When you’re battling and surviving but not living

Back in knee deep depression- isolating myself, feeling hopeless and numbed out, dissociating. I feel like I’m sitting in the backseat and someone whom I trust is a reliable replica of me takes charge. She’s doing well, playing the part. I’m trying (she’s trying), still- going to classes, finishing chores, eating what I’m supposed to eat. But there is this strong feeling that the world will still be fine without me. The recurring memories of pain seem pointless but ceaseless. Remembering days of hypomania, I feel so much lower in comparison, as always. At this point, reading about other success stories of recovery that I got so much strength from a week ago doesn’t help me because they don’t have exactly what I have and we’re different people in different environments. No hope. But wait, didn’t I say that there is always hope? Nope, no hope. I wonder if it will be worth it. No, I already know the answer, but I’m feeling too bitter, resentful and hopeless to change that. I’ve just been fighting for so long, in the dark, and my tiredness is tired. Trying hard to not listen to the thought that “I’d accomplish more dead than living the rest of my life.” Trying hard to not trust thoughts and feelings because they almost always lie. Feeling barely alive. My dad says my skin looks great, over the video call from the other side of the world where it is daytime, and not night. Oh, how brutal invisibleness of invisible illness can be.

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Wounded inner child

People with Complex PTSD, or those with experience with “mini traumas” don’t often validate the cause of their suffering. It’s easy to dismiss because looking at it chronologically, day by day, nothing really happens, but cumulatively, it’s like little water droplets that crack open a rock over time. A little bit of yelling here, snide remark there, bit of physical violence, bullying, confrontation here and there- this breaks a child’s spirit over time. It also affects her self esteem, confidence, ability to play and enjoy life, interaction with people without anxiety, to name a few.

I used to be one of them. I denied that I was ill from what happened as a child within my family unit. It was seemingly uneventful, my childhood. Not one single event was extremely significant. But overtime, the little things shaped me. It shaped me to be afraid, to be cautious, and not trusting. And because I am so close to my parents now and am dependent on them, I didn’t want to see them as one of the reasons why I’m sick. Even after they have owned and apologized for their behavior (not that their intentions were malicious, and their apologies uncalled for), I didn’t want to connect what happened to me as a child to how I am now as an adult.

Today in therapy, we were exploring this concept of “inner child” that is often spoken about in psychology. I actually laughed out loud when my therapist, C told me to literally “speak to my inner child” when I was alone. So far everything she recommended I do has worked, so I wasn’t going to question it until I’ve tried it at least a few times. I was confused about what kinds of things to say to her (my inner child)- I supposed nice things. C said I was to tell her that she was enough, and she deserve a relaxing break, that she can trust herself and so on. C said this was a way of retraining my mind, becoming nurturing and self compassionate.

The problem is, I kind of suck at being self compassionate. If I took a class on it, I would get an F even if I studied. I did a lot of mindfulness activities in various forms, like meditation, DBT modules etc. but for some reason it felt disingenuous. I don’t mean the concept of mindfulness itself, but just how I personally feel when doing those activities. I feel like I’m being a phony and wasting my time. I also fear that I will get thoroughly lazy if I get too good at it. C says that this stuff will naturally take a while to feel comfortable doing, because I didn’t grow up this way- the little I remember of my childhood, I remember spending hours and hours with tutors and being extremely busy doing something productive every second. I existed to fulfill a purpose, and not be a person- no one treated me any differently either, no relatives or any other adult in my life. Of course relaxing feels uncomfortable!

My next project is to sit still without doing anything (not even meditation) for half an hour and not give into the urge to do something productive, including analyzing my thoughts. This also has to be completely spontaneous.

Enough

It took me a long time, but I think I might know now.

(Though, knowing isn’t the same as doing.)

Before, I didn’t feel enough for this world. But the truth was, the world just wasn’t enough to take me in.

Me, with the jagged edges. Me, who couldn’t fit into a cookie cutter shape.

I lived merely to fit into something instead of:

Creating, finding joy, appreciating, feeling good about how things were when they were, being happy, going with my gut, taking risks…

Living.

My blank canvas. So many things I could have painted instead of painting over my flaws.

I turned 25

Immature confidence: bravely (but ignorantly) just going for it because you don’t know what could go wrong and how badly.

Mature confidence: brazenly going for it even though you can count a million ways that it could go wrong and how badly (from experience.)Did I get that right? Sort of?

After a flurry of events, like Christmas, my birthday, New Years, as well as actual flurries outside my window, I’ve had a few moments to breathe finally. This year I’m not doing any special resolutions because my resolution/goal remains the same as the thing I wanted since around the same time last year: recovery. Mostly meaning, getting my life back.I will say though, that I’m much better right now than I was last year around this time. For a few reasons- first, I know what to call the thing that I have (and had), second, I know what my limitations are (however crappy it is to be this way), third, I kind of know what to do with myself now in order to not fall off the wagon (except those times when things just collapse). And all this took about a little less than a year. Considering most bipolar diagnoses take an average 10 years to get right, I can’t be more thankful that it only took a few months to correct my diagnosis from major depression last summer, and that I’ve only a handful number of medication changes to date. Of course, I’ll never know how many more changes I will have to go through for the rest of my life, or how many blood tests are in order (to check on my lithium level), but so far in my journey, things have been better than average for the most part. So I’m just going to call it a small win. With things looking more and more stable with more consistency, the next step in my recovery for me is to set up a routine that will make me feel somewhat productive without overwhelming myself. Stress, hunger and fatigue are real triggers for me, I find, so I have to be careful with what I sign myself up for. I’ve always been interested in art and art history before I went all corporate, so I’m taking some art classes in the city, which are fantastic. The class is for anatomical drawing, which should give me more practice with drawing humans. I am much more familiar with drawing animals from pictures, so this is helping me stretch my comfort zone. Yesterday I sketched live models for three and a half hours, and I loved every minute of it. The people are great and there were so many talented students in the room. Everyone was also so nice and helpful to the newbies. I felt like I just belonged. This is for the future, but I hope to become skillful enough to draw and paint what I go through emotionally on the canvas someday. I don’t know what that will look like exactly but I have snippets of visions of it sometimes with not enough skills to actually render it.Hope. That’s not a word I’ve used recently. It’s good to see it again.

