How depression has affected me

Boxes and labels

I’ve been trying to escape labels and boxes my whole life. But I keep getting shoved in them. Or at least, that’s how I feel. I’m fully Chinese by ethnicity, born and raised in the USA. Several recurring key themes seem to be in my mindset, haunting me wherever I go.

My ‘darkness’

No matter how much I have grown as a person in more recent years, I still face what I like to call my ‘darkness’ –the insecurity, loneliness, hate, self-loathing, anger at myself and others (almost always internalised rather than expressed outwards), feelings of failure, rejection, and fear that so consume me, and have become the ingredients to the episodes of low mood, sadness, and/or depressive episodes that have been recurring themes in my life.

Feeling alone even though popular

I’ve felt alone my whole life, even though I’m one of the most popular and admired people amongst my friends back home in the States. And I had some great close friends whom I could share my heart and soul with too, but still, I felt haunted by loneliness.

Depression, low mood, ‘dysthymia’?

Sometimes I think back and wonder whether my lowest moments were indeed the severity of major depression, or simply low mood, or in psychology talk, dysthymia (a so-called lower-grade depression). I never went to a doctor, and only went for counselling when I was a postgraduate student, so never was diagnosed one thing or another and never received medication either, obviously, for those conditions.

Lifelong low mood

Whatever it was, who really cares what label I had? Maybe I had a bit of both, or hopped along the spectrum, but maybe like me, the inability to label (and other’s desire to label me) just fits part of the theme in itself. But truth be told, It doesn’t really matter, because my intense, low moods or darkness were real and they’ve been with me my whole life. My darkness feels like it’s been a part of me forever and it’s hard to re-imagine life without it.

Critical inner voices

Despite outward popularity and success, for much of the past 10 years or so I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with the critical voices in my emotions and mind that tell me, “I am worthless, unlovable, not important, I don’t belong anywhere, I will be alone forever” and such things.

Childhood insecurities pursued me into early adulthood

Along with a generally hypersensitive temperament, there are clear factors in my childhood which led to these inner critical voices, particularly the lifelong comparisons made in my family between my high-achieving and charismatic older brother and myself. I explore some of the childhood history of my low mood in the next section, but in my university days, it seemed that each new day never got easier as I grew older.

Emotional obsession

Maybe that’s why I became so attached to two girls over a period of 7 years. Both never became actual “girlfriends”, but still, some part of me needed them so much, that the emotional obsession just led me to relentlessly thinking about them almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and feeling absolutely distraught that they would never love me back as much as I cared for them.

Rejection

The first one I pursued too late and too strong and forward, which pushed her away, and she ended up telling me that she did not even want to be my friend anymore. As a pretty popular and admired guy, this shattered my world. Why would someone not even want to be friends with me?

Long depressive episode

But what this did was trigger almost a two year long depressive episode when I thought, once again, many of the things I had learned in my family interactions and developed into their own, new, reasons for low mood: “What’s wrong with me? Why, of all people, doesn’t she even want to be my friend when she actually used to like me before, both as a friend and even as something more?” I could not get her off of my mind for about a year and a half.

Tiredness, sadness, emptiness

Often times I would feel extremely tired during the day, and would not stop thinking about her, even while studying. I still did okay in school, because I think the workload kept my mind ‘free’ from the pain sometimes. But, after an intense period of studying, writing, or exams was over, I would feel the wave of sadness and emptiness overwhelm me again. And I would wish that I had more work to do.

Seemed okay on the outside

Interestingly, I would still go to social functions, be involved in church, and still “do things” on the outside that suggested I was all fine and happy. I pretended well. But the truth was, after any given outing, party or event, I would drive to a dark spot in a park, alone, thinking about this girl, and how I failed so miserably.

Screaming alone in the car

With nobody around, I would let out a gigantic scream in my car, and scream at God, with tears flowing down my face, wondering, why is this happening to somebody like me? “I try to be good, so why?” I never got an answer, and I would often end the screaming session feeling even worse, even more tired, even more alone, and wishing it would all just end.

Suicidal fantasies

It felt easier to dream of life being over in those moments. A big part of me wished I could just sleep, and never ever wake again. Or at least, when I awoke, I could just find myself in heaven, where I thought there were no tears, no pain, and no sadness. However, no matter how often I had these death-to-bliss fantasies, I refused to ever make any real plans of execution whatsoever, and just left them at wishful thoughts.

Briefly moved on

Though I would eventually move on from the first girl through a combination of friend’s support, my spiritual reliance and pushing myself to keep going on with life no matter how tough things seemed, I would fall into the same trend with the next girl, for about 4 more years.

