Thursday, September 29, 2011

12: Depression

I spent a lot of my life feeling as though I were living underwater, or behind several layers of invisible foam. It began when I was around 7. In my mid-20s a friend pointed me towards some literature on depression and the lights began to come on, but I still didn't want to think I was depressed because, well, there seems to be this unwritten rule in most Asian cultures that we don't accept or admit illness. Especially illness that you can't see. I quickly lost count of how many people told me to "just get over it", to "pull myself together" because my life wasn't "anything to be depressed about".

It wasn't until I was 28 and in a Master's elective on mood disorders that I read the diagnostic criteria for depression and thought "Hey, that's me. It's true what that one friend said. And those other people with their 'get over its'... they were wrong." I didn't waste much energy in retrospective anger towards people I'd long decided weren't worth keeping close as long as they remained unwilling to help me on terms I could live with. And this was 2008, the year I had quite a bit to be angry about in the present, and I was learning for the first time that anger can be dealt with in healthy and productive ways. I hadn't the time or energy to waste on conflicts long gone.

I'm only writing this, and beginning to slowly reveal more of my insights on mental health, because I've had enough of the Ostrich Approach to it that practically all Asians have been using. It is a real threat to your quality of life, your relationships and your career -- I hope you won't wait passively until it becomes a threat to life itself, but that is the logical end of all depression if left untreated -- but burying your head in the sand/work/drink/social network/gaming console/DVD box set/designer bag isn't going to bring you to safety.

To begin with, if you think you have even the mildest tinge of depression, please do a self-test. I think this one from the Mayo Clinic quite trustworthy, provided you answer honestly. Consider your results, then decide if you want to get better. I have found that we usually get what we want, but we have to agree with ourselves that we do want it. Take it from someone who wandered some 23 years in the wilderness of unwellness: it can be really hard to admit that you want something good for yourself. We Asians, self-deprecating and humble and ever mindful of keeping face. Now that's something to "just get over".

On my part, I got better on a combination of the following:
  • respite from the career hamster wheel that I'd been running feverishly on since I was 20;
  • prayer and meditation*;
  • counselling**;
  • adaptogen herbs, which come in standardised tablet form these days so there was no pounding of roots and reducing of dark bubbling liquids to be done. (I won't recommend specific plants to you because each person's brain and body chemistry is unique. What worked very well for me might only cause you to bloat and grow poorer. See a naturopath or one of those versatile, open-minded GPs like I had in Sydney if you'd like to go herbal.);
  • restored sleep patterns;
  • fresh air and sunshine (neither of which I had a great deal of when I was working, because I'd usually go from my stuffy sealed-up room at home straight to my air-conditioned office, where I'd remain until after dark);
  • spending more time with what I love: dance, music, movies, writing, friends.
*"Prayer and meditation" is such a floaty, ambiguous phrase. In my case, "prayer" refers to "conversing [largely informally] with God, with whom I have a real and personal relationship through my acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour". "Meditation" to me is little more than "being still and reflecting on the indescribable goodness of God". Where, when and how, whether there are candles or music is played or flags are waved around, all those are just accessories. And no mountain cave retreats are involved. (Not yet, anyway.) As I learnt from Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century French monk filed in my brain as "the happiest kitchenhand I know of": If you can't be still and close to God in the middle of a noisy, full workday, you'll have trouble doing so anywhere else.

**By "counselling", I mean structured, usually 50-minute sessions with someone qualified to hold the title of counsellor/therapist. I had attended "counselling" before with a church leader who eventually, through her entirely unhelpful approach, become one of those people I was glad to leave at the periphery of my life. Later, when I was training to become a counsellor myself under strict supervision, I realised that the type of "advice" she'd given in our "sessions" would be grounds for disciplinary action by any counselling body and if my depression had been more severe, this woman could have been the final push I needed to go run in front of traffic or drive fast into a wall.

I tell you this not to haul up old dirt but because I know counselling is still largely unregulated in Malaysia and there's a strong chance that if you do try to get help, my near-disastrous experience could very well happen to you, too. I don't want it to. If you need help, get it, but only from someone trained and qualified to help you. Pastors and other religious leaders of any faith are not, by default, counsellors. Neither are friends. In my experience, as much as friends may love you and want you to be better, they usually won't know how best to help you. Here's one place where there are people who will: Calvary Life Ministries in Damansara Perdana has a team of professional, ethical counsellors. Don't be intimidated by its name; they're open to clients of all faiths and backgrounds. I know there's a growing number of private practitioners around the country, too.

I'm happy to write these daily posts even if nobody reads, because they are fulfilling their main objectives: to help me enjoy writing again, and to bring focus to what I am most thankful for approaching my 31st birthday. But if even one of my friends reads this and thinks, "Life could be better. I'm going to get help," it'll give me a tiny twinge of satisfaction that I helped chip a flake off the huge boulder of mental health stigma in our culture.

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