I meant to post this back in May when it was Mental Health Awareness Month, but when May came around, I second-guessed myself and didn’t. After all, I don’t feel (as) depressed as when I wrote this piece in 2017. No one needs another sad story, right?
As time went on, it didn’t feel right to keep this unpublished. I think it’s one of the worst feelings to feel that you’re alone, whether you’re by yourself in your room or when you’re surrounded by people who technically care about you. For a while, I scoured the internet trying to find someone who felt or thought the way I did. But I never did. Either each of us has a different experience or others, like me, couldn’t figure out how to say it. And even once I figured out how to say it, I put off posting again and again.
Today marks the beginning of National Suicide Prevention Week. While I’ve never made any plans or taken action in that direction, suicide is something that I have wondered about. So I’m publishing this in the hopes that it can help someone in those darker moments to feel that they’re not alone, that there are others like them out there, and that they can and will get through those times to see the sunlight again.
An apartment within 5 minutes of Rice University
I quietly shut the door behind me and hope that none of my suitemates are home. My room is big and bright, a box full of sunlight. I used to love it. This room used to be my haven. My collection of Pikachus smile in unison from the shelves. The big white bear, almost as tall as me and much rounder than me, sits propped against a cushion—the plush bear is a gift from my boyfriend for last year’s Valentine’s Day.
But I’ve just come from architecture studio. My throat is raw from screaming, my eyes encrusted with the salt of tears recently dried. My car, a 1994 gold Toyota Previa, passed down to all of my siblings and now to me, is my new haven. In the car with outdated upholstery, out by the stadium parking lot, I can cry and cry, and no one can hear me, no one will know how much I hate architecture. The only other time and place I can do that is in the showers at night, when the water pummels my skin and drowns out my cries.
All of a sudden, my room feels smaller, like a shrinking box. I can see every corner, every wall, every plank in the floor. I’m too aware of the door frame, that it must be about three feet wide, the hinges in the door, the handle of the door at a height perfect for gripping. There must be beams in the wall placed at every such length, held together by a certain number of nails. The height of the curb. The angle of the parking lot spaces. The height of each stair step. The height of the handrails.
I feel hemmed in. I have to escape. I have to break this box.
I lie down on my bed and close my eyes. After a while, the panic recedes. I open my eyes, and the flickering numbers, instead of filling my vision, now hover at the periphery. I go into the bathroom, a dark cave with a single bulb over the sink. I avoid looking at my reflection. I don’t want to see my swollen eyelids, the telltale red of a too-hard cry. As I stare down the drain, I wonder if it would hurt to cut my wrists and let it bleed, like they always show in movies.
I mentally snap out of it. My life is not that bad. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, family, friends, a boyfriend.
But I’m a little afraid of myself. I can’t believe a thought like that would ever populate inside my head. Suicide? Me, the happy, laugh-until-my-cheeks-hurt kind of gal? I can’t remember the last time I laughed freely. Since starting college, I haven’t felt comfortable enough with anyone to do that. Standing in the darkness, I feel alone because no one knows what I go through every day that I have architecture studio—Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I live for the in-between days—Tuesday, Thursday, the weekends. One day, architecture will be Monday through Friday, and I will have to drag myself through five days to live for two.
It’s a future I can’t bear. I should be working on my architecture project, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I spend hours looking at websites for schools such as School of Visual Arts or Savannah College of Art and Design, dreaming for what could have been, what could be still.
The next morning, I wake up. I feel better, relieved, excited even. I’ve decided. I’m quitting architecture. I’m doing what I should have done from the start. I’m pursuing art, full-time. I don’t care what anybody else says. I’m going to be happy. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to live for every single day of the week.
I’ve struggled a lot with how to write about my experience with depression. It’s not easy when the reasons can be so complicated. One thing leads to another. New reasons rise up. Old ones leave or morph or return in cyclical fashion. I get lost in a network of crisscrossing thoughts and lose track of what I really want to say. That’s how it feels every time I sit down to write about depression.