Holding feelings in

We would get together regularly, and were quite close, but she was always with a boyfriend, and never saw me in that way, no matter how I acted. I never wanted to get in the way, so I held my feelings in, thinking that I was being such a noble, heroic person for doing so.

Intensified depression

But the darkness and the wave of sadness continued to eat away at me, much like it did with the previous girl. And in my attempt to hold it in, my darkness came back at me with a vengeance, that would double all of the intense emotions of sadness and disappointment I felt in the prior years in both emotional intensity and time length.

Better at pretending as things got worse

Even worse, I became better and better at pretending that all was well in my social life and increasing popularity, even though all was not. Sometimes, though, I would ‘disappear’ early from a social function without saying a word to anyone, citing I had to go study or that I had a long day.

Obsessive rumination

Many times, though, my day was only long because I had been obsessively thinking about the girl all day and mulling over my own self-pity, thinking how I wished this and that. I drained myself with my own thoughts that refused to stop. My thoughts refused to cooperate to my whims, and they overruled me, feeding into stronger and more intense emotions of despair and self-loathing.

Waves of emotion

I should mention that the emotional intensities came in waves, as I suppose most emotions do. Sometimes they were kinder to me, and other times, they rushed at me with a vengeance.

Suicidal thinking

Through my darkest hours, I did often ‘dream’ of how quick it would all end if I would just steer my driving wheel the wrong way on the highway, or if my body suddenly failed me and allowed me to go Home to the heaven I thought I believed in.

Crying for help

But, these dreams of making things easier through ending my life were never more than wishful thoughts, because I never had the courage (or foolishness) to think of a plan, time, date, etc. It was a real wish, but it was more a child who had fallen on the street, gotten really hurt, crying and calling for someone to just take him Home. I just didn’t want to hurt anymore.

Making a bit of progress

Into my mid-twenties, I began to learn from these experiences with the girls and finally started the process of moving on and recovering emotionally. Being accepted into my dream Masters degree program really helped shift my focus in life.

Bereavement

Then, right when I thought all was going well, life threw another gigantic curveball at me. My mom died. God took my mom away…forever….all because of a heart attack. It was completely unexpected. I was absolutely inconsolable, no matter how strongly I believed in God and a heaven for those who died. None of it mattered, because mom was not with me anymore, to protect me and guide me. I would never see her again, for as long as I lived here on this planet.

Deep grief

From that moment on, I would truly learn what it meant to miss someone. Words cannot describe the grief of it all. But if I once thought that my screams of agony in the car over some girls were the worst possible emotions I could ever feel…I was dead wrong, and perhaps somewhat naïve. Losing my mom felt surely 100 times more torturous. I really didn’t know how I could bear it all, in what seemed like the worst decade of my short life thus far.

Intensified insecurity

But on top of the deep, deep grief, grew a discovery of even deeper insecurities through losing the safety and security that having a mother provided me. Everything had changed. I hated change. Nothing mattered. Pretending to be happy was irrelevant. I had many nights crying with my dearest friends over the worst few weeks of my life thus far. I didn’t know if it would ever pass.

Deeper into darkness

The faith of our family helped us through several months, but after the adrenaline of the shock regarding my mom’s death passed, I was forced to once again face the darkness that had so plagued me for almost my whole life. Worst of all, with my mom’s death, it felt like whatever barriers or protective measures my mind had created to protect me from the darkness had completely crumbled.

New wave of self-loathing

I entered a completely new wave of extremely low mood (and quite possibly a major depressive episode, though, it’s still hard to box myself and what I felt), filled with self doubts, fierce, fiery hate towards myself and God, blaming myself for not being a better son to my mom, and detesting myself for being unable to express fully just how much I feared the same deathly fate would meet my dad.

Lost sense of self

I lost all sense of who I was, and perhaps, these months of dealing with grief were the only moments I didn’t even care to pretend anymore to the social world ahead.

Guilt

And if it did, I worried that I would be forgetting my mom if I was not sad anymore. I felt great guilt at the idea of not being sad anymore. I didn’t know what to do. All I saw, knew, heard, and felt was pain, suffering, insecurity, uncertainty and darkness.

Prayed for life to end

I really wanted it all to end and begged God to do something to let me go to heaven and see my mom again. I prayed that I refused to take my own life because it’s really a stupid thing to do and would absolutely destroy my family, but I twisted myself into thinking that surely, if God could take my life from me, then it would be justified. This made no sense of course, but, that’s how I felt.

