“Begin again with joy”

A huge part of growing up is accepting that things won’t always go your way. An obvious statement, perhaps. It’s easy to realize, but difficult to accept.

I have made many mistakes in my life, but there always seemed to be something I could do to avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage. Rationalize it. Tell a white lie. Tell a half-truth. Apologize profusely. Make amends. There’s always…something. Likewise with things that are beyond my control — there have been times when I’d seen trouble brewing and threatening to spill out of the cauldron — deep in my subconscious I always believed I could hatch a strategy to prevent the seemingly inevitable outcome. I don’t always succeed, but I guess I had a good enough track record to fuel such delusion.

But at some point, I had to learn that I’m not the playwright, and that I’m not God. My will cannot and will not always prevail. I have the freedom to do what I choose, but I can’t expect freedom from the consequences of my actions.

Somewhere along the way, I’d somehow come to believe that all damage can be repaired. Love, compassion, grace, mercy — those are all good things — so they must always prevail, right? They must be able to erase any wrongdoing, right? I don’t mean to say I have lost faith in those things; I still believe with every fibre of my being that they are the most powerful forces of healing. But I did learn that you cannot feel entitled to those things.

Say you hurt someone you love. You can ask for forgiveness, but you cannot demand it. You can extend a hand of reconciliation, but you cannot force it on them. Say you lose the esteem and respect of some people. You cannot argue your way back into their good books. To attempt to do these things only shows how out of touch you are with human nature. And it shows a lack respect for others’ free will.

What you can do is humbly acknowledge that you did wrong, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. And after all is said and done, accept the outcome. Whether or not it’s what you’d hoped.

And then? Move forward. Begin again. (Kicking and screaming is not recommended — it only makes things worse.)

These words by Pope Benedict XVI have taught me much:

Holiness does not consist in not making mistakes and never sinning. Holiness grows with capacity for conversion, repentance, willingness to begin again, and above all with the capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Conversion, repentance, and willingness to begin again. I never had too much difficulty with the first two — but beginning again? That one’s proved to be the hardest part.

We don’t like having to start over. We prefer to pick up where we left off. It’s a lot less painful, it requires less work, it’s far more convenient. We stubbornly insist on fixing the old so as to avoid having to build something new from scratch.

But the greatest hindrance to beginning again, I’ve found, is the inability to forgive oneself. When we don’t get our desired resolution, we twist that into the belief that we are irredeemable. But the truth is that even if the situation was irredeemable, we are not irredeemable. Nobody is condemning us — nobody but ourselves.

Following a series of painful events, I sank into deep depression and got myself stuck. I buried myself under the rubble of my mistakes and failings, I wrapped myself in a cocoon of guilt and shame. I didn’t believe I had any right to be free, not unless I obtained the idealistic outcome my heart so deeply desired. So I just waited, and waited, and waited, and put my life on hold. I believed that my mistakes had permanently disqualified me from doing anything good. I understood that God had forgiven me, and that I had been washed clean by His blood and mercy, and yet I chose to base my worth on the (real or imagined) opinions of others.

The beautiful part is that when you fail to recognize the power of God’s mercy, when you fail to hear His invitation to enter into His joy, He sometimes sends people to help you. These are the people in your life who see more than your failings and mistakes. They see your potential for growth and support you as you strive towards holiness.

These are the people who will help you dig your way out of that miry grave of guilt and self-condemnation you have heaped upon yourself, and who will remind you that there is no need for that.

No, it doesn’t mean they will blindly and indiscriminately defend you. They are not there to imbue you with a false sense of self-righteousness. But they will affirm your capacity for growth; they will affirm the truth that your mistakes do not invalidate your dignity.

I’m learning that you cannot hold your breath waiting to win back everybody’s approval. It’s not fair to the people who love you and need you. And you shouldn’t deprive the world of your gifts on account of those who do not see them. But most of all, you should not deny and cheapen God’s love for you.

Beginning again is scary. But it’s the only way to experience God’s healing mercy. As the wise Blessed Mother Teresa said, “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

Begin again with joy. It can seem like an impossible exhortation at times. How do we muster up that joy while plagued with guilt, fear, and uncertainty? Or when you feel like such a horrible person that you’re better off dead? It can be hard to feel joyful about having to begin again, but do it anyway. The joy will come later. It will come when God shows you that you were right to place your trust in Him while your heart was screaming THERE IS NO HOPE, when He shows you that you were right to step out into the deep while your mind screamed THERE IS NO JESUS TO CATCH YOU.

The joy will come when you learn that yes, in Jesus’ hands we are never damaged beyond repair. That we can toss our ugliest mistakes into that blazing furnace of His Sacred Heart, to be purified and transformed for the good of our souls.