So I end up throwing away everything I’ve written and wait for the moment I figure out the secret. Other times I think about giving up the idea altogether. No one needs to know my personal story. But again and again, I come back to it. As I read friends’ posts or articles that a stranger wrote about their experience with depression, I feel compelled to share mine because depression has so many facets. It can be short, bitter bursts or long and drawn-out for days, weeks, months, years. What works for one person won’t work for another. So far none of the anecdotes that I’ve read has worked for me. I am one of billions of people on this planet. I cannot be the only one to feel that way. It’s a lonely battle, one that only you can fight for yourself, and it’s a much easier to battle knowing that you are not the only one struggling to be free, or normal, or happy, or simply content.
To be content. That is a state of mind that I think people heavily underrate. People are too busy searching for the next novel experience or pursuing their so-called ambitions when maybe the life that they want is already there, in motion, every day. It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned since working at Whole Foods Market. It’s imperfect, fast-paced, slapdash at times, but it’s also more intimate, more real, more supportive than the gleaming corporate ladder. Some might call it settling. I call it being appreciative.
I’ll appreciate any day that I’m not in the grips of spiraling, depressive thoughts. I’ll appreciate any day in which I can function as my normal past self, answering emails and texts within the day. I’ll appreciate any day in which I can laugh and feel settled in, thinking this is where I belong.
Maybe the secret to writing about depression is this: provide a window into the moments of darkness that I do remember.
Wiess Residential College, Rice University
I close the door to my room and find myself cut into slices of burning sunlight. I forgot to close the blinds earlier, and now the full wrath of sunset fills my room. I used to love this room, too, this west-facing box of sun, one side of it all windows. I have a view looking over the intramural fields that light up with fluorescents and college pride at night. A little farther out, beyond the field of wildflowers, I can see a part of the Medical Center, its tall buildings rising up jaggedly. Whenever I get tired of working, I can look up from my desk and gaze out at the rest of the world, the place I’ll finally join next month after graduating.
I flip the blinds shut, darkening the room. I take off my sunglasses, throw my sunhat on a chair, pull the neon orange sun guard off my arms. At last, I am free—or free enough. I stare bitterly at this room, this room that reminds me of too many things that went wrong. This was the room in which my relationships fell apart. This was the room in which I lived as part of a suite with four girls, who I thought we’d all stay friends forever. This was the room from which I wrote about my old skin condition, the first one in which I picked at the skin behind my ears, and then wrote about my current one, the one in which I had UV overexposure from using the light box in screenprinting studio. This was the room in which I believed I could write my story however I wanted it. This was the room in which I thought I had it all.
And now, this room feels far away, as though I am looking in at a distance, through someone else’s eyes. How could it be that this room was my world? How could it be that this was my room at all? With its ugly green carpet and the standard furniture found in every other dorm room?
I want to escape so badly. I want to go back home to the comfort of shady trees. I want to go on my trip to New Haven, where it’s cold enough for long sleeves, and to enjoy the familiarity of my boyfriend, who I never should have left the first time. If I could, I would stay for his graduation ceremony over mine, except that would upset my mother, who no doubt wants to see her fifth and youngest child walk the same stage that my siblings did.
I always wanted to hurry up and leave college. The art professors were busy acquiring favorite students, no internship leads here. My fourth and final student loan topped a staggering amount that would take years to pay down. Better to learn, on the job, as I had through part-time student jobs, than to pay for the atmosphere of education, without learning anything of substance at all.
Now, more than ever, I want to leave college behind me. I want to go back to where I was, in high school, surrounded by my friends and my boyfriend, drawing towards a future full of possibilities.
There is no going back to high school, no matter how many times I dream of calculus class. The closest I can get to that is moving back home and taking long, meditative walks beneath the trees—with a hat, sunglasses, and long sleeves.
Two months before graduating from college, my maternal grandmother passed away. I wasn’t that close to my grandmother. I did see her from time to time at family dinners and learned how to make traditional Vietnamese cakes with her, but I didn’t think that her death would affect me that much.