Insomnia

Sleepless nights aplenty were abound, and I would occasionally dream of mom and better times. But I would wake up with a wave of deep despair, realizing, that the dream was not reality. Though I could fall sleep easily, my mind never stopped racing through my sleep. So I’m not sure how well I slept. I often felt tired lots.

International student in UK

Here in the UK I have continued the pattern of searching outside outside for happiness and I’m quickly becoming once again popular and admired. But, for some reason, no matter what, it’s difficult for me to shake the feeling that I’m alone, misunderstood, boxed, hated.

Still hating myself sometimes

Sometimes, in fact, I absolutely hate myself. I become angry at myself, and disappointed at who I am, who I’m becoming, or who I’m not becoming. I call myself a failure, and an inner war erupts inside my very heart and mind.

Culture shock

This was especially true during the first few months here in a new school, a new country, and with no familiarity. I had never been away from home before, and so everything was uncertain and a great unknown.

Hard to engage

During these first few months upon arrival to the United Kingdom to start my PhD program, I didn’t care to meet new friends, establish meaningful connections and friendships, or do anything beyond the status quo. Classmates were simply classmates, and even my research was only somewhat important.

Watching TV and not leaving room

I felt like I didn’t want to do anything except stay in my dorm room, watch my videos, movies, and television episodes. Some weeks I would stay in my dorm and never leave the building for several days. I was escaping, I believe. Or at least trying to escape my deepest insecurities that I didn’t want to face.

Intense loneliness

Soon, being alone in this new land, I could see just how much a battle waged within my body between me, myself and I. There were some moments I felt so alone that I just cried, started shaking, and just went to sleep from the emotional intensity.

Why me?

Hypersensitive child

I grew up as a pretty hypersensitive kid, and a shy one. As far as I can remember, I’ve always been deeply anxious and afraid of absolutely everything. I’ve always tried to ‘conquer fears’, because it was the right thing to do, and my older brother by 5 years seemed completely unafraid, daring, and adventurous.

Comparison with brother

So often I felt that I could not live up to his popularity and outgoing extraversion. I remember, that if an auntie would say how wonderful he was and praise him endlessly and say nothing to me, I would simply sit there in silence, wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not worthy of this praise? Why don’t I have any compliments coming towards me? Maybe I’m just unlovable, and not special”.

Failure and insecurity

Don’t get me wrong, I also thought my brother was totally wonderful, as he was my idol growing up. But for the 20 years or so that I wanted to be just like my brother, I ultimately failed. And this failure just kept adding more and more disappointment and sadness to my already fragile self-esteem and insecurities.

‘Outsider’ in the family

I often felt like the outsider, the loser in the family, the one nobody cared about… like I was invisible, the one everybody ignored. Even with my nuclear family, I was always the last to know anything that happened in the family.

Arguments

And certainly through the arguments, it was two or three of them (mom, dad, brother), or some combination of them, always screaming it out, and I would just huddle in my room, safely protected by my blanket, away from the intense, emotional world of the rest of my family. Sure, they always made up at the end, but, if there’s always a resolution, why fight at all? I never understood, but could only cower in fear at the intense words and screams that echoed through my bedroom wall. And door.

Threats of divorce

Some of these arguments were extremely frightening, and involved threats of divorce when I was only maybe 7 or 8 years old. I heard this, and just shutdown and cowered in fear, huddling in a hidden, little protective nook I created between the wall and an open door, obsessing over how different, terrible and lonely life would be without my dad or mom. Thankfully, the threat never panned out, but that didn’t mean the arguments ever stopped ringing in my ears through the years that came.

Felt different

It felt sometimes like my parents were always so afraid of hurting me, of yelling at me, afraid of stepping on eggshells, that their fear made me think, “What are they so afraid of? Why are they afraid of hurting me? Is something wrong with me?”. Again, I always felt that ‘something’ was wrong with me. I was different. I was so afraid of being me. I didn’t even know anything. Heck, I was just a kid.

Kept as ‘the baby’

If, at any time, I did felt seen, I felt like I was just the kid who needed help, needed to be cajoled, supported, and soothed; yes, I was clearly that weak a person (so I thought to myself). I was so weak, worthless, and useless in the family that when I wasn’t invisible, I was just a sick little baby who needed to take any sort of good my family could offer me.

Trapped in a role

Sure, maybe when I was a baby, this was okay, but, through my teens? Through my early twenties? Was it me? Or was it them? Or all of us? I don’t know. But I felt trapped, and surely, all I knew was how to be the dependent, invisible, child who was unwilling to ever fight. I always wanted peace, no matter the cost.

