Oh, the joys of silently struggling


A friend of mine passed away this week. We weren’t close, and I knew little about her except for what her presence felt like. But that was enough for me to also feel the loss of her presence. The news was surreal, and a little mind-boggling. It was the first time I found out about her battle with depression. It was also the first time someone I knew chose to end that battle permanently. I found myself frustrated, but couldn’t understand why. I wasn’t suddenly overwhelmed with grief when I heard the news, and I shouldn’t be, because feeling extremely heartbroken when I didn’t really get to know her very well seems selfish to me. For me, it was a quiet sort of mourning; remembrance, and appreciation.

But it hurt. I thought about her all week, switching between numbness to pain. I also questioned myself a lot on how and why it hurt. Now, an outsider’s response might be, “Why question it? It hurts because it’s loss. It’s an ending.” And I agree. But, I also know myself better. Of course I was sad that this person I once knew and made memories with is gone. I didn’t dare look at photos of us from Madrigal for too long. Of course I replayed her voice in my head and felt a little heavier knowing it wouldn’t be heard again. Of course I recalled all the times she laughed, joked, and brightened up the room. I even remember the way she walked.

Yet, there was a small part of me that indicated there was something else mixed in with the grief. And I realized what it was after perusing through her photos and posts a little bit: it felt too familiar. Now, I may be speculating or projecting, but the rhetoric used in some of her posts sounds like thoughts I’ve had myself. It wasn’t what she said so much as how she said certain things. And that’s not something you could explain to others who haven’t been in that place.

I’d like to end writing about her here because I want her to rest in peace, and that includes within my writing. This is because I’m about to write about myself, and I believe remembering a person is different from thinking about/reflecting on myself in relation to them.

Okay. I think it’s human of us to wonder why or how a person could make the decision to cut their journey short. Needless to say, I did a lot of perspective taking. And it led me back to myself- to the selfish thought that it could’ve very well been me, could’ve been a lot of people I know. So what makes the difference? Friends? Family? Meaning? Connection? Circumstance? Brain chemistry? I don’t know. What I do know, is that mental illness is isolating. Being me, I did a little research on suicide. The internet said the obvious things: hopelessness, loneliness, helplessness, how it’s often not preceded by warnings, etc. Two things stood out to me: believing that things may never get better/there is no way out, and because of the secrecy/lack of warnings sometimes, “the people most in need of help may be the toughest to save.”

As someone who’s about to graduate with a psych degree, has been in counseling, is terrified of death, and needs to live so my mother can have someone to take care of her in her old age, I’ve never seriously considered leaving this world voluntarily. But it’s still scary, recognizing the overlaps between yourself as someone with depression/anxiety and others, also with similar mental illnesses, whose narratives have ended. I remember thinking at low points that things would be awful forever because I was so deep in the suckiness I couldn’t envision a way out. But a friend told me once that “we can’t be stuck in the same state forever; the laws of entropy are too strong,” and science had never seemed more hopeful. So there goes the first fear. The second, the isolation, is a lot harder to logic my way out.

My favorite thing about depression is that it makes me constantly doubt every one of my relationships with other people. What’s that? They misread what you said? THEY’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND YOU. Other thoughts include:

  • Someone just said they care about me. Okay, but will it last? Sure they said the thing, but they’re too busy for me and it’s not like I’m their best friend/first choice for things so eventually I’ll be disposable/forgotten. What if they’re just one of those people who throw around “I love you’s?” What if my powers of persuasion are too strong and they have this very pleasant, yet inaccurate picture of me, which only makes me feel lonelier? Or what if I somehow flatter their ego? What if it’s because they see me as serving a function in their life and they appreciate me for practical purposes? Love isn’t real and evolution necessitates that we bond to not kill each other/ensure the survival of our species.
  • We don’t see eye to eye, or our communication styles clash. It’s not meant to be. Even if you tried, it’d still be really hard and eventually one of you will get tired so why bother. Maybe some people just… can’t. get. along? Look, they’re not even doing anything about it so you shouldn’t either because you always care more than the other person and that just means bad things for you. 
  • Someone wants to hang out. Why. What if they secretly feel sorry for me or think I need to interact with more humans because that’s healthy or whatever.
  • Someone expresses appreciation or interest in continuing the friendship or says, “ur kewl.Why.
  • “I like talking to you.Also why. What do they want from me? Oh no, am I being too entertaining? Better turn it down a notch so they don’t expect good things out of me.
  • *laughs at a thing I said* Omg laughter breeds attachment and you don’t want them attached to you only because you make them feel nice.
  • Someone I perceive to be cooler than me is talking to me. Are they just one of those universally nice people? Is this pity attention? Is it a power play and they are actually a sociopathic snake trying to eat mouse me? Will this help fill their philanthropic quota for the day?
  • *makes a mistake* That’s it. They hate me. Yup. Time to go. I am unfit for human interaction.