I was wrong. My parents are on the older side, since they had me so late. I envy my siblings for all the years they got to have my parents when my parents were young and strong. My parents saw all of them graduate, marry, and have a kid or even two. What about me? They saw me graduate. I hope they see me marry. And maybe, if I am lucky, they will get to know at least one of my kids. But how much time do I have? Will my kids be old enough to remember them before they go? Time is flying by like an Amtrak train that must depart on schedule. One day, I will have a question about a word or a tradition in Vietnamese culture. There will be no one I can turn to and ask.
Life is so precious. We must spend all the time we can with the ones we love and care about. But everyone else is so caught up with life, they have no time. Some people, we used to share such great memories, but they no longer think it’s worth it to hold on to the past, to keep trying in the present. Other people, we live in the same city, but they are too busy to drive thirty, forty minutes across town to hang out more often than once a month, if even that. Virtually everyone has a job or a career to pursue.
We spend so many hours at work, so few meaningful hours with the people we care about. What is the point of life? Is it to make money? Spend forty hours a week with coworkers who may or may not annoy us by the end of the day? But it’s a luxury to stay at home and not worry about money. Will I be one of those wives who work from home, but everyone says “work from home” behind my back, so that I can spend those forty hours in the company of my kids, should I have kids? Or must I prove to the world that I’m not a starving artist and that I can manage just fine, with or without a husband, because I work forty hours a week at a design firm while my kids are in daycare with strangers?
I didn’t think my words would lead me down this path, but perhaps this is the root of my frustration. That I want, more than anything, to spend time with the people I care about, but they have other things on their mind, other things they want to do, other people they want to spend time with, other than me. I might be sitting in the same room as them, singing karaoke and laughing along as though I am part of it, but sometimes I feel like a plastic piece in a board game. I am there, but I’m not really there. They only see me when they need me. But perhaps too, they only see what they want to see—a room full of friends, singing and laughing, and that is all.
Vintage Heart Coffee
I’m excited for today—Pentatonix is performing. I remember when I first heard them, I hadn’t been all that impressed, but they’ve grown over the years into an acappella group to be reckoned with (Pitch Perfect anyone?). It just goes to show that even the most niche interests will have their heyday. Even better? The original trio started out from Texas. Support local artists, all the way!
Finals are around the corner, so my boyfriend’s sister, who I’ll call R, took my boyfriend M and me to Boteco, a Brazilian food truck. The sun was shining, the food was good, the company great, and I’m in Austin, Texas (Keep Austin Weird). Across the way is a wall of graffiti illustrations. Life cannot get better than this. After lunch, we tuck into the coffee shop with the wall art, a cute place called Vintage Heart Coffee. R grabs an empty table by the wall, M pulls over a neighboring one, and we sit down to study. Well, M and R have classes to study for. I’m a working woman, so I read a book.
Vintage Heart Coffee’s structure resembles a shotgun house with a door at the front and another at the back. Only one or two small windows have been punched into the walls, so there’s not much natural light. That plus the dark wood of the floor and furniture keeps the atmosphere on the dimmer side. Some might call it cozy. I wish there is more sunlight. I’m a cat, seeking out the perfect spot to bask in for hours, but I make do with the darker ambience. Hopefully my book, Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls, will take me somewhere interesting.
One or two hours into the afternoon, something has changed, though nothing has changed. I look up from my book, and I can feel it happening, the sliding feeling, like the world is being slowly tipped over. I’m sliding, and I try to stop it, but I can’t stop it because gravity is too strong. All of a sudden, the coffee shop sits around me in too much clarity. The wood planks in the floor. The dim, yellow lights from the bare bulbs. The barista softly clinking glasses as she cleans them. The other guests, all staring at screens plugged into outlets. I curse architecture studio for doing this to me, making me hyper-aware of the boxes we box ourselves in, every single nail and screw in the beam, the width of the doorways, the height of railings and stairsteps—and all the people inside, oblivious to these human-imposed boundaries.