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This was inspired by the words of Blessed Mother Teresa: “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart and begin again with joy.”

Baby steps in managing depression

A friend recently asked me how I figure out whether I’m depressed (in the clinical sense of the word), or just really, really sad. Based on experience, I would boil it down to asking myself this question: am I mourning a loss or a tragedy, or am I mourning my entire existence? Another helpful clarifying question, one which the people I love can help answer, is: am I still able to find meaning in the things I’ve always cherished, or have I lost vitality in these pursuits and concerns? Of course, these aren’t fool-proof diagnostic tools, but they’ve served as a good starting point for me.

Most recently, I learned to also ask myself this: Am I suffering due to things beyond my control? Or am I inflicting suffering on myself?

Because my current depressive episode was specifically triggered by mistakes I’ve made, I subconsciously began punishing myself. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there’s a difference between humbly accepting the consequences of my mistakes, and actively torturing myself.

This dawned on me when I recently found myself feeling faint from just trying to grade my students’ work. A few days prior, I almost passed out in the classroom. I noticed my ribs beginning to jut out more than usual, and my skirts no longer clinging to my waist. I realized that for more than a month, I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less. Most days it would be a bowl of instant oatmeal, other days a couple of granola bars from my roommate’s stash, some days nothing. I hazily mulled over these observations after returning home from work, and eventually burst into tears while struggling to chew on a cold, half-eaten burrito that had been sitting in the fridge for a week. And then I made a very important resolution. It’s time to “grow up” in the way I handle depressive episodes.

If this is going to be a recurring theme in my life, I can’t and don’t want to always count on being babied. A close friend recently told me, “Take care of yourself as you would care for your own child.” I thought about that. There will come a time, perhaps especially when I have my own family (if I do), when I’ll want to be able to take care of other people while depressed. Before I can do that, I first need to know how to take care of myself, regardless of how I feel about myself.

Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while it’s a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I need to do to stay healthy and better poise my mind and body for a speedier recovery: eating well, exercising, spending time with people, putting my best effort into my work, and so on.

Yesterday, I finally made a trip to the grocery store. Did I feel self-conscious and anxious asking for help? Yes. Did I think that every stranger I saw was secretly thinking bad thoughts about me? Yes. Did I think I was useless and stupid for not being able to find cilantro? Yes. Did I regret leaving home at all? Yes. But most importantly, I did what I needed to do anyway. I then cooked myself enough food to last me at least the next three days. It’s not the most balanced or nutritious of meals, but it’s a start. Baby steps!

Experience does help. This being my fourth depressive episode, I’m now quite familiar with depression’s arsenal of tricks. When someone at work stares at me and my mind instantly jumps to ridiculous conclusions, I’m able to tell myself to ignore the thought. When I’m having dinner with friends and I find my mind preoccupied with thoughts like…I’m too stupid to engage thoughtfully in this conversation. My friends invited me only because they feel bad for me. I have no friends. I don’t deserve friends…I’m able to tell myself that those aren’t true, no matter how true they feel. In being able to identify false or distorted thought patterns, I’m able to direct my behavior accordingly. Conduct that lesson no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Meet that friend no matter how scary it seems. Finish your lunch no matter how undeserving you feel. The more I push myself, the more I feel myself getting better.

I attribute these milestones to a combination of factors: the mitigative effects of mood stabilizers (which I was already taking prior to the onset of this episode), consultation with my doctor, wisdom from experience, and honest communication with the people who care about me.

As a Catholic, I must also add that most importantly, access to the Sacraments has granted me access to extra graces I previously didn’t have. And there’s no better reminder that I’m loved than to receive Christ, who gives me His body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

I still remember talking to Fr Peter, way before I entered the Church, while in the thick of depression and a major faith crisis. He advised me to “get this under control” by seeking a diagnosis and proper medication, before adding, “And you might want to consider becoming Catholic.” I had no idea at the time, but he really knew what he was talking about. Previously, my despair would know no bounds and suck me down a bottomless abyss. These days, it’s clear that there are limits to how much I can actually despair. As rough as things get, I know that I’m building my house on solid rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock (Matthew 7:25).

Perhaps when the brain fog clears, maybe in a couple of months or so, I’ll be able to write a more articulate post on the theology of suffering and how it’s helped me. But for now, this will have to do.

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

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

Under Reconstruction (Round Three)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new season, a new diagnosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More than we desire peace, we desire meaning

[I]t can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology “homeostasis”, i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

–Viktor Frankl (neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor)

When you know your “good days” are numbered

The first time I tasted a depressive episode in 2011, I didn’t think it was anything more a one-time glitch in an otherwise emotionally healthy life. And then in the winter of 2012, it returned, and this time worse in manifold ways. Eight months later, I emerged stronger than before, declaring to myself and the world that I wouldn’t fear a relapse. But the truth was, I didn’t really believe it would come back. It was a vague possibility in my head, but nothing more.

