a lesson in faith

95824

In the past week, I have been finding myself facing battle with an old friend–depression.

Yet it is in stark contrast to the youthful, immature depression I once knew, when I believed the cloudy gray life I lived was all that there was and that there was no true escape. Fast forward to now, after years of self-growth, self-improvement, and therapy, I have now what I would call a “mature” depression. When I get in my depressive episodes, I am acutely aware that I am roaming minute to minute in the gray, with the knowledge that I am not the depression, and I am not really stuck. Feelings pass. Situations change. The things my depression are trying to convince me of are false. But it does not make the depressive episode any easier to bear through.

It is like someone hijacked your brain and is steering your thoughts and feelings down paths you know is not realistically accurate. But because you’ve been taken over by D, your stumbling down them regardless. Then you are left feeling so overwhelmed–overwhelmed by sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, and a feeling of bleakness about your life and where it’s headed. I know that I am doing great things with my life, that I am making a valuable mark on this earth. My mind is aware. But still, it is difficult to fight through the feeling of dissatisfaction with yourself and the world, or the feeling that things will never change.

I was driving home from work today, and I found myself asking God, “How do I get myself out of the black hole I’m in? What are you trying to teach me through this? What are you trying to bring forth through me?” I know well enough by now that God teaches us through pain. But at that moment, I could not gather what I was supposed to learn. So sitting in traffic, I paused and listened. Then I could hear God replying back, You need to have faith.

With that, I had an epiphany. Here I was, fighting and fighting to make things work, to get what I’ve always yearned deeply for, but to no avail. Losing friends, people going MIA, stress where ever I go… it has felt as if nothing I do would give me the life I have been aiming for. Things have been falling apart instead. So I have felt hopeless and helpless, like I am stuck with this unsatisfying life I have been trying so hard to change. But then it became so clear. There are no options left at this point, because faith is all I have left. Nothing else is working, because God wants me to choose the one last option. I can either stay where I am, or walk out onto unknown waters.

This has always been my problem. I am Peter, who is afraid and does not trust that God will allow me to walk on water. I am fearful that I will sink and meet my death. So of course God sees it fit that I learn to have faith–to face my fear of sinking. The God who calms the storms. The God who can move mountains. The God who splits seas. I must have faith.

So, my fellow readers–for those of you who know what I speak of, who are also struggling: when it seems as if there are no other options, perhaps that is because God is bringing you to the one option that will help get you through whatever you are going through. Allow your courage to rise, and have faith. You’ve been through worse, and just as it has before, this period too will pass. Life is impermanent. You’ll get through this.  And in the meantime, let yourself go, walk out onto the water, and have faith that God will give you strength to conquer the waves.

Advertisements

the tension in life

3465642

In Harry Potter, there are these creatures called “dementors.” They guard the wizard prison and by nature, they are dark, cold, and soulless. They suck every joy out of the unfortunate person within their proximity, leaving the person to feel as if they can never be cheerful again. Dementors even have the power to suck someone’s soul out of them, a fate worse than death. J. K. Rowling has said that dementors are a metaphor for depression.

Having suffered with depression for more than half of my life, I can see the clear parallel.

The wizard who wants to scare away the dementor has to cast a Patronus charm. A patronus is cast when one focuses on one’s most happiest memory. It takes the shape of an animal, vibrant and full of light.

The significance of that too, is not lost on me.

When I think of my “Patronus” and happiest memory in my life, I think of when I was thirteen, isolated and unpopular. One day in winter, a boy that I liked grabbed my cold hands and said emphatically, “I will warm them for you.” It was incredibly touching, and a memory that was seared onto my brain with love and adoration.

But then I think of my dementors–my demons, my depression. And my most saddest, and arguably most traumatic, memory. I was fifteen. I arrived to the emergency room, anxious yet oddly numb, wishfully thinking that my dad was going to be okay. A family friend asked me, “Do you want to see your dad?” When I said yes, he led me into the dark room. I stared at my father lying in the bed, still as a stone. Sitting in the chair next to his bed, I reached out and grabbed his hand–but it was stiff. Cold as ice. And I knew. He’s dead. Why did no one tell me? He’s gone. He’s dead.

These two memories, are intricately linked and tied together. Hands. Warm hands. Cold hands. Connection. Love. Death. Loss.

As I reflect on all this, I think of Jon Foreman–he stated that as human beings, we are constantly living in tension, like a guitar string strung between two poles. While we often make attempts to fight against the tension, he asserted that perhaps instead our goal should be to make beauty in the tension.

And this is one of the biggest tensions we must face in life: Love vs. Pain / Loss. Or even more so, Love vs Fear.

