The first step to recovering from depression for me was to admit to myself that I wasn’t well. For a long while, I doubted my feelings in fear of judgement. Born and raised in Hong Kong, most people don’t really understand what mental health is. Being ‘mentally ill’ always triggered a negative connotation. I didn’t want to be labeled as ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical’. These were the things they said because they didn’t understand, and how I kept my depression hidden until I reached a breaking point.
‘How Can You Be Depressed?’
In retrospect, my time in secondary school shaped my view of ‘success’. I attended a reputable girls’ school where we were expected to be all rounded ‘women of excellence’. We shouldn’t settle for second place in competitions, nor a less prestigious university or profession. While I had a vibrant school life with people excelling in different things, there was also a mounting feeling of inadequacy within – a fear of never being as good as an athlete, a musician, an artist, a student, a person, as them.
Constantly present was the need to achieve more, to prove myself capable, intelligent. The prevailing desire to find and excel in my niche which everyone would approve of. There was always a goal: getting first in competitions, getting into the most esteemed programs in top universities, Hong Kong or otherwise.
So when I managed to get accepted into one of the most prestigious universities in the world, I think I lost my right to be sad.
‘How can you be sad? You got into Oxford,’ my parents and friends would say when I went to them with my problems. I knew I should be happy. But I wasn’t. What if I couldn’t deal with my degree? What if everyone was better than me? What if I get kicked out of university because I failed my exams? Would my parents disown me? Would my friends ignore me if I wasn’t successful?
An unsettling sense of anxiety slowly started to set in during the summer before I was supposed to start university. Thoughts swirling, churning, until I couldn’t sleep at night and I started binge eating. I wasn’t even accepted into a program like Law or Medicine. Getting into Oxford doesn’t mean that I would do well. What about my career prospects? What’s next? What should I do for people to think that I’m good enough?
I lost all sense of direction. These thoughts would consume me whenever I was alone. I simply couldn’t entertain the consequences of not being good enough. Either I do well, or I don’t deserve to exist. There is nothing else in my mind.
‘I feel depressed’ was a phrase I would use in conversation with friends. It was only momentary, a hyperbolic term to use to sound dramatic. I am ‘strong enough’ to not get clinically depressed, right?
‘Just Get Over It’
Growing up, there was never any education or information on mental health. There were school counsellors or social workers, but you would only see them if you were ‘problematic’ in class. ‘Normal’ kids don’t need counselling. And I was used to being ‘normal’.
When I was stressed or sad or angry at things happening to me, my parents would tell me to ‘get over it’. Surely, there are more things to worry about when we start manoeuvring society as adults.
So, I tried to ‘get over it’. Get over the fact that I felt exceedingly inadequate for university. Get over feeling that I don’t deserve the things I have in life right now. Get over it when my essays didn’t come back with stellar comments from my tutors. Get over it when I think I made a mistake for something important. Get over it when I fought with my boyfriend. Get over it when my relationship ended. Get over it when I felt everyone hated me, and the whole world would be better off without me in it.
I had to get over it, because life goes on. These things were petty compared to the bigger problems in life, in society. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let it go. I gradually lost motivation, from my studies to the simplest of tasks like grocery shopping or taking a shower.
Everyone I approached with my problems, they would say: ‘It’s going to be alright. Things will turn out okay.’ I would smile, nod, and thank them for the advice. On the inside, I felt completely misunderstood. I wanted to yell at them. But then, these were people closest to me. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
I told myself to shut up instead. Don’t tell anyone that you are stressed, sad, exhausted, numb or even at times, suicidal. Because everyone has their own issues to deal with, and they don’t need to hear you vent out your frustrations. No one cares or wants to listen.
Just get over it.
‘It Doesn’t Solve Your Problems’
I suppressed all the pain and let depression take over my life without even realising it. It wasn’t until I ended up at the hospital that my friends and family realised I was serious when I told them I was depressed. Even still, not everyone understood the implications of it.
‘Hurting yourself doesn’t solve anything,’ Someone still told me while I was sitting dejectedly in a hospital ward with an IV in my arm. ‘I have given you advice on this so many times. You just lack determination to solve your own problems. Hurting yourself will only hurt people that care for you. Why would you want your parents and your friends to feel the guilt of losing you? It’s quite irresponsible of you to think so.’
This is just a microcosm of the responses I would get from friends and family when I talk to them about my depression.
It’s not like I don’t know these things. But feeling numb is a pain beyond torture – I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemies. Depression hardened my resolve to leave the world, and depression convinced me that it was for the better: the people I loved would be happier without me.
Depression can alter one’s personality completely, and turn them into a shell of their former self. It was hard for me to come to terms on how tight the grip of depression is on myself. So how can I expect others to understand?
Mental health is something still foreign to Asian communities, especially to older generations. They have gone through impossible hardships like war and poverty to get to where they are today. Their mentality is to ‘keep your head down and persevere’ when it comes to hardships. It is a value that I still appreciate and admire and aspire to be able to embody. Nonetheless, we should no longer sweep this issue under the carpet.
We need to open a conversation on mental health within our communities. The number of depression diagnosis and other mental health issues has been on the rise in recent years, especially among millennials. Having depression, anxiety or any mental condition is the same as catching a cold or breaking a bone. Would you tell someone to ‘get over it’ if they told you they were down with the flu?
Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re crazy. You’re just ill, like everyone else. You need professional help to get better, just like any health issue. But one thing you should know is this: You are in a position of strength if you realize you need treatment.
Like our parents or grandparents that have overcome challenges to provide us with a better life, you are trying to persevere through your own hardship by asking for help, because you are not letting yourself drown without a fight. And you do not have to be alone in this battle. Truth be told, I still need to accept this myself. We are all a work in progress.
I will always find it hard to explain depression to someone. It’s a demon in my head, waiting for its next opportunity to possess me and drag me down. But I can’t deny to myself that it doesn’t exist, because how can one fight something that they deny exists?
I think the simplest way to put it is this: Show some love to people, you never know – someone might just really need it.