I turned 21 last week.
I celebrated my 21st birthday with stomach flu, some cupcakes with a friend, some tea with another friend, and, per American traditions, legal consumption of alcohol.
I also celebrated my 21st birthday by clutching onto my covers and bawling my eyes out, deep into the night, under the yellow hue of the overhead lamp. In the morning I broke into a cold sweat and woke up in tears. I couldn’t move; I was paralyzed with a profound sadness and despair that, like treacle, slowly drowned me in its sweet embrace. I couldn’t speak.
My friend didn’t have to introduce itself – it is depression. Depression that has ameliorated and exacerbated over the years, yet never abandoned me. Depression that, ironically, remains one faithful friend who never fails to wish me a happy birthday.
Depression that, on the anniversary of my arrival into this world, sometimes made me question the point in being alive.
Growing up, I was a “moody” child – I had a “strange” temper and behaved “eccentrically”. I was fickle, easily irritated and on the verge of violence, all of which was attributed (partly correctly) to my separation from my parents since infancy. I had no words for the floods of tears that would rush over me for no reason, the gnawing pain that could only be assuaged by pressing down on my heart, occasional insomnia followed by days of drowsiness, or the recurring nightmares since age five. I learned to swallow my spit, clench my fist and not make a sound when I cry; I learned that if I lowered my head and defocus my gaze, even the worst storm would pass. Children are smart creatures and I learned to shut myself in a dark box and talk to my despairing self, gently, patiently, until I was whole again.
When I was 12 and living in London, I was bullied and sat through every single class with tears streaming down my face; I couldn’t eat, couldn’t talk, had trouble walking anywhere. I felt like a lone twig floating through a dark ocean of loneliness. My parents see my red eyes – what’s wrong? Why can’t you just learn to fit in? Why can’t you be like so-and-so?
They said the same thing when I was being a bad host and cried uncontrollably during my 10th birthday. I brought some paintbrushes and ink and was eager to teach my new British friends how to paint traditional Chinese landscape painting; they were too excited and weren’t paying attention, and I was overwhelmed with a tidal wave of hopelessness and sorrow that I could no longer control. What’s wrong? Why do you have to spoil the mood?
I had no name for this monster, this abstract platonic form of pure fear, dread and loneliness lurking around the corner, yet I knew it was always there. Most of the time I could barely manage to squeeze and fold it beyond the outer periphery of my consciousness. Other times I feel its cold, damp fingers slowly yet surely wrap them around my eyes, around my chest, around my stomach, and pull me into a swamp of despair.
I have depression. I have had depression all my life without knowing it.
“So, how can I help you today?”
I was allowing myself to sink into a warm, beige armchair, in an equally warm, beige room that was adorned with colorful modern art pieces. The therapist sat opposite me, her radiant smile making me fuzzy inside.
“So, how can I help you today?”
The therapist sat opposite me, her radiant smile chipping away, persistently, at something stiff and callous in my chest.
Five years ago, on my 16th birthday, I had perhaps the first sliver of realization that depression might have something to do with me. I remember the hot summer day, and lying on traditional Chinese bamboo mats to keep cool, and running my fingers down the length of each fiber, breathing in and out, in and out, and clutching thin air desperately as I felt the abyss of despair, dread and sorrow open up its avaricious mouth to swallow me whole.
I had no friends, and my first romantic relationship with a boy equally inexperienced was spirally downwards. My extracurricular projects were failing majestically because I couldn’t bear to challenge the crippling social anxiety that had embalmed me all my life. Academically I failed every single physics Olympiad I entered; I pondered giving up the childhood dream of becoming a physicist.
At age sixteen I was already branded a failure in life, and the fact that I could think of no-one to invite to any sort of birthday celebration seemed to attest to that. My field of vision was clouded in grey; I had no appetite for a week and with every forced swallow surged an increasingly urge to vomit until I faint.
I sat in the canteen and buried my head into my bowl of porridge, ignoring the blurred field of vision or a salty trail that mixed into the ground rice. I became aware of my skin; I had snot all over my face and I was ugly and overweight. I had no friends and no-one. Except for my mother. She was oblivious to my pathetic state and chatting with her colleague from work; the colleague noticed me and Mother told me to say hello. I did. Tears gushed out, down my face, mixed with snot and sweat down my greasy face and stopped just short of the trace of sweet porridge that had condensed into a thin film around the corner of my fat mouth.
Her colleague was embarrassed. She was embarrassed as well. You are a disgrace, she told me. You embarrass me. What is wrong with you.
Happy sweet sixteen.
“So, how can I help you today?”
After that, I settled into the cocoon of depression like a weary traveler sitting down by the side of the dusty road after a long journey.
I learnt that if I controlled the parameters carefully enough – if I just tried hard enough to blot out the words of abuse from those around me, and steer clear of anxiety-inducing situations, and fill my life with countless projects and goals, I could avoid tumbling down the rabbit hole. I started to learn to tame the wild beast, the monster, the friend – the depression that easily drags me into despair, all over again.
Every year since my 16th birthday, I have had a depressive episode of some severity – mostly triggered by toxic relationships, academic stress and the trauma of sexual assault. Every year, around my birthday, I sink bank into the muddy hole of self-loathing, doubt, hatred, despair – that I was undeserving of love, that I was hated, despised, a failure. Tears burn my eye on the day that is supposed to be celebrating the beginning of my existence in this world.
I wish there could be a clear “Eureka” moment, where the boundaries of depressed-Yupei and Enlightened-Yupei is as clear as night and day, and I could point and say, with surgical precision, that this is the defining moment when I started to learn to live with my depression. Such moment does not exist. Even now, I still feel as if I’m a worthless dirtbag crawling hopelessly in a never-ending dark tunnel of negativity, lost in the labyrinth of regret, sorrow, and profound loneliness.
Every year, on my birthday, a depressive episode greets me with no exceptions. Yet I’ve learnt that admitting is the first step – and, thinking back to that moment on my 16th birthday, when a teenage Yupei, embroiled in her self-doubt, loathing and sense of failure, drags her tear-drenched face out of that bowl of porridge, stares through a kaleidoscope of tears at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, and having to listen to those around her say, what is wrong with you; you are a disgrace – that was the beginning, that was not the end. And it will be a long exorcism, if I could ever cleanse myself of past trauma and inner demons – yet I refuse to ignore the pain. I know that I am fortunate, that my form of depression is mild enough to allow me such privileges of looking back and even embracing these moments of extreme pain, and for that I will not let myself down. I will embrace my sixteen-year-old self, and give her all the love she never had.
I turned 21 last week. Things have not been easy; they have been much more difficult. I just came out of a long episode of depression; there is a lot of repairing to be done. There is a lot of love to give.
But I suppose I can wholeheartedly wish myself a happy birthday.