A lot of that was humor, yes. But I’m also not exaggerating. These are all real thoughts I’ve had- reoccurring thoughts, even. One might think that I am just cynical, or, from the sound of it, have really poor self-esteem. At one point, I thought so, too. But the fact of the matter is, I like myself. I don’t think I’m any more special than the next person, but I’m comfortable with who I am. I can compile a list of good qualities I have (I forced myself to to make sense of things) that might be reasons for why other people would want to be around me. I see value in myself and I don’t think I’m worthless, even if most days I don’t feel like I’m contributing to anything.

I can think about what it’s like to enjoy my presence,  but do I feel like it’s possible for another person to genuinely like me? No. Some days, I wouldn’t even hang out with me. To top it off, I view my successful interactions as isolated incidents; a one-time thing, or I’m just really good at pretending to be someone people would want to be around. And I often feel like I’m lying. Sometimes I can tell another person is enjoying this interaction, but I’m not, and that’s the loneliest thing. They could be laughing really hard at something I said and I’d laugh a little with them, but underneath I just feel “meh.” Like if I know what to say and when to say it, it becomes too easy to be liked, too disingenuous. And even though the other person may feel a real connection, I don’t. I either feel neutral, empty, or like I’m just prescribing the right words/reactions to the right person. It’s an awful thing to feel like you’re acting all your interactions, like you’re watching someone else play you. Not to mention the guilt that comes from feeling like I’m deceiving others whenever I’m plugging in the appropriate reactions for them. But what else could I do? Tell them I’m trying really hard to empathize but I could very well be eating a sandwich and feel more emotionally present? Mental illness, very much so, convinces me that I’m always alone.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve learned to separate me from me + depression. I remind myself that I actually really do care about others, even if I can’t feel that way in the moment. I do what I can; practicing mindfulness to stay present and being as honest as possible with others. As for grounding myself to a bit more realism, I find strategies and tricks that could break me out of irrational trains of thought. For example, even if I can’t feel like I like myself/am worthy of other people’s care, I can pull up a list of, evidence, if you will, compiled of memories of other people’s words or actions that prove they care about me just because they do, or memories of me liking myself and feeling “in my body.”

That answers the “self-esteem” problem, and maybe part of the being-present-and-connected one. Simple. And it only took years to figure out 🙂 .

Now, for cynicism. Y’all, nobody enjoys the self-destruction that is caring about social justice unless they at least have a little bit of hope in humanity. And as deadpan or melodramatic as I am, (for the 5 people that know me), I assure you it’s satire. I like life and people. A lot. It’s one of the very few things I’m sure of.

Nevertheless, the isolation. As I’ve described above, I’ve figured out a few things to combat the distance depression inherently puts between me and other humans, but that doesn’t mean much when I’m in a crisis or the dark abyss. No, being down there is having every single negative belief negate all your efforts to get out. That’s when all the things in italics in that list up there feel 100% true to me, regardless of whether or not I know better.

And it wasn’t until the end of this year that I realized how secretive I am with my problems. I complain on a daily basis about things that annoy me, mostly to amuse myself and others, but when it comes to the really heavy things? I don’t even think to vocalize them. When I’m trapped in bed and absolutely nothing, pleasurable or not, can convince me to move, I call no one. I forget all the things that can make me feel better, or I convince myself that they won’t. Everything kinda becomes futile. Even the thought of missing meetings, appointments, stuff I pay for, etc.