I’ve spent most of my life fighting the tension. Living in fear, while also running from it. Fearing love, while also desiring it to the point it physically ached. But this is the tension: to love, despite our fears of hurt or loss. To love, even when we don’t know what will come. To never cease loving, even as we are drenched in pain. If we avoid loss or pain, we also have to cut out love. And having lived that way for many years, I can say with confidence that avoiding loss does not mean you will not experience pain–in reality, it is a confirmation that you will feel pain. Except it will be a different kind of pain… the pain of loneliness, of isolation.

I’ve experienced some of the most painful losses, but I realize now that this is a part of living in the tension of life. It is a part of living life in full color. We love and give love, empowering, inspiring, and giving warmth to others in the brave act. But then we lose and we suffer.

We will hurt, that is a guarantee. But eventually, we will be okay. With all of these swirls of human emotions, we are inspired, we grow, we make beautiful music. They are the raw materials that we use to build our lives and amplify our voices in the world.

The tension is where the beauty happens. The melody of our lives is when we dance on these strings of tension. Be brave, your melody is worth it. Be courageous, your melody is needed. I dare you. I dare you to live out your purpose. That the melody within you would soar above the fear, above the crowd, above the past, above the pain, and that the song that you were born to sing would come to life.” – Jon Foreman

depression the beast

                             shado

Depression is a scary beast.

I know, not only because of my work with clients who suffer with depression, but because I struggled against the beast myself for 9 years of my life. This entry is an attempt to integrate both my professional knowledge and personal experiences, in case there are others out there who are looking for enlightenment.

My beast’s name was Dysthymia, often morphing occasionally into Major Depressive episodes (i.e., full blown depression). I thought I kicked it out of my life for good six years ago, only to have it come back this summer, rearing its ugly head and stomping over all the good I had been building in my life. It sucked energy and motivation out of me, squeezed out tears, took away hours of sleep. It whispered lies too, that I’m not good enough and I never would be, that I’m ugly and invisible, and not doing anything great with my life… even though logically, I saw that I was a therapist and doing much good. It even pushed me further, murmuring, “Maybe you should kill yourself. No one wants you. You’re not important. Why not just die?

In one of my classes, I learned that having had one depressive episode before in your life increases the likelihood of you having another episode.

Before my class, I thought because I was high functioning and doing well, I probably wouldn’t have depressive feelings again. I’m optimistic, I seek to see the glass half-full, and view failures and letdowns as opportunities to learn and grow. But looking back in retrospect at my depression this summer, I see how much I used my “optimism” to push away and deny my feelings. Pretend everything was okay, when subconsciously, I was in deep pain. But it was to no avail, because the pain eventually took over. It was so overwhelming I couldn’t keep smashing it down anymore. Soon my optimism was nowhere to be found, and I was buried underneath the shit pile of my negative beliefs and heavy, painful feelings.

I’m the type of person who learns things after she has gone through the experience. And one of the things I learned from this struggle was this: While having the guise of safety, in truth, denying our feelings hinders us, and really, makes the problem worse. I wish I could bold the last sentence 10x more, because this is so important. I see it in all of my clients and in the support group that I lead, this tendency in society to ignore our feelings (with the exception of the “happy” variety) and pretend problems do no exist… whether it is due to ignorance, shame, or a whole host of reasons. But just because you sweep something under a rug, doesn’t mean it disappears. It grows bigger and bigger, until it controls your behaviors, your perceptions. Akin to a cancerous cell, it will keep growing and if we choose to deny or do nothing, it will wreak havoc and may even take our lives.

My beast almost did when I was young. And it tried again this summer.

I realized that I couldn’t keep running away. I needed to face my feelings head on, even if it scared the crap out of me. Because the more I tried to kick the beast out the door, the more it tried to come back in. Hell, kicking it out gave it more power. Our fear of our feelings and emotions only fuel their control over you. The only way to regain control, is to stand face-to-face with your beast and deal with it. That’s the first step we need to take to get better; we will not go anywhere unless we face it, make eye contact with it, and say, “I won’t let you rule my life anymore.” I’m not saying it is easy. It’s fucking difficult. But the things worthwhile in life are never easy. And contrary to our happy delusions, life is full of struggles. Either we deny that fact and consequently suffer, or rise to the challenge and choose to live in the face of challenge.

I ended up seeking help, and was better off for it. I am consistently pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and still working through my issues. But now I’m allowing myself to feel, and telling myself it’s okay to feel. I’m human, and in a constant state of growth. Even though I had some good coping skills before, I need to build more to live healthier, and better equip myself if the beast comes back. Even if it does, it’s okay. I’ll be okay. I’ve made it this far, and I believe I will overcome. The beast loses power when I tell myself these things, and refuse to believe in its lies.

