On Recovering from Depression
On Recovering from Depression
The topic of mental health deterioration is no stranger to Gen Z and in modern society. As a teacher I am quite familiar with the depressive symptoms that I sometimes see in my Gen Z students. And as someone who had to cope with severe depression in the past myself I know with my whole heart how difficult life is for them. No matter what causes depression, the end results are always the same: loss of motivation, loss of self-control, loss of sleep, loss of health, and sometimes loss of the sheer will to live. And now, also as someone who has overcome this despair, I’d like to share part of my story in the hope that others out there can relate and maybe get something out of it.
The prolonged depressed years
My worst episode of depression kicked in early in 2017, after my one-year study in London. The people I met and had to say goodbye to in London shook me to the core (I wrote a blog about my London time here, in Vietnamese though), and I returned home, completely shattered. I went through months of deep distress when I would lock myself in the room and cry for long hours almost every day, sometimes for certain reasons and sometimes for no particular reasons at all. I thought of death on a daily basis, and I was genuinely envious of a friend of mine in London, the one who died of a seizure, alone in his room, just a few days before graduation. I thought of him and wished that it were me.
Nevertheless, I still tried my best to stay sane and reasoned with myself why I still had to cope with life. I imagined how sad and unhappy my family and friends would be, and how my death would be the reason for their suffering. And thus, I moved on. I even developed an extreme coping mechanism. I said to myself: only the cowards and quitters who do not have any courage in them (to face their problems) would take their own life. And with that reason in mind, I persuaded myself: I’m not a coward! Therefore, when I read the news of Chester Bennington’s suicide, I actually told a close friend of mine: He was a coward, and I had no sympathy for him. My friend was shocked at the reaction, but he didn’t know it was only my coping mechanism against my real feeling: I envied the dead one.
I lost every motivation in doing the things that I used to like doing so much. I tried to avoid meeting friends because I never knew when I would suddenly burst into tears. I struggled even to keep up with work. Luckily at that time I had an online business and worked mainly at home; thus, even if I was crying while writing emails or doing my things, no one would notice. During the whole time, I was so successful at hiding my depressive symptoms that no one even knew of the problem, except for that friend who would give me a space to cry even when he was shocked at my reaction calling the people who killed themselves cowards. There were days when I just didn’t leave the house, couldn’t even get out of bed, either slept too much or didn’t sleep at all, and most of the time I just lay motionlessly as if waiting for the end of the world.
Looking back, I realised I already had depressive symptoms since my teenage years. My childhood was not a fulfilling one and I had developed certain coping mechanisms to deal with it. First is anger. Let me tell you, if you meet me nowadays you wouldn’t know how hot-tempered I used to be in my teenage and early 20s years; I remember someone using the word “crazy” on me and I knew he didn’t even exaggerate. Second is a complete shutdown of genuine feelings. Only close friends could sense how “fake” I was with all the over-cheerful attitude and how alone I was even among a crowd. Third is a reckless lifestyle. I would travel far and wide on my own and didn’t care sh*t about what might happen; sometimes it felt like I was expecting harm itself. Finally and worst of all is an inclination to pain and self-harm. I once locked myself in the bathroom and cut my finger to let it bleed for quite a while. I was frightened afterwards by the sick nature of the action, but only when reading more about depression did I realise it was a common symptom. Later on, I would get a tattoo every time I fell down in the abyss. The tattoos were around my waist because I read that it was the most painful place in the body to be inked.
Overall, just for the record, until today I have actually lived with depression for around 20 years, which made up more than half of my life, untreated, hidden, pained and ashamed. Nowadays, even when I am in a tranquil mood and mostly healed, sitting down and writing these lines still gives me moist eyes. It might be a millenial’s habit to hide our problems so I’m happy to see that at least Gen Z is outspoken about it.
Facing the root of depression
Believe it or not, even when I was so lost in my depressive thoughts and avoided the outside world, there was one good thing: I had more time to look inside, and little by little, was able to see eye to eye with the root cause of my depression. It was extremely painful at first to call out its true name. I think many people stop at this stage and thus, are never able to overcome their distress. Luckily, I did not give in. I went through my early years and picked out every single cause that ever made me suffer: childhood trauma, self-disappointment, envy, failed expectation, heartbreak – again, all common roots in modern society that I am sure you can see yourself in at least one of these.
