listen to your cries for help

When will my reflection show, who I am inside? is the kind of question asked by many amidst an identity crisis. If a Disney heroine who ended up saving China had this problem, odds are we’re going to have to encounter it too. It’s difficult to dispute the importance of being true to yourself and having this sense of inside-and-out congruity, because it sounds like once you get there, you’re this wholesome, unshakably self-reliant person. Well, maybe Disney should dedicate another soundtrack to being afraid of showing others the inside because it’s ugly. I couldn’t relate to this famous Mulan song for the longest time — neither to the original soundtrack nor the Christina Aguilera version — since one of my worst fears used to be people seeing who I really was inside. I never talked about it, so I don’t know if it would clinically classify as body dysmorphia, social anxiety, or late-blooming teen angst. But what I went through still affects me, especially on a bad day when I’m more vulnerable. I found it relatively easy to hide it than fight it, so I did. To my friends, family, teachers, or really anyone, I just wanted to be like “nm jc, u?” I worked hard to look like I was having fun and doing great things, because I didn’t move to the other side of the world and my parents didn’t pay $48,000 per year (not even for college, this is how much my boarding school cost them) for a miserable time. So I was cheerful and enthusiastic: I made as many friends as I could, reveled in being invited to social gatherings, got involved in fun-kids-only clubs like student council. I think I pulled off this persona pretty well, too. People frequently told me nice things like compliments on my outfit or jokes, so yeah, I think they liked me most of the time. My parents taught me I should be brave and resilient in order to be prepared for any curve ball life might throw at me, so I was afraid to talk about my “defects” and let them down. And although counseling was available at my high school, that seemed like the beginning of a ride downhill I wouldn’t be able to climb back up from. All of these factors combined is why I thought the negative feelings were eventually going to have to disappear, so I just kept paying attention to perfecting others’ perception of me. When things got rough and I was struck with a panic attack or mood swings or something, I kept telling myself “you’re being so dramatic. So many people go through like, so many worse things, and they turn out to be fine.” Sort of like lathering concealer onto a really big pimple or putting band-aids on a deep cut to pretend it’s not there, when it’s only making it last longer.

It was only when things got REALLY bad that I stopped turning internally for answers. You can’t fix such a deeply ingrained problem just by cleaning up the surface. Summer after high school, I was hit with a feeling of irremediable loss and the anxiety-ridden anticipation of having to find new place of belonging. Everything I had established in high school had become irrelevant, yet the insecurities still prevailed. I had just reached a legal age back home in Korea, so I easily grew a dependency on drinking and going out. My parents were proud of me and excited for my next step in life at Boston College, so they let me run free until that one night mom found bruises on my body from self-harm. I saw tears in her eyes and woke up to the fact that I needed help, that it was time. I eventually got better and even started to feel prepared for the fun college life, until some of the symptoms started to come back or even evolve into different ones. But what was different this time around: I wanted to talk about it, and hear what people had to say. I never wanted to revert back to the self who left scars physically and internally. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life so far is to be unafraid of exposing my true self, even the one with ugly insecurities. But it took me so long and so much to get there, because I repressed my need for true self-expression in the guise of my need to satisfy others. I was busy tending my façade of a persona that I left myself isolated and unheard.

I feel like there is so much more awareness and acceptance around me now; maybe they’ve been there all along, but now they’re outspoken, accessible, expansive, more than they ever were. Almost every online news platform has a mental health division, on which numerous anecdotal and academic articles are published daily. WHO just celebrated their annual world mental health day on October 10th, Instagram’s starting the #PerfectlyMe campaign to combat body image issues, artists like Ruby Elliott are expressing the self-destructiveness of anxiety through comics relatable to all. The individual, institutional, societal attitude toward mental health has changed a lot, and it’s impressive. But the level of discourse on the subject is not yet where it needs to be, for it’s still ridden with stigmas and taboo-ness. It’s not that solitude is bad, but that disconnection is because it creates loneliness, and “people who are lonely have more physical and mental health problems than those who feel connected to others.” There needs to be a reminder, more powerful and consistent, to let everyone know that they are really not alone as long as they don’t wish to be. Yes, at the end, it is my fight to fight, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have moral support on the way there.