Why you should choose your therapist based on your common cultural experience if you’re multicultural

There has been some good progress on my end. First off, sleep has been the best it’s ever been since I first started to see symptoms of bipolar depression. That means I slept through the night for eight hours straight. This is a huge step forward for me (as well as a hopeful sign of improvement,) because the last time I slept through the night without some kind of a tranquilizer (Ativan mostly), consecutively for two days, was over a year ago. Every night, I was haunted by insomnia, night terror, anxiety and other bizarre sleep problems that kept my brain wide awake in the middle of the night. The second is what I’m working on in therapy. I’m starting to piece together the “why” I am this way. Why the hell im sick. If you’ve been reading since the inception of my blog, then you know how I was triggered into having my first full blown episode because of work related stress- but it’s never that simple for bipolar disorder like other brain disorders.  It wasn’t just work and it wasn’t just the stress. There are just so many reasons, contributing factors both immediate, and long term that affects the brain, that it’s impossible to pinpoint one specific event or cause. However, it’s still important to understand why, for the sake of closure, acceptance and to do things differently the next time. In short, I think my disorder came about because of my quiet, agreeable and disciplined disposition coupled by difficulties that followed the unilateral decisions made by my caregivers that are in no way ill-intentioned. More concretely, I was a quiet kid, who followed rules and who tried to do things right, without offending or angering anyone she cared about. My parents separated when I was ten years old, but rather discreetly- and the only way they kept things together was by living very far from each other. My mother and I moved to Canada, where we had no family, without speaking English. My dad and the rest of my extended family stayed back home, in Korea. I was enrolled in school, so I picked up the language pretty quickly. Soon I had to fill the role of the adult in the household because my mother wasn’t as lucky with getting assimilated into the culture. Paying bills, writing letters, making calls, filing complaints, and making informed decisions. When I was absent from school, I wrote my own letter of absence to take it to school. This is probably a common theme for first generation immigrants- you have no room for mistakes, rebellion, or misbehavior. There is no time to indulge in complaints, or laze around, be a kid. As a minority immigrant, you work double what the others do to get to where they are in society, in the new world- and that’s what I knew since I was ten years old. It doesn’t matter much if you were middle class, upper class or lower middle back in the old country, you’re on your own to establish who you are. Growing up, I never felt safe in my home with just me and my mother. I was a violinist, so every time I practiced which was everyday, an angry neighbor surreptitiously came up and kicked our door. I got hate letters from one of my so called friends who wished I went to hell- my mom and I figured she was jealous despite our temporary, shabby looking situation, I was able to go to music school. There was bullying involved, both at school and online. There are other mistreatments, racism, hatred, abuse that came with living in a foreign country with just one other adult who couldn’t really take care of you, or protect you as family should. This is in no way to blame my parents- they were doing the best they could in their given situation. It was not unusual to send your kids abroad to English speaking counties if your family was affluent. But the fact of the matter is, I’ve developed PTSD from the anxiety filled life where I cried under my blankets every night in silence to not upset my mother, and where I put on a brace face every morning. Every year, we had to make a decision to stay in Canada or go back to the old country- and that meant a) no stability, and b) living in rental apartments that were hardly furnished. I never felt tethered to a place, and I felt that I was temporary. This meant that I was always making up my back story to new people I met, and that meant that I wasn’t inviting anyone over. Family holidays were truncated to summers when I went back to my real home, where dad and the rest of the family were, and thanksgiving and Christmas were spent eating chicken because turkeys were too big for a party of two. There is much more but I’ll stop myself from getting flooded. These memories were so disturbing that I had suppressed most of it until I started psychotherapy with my current therapist. It helps that she is a first generation immigrant herself from the same country that I am from, and knows the hurdles and difficulties. Before her, people either envied the position I was in, or just had no clue what I was going through. I learned that choosing the right therapist is so very crucial, because if they don’t know where you’re coming from through experience, they won’t understand the source of the problem, and they won’t be able to help. One can read thousands of books on someone’s culture and study anthropology, but an armchair anthropologist can only know so much.

My multicultural situation is pretty unique, and I realize that when dealing with a mental disorder that is already complicated, a complicated life story makes it even harder to discuss with another person and still get all the cultural nuisances right. There is still more to dig, but I’m happy that I’m able to remember some of my so called childhood and feel validated for the first time in my life.

Gratitude

Watercolor of my cat, Olivia

Thankful that I didn’t have an episode today when I almost could have at the store. Thankful that I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge. Thankful that I laughed more than once today at something stupid. Thankful that I have family that understands and supports. Thankful that there are people who can differentiate me from the illness. Thankful for modern medicine and drugs. Thankful for my curious and silly cat. Thankful for being healthy enough to be able to help others. Thankful for being able to hope. Thankful for today, despite what yesterday was and tomorrow might be.