On mental illness; anxiety and depression. The good and the not-so-good.

I am not on anti-depressants now, but I think my anxiety has been back since November last year. I track my moods on a large calendar and the frequency of darkened boxes has been increasing. It used to be just one or two lines of ‘ribcage felt constricted today’, ‘heartbeat randomly increasing after dinner’, ‘not wanting to be in crowds’, but there are weeks with two or three days covered in washi tape. It’s kind of ironic, washi tape can be used to hold things together, to stick memorabilia onto the walls, but it can also be used to mark the loss of my mind.

There is this quote, “pay attention to what you pay attention to”. Right now I am just trying to not overstretch myself and concentrate on all the good things I have, like-

  • Being in groups and not cliques (Thai food, Burmese food, cycling tomorrow, trampoline on Monday, children’s church tomorrow too, my grandmother’s birthday lunch is this week)
  • Hand written letters, and post cards overseas.
  • Journaling, both art and random long essays
  • Mixing colours and using black ink to draw simple things, like the outline of mountains.
  • Spending time alone
  • Good food, I like bak chor mee and chendol and satay and chicken wings and pig organ soup.
  • Talking to strangers
  • Being present with friends
  • Emotional honesty
  • When people care for me.
  • Creating art, planning for tapestries and realising that I don’t have enough money to buy what I want ): FABRIC MARKERS. Fabric mediums!!
  • Nature
  • Swimming, but I now have an obvious swimsuit tan
  • Jam biscuits
  • Listening to live acoustics by the river
  • Long walks by the beach
  • Near dogs
  • Night cycles

Through my experiences in life, I narrate my life over and over again, sometimes to people who do not care, but sometimes, to people who love me, and are loved in return. We will not all play equal roles in the autobiographies of other people but we can all appreciate a warm gesture or a kind word, like being invited to a dinner even though I am not part of that clique, just so that I can get to know more people.

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Austin Kleon

During supper, it came up that a DG mate named D had depression since he was in secondary school. He only sought help recently (in his late twenties now) and he uses it as a testimony of how he came to know God. I am amazed that he is alive because if I had to go through black moods for more than a year, I would definitely not be alive right now. What more for a decade. How did he manage to cling on?

My mind went back to all the things I’ve experienced since J1. How have I changed, why is there still a stigma against mental illness, why is there little compassion even if you are deeply rooted in your own pain and everyone else can see the side effects of your life’s potential wasting away. Things and people were lost to me. They weren’t taken away, because it was my own body reacting. They were just lost.

I felt loss at every hand. The loss of self-esteem is a celebrated symptom, and my own sense of self had all but disappeared, along with any self-reliance. This loss can quickly degenerate into dependence, and from dependence into infantile dread. One dreads the loss of all things, all people close and dear. There is an acute fear of abandonment.
― William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Too many depressive episodes have been recounted publicly and yet, not enough. With mental illness no one is sure of what they have become, and who they are, anymore, and how many people actually record their moods during their first episode? There is still a stigma against mental illness, even in this church community where a pastor has publicly spoken about his moods. Pastor John wrote a book titled ‘A Gentle Mind’. It is a very short read, but it reminds me that there are other people out there who have experienced what I did.

I remember telling my doctor that I didn’t know how to react when the medication finally started working and it took months, before I realised what was going on. The world wasn’t changing, even though it felt like there was more. More emotion, more experiences. More of life. Dr G told me that it is normal to feel that way, just be careful with how I am going about my daily life so that I will not overwhelm myself and shut down. It felt like- you know how you think the window is clean, until you wipe it down with a micro fibre cloth and then you realise that actually it was all dusty and grey? With medication, if it works, you start to see the sunlight clearly again. It is no longer being submerged in a mentally painful fog, constantly swinging between memories of what you used to experience, wanting it to be normal again, and not knowing if your fragile psyche can deal with anything more right now. All humans speak of life as if it is precious, if only we could see.

If there’s a medication that you have to be reliant on, or if there is a source of help- take it. Take whatever you can get, to where you need to be, even if where you need to be is what other ‘normal’ people take for granted on a daily basis and you feel almost childish for needing it. Take the medication to feel the sunshine and to connect to other humans, to feel happiness, however fleeting. To see the world in more than one shade of grey. Even when your natural faculties like your mind is not cooperating with you, when conversations just pass over your head and you can’t think deeply into anything, the words you read seem to be lost from your mind the moment you move on to the next sentence- take the medication. And then wait.

After three years with Dr G she told me it was a pleasure to see me going back to my old life, the happy and ambitious one, even though she did not know me before mental illness. She said I was growing up to be a young woman. I didn’t want to die anymore. And in a less melodramatic fashion, I didn’t want to cut myself anymore and go around with little coloured dinosaur plasters on my arm. I really like dinosaurs hahaha. Because it helped me feel, even for a little while. When there is physical pain the mind turns alert and you feel definitely alive. Not a cry for help, just to feel like your physical body exists.

It is stupid and irrational to a normal person, but going to that point made me understand that I had to throw away all ideas of who I used to be and all my mom’s scoldings about how I wouldn’t get a scholarship yada yada, because I had to save myself above all. Disregarding her nagging about how I just need to work harder, I went to see my first psychiatric doctor on my own. She only came around to the idea of mental illness after I was on medication from a public hospital for a while, and then she took me to private doctors.

Mental illness might leave you, at least temporarily, but the familiarity with it all- the old moods, old habits to cope- it is like an old glove. You stop trusting yourself. And lowered self-esteem. How could I be worth much, after all that I have seen and done, especially to my friends at that time. I wish I could trust my mind again. But I don’t know how to. It is a long journey- even till now when I hear about other people’s depressive episodes, I get this old fear. The fear that I will relapse. And there will be all this wasted potential again.

I didn’t recover in time to perform at my usual levels for the A levels, neither did I apply for any scholarships. My mind didn’t break, but it felt like any additional pressure could cause a relapse. I went to a local university on my parents’ dime and nothing happened, the world didn’t end, despite my mother telling me that it would. I did well in university, and she no longer cared, because it’s a local university anyway, who cares? It’s not Cambridge or Oxford. Comparison truly is the thief of joy, especially when I am comparing myself to people with much better socioeconomic backgrounds, better health, different talents, healthier parenting styles.

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Austin Kleon

I wanted to call this post ‘the lost years’ but looking back I think I gained more than I lost. In this past year, I think I have made my peace, especially having completed my bachelors and realising that there’s indeed a whole new world ahead. Of ugly watercolour dinosaurs and lots of books and friends who will feel the same way as I do. Yes I still have three ugly scars on my arm that won’t go away (the rest did) but they are small, and anyway I have a lot of scars so never mind. At least they aren’t purple like the ones on my knees ):

I am no longer in the rat race, I have found my identity, separate from others (I like groups but not cliques), I have many hobbies that I never had in JC/start of uni because these are things I could do alone and be engrossed in. I know that I am aware of my self. And because I am aware, I am able to relate to other people who have been through similar things. You know what’s rare and valuable? Going through periods of loneliness that teaches you to empathise with other people’s pain. Being able to say ‘I’ll be there for you’, because I know that I am not a judgey ass, and I can truly be there. Regardless of what it is. Even if my friends go to prison or have to go through chemotherapy, or transgender surgery, or gay marriages, I can be there.

If anything, I learned to grow into an adult human being in the past few years. Knowing that my pain and discomfort is universal, and that life is short, it helps me to curate my experiences- not huddling into a ball whenever I feel uncomfortable, because sensations are impermanent and therefore enjoyable. And spending more time on the things I enjoy. Not following the crowd.

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Austin Kleon