Peeking through the trees

(This is the second part of a two part post. Please click here for the first one). 

3) Don’t listen to the depression (or dumbasses)

When my depression and anxiety take a hold of me, I get overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. I used to get upset during breaks home from college because I was scared that my professors would realize I was stupid when class started again. My Mom would remind me that I usually got good feedback on my papers, but I wondered how long I could maintain the façade of not being a blithering idiot. I felt being “found out” was inevitable and I dreaded the moment.

I struggled with those feelings for a long time. My parents came to visit me during my first semester in graduate school. I started crying during lunch and apologized for being a horrible daughter.

My Dad said, “I know what’s happening. That’s the depression talking. It will say things like that, but you just can’t listen.”

I remember feeling surprised that I had the option not to listen. My anxiety was almost a talisman. If I fretted about doing poorly in school, I would succeed. If I worried about something bad happening to the people I loved, I could somehow protect them.

When you live abroad, you sometimes hear your insecurities echoed in the things people say to you. For example, I was really self-conscious about my American-accented Mandarin when I moved here. It represented a lot of things that made me uncomfortable, such as feeling estranged from my family’s culture and being a minority in two places, including the country I call home. Sometimes ignorant people said things to me about my Mandarin, and it just made me feel awful, even though I was working very hard in class and getting positive feedback from teachers.

On the other hand, hearing dumbasses verbalize my insecurities made me realize how pointless it was. Worrying and worrying and worrying about my Mandarin skills did not help me improve. It actually impeded my progress, because I would clam up. That was an important learning experience for me. It helped stop me from being tempted to view my anxiety as a lucky charm.

5) Routine 

After my second hospitalization during junior year, my college’s health services gave me two options: I could either enroll in a partial hospitalization program or take a leave of absence from school. From Monday to Thursday, I commuted by train from my campus in Bronxville to a hospital in White Plains, sat in group therapy sessions for three hours, then hauled butt back to campus, where I spent the afternoon in class. In the evenings, I edited and wrote for the student newspaper. My professors gave me some extensions to account for the time I spent in the hospital, but I turned in good papers and got straight A’s.

My schedule was very tiring and sometimes I am still surprised that I managed to pull it off. I was in a fog for most of that year, blindly putting one foot in front of the other. I told a friend that I felt as if I were walking naked through a snowstorm, juggling skeins of yarns and needles, and desperately trying to learn how to knit a sweater before I froze to death.

But I had two things keeping me motivated. First, I really wanted to stay in school. By that point, I knew that I would have to deal with depression for the rest of my life. I had to prove to myself that I could move on, no matter how awful I felt.

I also had a routine. Almost every minute of my day was accounted for and my schedule was so regimented there was no time for me to get caught up in one thing. Sometimes I was only going through the motions — but at least I knew what motions to go through. The experience was awful, but I’m glad it happened in college because I learned so much from it.

When I first moved to Taipei, I had to start from scratch. I had no friends (besides Ron) and I could barely utter a complete sentence in Mandarin. I knew it was important to build a routine, but doing so was very difficult.

I knew that I needed a goal. Taking an intensive Mandarin course helped and I spent a lot of time making flashcards and doing homework. My motivation was that I wanted to go from barely being able to direct taxi drivers to my apartment to being able to conduct interviews within nine months. I bought a copy of “Little Women” that had been translated into Chinese and it was exciting to be able to read more of it each week.

Eventually, I got to know my neighborhood and started studying in the same café every day, eating at the same few restaurants and taking the same bus to the same handful of places, including Eslite bookstore, where I flipped through magazines. It was monotonous, but not unpleasantly so. I saw the same faces and built up a rapport with some people, despite my minimal language skills. My routine was a haven of sorts. It made me feel less lonely and more at home in this city.

6) Dealing with loneliness

I’ve always been introverted. It’s not that I’m shy (though sometimes I am). I just like spending a lot of time with myself. It’s how I recharge. Unfortunately, it’s also completely counterproductive when I’m depressed. I forget how important it is to spend time with other people. Even the briefest interactions are important. Seeing the same cashier at my favorite café or having a brief chat with my neighbor lifts my mood.

If you are looking for ways to meet people, I recommend taking a workshop at the Community Services Center or checking A Handful of Sapphires for volunteer opportunities (please check their disclaimer about potential visa issues first!).

***

I hope this was helpful. Preparing this entry made me realize I don’t like writing about depression. It’s… depressing. But I feel like it is important to be open about mood disorders. How else do we battle stigma?

There are times when I am haunted by a thought: that the time I have spent in the thrall of depression is my reality, and the time in between is just a dreamy respite. And then there are moments when I get angry with myself for wasting so much of my life. When I am recovering from a depressive episode, there are many moments when I wonder if I will ever be able to forgive myself for slipping back again.

But I know that’s just the depression talking.

Sometimes when I walk down an alleyway in Taipei, I am overcome by wonder that I am here. I learn something new every day. It can be extraordinarily hard to live abroad and deal with culture shock while trying to manage a mood disorder, but I have found that the joys are innumerable. I hope it is the same for you, too.

A few more online resources:

define Functioning: A online forum to discuss what it means to have a mental illness, but be described as “high functioning.”

Megan at Harvest Bird about her experiences with depression

Crazy Birds: Online forum about mental illness

NAMI’s Stigmabusters: This is US-oriented, but it contains lots of helpful tips on how to cope with dumbasses

Taipei 101