Needing escape from intensity

You see, with peace, meant, I didn’t need to feel the intense emotions that were happening outside me. I wouldn’t need to hear the arguments, or screams. And I wouldn’t need to feel each person’s own emotional pain within my own hypersensitive body, mind, and heart. Sometimes, I thought, it would just be easier to close my eyes, and sleep forever in a happy, blissful dream when all is well, and wake up to a new world when all is going to work out.

Ongoing into adulthood

I vividly remember one moment in my early twenties when my dad slapped my brother and then my brother retaliated by punching and shoving my dad to the floor. I had never seen the two most important men in my life fight it out like that, and certainly never seen my invincible father crumble so weakly before. I felt as helpless and powerless in my early twenties as I did cowering in that wall-door nook when I was 7 or 8.

No voice

I had no voice, and no sense of willpower or desire to be involved in the fight, and certainly felt too useless to create change or a difference that mattered. Because if I did try, I would fail. Just like I thought I always did. And I would just get hurt. And cry, and feel alone, worthless, useless, and invisible all over again.

Ongoing insecurity

So these attitudes and self-beliefs perpetuated for years as I grew up. Even as I adopted successful social skills to become ‘popular’ with friends and so forth, I felt so insecure so often. And I so desperately longed to find someone that could tell me, “You’re important, I love you for who you are”.

What’s helped

Help from friends

Throughout much of my story, I did have enough courage to seek out my friends. Even though I tend to cower into a shell and not want to talk to anybody if I feel bad, lonely or anything else negative, there is always a threshold for me when I realize I need to talk to someone. It’s hard to pinpoint when and how this threshold happens.

Talking to others

What I always found most helpful was talking to someone who would be non-judgmental, willing to listen, and able to challenge me to see myself in a way that I could not. More recently, this would be a counsellor, but in some years when I was too afraid to seek one out, I would simply rely on friends.

Mentors

Sometimes I talked to older mentors like professors, uncles, etc. And though they didn’t have the training, they were there to support me with a listening ear, some hugs, and just by being available for me. Certainly through my mom’s death, having some great friends, mentors etc. was tremendously helpful.

Starting to understand myself

When doing my Masters, some training I had when I happened to volunteer for a student-run helpline stressed the importance of volunteers being prepared to accept help for their own issues, and led me onto the path of some personal counselling. This was extremely helpful in helping me learn the reasons at my long unhealthy attachments, and how to go about seeing my life in different perspectives, with more constructive lenses.

Realising suicidal thoughts were about wish for a better life

Despite some of the scarier moments my thoughts have taken me, I think the biggest factor in my resilience to refuse to actively act on any life-ending option that I ‘dreamed’ about was precisely realizing that what I really wanted through a wish for death, was a wish to live…to really live. For the pain to be over, but not at the expense of abandoning my greater dreams I had for my own life.

Focusing on how suicide would affect others

So, on the positive side of my hypersensitivity, I was often focused on what other people would think, and if I ever realistically considered doing anything stupid, I was fully sensitive to how hard it would be for my family, my friends, and even the God I believed in (though hated and abandoned for a while), to see me depart from here. And if I hated myself or my life, the one thing I hated more was ‘hurting others’ And that always kept me from ever thinking beyond a ‘wish’.

Faith

It helped that my religious beliefs also frowned upon such acts (with the story of Judas hanging himself and all), so there was plenty of forces that strongly told me, “Sure, you can dream it, but never go beyond just the dream of death. Never plan for how or when”. In general my spiritual resilience has also helped me in overcoming painful times.

Exercise and healthy eating

I’ve also found little things like exercise can go a long way to help keep the emotions regulated (so there’s not so many valleys and peaks, but somewhat more steady). Eating healthy and regularly also helps balance my emotions too.

Creative pursuits

Furthermore, for me, accessing my creativity is really quite therapeutic for me. For example, I may do some songwriting, write a story, draw something freely, play an instrument, or do something innovative that allows me to express my desire to create. This automatically puts my mind at rest from self-loathing and hate, because I become so focused on a passion of mine: creating. And then, what helps after this, is letting myself share it with someone else, or many people.

Facing my darkness

When I first moved to the United Kingdom, I actually refrained from purposefully seeking a community of friends for several months. This was intentional so that I could face my darkness, as pathetic as I sometimes thought it looked (e.g. always in my dorm watching TV). (At the same time, I did have a safety measure though, in case I got carried away with this, and this was seeing a counsellor at university, which I had purposefully decided to seek out when I arrived.)

Giving myself permission to be unwell

What I realized was important was to give myself some ‘permission’ to become bedridden as if I have a physical sickness. I realized there was a reason that I didn’t want to leave the dorm room, and this was because I was feeling unwell in my own way (e.g. emotionally), so for me, one of the most important things I did was to just let myself see my staying-in as a means to ‘recovery’ and ‘rest’ that I really needed.

