Memories and secrets

As I rifle through my happiest memories, I find many of them tinged with the sadness of absence. They are either memories of seasons long gone, or of moments shared with people no longer in my life. While precious nonetheless, these memories remain fragile, and I dare not peer too closely.

I decided to search not for a happy memory necessarily, but one that I could hold close to my heart without fear of it shattering. And then I found it.

It is a memory of hope.

It was January of 2018. I had just turned 27 and I found myself once again in a pit of despair. It became a daily routine to drag myself to the Cathedral during times of the day when I knew it would be empty. Day after day I wept and demanded that God tell me what else He wanted of me. Somewhere amidst that barren monotony, my heart grew weary enough to at last be silent. That was when I heard the still, small voice of Hope.

At this point in my life, the rest of that story is to be kept secret. You may be surprised, because over the years I may have come across as an open book in this space. But this entry isn’t about the value of my story, but the value of secrets.

Secrets have developed a bad rap; we tend to see them as antithetical to courage and authenticity, perhaps especially so in this age of social media (and of oversharing). As a millennial, surely I’m a product of this age! But in recent years, I have learned to see secrecy as an instrument of discernment. Secrets demarcate the boundary between our interior and exterior lives.

One book that was instrumental in inspiring me to hold tight to certain memories is The Love That Keeps Us Sane: Living the Little Way of St Therese of Lisieux by Fr Marc Foley:

[W]henever we expose an intimate part of ourselves, a quality of is lost. We can never look upon that part of ourselves in the same way again; our gaze has been altered and infected by the evaluations and judgments of others. It is like sharing with others how deeply we are touched by the beauty of a painting. If the people we are sharing with begin to criticize the quality of the painting, point out to us its flaws or the artist’s immature style and the like, we feel demeaned and diminished. . . . From that point on, we can never look at our beloved painting in the same way again, for our inner vision has been infected by the judgments of others. Even when we are alone with our painting, we are not alone. Because we have internalized the judgments of others, we feel that people are looking at the painting with us. As a result, we cannot allow ourselves to be touched by the beauty of the painting as we were previously, because we cannot risk being shamed again. In short, we cannot be present to it. A presence has vanished.

I found this to be true even with positive judgments! The thrill of flattery threatens to displace the promise of the original memory.

When we intuitively sense a special moment of grace, we need the discipline to water it, tend to it, watch it grow, and sit in its shade. There is great discipline in secrecy.

Because grace is still operative in memory, we need to exercise caution even in sharing the “past” experiences of our lives; some memories are meant to function as solitary haunts into which we can retreat and find refuge from the world.

Perhaps that’s what the Evangelist meant when he wrote that the Mother of Jesus “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19).


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: My favourite quote

Just go to sleep

The need for sleep is a constant through all seasons of life. I am thankful for the times it has been a reward for a day well-lived, and I am thankful for the times it has been a respite from the day’s struggles and failures.

That said, I have also learned to not give too much credence to a negative self-evaluation of a given day. It is like how I would tell my student to not despair over a single failure. It is but a blot of ink in a much more magnificent narrative of growth.

A beloved priest told me 5 years ago: “God is like an impressionist painter. Up close you have no idea what he’s doing, but take a step back and you’ll see a masterpiece.”

Give that critical mind a rest and just go to sleep. 🙂

Now that the daylight dies away,
By all Thy grace and love,
Thee, Maker of the world, we pray
To watch our bed above.

Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,
The offspring of the night,
Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,
Pure in our foe’s despite.

(From the Compline in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours)

Addendum: The doodle features some of my most memorable dreams: being chased by death eaters, traversing my college campus on a flying mattress, getting warded for COVID-19, and most recently giving birth to a baby boy at home during lockdown.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: My favourite memory

The superhero in you

3) Me as a superhero

Through the deepest valleys of the past 8 years, I came to realise that feats of great strength often feel anything but heroic. A little Hope gets your foot out that door, and to keep it alive is worth the fight.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: Me as a monster

Me as a 50-year-old

This was an interesting one. For some (like myself), 50 is decades into the future, while for some of my friends this would be in retrospect.

Either way, here’s to traveling light! Not because nothing matters, but because you know what does.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a daily creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: Me as a superhero

Me, myself and I

1) Me, myself and I

This wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when I first set the prompt – but the phrase later called to mind this idea of navel-gazing. It is toxic, addictive, and destructive. It is when we look within ourselves in a desperate search for answers, only to stare down a devastating abyss. I often need to be reminded to look up and out.

Next prompt: Me as a 50-year-old


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a daily creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

And if you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

 

When I told my professors about my depression

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Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?

It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.

This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:

Dear Karen,

I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.

No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing  wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.

S.

And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:

Hi Karen,

An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.

R.

The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.

Note: Taking  a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!

More than words

Most of the content on this blog has been rather heavy, but here’s a casual recording Ben and I made last night. Ben is a good old high school friend who’s visiting from Boston U (where he’s majoring in Vocal Performance). He’s as incredibly talented as his soul is incredibly warm and compassionate.