Seek professional help. Build a support system of people who can be there for you, including your family and friends. If depression is also your beast, I guarantee you that you are not alone in your struggle against it. It may not seem that way sometimes, but the thing is, a lot of us are good at faking it. And society encourages us to. But don’t keep smashing it down anymore. Allow yourself to feel, to be. Most of us can’t fight it on our own. We need to get help in learning how to fight.

80% of people who seek professional help are able to overcome their depression. And you can too.

The Day I Almost Killed Myself

                               field light

Writing this story is not, by any means, a simple feat. To memory, I can only recall telling this story two times in my life. I still continue to feel fear at how people may respond to one of the most painful moments of my life. But Maya Angelou once said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you… and I am beginning to realize how accurate she is.

I was eleven years old. During that time, I was an outcast, a “loser,” a black sheep, a reject. Coming from a poor, immigrant family, my parents could not afford me nice clothes or shoes to wear like all of the other “cool” kids. My mother forbade me from wearing make-up. And it did not help that I was a little socially awkward, and the only “Asian” kid in my class. I stood out like a sore thumb, and people picked on me and made fun of me daily, though I did not know them and they did not know me. Although I had a group of friends initially, they soon ostracized me for reasons unknown and began to pick on me too. I had no one. And the thoughts that reverberated in my mind were, “What did I do to deserve this? Why do people hate me so much? There’s nothing I can do to stop them. I’m hopeless. There is no one. I am alone.”

My parents were always at work, and my siblings abhorred helping me… because one of the family rules I had growing up was, “Don’t ask for help. Figure it out yourself.” So I had no one to turn to. No one in my life to help me, to tell me that someone’s treatment of you didn’t define who you are, that it was fucked up what they did to me. That I was beautiful, not ugly, stupid and weird like the kids at school were drilling into my head.

One day, after a group of girls in my neighborhood had thrown rocks at me for the umpteenth time, I remember I was sitting on the couch in our living room, sobbing and crying, drowning in my pain. I was home alone and thinking, “Is there no escape to this? Will this be my life?” My thoughts turned darker as I sunk deeper into my depression, sadness and pain, and I begun to consider something that no person should ever consider, especially one so young. I want to die. If I kill myself, the pain will stop. If I kill myself, I can finally escape.

And so, I went to the kitchen, tears still streaming down and stinging my eyes. I let out a sob as I opened the drawer and pulled out a kitchen knife. I pricked the sharp tip with my finger, my view getting blurrier. Gripping the handle, I thought of stabbing myself deeply in the heart, with the intent of meeting Death and ending all the agony and suffering. It is the only way. Please God, just let it end.

But as I raised the knife slightly closer to my chest, my vision was suddenly blinded by a translucent, white light. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life. Clouded by the fuzzy white, I heard a voice, strong and clear, ringing in my ears: Anna, put the knife down. Do not do this to yourself. Put the knife down.

To my very bones, I knew and recognized that voice as God’s.

Instantly, the urge to drive the knife into my heart vanished and I slowly placed the knife back in the drawer. The pain was still beating heavy, but it became evident then that I could not follow through with my intent. One moment there, one moment gone, I knew God had just intervened in the precise second that I needed him, when I wanted to give into my demons and take my life. At that time in my life, there truly was no one to turn to in my world. But I was never alone. I realized later that in His intervention, God kept me from making my most fatal assumption. He saved my life.

This is my untold story. This is one of my deepest pains, bare and open for you to see. I’ve held it inside me for fifteen years of my life, afraid of others’ judgment. But I no longer wish to hold it inside anymore, and have the shame eat at me, perpetuating my agony. I hold no shame, and I own my pain. Although I did not know this at the time, the pain was molding and shaping me, turning me into the sensitive, insightful, compassionate person I have grown to become. Although I still struggle with my demons as a result of my experiences, as C. S. Lewis argues, pain shapes us into the person we have the potential to become, like a piece of silver being refined in the fire. We are made perfect in our suffering, even though many times when we are in our suffering, it is difficult to see. For me, it was very difficult indeed, and I was so young. But that did not deter Him. He came for me before I could give up.

But this is not a story of shame. It is a story of success. Because I am alive today, dedicated to making a positive impact as a therapist, and with my words.

For anyone who also has an untold story inside them too, I urge and encourage you to speak up. Speak out. Do not let the shame, guilt or pain take the wheel of your life, keeping you bound. Your experiences are completely valid, regardless of what anyone says. There is a purpose, a function to your pain. And you are not alone. Please tell me, and others, of your story. You deserve to be attended to. You have a voice that deserves to be heard.

I am a survivor. I am a fighter. And if you are alive today, reading this, so are you.

under the apple tree

                            apple-tree-print

This struck me very deeply.

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum LP

asserting your identity

                              woman-looking-into-sun

Erik Erikson proposed that during adolescence, we seek to find and develop our identity. We try out different roles, experiment with different activities, all in order to find who it is we are.