No prizes for guessing this one, but it did return the following spring. Again, and this is highly likely due to inadequate treatment and self-care, this one was also worse than its predecessor. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to conceptualize what that might even look like. Before I knew it, I was reduced to a human ball of invisible, destructive thoughts — sometimes sobbing, sometimes suicidal, other times both.

I am now well, and am beginning to grasp what it means that this is going to be a recurring theme in my life. As I pour my refreshed energy and extended wake time into the passions God has placed on my heart, I am also aware that I cannot lay claim to my present capacities indefinitely.

What do I do with this awareness? I don’t know what the “best practices” are (feel free to share any advice with me), but I’ll probably have many tries to figure this out anyway. But typically, my approach these days have been to “seize every moment”. I try not to sleep beyond what’s necessary for my health, I try not to say no to an invitation to a meal/coffee/conversation/adventure, I try not to reject the appeal of someone in need. I also assess the gifts and talents God has bestowed on me (for example, my voice, my writing, and then those drawing skills that seemingly came out of nowhere) and consider how I can use them to bless others. I reflect on the special passions He has planted in me, such as my love for children, the youth, and the developmentally disabled, and consider how they ought to inform my vocational decisions.

On a more proactive, self-protection side, I’ve been making good on this hypothesis: that if I took advantage of the times when I’m not depressed to learn more about depression (from reading books and articles, and talking to experts including my own healthcare providers), I will eventually become better at handling depressive episodes when they do return. These on top of responsibly staying on medication and being disciplined about self-care, of course.

Now, and you’re probably already thinking this: though I write this from the perspective of someone diagnosed with “recurrent major depressive disorder”, these musings are relevant to any living human.  Our good days are numbered, our days in general are numbered. We don’t know what tragedy might befall us, and when it might. We don’t know what we might lose tomorrow. And then there are also the things we can reasonably expect: the changes that will come with old age, and of course, the fact that we will all die.

Maybe these aren’t things we often think about, and I might even be coming off as if I were still in the thick of depression. It’s also often said that to think about the end of life prevents us from living our lives, but I patently disagree. I believe there are few things more important to how we live our lives than contemplating the temporality, and fragility, of life on this side of eternity. Accepting the vanity of our present pursuits is the beginning of discovering our true purpose, and the true meaning of our lives.

It’s getting easier, these days, to acknowledge our mortality on a mere theoretical level, without really allowing it to sink in in our daily deeds and interactions. Perhaps because modern society has gotten so good at marginalizing death and suffering. Those things are hidden away in hospitals and hospices. Even the things that aren’t hidden from plain sight — like the plight of the homeless, and our brothers and sisters languishing daily under systemic injustice and oppression — we’ve somehow been trained to phase them out of our interior lives. Because it’s more convenient (not to mention more lucrative for corporations) that we are kept distracted by illusions of invincibility and the pursuits of temporary pleasures.

But fight that. I invite you think reflect on these realities more often than you might be used to. I speak not from a preacher’s podium, but from someone who’s been brought so low she had no choice but contemplate these unpleasant reality checks. This is not to rain on anybody’s parade, because the contemplation of “unpleasant” truths is necessary bitter medicine to a pride that needs humbling, a temper that needs taming, a coldness that needs thawing, an indifference that needs shattering, and a soul that needs healing.

I have come to trust in the Great Physician who administers this medicine, and I trust Him with my entire life and being.

Swallow the bitterness in faith, and then we can begin to taste the goodness of life in its fullness. I’m still catching new glimpses of it each day. A life where I am not the center, where I can delight in giving more than I do receiving, where I can truly delight in the joys of others without envy (for the most part), where I rejoice simply in knowing that I am a beloved child of God, where I look forward to an eternity in my final destination.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian really ought,
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

(From “If I Can Help Somebody”, arranged by Ray Liebau.)

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Congratulations on making it to the end of the “heaviest” post I have written in a while. Leave a comment with your thoughts — I would love to hear from any perspective! 🙂

One thing I’ve learned about friendships and difficult times

“Often love is offered to you, but you do not recognize it. You discard it because you’re fixed on the same person to whom you gave it.”

–Henri Nouwen

Doodled by Karen Zainal
Doodled by Karen Zainal

I thank God for the troll, the coconut trees, and the sludge monsters in my life. 🙂

P.S. I’ll start writing proper, full-length posts again soon…

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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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”