R, sitting to my left intently studying, has with no idea that the world sits tilted at an angle. Does R even enjoy spending time with me? I know I’m not perfect. I’m a nerd and a weirdo compared to her extended family. We would never have been friends on our own. And now we’re supposed to be sisters, maybe. We don’t get to choose our sisters. My boyfriend could have dated someone else, but he never did and R has no other point of comparison. What if she could have gotten someone better? Someone more fun, more interesting, more responsible? More sisterly? Heck, I have three sisters, all different from each other and from me. We get along as best as we can, but I bet we wouldn’t have chosen each other given the choice. M and R, by comparison, are two peas in a pod, perfectly in sync from hobbies to ice cream flavors. Even when they disagree, they take it all in stride. That’s what I wish I had so badly—comradery and support, a kind of oneness without having to ask for it.
My boyfriend, sitting across from me, is bent on getting through medical school now that he’s in. I’ve asked him again and again. Why me? Why did you pick me? Why do you love me? We were so young in high school, we had no idea what we wanted, or needed, for that matter. I broke up to look for the answer. I thought I found it, for I came back to him, but now I wonder if I’ve been pondering the wrong question all this time. Before, the question was, why him? Now, the question is, why me? I dress like a flashy, tropical bird, wearing stupid outfits because they looked good in my head. I’m an artist with a lower-paying job than what most college graduates will start out with. I have no aspirations for graduate school because I believe, now with a mountain of student loans, that school is overrated. I thought I was a traditional Vietnamese girl, but now I see that I’m too American. And while I think I’m American, I’m too Vietnamese among Americans. I’m not Catholic. I’m not outgoing. I’m not talkative. I’m not charming. I’m not strong. I’m not independent. I’m not conventional. I’m not edgy enough. I’m not enough of anything. If I removed myself from M’s life, he could have that option to find someone who is all these things that I’m not. Wouldn’t everyone be happier, then?
I don’t have to look down to know in my hot pink top and white skinny jeans that I positively glow in the darkness of Vintage Heart Coffee. In this moment, more than anything, I want to disappear, I want to get away from this, whatever this is. Is it my boyfriend and his family? Is it my life? Or depression? Or all of the above? Some days as I’m driving to work in the still black hours of early morning, I fantasize about heading west, as far west as I can go, until I disappear.
We’re supposed to meet up with C, a friend from high school, but he’s the last person I want to see. Or rather, I’m already stuck with M and R. I cannot escape them. But C isn’t here yet so there’s a possibility out there, an alternate reality that exists in which I don’t see C. I’m in no mindset to make small talk. We have so little in common since leaving high school. But there isn’t another option for me. Austin isn’t my town. We’ve only got R’s car, and even if I had my own car, where would I go?
I grapple with this dilemma for the rest of the afternoon. When M and R declare that they’ve studied enough, I itch to get outside. Usually I can reset myself with a nap, but a nap is out of the question. Maybe some fresh air and sunlight will do the trick. I walk outside, and the world is still too sharp, too full of pores, empty holes between things. We drive to meet up with C. It’s like I’m living life through another lense. I’m irritable, snappy, can’t get my thoughts straight. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what we even talked about. Stupid stuff. The same conversation everybody talks about when they haven’t seen each other in a long time. At one point I go for a walk alone to get some distance. Too soon, the food is ready and I have to come back. I can’t stand M and C’s bro-to-bro interaction. I’m third-wheeling them. Bros before hos. The four of us—M, C, R, and me—are supposed to go to Universal Studios at the end of this month. What if I slide into this alternate me during the trip? How do I get out of this dimension? How do I get out of who I am?
