“Hope is the feeling that the feeling you have isn’t permanent.” —Jean Kerr
And hope was the very thing that I lost.
My battle with depression lasted for three years, the three crucial years which contribute to your main adolescent phase. It wasn’t easy, because I did not share with anyone and no one could have even guessed that someone as outwardly cheerful as me could have been feeling depressed at that very point. Depression isn’t just sadness. It’s something much more than that. Being depressed is not what they flaunt over the internet. It is most definitely not the mascara running down your cheeks or a temporary mental instability. It’s not the over dosage of pills because your boyfriend broke up with you. It’s not the sad music and feeling your heart beat in sync with the lyrics when you can abandon the rhythm in a day’s time. If I dare to be more colloquial about this, depression is not and never will be fussing over the petty issues in life which won’t take more than a couple of days to fix. Depression cannot be paraphrased as the poetic darkness that you see on the Internet, it’s not writing about ashes, guns, smoke, lipstick stains and dust. Poetry is beautiful as it is dark if it’s done right but nothing about depression comes close to being remotely beautiful. Or romantic.
Depression is not pretty, it’s ugly. It’s the ugliest thing you will ever see. Which ironically, you will never really see it unless you sail that ship. You cannot lay your eyes upon a person and declare him depressed, it does not work like other illnesses do. Depression, if put brutally, is the deterioration of your thoughts, it’s having a tap slowly drain the happiness out of you, it’s heading towards a tangible nothingness. Depression, a thought process that is stained with fear and moroseness, is not a day’s planning. It’s not a child’s play to deal with and it certainly isn’t a convenience to find your way out. You generally don’t find your way out with ease. It’s the accumulation of years and years of being incompetent and insufficient. It’s being unfazed by the little drops of happiness that drip down your ceiling, for all you can see is yourself blindfolded and walking down a path that you have never tread. It’s knowing that you will lose your way and perhaps never make it back, but it’s being incapable of stepping out and taking a detour. You do it anyway.
Unlike most diseases, like illnesses, physical ones, there is no trace of the internal corrosion on the outside. There is no way to point out a depressed person among the crowd. They don’t stereotypically walk with their heads down or a cloud of rain above their heads. It’s painfully lethal on the inside as everything you think keeps slipping out of your grasp and falling, that you are incapable of summoning your thoughts any longer. Depression is not beautiful and it never will be. Quit romanticising it. Quit it. I know that teenagers need their high by making cigarettes look glamorous and heartbreaks an epiphany but depression is nowhere close to it. Depression is and always will be debris and destruction, until you fix your way back up.
I have trust issues. When you have trusted in the past and they either break your trust or leave you there with your secrets spilled, you are so afraid to trust again. And also because it was not an one off thing — the trust was broken cyclically. Because for people like me, trust is so important, crucial for our normal functioning even. I’ve learned that it takes years to build up trust, and it only takes suspicion, not proof, to destroy it. People like me exist. It is very normal to have trust issues. My guy, William Shakespeare says it well. “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” He wrote this in All’s Well That Ends Well. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!)
Trust issues don’t develop immediately. It has to stem from childhood incidents. Some painful events in our childhood leave unseen scars and have a profound impact on us throughout life. In an attempt to protect ourselves, we build a system of defenses against our pain, confusion, and disillusionment. If we were hurt by our loved ones’ dishonesty, we may see other people from a skewed perspective and develop harsh, cynical attitudes toward them. These self-protective defenses help us preserve an illusion of strength and invulnerability, yet these same defenses limit our capacity for trusting others and for finding fulfillment in a close relationship. Mistrust, doubts and suspicions are strongly influenced by the critical inner voice. This destructive thought process is part of the defense system we built as children; it consists of an internal dialogue that is antagonistic to our best interests and cynical toward other people. The critical inner voice is the culprit that triggers trust issues in people’s closest relationships.
