Words will be enough
Words are not enough to convey how much I hated myself for most of this year.
Words are not enough to convey how much I slashed at myself over and over again for failing to do well at my first job, for failing to tell stories that were compassionate and nuanced and smart, for turning in what I perceived as embarrassingly amateur-ish and boring pieces.
I placed crushing expectations onto my shoulders, as I had always done, out of my insecurities. I was a young female Korean journalist, this intersecting identity that I felt subtly pressured, both internally and externally, to represent in my stories, even though I didn’t quite know what that identity meant for me. I still don’t. But I felt somehow that I had to say something meaningful about Korea, about Korean Americans, a community and experience that I was unfamiliar with, as a Korean who was mostly raised in Korea.
Pitch after pitch I made was shot down for various reasons. At first, I calmed myself, telling myself it was part of the process, then grew increasingly desperate. This was my golden chance to say something meaningful about who I was and who we were on a national platform, and I was wasting day after day trying to find the right story to convey it. It had to be the right one. I didn’t want it to be another story that exoticized a Korean lunar new year custom. I didn’t want one that misrepresented or distorted the narrative on Koreans and Asian Americans again. I didn’t want one that echoed the same tired themes of back-breaking education or North Korean anxieties again. I was so much more than that. We were so much more than that. But what was the golden story that I could tell that was both nuanced and appealing to a primarily white audience? I called so many people and asked my editors and scanned so many sources and could not figure it out.
One day, I left the NPR building and trotted home in my ballooning mushroom jacket. It was cold, but my tears ran hot streaks down my face. I was so frustrated that I could not find this one story to give me a release and relief from the others that I did not feel passionate about.
At the same time, I was constantly anxious, hoping that I wasn’t perpetuating Asian female stereotypes through my naturally shy and soft-spoken and slow-thinking demeanor. I knew I had to work twice as hard and appear twice as more aggressive than a white man to be seen as worthy. But it was hard. I felt mute at editorial meetings where editors and reporters threw in and smacked down ideas like flying daggers. I didn’t feel like my daggers were potent enough to throw in. I retreated and slashed at myself for not being good enough and smart enough and loud enough. Be better be better be better, I screamed at myself. You went to a top journalism school and you got this fellowship and you have to prove yourself as a female Korean journalist. You’re supposed to tell better stories than this. But I wasn’t. I clearly wasn’t, and I continued to slash at myself until my heart and mind were left in ragged shards, until there was nothing left to slash at anymore. Words were my profession, and words were the weapons I used to tear myself down.
When I was sent to Vermont for my third rotation, I started feeling this droning numbness inside my heart. The sights were so beautiful, and my coworkers were painstakingly kind and welcoming, but I was so lonely and scared and cold. It was so cold. I would pace back and forth in front of my bus stop to work every morning, many days, snowy winds grazing my cheeks, my hands deep inside the pockets of my small peacoat as they fingered the bus pass, and chant to myself that I could do it. I can do it. Yu Sun, you can do it. On the bus, I would read and re-read my notes for the story I was working on, a story that I knew deep inside was not working and was not that significant, a story that for some reason I could not make sense of.
I started staring at my computer screen all day and not getting any progress done. I took unnecessary bathroom breaks, where the Vermont Public Radio classical station would always be playing, and stared at myself in the mirror, at times, picking out stray eyebrow hairs as I assailed myself with the painful question — Why couldn’t I do it? Why, why, why? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I focus at all? Was I truly this bad at journalism? Why had I been chosen for this fellowship? I returned to my desk and shifted about in my seat, raised and lowered the desk a few times, and looked at my word doc again. I had no idea how to make this story work. It would be a horrible one anyway.
The bus route was familiar by my third or fourth week in Vermont — down a road with deep blue mountains looming in the distance, then the curved hill through Winooski, then snaking around the university where I’d see medical students with bulging backpacks get off and on, passing houses, more houses, until it was my stop. Through the blur of passing sights my anxiety grew and grew until it hardened into a numbness, into an eraser that muted and deadened my feelings and thoughts. I called friends and told them I couldn’t focus at work. Some wondered and worried and told me that maybe I just needed to relax and meditate. Maybe that was it. I just needed to figure out a methodical way to work through my anxieties. But my best friend told me that I should see a psychiatrist. It both relieved and scared me. Was my state that serious? I thought I was just being unusually anxious, and quite lazy.