We finally go to the auditorium where Pentatonix is performing. I’m relieved when the lights go out and the concert opens with Us the Duo. I don’t have to talk to anybody. I don’t have to pretend I’m better than how I really feel. I don’t have to overthink things. I can just listen to the music, let the notes wash over me, let my neurons soak up the intricate melodies and harmonies. When Pentatonix comes out, I’m up on my feet clapping and singing. By the time the concert is over and we’re in the car, waiting to crawl down the spiraling garage, the world looks a little straighter. Guilt nibbles at me for how I treated C. He did nothing wrong. I was in this other dimension, and now I’m not, so I send him an apology for being out of it earlier.
When we go to sleep in R’s apartment, though, I feel lonely, even though I’m on the couch and M is on the air mattress next to me and R is through the closed door. My boyfriend is my best and closest friend. Did he realize anything was off with me? Did R see something was different? Or do they see me being petulant and uncooperative because they think I’m a spoiled brat, youngest of five? Do I have to wear a sign around my neck that says “Depression In Progress—Try Again Later” for people to know every time it happens? But I can’t bring myself to say anything. There is no point in saying anything. It’s the weekend. We’re supposed to be having fun. Why bring a cloud of gloom over the festivities by announcing, “I’m feeling depressed”?
But the worst part of it is, even if I do tell people “I’m feeling depressed,” no one seems to care. I know because I’ve tried. I thought it might help to open up. In some cases, people ignore what I said. In others, they might briefly acknowledge it. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. There’s no reason to be down. Lighten up! Pentatonix is here! And then it’s back to the task at hand. Once, I was full-on screaming and crying over the phone while driving. In the moment, the person on the other end tried to talk me down, but after that—nothing. No check-ins, no follow-ups, no “how are you feeling today” because it must have been a weird little blip that happens once in a blue moon. No. The worst part of it is, you live with it every day. You bottle up that screaming and crying so no one else knows, and when it finally comes bursting out, the other person is taken by surprise.
The truth is, no one wants to hear it. No one has time to hear about it because they’re so wrapped up with their own lives. They don’t want to know if you’re broken and shattered and have trouble standing up. They only want to see you at your sparkly best. Put on a mask. Wow them all with a show. Be charming. Be funny. Be smart. Be talented. Be amazing. Be perfect. Feeling down? Stop being lazy and get something done. You’re depressed? Hm, that’s interesting—next. Depressed again? Oh, me too, and mine’s even worse than yours.
For the people who do listen and try to help me talk through it, it helps immensely. It makes me feel like opening up is the right thing to do. But it’s a fifty-fifty chance that talking to them will make me feel better. Regardless, their time is not limitless and the number of people willing to talk to me when I need it is very small. My boyfriend has to go back to studying for exams—he’s only got a half hour for me. I’ve got millions of half hours, and I’ve got to live every single one of those half hours. In some of them, I’m in the car by myself, screaming and crying so no one else will know. Or in the shower. Or in my bed. Or in my room wondering when this will ever end.
Sometimes there’s no helping it when a depressive attack comes on. It could have been triggered by something I read, something I said, something you said, or nothing at all. Then I spiral through the same angry thoughts, the same arguments that I always go through. Friends. Family. Finance. These triggers are never going away, but I don’t want to live my life like this forever. When I’m alone in my room doing the things that make me happy—reading a book, watching a movie, writing a story—I can momentarily forget about the triggers that set me off. As soon as others’ voices seep into my head—books are boring, TV shows are where it’s at, no one wants to read your stupid story—I begin to crumble. I wish I could be my younger self, my stronger self, my blissfully oblivious self, but college knocked down the foundation of who I am and I haven’t been able to build myself back up. I always need more time, but life constantly throws lemons at you—friends who passive aggressively fade out, family putting on pressure, student loans brimming with interest. One day I will bake these damn lemons into a meringue pie and throw it back.