Part of the reason is because I think people have enough problems, so I don’t want to burden them with mine. I figure they’re too busy and this isn’t worth interrupting them for. It also feels weak. Especially after time and time again, reaching out to the same person feels like it’s lost its effect. I think they’re tired of me. I know that I’m ruminating and I sound like a broken record. On the wrong days, after too many times, I can see it on their faces or hear it in a sigh that I probably shouldn’t be bothering them anymore. People get tired of going over the same things again and again. This is a real thing. Sure, lots of people say, “you can talk to me anytime, I’m always here for you,” but the reality is, always and anytime isn’t possible. Sometimes I feel ashamed that I’m still being bothered by the same thing, so I don’t say anything. Sometimes in a crisis, I call 3 different people and no one picks up; these are very real deterrents to reaching out. I’m not sure people realize that.

Another reason is that I’m a little scarred from past interactions. I’d tell someone about something that’s very serious to me and maybe they hear something else. Or hear themselves. So they respond in a way that makes it clear to me they weren’t listening and I’d get discouraged. If it happens enough times, I stop telling them things. Maybe they’d  wave off and minimize or dismiss the validity of what I’m saying. Or maybe, they heard me, but have no idea how to respond. Often times we’re distressed because of problems we can’t solve. So if I can’t solve it, most likely, my friends wouldn’t be able to help much either. So why bring it up? In other instances, I’d get discouraged from receiving the wrong response. I know it’s not their fault, but it’s just too tiring to address it, especially when  I’m in a bad place. Sometimes I just want someone to listen and I get unsolicited advice. Sometimes I need advice and all I get is validation I don’t want. I try to state what I need, but again, it’s difficult and exhausting at times.

We’re human. We’re never really taught how to comfort people or respond to crises. But you can see how meeting the wrong responses enough times can lead to hopelessness, helplessness, and silence. That’s the scary part. And that’s probably why counselors and therapists exist. Except we know not everyone has access to them, you have to find the right one for you, stigma is a thing, money is a thing, and distrust of mental health professionals is a thing, or sometimes you have a freak-out at three a.m. and no one’s available. So yeah, some days, I fear for myself. The list of stuff in my way to getting help is pretty long. With the right combination of bad things, who knows what I’d do or where I’d be.

Not to mention, rocky mental health means I’m probably not taking care of myself. Whether it’s eating, sleeping, or hygiene, a lot of essential things get left unattended. Is this my choice? No. And I know I’m not the only one either. When everything is awful and the giant depression elephant is sitting on you as you lay in bed, you’re not gonna wanna brush your teeth. And if my physical health is poor in addition to my mental health, things are pretty bad. Plus, the guilt of not taking care of myself physically certainly doesn’t motivate me to suddenly get up and eat for the first time in hours/days.

To wrap up, these aren’t new thoughts. The people who know will know exactly what I’ve just described. But I wanted to share this because I realize a lot of the stuff I mentioned isn’t common knowledge to those who don’t live with mental illness. Even for those who do, it can be really validating to know that someone else has had similar thoughts or experiences. It’s been a rough week/summer/year, and I’m no stranger to feeling alone. Giving up silence is one way I know how to break the isolation.

Listening- well, that’s not up to me.

*I’d like to note that my friend was Asian American, as was the student who took his own life in West Campus this past year, as am I, and as are a lot of others who probably aren’t having enough conversations about this due to the stigma within our communities.


2 thoughts on “Oh, the joys of silently struggling

  1. Hi Thanh,
    Your friend shared this post with me, because I told her I’d been having trouble finding good writings on depression. Thank you so much for this. You’ve conveyed the feeling of depression in an understandable and relatable way that no other sources I’ve come across have really been able to do. I hope I can take what I’ve learned from your writing and be more conscientious about these things in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Larry,
      I’m so glad my writing was able to help in some way. I’m also really thankful that you brought up the way depression is usually talked about, or rather, not talked about. It’s one of the reasons why I write, because I couldn’t find a narrative that I could relate to my experiences. There are plenty of articles on symptoms, descriptions, criteria, etc. of mental illness, but rarely does anyone talk about how it feels or describe the way it operates in the mind. (Well, at least in my mind.) So, I figured I’d write what I would want to read, and from the sound of feedback like yours, I think sharing these thoughts was a good decision.
      – Thanh

      Liked by 2 people

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