wrote: Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Saviour; in suffering love becomes crystallised; the greater the suffering, the purer the love.

I would encourage anyone, clinically depressed or not, to occasionally sit amidst the rubble and ask God what you ought to do with the mess around you. Mend those broken relationships. Forgive those you haven’t forgiven (including yourself). Ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged (intentionally or unintentionally). Overcome those self-indulgent habits. Pursue a vocation that, rather than helping you not to run away from the messiness of the world, allows you play a role in healing it. And be there for those who were there for you, as well as those who weren’t, because you now understand the darkness of suffering alone, and you understand the power of solidarity and grace.

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How do you identify your “passion”?

It’s no secret that I was, for a long time, feeling very lost in life. Unlike many people I know, I didn’t have an obvious passion or hobby, or something that’s enthralled me since childhood. This became a particularly huge source of distress during depressive episodes. If no one checked on me, I’d be confined to my bed for more than half the day, tormented by thoughts about being “useless”, “pathetic”, and “less than human” for not being driven.

Many people and many articles (like these) lead us to believe that our passion ought to be something in which we can lose ourselves, or something that allows us to forget everything else. And the appeal of distraction is particularly pertinent for those of us who are suffering. What helps me forget about my crippling insecurities? What helps me forget about all the craziness and pain in the world?

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But I don’t want that. And I don’t think anyone should. I am seeking something that, contrary to helping me forget the world, would help me understand my place in this world. Not something that blinds me to the suffering in this world, but something that allows me to understand suffering and play a part in healing it.

It becomes apparent that this becomes so much more than a search for a hobby. We are on a quest for Truth.

I don’t want to be protected from the anxiety of mortal existence, I want to understand and overcome it. I absolutely hate being told not to question things too much, not to think too much. Most people who say that are entirely well-meaning. They are worried that these thoughts would lead me down an abyss of hopelessness. But they’re assuming that these questions would lead me to a dark and terrifying place — perhaps the realization that everything is ultimately futile and meaningless.

But I believe that Truth is found where God is — and because the God I know is good, in Him I will find truths that are good and beautiful. Slowly, but surely, I’ve been grasping more and more of this in my journey of faith.

In some ways, I’m thankful for my depression. While it’s no fun being tormented by negative thoughts and emotions 24/7, being depressed forces me to beg for answers to questions that really matter. Why am I suffering? Why is there suffering? Is life even worth living? Why am I alive? What does this all mean? As J. David Franks puts it poetically (in the foreword to The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty and Fr. John Cihak): “…some are dragged entirely into the vortex of the world’s pain. To be depressed is to be a wound open to the stinging air of reality…The depressed stand on the marches of the world, where the waters of chaos threaten to overwhelm the bright little circle of life we enjoy.”

Unable to run away from pain, I had to (and am continuing to) seek to understand its meaning and purpose. And you don’t have to be depressed to seek as well.

Related post: Who do you live for?

Life isn’t what you make it

As much as we’re told that “life is what you make it”, that phrase could not be farther from the truth. The present life we’re living, wherever we’re reading this right now, is collectively made possible by our parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, bosses, doctors, firefighters, law enforcers, lawmakers, ancestors, founding fathers…..and lastly, ourselves.

Nothing apart from the decisions we make is inherently, wholly ours.

First and foremost, we’re alive today because we were each given a shot at life. We had the support of individuals (biologically related or not), groups, communities, and/or institutions that believed that we — though weak, voiceless, defenseless, even useless — were of value and had rights as members of a just and humane society.

We were cared for, taught the ways of survival, of weathering storms, of overcoming obstacles, defying odds, of discovering and pursuing our passions, until we’re ready to take those training wheels off. We then embraced the independence to carve out our own lives, and the freedom to do as we please. But never at the expense of others, because we remember to love and respect the way we were loved and respected for simply being human. We give others a chance to find their way the way we were given chance after chance.

Let’s consider our own profound indebtedness before we  make judgments about whether someone would be worthy recipient of society’s resources, or make assumptions about whether someone would be able to live a fulfilling life. If one is given the resources that will enable them to overcome and flourish, they will.

The greatest of these resources are love and respect, and the most basic of these is a chance at life. And when they no longer need their training wheels, they will pass them on to those who do. May this be the kind of society, the kind of human race we are proud to be members of.

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Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.”   –Malcolm Muggeridge