For most of my life, I was a fugitive from my feelings. Psychologists suggest that we are driven by two connected motivations: to feel pleasure and avoid pain. Most of us devote more energy to the latter than the former. Instead of being proactive and making choices for our happiness, we react to things that happen in our lives, and fight or flee to minimise our pain. Instead of deciding to end an unhealthy relationship and open up to a better one, we may stay and either avoid confrontation or initiate one to feel a sense of control. Instead of leaving a horrible job to find one we love, we may stay and complain about it all the time, trying to minimise the pain of accepting the situation as real — and enduring until we change it. Because of many personal issues, I felt overwhelmed by pain. I ate my feelings. Sometimes I forgot how to breathe because of the pain. I sobbed. I wailed. I shook and convulsed. But I kept pushing them down, pretending everything was fine. Except when I did that, they didn’t just go away — they compounded on top each other and built up until eventually I exploded, with no idea why I felt so bad. One time when I was fourteen, I couldn’t open a jar of Nutella. After ten minutes of twisting, banging, and fighting, I finally threw it at a wall and broke down.You may think that was a sure sign I had emotional problems and assume there was some pill to help anesthetise that sadness.That’s what a lot of people think too. But the reality was a lot simpler: I simply never dealt with my feelings from events large and small, and eventually they dealt with me. As unpleasant as it may sound, I needed to learn how to feel bad—but first I needed to understand why I felt bad so often. It’s a whole lot easier to deal with pain when it’s not the default feeling.
It’s not always easy to understand a feeling when it happens, especially if you think you shouldn’t feel it; but forget about should. Instead, try to pinpoint exactly what you feel—scared, frustrated, worried, ashamed, agitated, angry—and then pinpoint what might be the cause. Reserve all judgement. You can ask yourself whether or not you’re overreacting to the event or worrying to find a sense of control. And then you can accept that there is an alternative—you can choose to interpret the situation a different way, soothe yourself, and then feel something different. No one else causes our feelings. Only we can choose and change them. Even if you reframe a situation to see things differently, there will be times when you still feel something that seems negative. While not every situation requires panic, sometimes our feelings are appropriate for the events going on in our lives. We are allowed to feel whatever we need to feel. If we lose someone, we’re allowed to hurt. If we hurt someone, we’re allowed to feel guilty. If we make a mistake, we’re allowed to feel regretful.
Positive thinking can be a powerful tool for happiness, but it’s more detrimental than helpful if we use it to avoid dealing with life. Pain is part of life, and we can’t avoid it by resisting it. We can only minimise it by accepting it and dealing with it well.That means feeling the pain and knowing it will pass. No feeling lasts forever. It means sitting in the discomfort and waiting before acting. There will come a time when you feel healed and empowered. I don’t regret much in life, whatever I have seen so far, but in retrospect, some of the most damaging decisions I have made have resulted from me feeling the need to do something with my emotions. I’d feel angry with myself. Our power comes from realising we don’t need to act on pain; and if we need to diffuse it, we can channel it into something healthy and productive, like writing, painting, or doing something physical. I discovered boxing. Pain is sometimes an indication we need to set boundaries, learn to say no more often, or take better care of ourselves. But sometimes it just means that it’s human to hurt, and we need to let ourselves go through it.
To help a depressed person, let him know you’re there for him/her. Make your presence felt and make sure they know that you’re not going to fizzle out like the rest of them did. Tell them why you’re there and help them pick their shards up, stitch them at the seams and most importantly, talk to them like they are human. Like you and I, like they are normal and not a patient. Do not invade their space and give them time, once they trust you, there is no going back. Stop denying their depression in front of them if they so happen to mention it, stop telling them that they’re not depressed. You’re not them and your heart isn’t bleeding as it is pumping. You’re not crumbling under the pressure of the atmosphere like they are. Whatever you do, do not leave them. Don’t you dare, because everything that you built up and everything that you sewed back together will rip apart and they’ll succumb and circle around the same treachery that they did prior to your presence; it’ll be worse and you would never want to do that to a person. Never.
Finally, stop trying to make depression look beautiful; it’s painful, it’s hurtful and it feels like a shout in the void. It’s an ache etched in the psyche and by not talking about it openly, you’re only discrediting it of its magnitude and you’re taking away the help people could need, the ones who shall not dare raise their voice for it is barely audible. Depression is a target on the psyche and it only goes on a downward spiral. It’s not beautiful and it never will be.
“There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.” —Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
If you have ever dealt with depression, just know that there is always help available. Don’t ever keep it to yourself like I did. After my PV sharing on my depression, so many seniors and peers have come up to me and either congratulated me for being so brave about it, shared with me their own battles with depression, or asked how they can help someone they know with depression. And I realised there are always good people around. Just because of a couple of bad experiences, you can’t shut yourself out from the world. And while depression is ugly, you don’t have to fight this battle yourself. Find a trusted friend or adult. If not, seek professional help. Singapore has many helplines available and it will all be confidential.
Lastly, I would like to leave you with a quote, for those who have been depressed/ are depressed/ just tired.
“You say you’re ‘depressed’ — all I see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective — it just means you’re human.” —David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Sekkappan Seval, 17S34
For more information about depression, please visit https://www.hpb.gov.sg/HOPPortal/health-article/10210.