Allowing myself time to recharge

After several bedridden days, I was able to refocus myself, and set some goals for myself, realizing after a good long multi-day rest that I wanted to do more than just do my research, stay in my dorm, and watch TV. So the subsequent motivation to get up, go out, meet new people, and enjoy doing so then, became less about forcing myself to do so, and was in fact, quite natural, and what I really wanted to do. Because I had recharged, and had rested, and was ready to face the world.

‘Befriending’ my darkness

I’ve also found that facing, engaging, or even ‘befriending’ my darkness has been helpful to me. The reason I say, ‘befriending’, is because there’s a reason that I feel so lonely, hate myself, have low self worth etc. And avoiding, escaping, or pushing it away somewhere in a small corner within my mind or heart does not help me whatsoever. In fact, it makes things worse often, and drains more of my energy just to push it away.

Accepting and allowing my feelings

So by befriending it, I let myself feel the wave of emotions that my body, mind and heart want to feel. I journal about it, or reflect on it, and let it pass naturally when it is time to. Of course, this can get quite intense, so if I know that whatever darkness I’m facing is a very deep, difficult one, I make sure I have support from e.g. counsellor, friend, mentor, to keep my accountable and always thinking from a perspective outside myself.

Learning to take ‘baby steps’…

Oftentimes breaking my habits or ways of doing thing or thinking is tremendously difficult, especially when I’m so afraid, and self-loathing. So, then, I give myself practical baby steps. For instance, if I desperately want to talk to somebody about a problem, but, for some reason, I’m too afraid, or have put myself into a paradoxical funk where I ‘want to, but I don’t’, what I might do as a baby step is to ‘check in’ with someone on a non-threatening environment like Facebook, or MSN Messenger or someone…

…and building on these to go forward

Here, the threat of judgement feels less strong, and may help me open up a bit. At the same time, I realize the importance of opening up in person too about my darkness or low moods (and what triggers these), so then, I will then do baby steps of, for example, several MSN conversations, and then arrange a get-together in person to chat about life over coffee or something. I have found this method extremely valuable, rewarding, and definitely healing.

What I’ve learnt

Work on understanding your own personal ‘why me?’…

Befriending my darkness however, is perhaps one of the, if not the, hardest thing I want to do. Even as I write, I find it difficult to fully embrace and befriend my darkness. One thing I have figured out though is that, the more I look deep into the face of my low moods and darkness, the more I realize just how tangled it is with all these other emotions, struggles and pains I have experienced in my life.

…But don’t ruminate obsessively about it…

Searching and understanding my history, the reasons why I feel the way I feel has been great – becoming aware goes a long way… But I’ve also learned that I tend to become obsessive over the details if I’m facing my darkness on my own.

…And make sure you’ve got trusted people to talk to

That’s why I learned just how essential having people I trust in my life is. So, if I get lost facing, befriending, or dancing with my darkness, I know there is somebody I can talk to who can help me reset my perspective and lead me out of my ruminations. When my mom died, this support from others was especially important.

Find a balance between retreat and advance

Sometimes, it’s good to permit oneself to rest and allow self to recover and then there’ s a greater willingness to do things. But at other times, sometimes it’s just about taking action, and doing it anyways, regardless of whether I feel like it or not. This can certainly be a draining way to approach, but it can be effective as well, until it transforms into something much more natural and kind to my energy resources.

Treat yourself with kindness and compassion

At first, I thought it was best described as ‘forcing’ myself, and while to some extent it’s true, I have also had too many times when I ‘forced’ myself, and it just made things worse. So the trick for me has been to nudge, even strongly encourage myself to do something, take a risk or whatnot, but for me, using these words removes the pressure that comes with ‘forcing’ myself.

Connect with others

I’d certainly recommend pushing oneself to be part of a social group, especially when feeling lonely. Especially with today’s technological age, there’s no reason to face the world alone. Even if you don’t ‘feel’ like they belong anywhere, there’s at least a greater opportunity to develop some memories where laughs, smiles, or good times can still be accessed in the back of the mind, should a low, depressive mood or episode rear itself.

Learn a realistic attitude to ‘control’

And, for working through confidence and insecurity issues, I would recommend learning about what one can and cannot control, and realizing how one can only control oneself, and not others. And any thought or feeling to impose control on someone else’s feelings or thoughts simply creates one’s own suffering.

Related

Depressed thinking
Seeing depression differently
Taking care of yourself