This is one of my favorite songs of all time, and though it was probably written as any other secular love song (but more awesome than most), it reminds me a lot of a Christian’s walk with God. It almost sounds like a dialogue between man and God.

Saying I love you \ Is not the words I want to hear from you \ It’s not that I want to \ Not to say, but if you only knew \ How easy it would be to show me how you feel \ More than words is all you have to do to make it real \ Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me \ ‘Cause I’d already know

Think how we’re called to be doers, not just hearers, of the Word (James 1:22-25). How Christ calls us to love another if we’re truly his followers (John 13:34-35). In Isaiah 58 God declares separates false, superficial worship from true worship, that is to break the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free.

And the second verse gets me really emotional, as it brings me back to the lowest point of my depression, of hopeless surrender, where I’d given up laying claim to all the things of this world, realizing that all I really needed was to know, for certain, that God really loved me as the Bible says he does.

Now that I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand \ All you have to do is close your eyes \ And just reach out your hands and touch me \ Hold me close don’t ever let me go \ More than words is all I ever needed you to show \ Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me \ ‘Cause I’d already know

And he answered my cries spoke into the darkness to give me hope I couldn’t refuse. In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)

(Oops, was this a “heavy” post too?)

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

The occupational hazards of supporting a depressed friend/loved one

I have been with the same man for over 27 years. He has always been supportive of my depressive episodes. I only found out recently, that he was keeping a bunch of stuff inside. He was frustrated with me, and didn’t understand. Even though he reads my blog, I have given him articles to read, and I have described the illness to him until I feel I can’t talk about it anymore. He still doesn’t understand … That doesn’t mean he isn’t loving, supportive, helpful, and patient. He is all of these things and more — he will just never understand that depression doesn’t go away simply by taking a walk, being with other people, healthy eating, exercising, or thinking it away.

The above reads like words snatched right out of my own mouth (minus the part about being married for 27 years). I don’t know if it’s becoming some sort of an obsession/hobby, but lately I’ve been spending a fair bit of time talking to people who are suffering or have suffered from depression and other mental illnesses (thank you, internet!). You get an instant window into the life of a complete stranger, even if it’s a 55-year-old in a different continent. It’s instant solidarity. When I describe my last tussle with depression as “being trapped in a vortex of mind games, self-loathing, and lies that form your new reality,” they get it.  But the common understanding extends beyond the complexity of one’s suffering; you also understand how depression (or other forms of mental illness) complicates your relationships with the people who love you, in a way no other circumstance does.

It’s been almost 3 months since I’ve been freed from my last (and worst) cycle of depression. During this time I’ve begun to cherish life more than ever before, and to be more convinced of God’s love for me, as an individual, more than ever before — two things that have led me to become passionately pro-life (more on this another time). As I recount my incredible journey, I tend to focus mostly on the ways I’ve been unshackled. As I praise God, I tend to focus mostly on the miraculous way he sustained and delivered me. But I have forgotten the unsung heroes: my family and my closest friends.

You tend not to see them as “heroes” because they didn’t technically do anything to rescue you from depression. But though they couldn’t and didn’t calm the storm, they waited it out with you. And this wait was in no way passive. They continued to be your friend when you couldn’t be a friend, to love you when you loved neither yourself nor them. The storm was you.

It takes a huge toll. Time, emotional energy, spiritual vigor. All your conversations are peppered with “You don’t understand.” They try to understand but they can’t, and they beat themselves up for it. They push and talk you into going for counselling and taking your meds when you’ve given up. They lose much of the time they had to themselves, because to leave you to your self-torment would be cruel. Their schedules and lives in general begin to revolve around you. And not the you who were a ball of sunshine, but an unfeeling black hole that vacuums up all their attempts to cheer you up and restore your hope in life.

And no matter how much they love you, they’re still human beings with physical and emotional limits, so at some point you do become a burden to them. Except they can’t ever admit it or show it in your presence. Over time, in their exhausted state, your negative thoughts and outlook on life become harder and harder to combat, and seep into their consciousness.

And who’s to know how long the storm was going to last? Not even a counsellor or a psychiatrist can. Are we talking a month? A year? Years..?

goodsamaritan2That’s but a glimpse of what my loved ones did and endured for me. I did get better, and am now happy to be back in the game, renewed and with a sharper vision for this lifetime. These people may not have healed me, but if not for their fierce loyalty I might not have hung on long enough to be healed. More than I thank them for their joyful service and companionship, I thank them for continuing to support and serve me when it involved much sacrifice and self denial.

 

And that makes me praise the God who taught and modelled this very kind of sacrificial love.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

This post is dedicated to Grace, Dora, Felicia, Joe, Eamon, Pastor Joshua, Papa & Mama, and everyone who supported me through prayer.

