When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher asked us to come up with and illustrate personal mottoes. I deliberated for a little bit and then drew a tree with leaves falling off its branches. Underneath it, I carefully wrote, “The seasons will change, the sun will shine, and the planet will keep spinning, with or without you.”
It came back with a note from my teacher on the back: “Are you feeling insignificant?” On the contrary, the assignment had made me realize that being a tiny part of something much, much larger than myself brought me great comfort. It still does.
A little while ago, I wrote about dealing with depression as an expat. In college, I had depressive episode and ended up spending a total of two weeks in psychiatric wards. I chose to stay in school instead of taking a leave of absence. Some people told me that they thought I was being brave, but I didn’t feel brave. I was scared witless. I was terrified of losing the routine of my classes, but I also had to prove to myself – and others – that depression did not equal laziness. There’s a stigma attached to depression, that people who are chronically sad just want an excuse to sit in bed, eat bonbons and cry about imagined slights all day. I bought into it, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
I’m proud of the fact that I did manage to stay in college, but that does not mean my depressive episode had magically dissipated. I was miserable that year, senior year and the year after graduation. After school, I worked more than sixty hours a week combined at my internship and job, in large part because that kept me from having to confront my feelings, which I felt I had no control over. On my one day off each week, I would obsess over graduate school applications. I felt sad and lonely every single day.
Shame isolated me. I felt like I did not deserve to make friends because who would want to be close to someone so damaged that she had spent time in a mental hospital? I remember looking out the window of the office where I interned at some gorgeous Upper West Side brownstones. I love good architecture, but I felt nothing but numbness. I thought to myself “If life is like this, then how I can bear 50 to 60 more years of it?”
In hindsight, my depression really only started to lift after I earned my Masters degree and began working at my first job. I slowly began to enjoy my life for the first time as an adult. At the same time, a well of quiet desperation gradually opened up inside of me. I was so scared of ever being that depressed again. I nearly did not move to Taipei for this reason.
It’s only been within the past year that I’ve realized how much this fear has dictated my life. For the last decade, I’ve measured the quality of my life based on how many years it’s been since I was in a psychiatric ward. Contentment is calculated by the number of months that have passed since my last depressive episode.
It really took me aback, realizing that these are the things that I consider accomplishments (“Woohoo, I haven’t been in a psychiatric hospital for 10 years!”), instead of the things I should focus on, like getting a graduate degree, a scholarship to study Mandarin, building a career, having a nurturing marriage, friends I adore and my beautiful cat (I can’t write an entry and not mention George).
When I wrote my entries about depression earlier this year, I felt apprehensive about sharing such an intimate part of my life. But I’m glad I did, because I heard from people who have had similar experiences. I also got emails from some people who said that they did not think they could accomplish what I have, like living abroad.
I’m always worried about saying the right things when I get those emails because, honestly, I don’t have the answers. All I can say is – if you are taking care of yourself and reaching out for help, you have already taken the most important step. Doing these things might not feel brave, but it is. Please believe that.
One of my favorite books is “Lucy Gayheart” by Willa Cather. After the man Lucy loves drowns, she returns to her hometown paralyzed by grief. But one day, as she watches a snowfall, she is struck by an epiphany:
“Suddenly something flashed into her mind, so clear that it must have come from without, from the breathless quiet. What if–what if Life itself were the sweetheart? It was like a lover waiting for her in distant cities–across the sea: drawing her, enticing her, weaving a spell over her. She opened the window softly and knelt down beside it to breathe the cold air. She felt the snowflakes melt in her hair, on her hot cheeks. Oh, now she knew! She must have it, she couldn’t run away from it.”
That quote is actually less inspirational and more bittersweet in the context of the novel, but that’s one of the things I like about it. If you have major depressive disorder, there isn’t that one magical thing – medicine, therapy, even a positive attitude – that will make you invulnerable. I’m still trying to figure out how not to let depression define who I am. I try to relish the little things I see when I’m walking around Taipei. Sometimes I think I look like a total nincompoop with the way I freak out over a pretty light bulb or an old door, but those details serve as buoys, marking a path towards helping me feel connected to the world.
When I am depressed, it sometimes feel as if everything around me has turned dead and grey and I was a fool for ever seeing the beauty in it. But the world still turns without me – and it will still be there for me, in all its glory and vibrance, when I am ready to return to it.