The day I decided to return to Chiang Mai last summer didn't start on a high note. In fact, it was one of the lowest days I had had in the past couple of months, and that was saying something. I woke up around 11 a.m., exhausted as I had been when I went to sleep the night before and with a dark mood festering before I even got out of bed. My body ached with the effort it took to sit at my desk and work for a few hours. The pall of numbness with which I was becoming all too familiar had enveloped me by lunchtime and breaking through it felt like too great a feat to even attempt.
While making a decadent grilled blue cheese and olive oil sandwich I thought might cheer me up, I noticed a few bottles of wine leftover from the housewarming party my roommates and I had thrown a couple of weeks before. I wasn't necessarily fiending for a glass of wine at 1 p.m., but it occurred to me that wine usually brings out some kind of emotion in me, whether happy or sad. Perhaps if I got a little drunk, I could at least feel something. Lying in bed crying all day would have been preferable to this nothingness.
I sat back down at my desk and drank a few glasses of wine, waiting for rage or sadness or even an unlikely jolt of happiness to break through the malaise. I finished the bottle and crawled back under the covers.
Nothing. Still fucking nothing.
A few weeks earlier, I had finally confronted the fact that I was likely depressed, and that my life was in need of some major changes. On the surface, all was well - living overseas, career as a freelance writer, surrounded by good friends, lots of opportunity. But inside, I felt like my soul was being crushed slowly but steadily under the weight of cement blocks.
The intense feelings of despair, exhaustion, lack of direction and interest in certain parts of my life and general emotional chaos had been coming in increasingly large and long-lasting waves since sometime in May, but I refused to deal with it at first. Too many other priorities, too many deadlines, too many places to be, people to please.
One afternoon, I was editing some writing for a client named Noch Noch Li, who has written extensively about her experience with depression. I was reading over a passage about the symptoms of depression when something clicked. Headaches, lack of interest and motivation ... It all sounded too familiar. A cold sweat washed over me as I finally let my focus settle on one thought: “I'm depressed.”
The irony was that I had been working with Enoch for months at this point, and while I greatly admired her courage and strength in sharing her story, it never occurred to me that perhaps her work resonated with me for a deeper reason.
I realized then that this was not the first time I had gone through depression. Once I allowed myself to say the words out loud, I could clearly see the other times in my life when my internal world was screaming out for my attention and I refused to pause and give myself what I needed.
My first semester at grad school had long been a source of shame because I had dreamed of getting into Columbia Journalism School for years, and then felt I had let myself down entirely when I started to spiral into a place of darkness, discontent, and poor health. People would ask about my time in journalism school and my first instinct, rather than be proud of my accomplishments and the writing I had done there, was to rattle off some quick response while internally reciting a litany of perceived failures: I didn't network enough, I didn’t challenge myself enough, I didn't pursue more interesting stories, I didn’t spend enough time enjoying New York, I should have spent more time in Brooklyn, I gained too much weight, I didn't go on any dates. I recently reread some old emails sent to a college friend at the time, and see now that I was in a pretty rough state emotionally, and should be proud that I accomplished anything at all during those months.
The same happened a couple of years later, when I was living in Washington, D.C. On the surface, everything was great - good job, lots of opportunities, living in a beautiful house, close to college friends. But I spent entire weekends sprawled on the mattress in my basement bedroom, ordering Domino's takeout in my robe because I just could not muster enough energy or interest to leave the house on my days off.
And here I was again, longing only for the comfort of my bed, where I could sleep for hours on end and check out from the world.
When I realized things were off track in Beijing, I felt ashamed that I had gotten to this point again. Shouldn't I know better? I had worked with a therapist, valued self-work and personal growth, had invested hours and hours of my life in improving myself ... and I was depressed?! How mortifying.
Part of my emotional journey this past year has been to pause and gently shift gears when the shame and negativity spiral kicks in. I've learned how deeply parts of me fear negative judgement from other people, and dread the idea of being perceived as a “failure.” On some level, I thought if anyone knew I was depressed, they'd think I was a fraud, a poser, who didn't really understand or value self-knowledge, or who had burned out, wasted years of my life, become a loser.
I know this is harsh self-talk. I know it. I would never talk this way to someone else. But that's been another part of the process: learning to treat myself at least as gently as I'd treat someone else, and learning to compassionately unpack the negativity one fear and false belief at a time.
The day I realized I was probably going through depression in Beijing, I knew I wanted things to be different this time around. They had to be different. I had tools now, resources. I knew how to take care of myself, could see the changes that needed to be made. I was scared as hell but I vowed that I'd get through this and come through stronger on the other side.
After I finished working, that is. After this month’s client projects were wrapped up. After the party I planned to attend on Saturday night. After I had pitched another story, edited another page, scheduled one more date, one more lunch, one more interview.
I’d tell myself that the important thing was that I was aware that I was struggling, and aware that I needed a break. I'd take one. Eventually.
So looking back, it's really not a huge surprise that a few weeks later, I was still struggling to get out of bed, still seeing my future through a fog of gloom, still feeling like I was just barely keeping my head above water.
The tears refused to come that afternoon in spite of my best attempts at a wine soaked breakdown. But they came later that night, when I (soberly) started hysterically crying, finally admitting how scared and lost I felt, and finally able to say “Something's gotta give” and mean it. Drinking wine with lunch in order to feel something was not how I wanted to cope with my problems. I knew better than that, deserved better than that.
That's when I decided to get a change of scenery, slow things down for a bit. And I felt positively giddy about doing that in Chiang Mai. In addition to the slower pace, I looked forward to traveling again, which always brightens my spirits.
It's funny, the things that happen when you finally start listening to what your body, your moods and your emotions are telling you. When you finally stop pushing the most important things to the back burner and being honest with yourself. I wasn't immediately spry and chipper again after booking my flight to Thailand, but I felt more relaxed, more optimistic. I was taking steps toward helping myself. Things would get better.
At the time, I kind of thought that two months would be enough - I'd go to Chiang Mai, relax, write, journal, and come back to Beijing with a new outlook on life and a brand new approach to work. All would be well.
The thing is, my ability to work hard and achieve was never the problem. I had always worked hard. I can hustle. There has never been a major goal I’ve set for myself that I did not achieve. Which is great. And I love that about myself.
The problem was that I had long neglected certain parts of my inner world. Long-held, intense fears about failure, loneliness, shame, humiliation. Those don't go away overnight after a few good crying jags. And neither do ingrained habits, like working all the time, taking on assignments that don't yield that much in the way of pride or financial benefit simply because you can't conceive of not working, ignoring your own preferences and priorities because you think it's what you should do for someone else’s benefit.
These things take time to understand and change, and require consistent attention to and compassion for yourself as you move toward a healthier place.
And I knew that, on some level, when I started down this new road on my personal growth journey last summer. But that didn't stop me from falling down many more times and learning it over and over again during this past year.