Freaking Out, Calming Down, and Doing It All Again
A Recount of the Past Term
(tw: depression, suicide, anxiety)
Sitting in one of the Health Services offices for the first time, I ask the doctor, albeit rather hesitantly, if many students come in with the same issues. “Oh, yes, it’s very common,” she says, “almost 1 in 3.” That stat sticks to me like velcro for a while. I look down the row of students next to me in the lecture theatre, trying to count them. I wonder how many people feel the same way I do.
When I go home, I tell a handful of people what’s happened. The “1 in 3” rings pretty true, even here, on an island that has a penchant for brushing things under the carpet when we need to address them the most. A few good friends confide that they’ve experienced the same things, to varying degrees, with varying treatments. I learn a majority of my parents friends who ventured overseas for studies or work had their own slumps. Most made it sound like a distant memory, but some still cope with the remnants of it.
Overall, I talk. A lot. To a lot of people. I tell close friends, and friends I hope to become close to, and friends who just so happen to be there at the wrong time (or maybe the right time, because they save me without knowing it). I tell my whole family, or at least, the people I can bare to tell. Sometimes you know who will get it and who will just exacerbate the situation.
I feel like a cliché. The arts student goes away to pursue their dreams and nearly tries to kill themselves. Nearly gives up. Gets too “emotional”. Too “sensitive”. I feel ungrateful. “Why is she sad? Didn’t she pick that path?” My mother’s friend asks, genuinely confused. I look at the equipment I have access to, I look at the rows and rows of DVDs on my lecturer’s shelf. We’re in his office, and I’m trying to persuade him to let me drop this project.
“I just got diagnosed last week. I don’t think I have the mental capacity to do this.” He looks at me and I can see he’s had this conversation with many students time and time again. I’ve just had a panic attack in his class and had to leave halfway to calm down. I never went back in. I sat outside and cried into my friend’s sweater, watching my tears roll down the scratchy fabric. She held me quietly.
“I used to be good,” I mumble to her, thinking about my inability to give a presentation that morning. My heart won’t stop pounding in my chest and it hurts. “I used to be great at doing stuff like this.”
“You must feel a lot of pressure, being here,” my lecturer says. “I’m sure your family want you to succeed, too.” I start to tear up thinking of home. I try not to look at him or I’ll burst into tears again. Outside, the sun is shining but I know that once I step outside a gust of cold, late-autumn wind will send shockwaves through my whole body.
“Don’t think about finishing it. Don’t think about the end. Just think of the next step, and then do it. If you can’t finish, it’s fine. But don’t give up yet.”
I want to tell him I’m sorry, that I feel like I’ve let him down, but I hold back. I think it sounds too personal, although he knows more about my mental state right then and there than many of my close friends. I just nod.
I have a breakdown at home, in my own room. I call a friend who’s studying abroad. My voice shakes when I speak to her. I feel exhausted, but my mind won’t stop trying to figure out the best, painless way for me to kill myself. Why am I sad? I dig into my past for the answer, but I feel like I’ve stumbled into an echo chamber. Nothing makes sense.
“Don’t feel alone,” she says. “But I do,” I confess, and my heart fills with guilt, because I know I’m not. Yet I feel far away, a single solitary specimen floating through the cosmos. I feel like I’m watching the world turn, and I’ve been flung off the surface, and everyone is thriving in their own lives. I feel far away, although my family is asleep just a staircase away.
“The journey is going to suck. It’s not fun. But I wouldn’t say I regret it for anything.” I look at my friend sitting on her bed. Her dorm room is warm and brightly lit, while I keep 5 light sources on in mine for almost the whole day. I’m still trying to figure out if I want to go on medication. I wonder what she means, and how she says it with so much sincerity and strength. Lately, I feel like over-boiled spaghetti.
But I try not to think too much. I try not to think about the end. When I feel scared, I call someone, or I play music, or I spin the globe my dad bought for me and I trace my finger over SINGAPORE. I visit my lecturer two weeks before the deadline to tell him that I’m giving up on the project. I’m too exhausted and we’ve barely done anything. He asks me if there’s anything that I think I can do to salvage it. For a brief moment, I want to get angry, but my mind doesn’t let me. Instead, I remember something. I feel, for the first time in what feels like eons, actually inspired.
I pick up guitar, and enjoy playing it badly. I skype as many people as possible, and I read a dizzying number of articles on mental illness and creative struggles. I do everything slowly, and probably not very well, and I procrastinate like nobody’s business, but I make every deadline because I want to. I fall, a lot. I get angry a lot. I make friends with people who forget about me, and vice-versa. Everything passes in a weird, fever-dream blur and I can never tell if I’m doing anything correctly but at least, I tell myself, at least I’m doing something.
Christmas comes. I stick close to my friend as we weave through Winter Wonderland. It’s freezing, and rather dark. A month into Uni I’d be too busy trying to calm myself down or begging her to take me back under these conditions to realise how colourful the booths are. But I feel, slowly and surely, a familiar sense of myself. I love rollercoasters.
“Rock and roll!” My lecturer calls after me as I dash out of his office, shaking but so very, very determined to just finish this project once and for all. A few months later, I hug my parents as I prepare to pass through the immigration gates of Changi. I’m going back.
“Go kick ass!” My dad yells as my ticket is checked. I take a deep breath, and walk towards my gate.
“We can do this,” I tell myself over and over. I think about the fact that the next time I come back, it will be summer and I’ll be home for a much longer time. I think about my hall friends and how much I miss them. I think about the opportunity I’ve been given, and why I want to pursue what I’m pursuing. I think about the fact that I can choose to not give a fuck about what people think. I think about my family, and the people I love, and the people I love proving wrong. I think about how I’m mentally ill, and that I still don’t like saying it, but I know how important it is to let your voice be heard for other people who don’t know how to find theirs just yet.
The doctor asks me where home is. I tell her the name of my hall. She chuckles slightly and I blush a little before telling her I’m from Singapore. What was that? I wonder. Why would this place be my home?
But then a tiny voice chimes in, at the back of my mind. Maybe I can make it feel like home. Maybe I’m just beginning to get better.