Content Warning: suicidal ideation/tendencies, depression, anxiety
A Journey Won
There will never be another journey in my life as hard as the one I went through — finding the will to live.
It’s an old joke to make light of the phrase “Tiger Mom” or “Dad” or “Helicopter Parents.” Yet, these labels often caricature toxic parenting traits and play it off as normalized behavior. No one is perfect, and everyone is still trying to be their best. However, sometimes people’s best isn’t enough, and things build up.
In my case, things built up until I crumpled like a dying star collapsing under its own gravity and becoming a black hole. It was terrifying, and it was terrifying to people around me.
Even before middle school, I was hounded by the question—or some variation—of “what are you going to be when you grow up?” It appears to be such an innocent question, first popping up as a non-consequential conversation starter when we were young, where the expected answer was something grand and (probably) fictitious. Then, it became a serious inquiry about the rest of our lives. If we answered “wrong,” we’d get none too gently bullied into something more “appropriate.” (Other people acted as though they knew our lives better than we did, or as if they were prophetic, where the moment we gave an answer, they could glimpse into the future and immediately know that choice wouldn’t work.)
Even when I tried to give a satisfactory answer, all my choices were met with scorn, disappointment, and poorly concealed jeering. If anything, I knew that if I gave any solid answer to that blasted question, at most, I’d give someone a bit of entertainment.
You could say I was the black sheep of the family. I had my rebellious phase that was objectively worse than my siblings ;in hindsight, it really was a cry for help. The question of “what are you going to be?” became loaded, representing so much negativity for me because of the judgment, the pressure, the fear of not having the “right” answer. It all built and built and built and built to the point where I had an existential crisis at the age of 12, and I just….broke. I became wilted, faded like ink pigment left to dry out in the sun. I had no purpose, and I was left empty. Why try in school when you wouldn’t know where you were going after? Why try to get into college when you didn’t know what major you wanted to take because you had virtually no idea who you are and what you wanted to do?
And those thoughts gradually turned into: why live at all?
I can’t detail out all the nuances that led me to that turn of thought, not because I don’t want to talk about it but because I don’t remember. It just felt like one day those thoughts were there, and, frankly, at the time, I wasn’t in a state of mind that could even be that self-aware to notice the nuances.
Even in retrospect, I could only tell you with absolute clarity that I was constantly terrified, and I had no place where I could just breathe. Home, school, and even my own mind never felt safe. The people that I could think to turn to were either miles away or emotionally unavailable. I couldn’t talk to my parents because they 1) were a cause of my feelings of unsafety and 2) didn’t believe in mental illness/health (I’m not exaggerating—they have explicitly said this to me).
But the most terrifying thing out of everything was that I wanted to live despite my passive thoughts of suicide.
I wanted to be and stay alive but couldn’t find nor stick to a way to do that. So I believed that my only option was to die.
For those of you perhaps reading these letters to try and find out what your loved one is going through, and who presumably have not experienced anything remotely near this, I understand how difficult it is to relate to that belief and line of thought. I think it’s difficult to understand because you have to feel how it is in order to really understand it — and I hope that you never feel like that.
I hope that you never lose hope because hopelessness is perhaps the most apt example of dying while you are still alive.
The turning point for me began when I acknowledged just how scared I was and I accepted that I didn’t actually wish for death; what I really wanted was a safe space, a reprieve from feeling like s*** 24/7.
Naming what I wanted helped me pinpoint what I could do to change my situation. So, like the sun coming out of the clouds, I finally found a different, no less scary, option other than death.
But it wasn’t as simple as it sounded. It wasn’t a flip of a switch that I was suddenly not suicidal or didn’t hate myself. The reality is that change is also terrifying, and the familiarity of my anguish felt better than the unknown potential of a better life.
For the first four years after realizing I wanted to live and to stop feeling like s*** all the time, I was angry. I raged, and I screamed (internally), and I cried some more. It was like a reverse birth of a black hole; instead of a star collapsing into a black hole, it actually collapsed and exploded into a new star. But new stars are insanely hot and so was I – hot and pulsing with rage.
Looking back at what I deem as my odyssey of self-help, I can laugh a little and say that, in the process of healing, I went through all stages of grief multiple times.
Those initial years of healing were mostly ugly, but I was still alive.
I am still alive.