Happiness, hope, reason, and other things we take for granted

Predictably, as with my last cycle of depression, the first thing I lost this time was my capacity to experience joy. And then I quickly lost my capacity to feel any positive emotion at all. To a point where I started to count self-pity positive, because at least I still considered myself worth feeling sorry for. At the same time, part of me thought, been there, done that. I knew, from the previous time round, how depression rolls. Just give it a couple of months, and I’ll soon be spending more time out of bed than in bed.

But before that could happen, I managed to convince myself that I was going insane. One night, I found myself staring at the same PDF document of class readings for 6 hours and not comprehending a thing. I could read the words on the page but couldn’t piece them together. I could sometimes figure out the logic within a paragraph, but quickly forget what I’d come up with as I wrestled with the next. I began googling brain disorders, because surely depression doesn’t do this to you! I told my roommate how incredulous I was that I couldn’t understand my reading (it wasn’t even Marx or Kant or anything like that), and how I feared I was gradually losing my sanity. I didn’t bother remembering what she said in response. Kind words don’t change anything.

Before I knew it, my world had descended into an unrecognizable level. My roommate was sitting on her swivel chair next to my bed one night. She had a colored pen and paper in hand and was drawing out a visual chart of my last 2.5 years at UChicago, accounting for the ups and downs, making sure to record the significant events that had once made me happy, and accomplishments I had once been proud of. While I appreciated the effort, I could not believe. I believed that I did write the script for a successful play, but that was sheer luck and even the lamest of Singaporean humor would have been a novelty to an American audience. I believed that I was once so proud of a paper I wrote on Mormonism, I shamelessly emailed it to a bunch of people. But of course I was just delusional. What was I thinking? I couldn’t bring myself to imagine what people must have thought of me when they read it. I had come to believe that I was hopelessly stupid. Not just average or slightly below average. I was flat out stupid and had always been.

On the first day of class of spring quarter, I left The Sociology of Reproductive Rights nearly in tears. I had felt so naked in class. Surely they could see through my eyes and see my fear? Surely they could tell I was only pretending like there was anything interesting to introduce about myself? Surely they agreed that I didn’t belong in this school? Or any school at all, for that matter. I walked aimlessly around campus, my mind swimming in a new idea: I would flourish in a primitive, hunter-gatherer society, where one’s sole aim was to survive. My roommate called me, as part of her new daily routine, to make sure I wasn’t alone. She was alarmed when all I could say was, “I’m just wandering around. I’m not sure where I’m going.” And this was after the previous night’s “I wish I was a human vegetable.”

I couldn’t overhear any conversation without thinking, “I could never talk like that.” And while I used to look at families with little kids and swoon, I now couldn’t help but think, “Someone like me should never be allowed to get married. Or have kids.”

The last 21 years were wastefully and delusionally spent. I resented the people around me for colluding to trick me into thinking I would ever be a functional, let alone valuable member of society. I didn’t even know how to be a friend. The people who are my friends are my friends because they’re too nice to not be anyone’s friend. I, on the other hand, was sick, twisted, cold, uncaring, unfeeling. I’d always been and had simply gotten tired of putting on an act.

I stopped dressing well, why fool others and yourself with a polished exterior, only to hide how filthy you really are? I stopped eating well, why treat your body nicely if you feel you’re better off dead? Looking into the mirror was a painful experience. It would show me how ugly I was, inside and out.

One day, during the summer, while a couple of friends played beach volleyball on the sand, I sat at a nearby bench with my journal. I started off praying to a God who seemed to love everyone but me, but it quickly turned into pure self-berating. I wrote: My heart is a filthy piece of trash. If only I could dig into my ribcage, yank it out, and fling it out of sight.

Then  I reveled in a new idea: if I’m wishing this hard that I would cease to exist, there’s no way it wouldn’t come true. It thought it was genius. It would save me.

Did I know I should never take happiness for granted? Sure, anybody who’s ever been unhappy knows that. I didn’t know I couldn’t take hope for granted. I always thought of hope was a choice: you can choose to have hope, or you can choose to wallow in hopelessness. Until I came to a point where I could not accept any source of hope, be it from family, friends, myself, or the Bible, because I was so convinced there was no way out of the pit I had unwittingly dug for myself. And then there are those things you thought you could never lose. Your intellect, your capacity to reason, your sense of humor, your wit, your interests. When such things are lost and later restored, you learn that nothing apart from your decisions is yours. You’re not entitled to anything. You didn’t earn anything. You don’t say you found your sanity. You say your sanity was given to you.

How I got out of that dark pit of endless mind games is a whole other story. And a mysteriously wonderful one. But for now, I want to end with a few precious thoughts: I was thoughtfully and lovingly created by a Heavenly Father. When I find hope I cannot refuse, it is a gift from him. When I have compassion on others, it is from him. When curiosity propels me to seek truth, it is him. All that I am and all that I will be are from him, and so I’ll strive to spend the rest of my life stewarding these things for his kingdom, his people, Him.

I echo the words of King Nebuchadnezzar uttered some 2,500 years ago:  “At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:36-37) Praise and glory to the Lord who gives and takes away according to his perfect will.