But one key aspect that does not seem to be as emphasized by Erikson, or by most texts I’ve read in my classes, is how we assert that identity once we “find” it… especially in the face of a society that pushes all of us to be a certain way, or adhere to a social construct of “normal.” Because when we don’t fit the mold of “normal,” we are criticized harshly, told to change ourselves, to modify our identities because it is simply “wrong.” We end up feeling the enormous pressure of having to change what may be true to our real selves, so that we can be loved and accepted by others. What a painful dilemma, that is.

People have argued to me that sometimes other people just know better, and it sucks to be rejected or not loved. True, it does suck when someone doesn’t like who we are. In an ideal world, we can be our true selves and have everyone who encounters us likd us. But it’s not a realistic expectation. Not everyone will like who we are… but that’s okay. Because it is just as painful, if not more, to live a life that is not yours. And I would argue to the death that sometimes people DON’T know better. That you know you better than anyone else. Only you have the power to define who you are and who you want to become, what your values are, what drives you, what you choose to make up you. In the same vein, you also have the power to give the reins of that control over your identity to someone else, or to society at large, if you so choose.

Personally, I grew up being bullied most of my childhood. People called me many, many names; I’ve experienced racial slurs to attacks on my physical attractiveness. I’ve had rocks thrown at me in 5th grade, and eggs in 7th. If I choose to give the reins of my identity to others, then I would be defined as an ugly, unattractive, loser girl, who no boy ever, in his right mind, would want to date. I would be on the bottom of the totem pole, invisible, unimportant, unworthy, not good enough, stupid, in need of a diet, deserving of a stoning… the list goes on. For a long time, I did live and think this way. And I suffered with depression for nine years as a result. If I continued to believe what everyone told me I was and took their words as indisputable truth, I wouldn’t be alive today. My demons are very ugly and dark, and I’m certain I would have killed myself by now. Because an ugly shit like me who is unimportant and not good enough doesn’t deserve to live.

But we always have a choice. I cannot stress this enough. We have the choice to either define ourselves by the mountain of shit people throw at us, or to take the wheel and create who it is we are. And in the latter, there is so much power in that. We can take control. No one has power to define our identity except for us. I know who I am, and surround myself with those who see that. And whenever someone tries to define or place a label on me, I respectfully reject their opinion, while in my head I think, “Fuck that shit.” Because I control what goes in, and what goes out… and I don’t need others’ opinions to define me anymore.

I think Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

the fight

courage-be-yourself

For one moment, I will be unabashedly blunt.

It’s fucked up when a six-year-old kid anticipates being rejected. Ignored. Bullied. Treated like shit. When people see me, they want to treat me like shit. There’s something wrong with me. And then she grows up, believing she is ugly, unnattractive, worth shit, not good enough, unlovable. She still expects maltreatment; hell, she welcomes it. Because that’s normal. And being treated like a human, with respect, is weird, not right. Words cannot adequately describe how many levels of fucked up that contains.

As she grows up, she begins suffering with depression. She hates herself, but won’t subconsciously admit it because society likes optimistic and perky, not sad and pessimistic. People can’t handle sad. They can only handle happy. So she hides, stuffs her feelings away, smashes them down every time they fight to come out. When the tears stings her eyes, she quickly wipes them away and lies to herself that it’s all alright. She numbs that part of herself, to the point that it becomes unconscious habit. And then she wonders, why do I not feel anymore? Why do I feel so empty? All the while, never realizing how she has internalized the treatment the world gave her. People said her feelings are worth shit, so she doesn’t attend to them. People said she isn’t worth shit, so she looks in the mirror and hates her reflection.

Yet slowly but surely, she starts waking up. She starts seeing a therapist, she takes up the value of being honest with herself, even if it’s ugly, even if it hurts, even if it means looking at those pieces of her soul she has fought to ignore. And she begins to realize how much the environment she grew up fucked her up so much that she cannot even see her true reflection. Her inner beauty. She has no idea what it looks like but deep down, she yearns so very intensely for it to be true. That she really is beautiful. That she is worthy. Loveable.

But in her journey to self-discovery and self-growth, she realizes that all this time she has been desperately seeking others’ approval. That her worth is still contingent on others: My worth only exists when someone acknowledges it. But that is not how it should be. Her worth is not contingent on others. Change does not come from “finally gaining the recognition of her beauty that she has longed for,” but from recognizing that beauty in herself.  Because otherwise, she will be stuck in the same vicious cycle of seeking validation, and being more than devastated when she does not receive it. The truth is, she is worthy, regardless of whether someone sees it or not. She is worth more than those labels and horrible, horrible names people gave her. No one defines her; she defines her. And that is a significant realization indeed.

It’s an ongoing battle, between the truth and all the lies she was told growing up. But it’s one worth fighting. Because she is worth so much more than the lies she was told.