But the 2017 episode was different from all of that; it was something larger than I had ever handled. A bit earlier, in 2015, for the first time in my life I experienced an empathy so large that I almost couldn’t hold up. It was when I had an allergy so bad during a summer heatwave that made me deeply empathise with the suffering of the thousands who died in the same catastrophic summer in India and Pakistan (I also blogged about this experience here). And if that deadly summer rang the first bell, then the London time completely woke me up. Seeing the suffering of the homeless and refugees in London and talking with them, I felt like something in me was either dead or reborn. It was during that time I had the chance to look barely into my own conditions and realised how privileged I was. Thereafter, I constantly carried a feeling of bewilderment: why do I have so much while others don’t? And let me tell you: knowing it from textbooks is not enough, you have to experience that empathy and that realisation to understand how heavy it feels on your shoulders.
And with that question in mind, I finally made it to identify the root cause of my depression. It was just one word: guilt! A guilt of having too much, a guilt of being ignorant of how much I had, a guilt of fussing over my personal issues while so many out there didn’t even have a thing to put in their belly, a guilt of my selfish worries, and that all added up to the one final distress: the guilt of even existing. And this feeling was larger than everything I had ever borne. I realised how small my personal suffering was compared to the suffering of the world, and suddenly I felt like all my previous unhappiness was trivial and unworthy. I stopped blaming others for my childhood trauma, I quit the desire to enrich my own financial wealth, I ceased to cry over my failed relationships. All that was left in me was a black hole, so empty that I got absorbed in its darkness with no sheer will nor direction how to get out.
Later on, I got to talk to a friend who was similarly facing depression. I remember she said that: if someone is so depressed that they think of death then whatever reason it is, it’s just the same. I didn’t outwardly oppose her at that moment because I understood so well the abyss that she was under, but now I can tell you that it is not true. The weight of the pains of the world is unbelievably immense that if you have an empathy large enough to embrace it, you will probably be left with only two options: either to kill yourself, or to wake up completely from the illusion of your own selfish life. I believe that is exactly how the Receiver of Memory in Lois Lowry’s beloved novel The Giver must have felt. Nevertheless, I was lucky to have survived all the personal traumas and again this time, I was not the one who chose to put an end to life. And thus, I woke up.
The journey to find the antidote
Why do I have so much while others don’t? That question was the starting point for me to embark on the journey to look for a remedy for my sickness and a reason to continue to exist.
Against my friend’s advice to seek medical help or counselling services, I worked it out on my own. At least the most difficult part – facing the root cause – is accomplished. It’s not that I tell people not to seek help, I just want to say that it’s not impossible to overcome all of this by your mere strength. I didn’t seek help perhaps because I was stubborn; I was also worried about the medical bills; and above all, I didn’t think any counsellors out there could tell me how to stop the world from suffering. Nevertheless, after so many months of distress, I made a resolution to step out of my cocoon and rebel. I figured that if I could live in a way that was of use for others, I would feel better.
So first, I quit my job. This was an extremely difficult decision. It was not only a job but also a business that some colleagues and I put in so much love and effort. That business was like our spiritual child for more than 5 years, but I knew this step was necessary. After that, I sat down and tried to find out how to save the world (not even joking). I thought that if I could help to reduce the suffering of the world, my suffering would also be lessened. With that thought in mind I left the big city and moved to a small rural town to teach in a public school with the hope to bring happiness and justice to the country children. I felt fulfilled at first and thought that I had found the meaning of my life, yet right there I was caught in another serious depression episode. It was when I realised that the world with its complicated relations didn’t operate the way I naively wanted it to be. Kindness and giving were not enough to redeem others’ and my own suffering.