I remember the first thing I did that truly kick-started my healing journey to a better life was understanding that the keys to not feeling like shit was in two things:
Knowing and accepting you want to live; that you have hope that you’re going to live; live truly and unabashedly and not just getting by and being alive; because this would be the guiding principle to facing every scary thing you’ll encounter going forward.
Having some control over your life.
Now, I don’t mean to lecture, but I will say that one cannot control every aspect of one’s life. Otherwise, I’d be controlling the probability of how many times I win the lottery and the success of finding the cures to all cancers. I looked for the smaller, more controllable parts of my life.
I asked myself, “what in my life that’s going badly can I control?” Because I was still a minor, I couldn’t do much about my home life (like move out), unfortunately. But, I could control parts of my school environment – namely who I surrounded myself with.
For context, the people who I called friends at the time were unsupportive of my mental health struggles and generally wanted me to hide it or apologize for it. They made me feel bad and in turn that worsened my mental health; it was a vicious cycle.
The thing that kept me with them was the extreme fear of being alone and fear of judgment. I didn’t want to be seen as a loser or pariah. But (and this is why it is number one), I knew I wanted to live and to stop feeling like shit. And these so-called friends were making me feel like s*** so I needed to just leave. It felt so simple – a nice and easy logical conclusion.
The execution was less than graceful. My exit was not smooth and actually hurt people in a way that I was ashamed of. Although I don’t want to make apologies for them, I would later recognize that they too were kids that didn’t know what they were doing. For my part, I learned the hard way that just because I was going through something, it didn’t give me the right to be an a******. And I was one, so I apologized for that a few years after my rough exit.
Anyway, I emphasize the importance of wanting to live because it was the motivating factor to get me to take a leap of faith. To gather all my courage and leave this friend group and become a pariah. To learn how to be on my own. To learn to face my fears.
I’m going to be completely honest and say I do not know how in the world I survived not being alone before. Jokes on my past-self who would have rather faced death than be on their own. These days, I can’t think of anything better. Imagine my surprise when I figure out that being on my own and learning how to enjoy being on my own would do wonders for my energy levels as an introvert. What a thing! The genuine joy of not feeling drained from always being in social situations due to being part of a group was the second best thing I got out of facing my fears.
Being on my own gave me confidence that I didn’t think it would because I didn’t think that being alone with my mind was a good idea. But, I started trying new things and doing new things on my own. And the more and more I did that, the more and more my fears faded because I realized that I don’t need friends to enjoy things. It then became an understanding of “Oh, I don’t need most of what society says I need—these things just end up making me unhappy when I try to attain and maintain them.”
It turns out, I don’t need to be like everyone else. And that understanding kicked off my odyssey of self-help, where I set out to find exactly what it is that I needed and wanted.
The best thing about facing my fears was finding out that being on my own was not more painful than facing death. The best thing was carving out a place for myself where I could breathe.
The best thing was having hope again.
(And yes, if you are still wondering, I did eventually learn how to answer that blasted question and feel pride in the answer I gave.)
I’ll admit that I did not go on my self-help odyssey alone. I did take great pleasure in reading the self-help book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” by Mark Manson.
I was/am one of those people who generally thinks that self-help books are not all great, but there are a few that truly helped me; this one was akin to the Bible for me at the time. What I liked about the book was that it takes some core concepts of Eastern philosophy and spirituality and simplified it for better understanding.
I owe a lot to that book in helping me organize my mind and change how I perceived my situation. So I will leave you with some of my favorite quotes from it (which might be the entire book).
“If suffering is inevitable, if our problems in life are unavoidable, then the question we should be asking is not ‘How do I stop suffering’ but ‘Why am I suffering – for what purpose?’ “
“Problems may be inevitable but the meaning of each problem is not. We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.”
“Self-improvement is: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.”
“When we feel that we’re choosing our problems, we feel empowered. When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will, we feel victimized and miserable.”
“This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the circumstances. We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.”
“Taking responsibility for your problems/situation doesn’t mean you are at fault.”
“The more something threatens your identity the more you will avoid it. Anything that shakes up that comfort – even if it could potentially make your life better – is inherently scary.”
“Pain is part of the process. It’s important to feel it. But don’t let emotions define your reality.”
“Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway. All of life is like this. It never changes. Even when you’re happy…you still won’t know what the hell you’re doing. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t ever be afraid of that.”