At one point I considered seeing a psychiatrist. That’s what you do when you’re feeling depressed and need help, right? I asked a friend who she was seeing. I looked him up and thought about making an appointment. But the people closest to me didn’t seem to support my decision. They thought it was a waste of money to see a doctor for something that didn’t require medicine to cure. Others didn’t necessarily say anything against it; they simply had no opinion. Maybe I was overreacting. A year later, I start getting the advice that I should see a psychiatrist. By this point, I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to do it on my own. My depression is fairly mild, and I feel confident that it’s just a matter of learning to snip which threads so that I don’t feel like I’m strangling in a sea of obligations. Going to see a psychiatrist feels like adding another thread in my life. It’s easy for others to say, “You should see a psychiatrist.” But tell me this: will you find me, no matter where I am, and drag me to my appointment? Not just the first day. But every day to make sure I go and get better. No? Then, no thank you. I’ll do what I think is best for me.
All right. How can I get better? If I feel bogged down by too many obligations, then the solution is to reduce them, right? It’s been a struggle, snipping the threads that I can, only to find later that I’ve re-woven them into existence. Facebook messages I need to respond to. Texts I need to respond to. Snapchats to snap. Instagrams to gram. Emails, wads of them. Waking up and going to work Monday through Friday. Visiting my boyfriend every other weekend in Dallas, a four-hour trip one-way. Calling my boyfriend every night. Making breakfast, making a sandwich for lunch. Returning that library book I never got around to reading. Art exhibits that I should go to because I’m an artist. Walking around my complex for exercise since I can’t get myself to do anything else. Writing because I want to be a writer.
During the most extreme moments, I wish I could erase myself and simply not exist. Other times I wish I could unplug from life and not worry about integrating myself into the circuitry of real life. Perhaps the thickest thread of all is knowing that to remove myself is to make it noticeable in the worst way possible. As long as I pretend that everything is normal, then I make no ripples. If I were to end my life or to mysteriously disappear to another city with a new identity, I know what will happen. The people I leave behind will wonder what went wrong. They will blame me, or they will blame themselves. They wouldn’t ever understand why. Either way, I will leave a gaping hole, proof of my existence, rather than my intention to quietly depart unnoticed. So I put on my least cracked face and try to pretend everything is okay while I struggle alone with feelings of frustration, bitterness, disappointment, anger, and sadness.
When the feelings get to be too much, I have a place that I escape to. It’s in the center of my townhouse complex. I walk out there, open the creaking black gate, and go to the basketball court, where no one ever plays basketball because management removed the hoop. There, on the sea green concrete of the denuded basketball court, I lie down, pick a song on my iPod, and watch the sky. Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” Coldplay’s “Clocks.” Sarah Brightman’s operatic ballads. Anything by Enya. Honeyroot’s “Falling” is especially good with its slow, calming rhythms. Freshcut’s “Orange Sunshine” is another favorite; it contains a snippet from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the part where Kirsten Dunst’s character reads aloud the poem from which the movie takes its name.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Overhead, the clouds seem so effortless. They float across the sky, graceful as royalty. At sunset, they change colors. White to pink to purple, sometimes orange and gold thrown in. Here, in this spot on the basketball court, I can’t see anything but trees at the periphery. No streetlights. No houses. No buildings. No sign of civilization. For a moment, I can imagine I’m somewhere else. In a field. By the ocean. Another state, or country, even. I could be anywhere, anywhere but inside my wrinkly, warped mind. I can get away from all of the voices crowding my head, telling me I should do this or act a certain way or change how I am. I can finally be free. I can simply exist—and that would be enough for me.
If you follow my Instagram, you know I participate in Inktober every year. All of the illustrations here were drawn with the intent to visualize depression. I was having such a difficult time putting it down in words that I tried to draw it instead, which may or may not have been successful in my intent. It was, in a way, my indirect call for help. One person noticed and reached out, and for that I am thankful. I am not even all that close to him. But all the same, it scared me that despite the number of people seeing my drawings, only one person seemed to notice something was amiss and bothered to ask. A couple of factors may have contributed to that. He’s a doctor who has also experienced some level of depression himself. I admit that before I experienced it firsthand, I had a hard time understanding the effect depression could have on someone. I am not a health professional, but I recommend this: reach out to the people you care about and listen—to the things they say and to the things they don’t say. You never know if someone needs you, and you could make a difference in their life.