I bitterly left the countryside and returned to the city. Fortunately, I didn’t give up yet. I built up a new strategy to save the world. With a new job that provided a decent pay, I looked for charities to donate to and also set up a small scholarship scheme to support the students in my previous rural neighbourhood. Now I thought: okay, things ought to be better; but somehow it still didn’t. During my one year with this job, the inner black hole and the endless days of tears and emptiness were constantly back. Once again, almost none of my colleagues ever noticed my constant tear-stained face. I had become skilled in hiding my true nature and even rose up as an inspiration when it came to social activities in the office. No one knew that I thought of death often, and this time my thought was even darker. I didn’t only wish for my own death, but I wished for everyone’s death and for human extinction. Outside I might look compassionate and loving but inside it was mostly hatred, anger, disappointment and hopelessness.
I was left again in total perplexity. I thought that I had lived up to my motto: being of use to others, but why was I still not at peace? What was it that I forgot on my journey?
So, I left the job and decided to spend some idle time reflecting. One of my experiments was reducing sensual pleasures and living the most modest way possible to show solidarity with the majority of the worldly population. I started to try fasting, first it was 24 hours, then 48 and 72. As someone with an extremely slender build (I have been underweight due to my long depressed years), the 72-hour fasting was exhausting, but believe it or not, I felt quite content stepping out of my room after that. I lost a few kilos, my head was dizzy, my limbs were aching, and my eyes were blurry, but I felt somewhat happy that I got to partially experience another suffering of the world: hunger. Indeed, it did not feel too bad for me that I thought if one day I had to kill myself, starvation could be a good option.
However, there was an issue coming out of that fasting: I didn’t know how to fill in the hours that I normally used for cooking and eating and so I asked around for a meditation school with the thought that in my next fasting time I would combine it with meditation. And that was the turning point of my life. I was introduced to the Buddha’s Vipassana meditation method, and it was right then I figured out the missing part of my journey. I had tried to live for others: I gave away, I put on effort, I inspired, I encouraged, I even tried strict abstinence of sensual pleasure, but I didn’t know that reducing distress only from the outside was not enough to reach one’s true peace of mind. The root cause had to be eliminated innerly. And I was surprised to have found all of this in the Buddha’s teachings.
Growing up in an Eastern culture following the three doctrines (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism), I often took the Buddha’s teachings for granted. My younger years were much devoted to Western ideology, beliefs and logical thinking. Only until getting introduced to Vipassana meditation did I return to rediscover Buddhism and find out what I had missed. It was hard to believe that I had to travel the globe, cope with severe depression, deal with loss of hope and direction to realise that all the answers I needed were right here, rooted deeply in my own culture.
Recovering and keeping on fighting
Nowadays I am a committed Buddhist. On the one hand, I keep up with my charity and social work and live up to my single life motto: making this existence of mine useful for others. On the other hand, I dig in Buddhism and spiritual literature, practise meditation and follow the Buddha’s teachings in a serious manner. I learn how to apply impermanence and letting-go into daily life. I learn to embrace not only the sufferings of the world but also the chaos of my own inner nature. I water the seeds of true love and compassion inside my heart and let them grow, while also try my best to face any unwholesome feelings that arise without reacting or letting them take root. Though I don’t always succeed and still fall into the traps of worldly emotions and problems, I believe with persistence and determination I will get close to the Buddha’s path one day.
Just a few months back, there was someone that said to me he wanted to meet me to “refuel”. Thinking about that, I realised how far I had come. Nowadays, my true nature can be a source of joy for others, not the “fake” over-cheerful version in my 20s and also not the toxic depressed one that ruined myself and most of my relationships in my early 30s. I need to keep on being that source of joy for others, and maybe one day I will be the joy for myself too.
At the moment while writing these final lines I am quite confident to say that I am a healed person. It doesn’t mean that my depression is completely gone. No, it isn’t, in fact. I know that once in a while it will come back, but as I am now, I wouldn’t be so afraid. Pain will come, but the law of impermanence says sooner or later it will go, all I need to do is not to react and fuel it. And thus, I have finally come to terms with life and become less agitated with whatever kind of lemon it gives me. I know I still get worked up sometimes (some of my friends know when it is!), but I also know never again will I think of death as a means to escape. Life is worth living once we find our equanimity and purpose to keep walking on.