But at a certain point, I stopped being able to sleep through the night. I would jolt awake at 4 and 5 and 6, bleary-eyed and frustrated, since I had planned to get up at 7 to work earlier on my story, because maybe that would jog my sluggish brain. But one night, I woke up at 3 in the morning, unable to remember or think or feel anything. My fluid technicolor mind had been replaced with a hard greyscale rock. I started crying in panic. I opened my Bible and tried to read through the verses, but they slipped through my mind. I cried and cried and called my brother and my dad in Korea, and sobbed to them through the fragile phone connection that I needed help. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
Words are not enough to convey the all-encompassing depth of my ensuing depression, the inescapability of it, even with medication, the way it suffocated my will to wake up and live. Words were not enough to lift me up, even momentarily, when I was so sick, because at a certain point, I could not mentally process their meaning. When my roommate sat across from me on our futon sofa and prayed for me, her hands tightly grasping mine, I understood her intent but not the meaning of her words. They snaked into my ears and tumbled out. My mind clawed and clawed to catch her eloquent words but could not retain them, my mind was a slippery and elusive and frustrating slab of soap on the shower floor that would not stay in one place. I still clenched my eyes and listened to her, but with a feeling of crushing guilt. I felt so sorry to her, because in my mind, she was wasting her compassion and words on me, someone whose mind had deteriorated so much that she could not understand others.
Words are not enough to convey how marginalized I felt. I’d sit at my desk at work and force my clenched facial muscles into a smile to pretend like nothing was wrong when everything was, when I would receive a simple assignment and my mind could not for the life of it figure out how to do something as basic as booking a guest. One time, a frustrated colleague stalked over to me and said to me in a blaring voice, in Korea, do they not learn rules of English grammar? I didn’t know what to say. They stared and stared in a disbelieving way that made me feel so small and so stupid. He was a powerful white man and I was a powerless Asian woman. I laughed slightly and muttered something to disarm him and he finally walked away, and my shocked heart rate returned to its normal pace. Never before in my life had I felt so stupid and worthless.
Words are not enough to convey how misunderstood I felt. Doctors were efficient but unempathetic. An American psychiatrist, a round white man, nodded sympathetically to my story, oh that must be so hard, I’m really sorry, as his huge Laborador therapy dog napped in the corner of the room. He then told me that this session would cost five hundred dollars, as previously discussed, something I faintly recalled from our phone call but had failed to remember from my frenzied attempts to seek help. Another therapist I saw, a tan white woman with bracelets and beads dangling from her arms, asked if I perhaps did not think that my family and upbringing had given me high expectations for myself. It wasn’t an entirely untrue projection but I felt very uncomfortable under her gaze, wary that she may be tokenizing and conflating my Koreanness with my symptoms. When I continued to pour out my desperation to her, how I felt like I could not do anything at all, she told me that I should consider checking into a mental hospital if I was that bad. I wasn’t so much shocked at the suggestion itself than the exasperated way she said it to me.
Korean doctors were not much more empathetic. A psychiatrist in Korea, a middle aged woman with sharp eyes, told me coldly that I was quite stubborn wasn’t I and why did I not listen to my mother who wanted me to rest. When I desperately asked her about my symptoms, she nodded and said tiredly that yes, yes the symptoms are all normal so just take the pills, pills that later gave me a constant buzzing migraine. Another Korean doctor, an older man, squinted at me from behind his glasses. How old was I? I told him 22. He started speaking to me in slight ban-mal, an informal way of speech in Korean, the way you speak to those you know very well or those who are much younger than you. Not a paying patient. Was I working? Yes. I asked him if I could continue. He cocked his head and said probably not best to, very little emotion in his face. He never really looked at me as we talked, more at my records and his computer screen. How could he show so little emotion to my desperation and pain?
My parents poured in encouragements with relentless patience, then grew short of it. There were explosive fights and tears. My mom visited me in DC for a month to make sure that I was doing okay. One night, she grew livid. Did I even appreciate that she had flown all the way there for me, how she was cooking for me all the time and I had not even prepared a bed for her, why did I not listen to her advice to stop work and go to Korea with her, she felt like a prisoner to her children, she was human too, what had she done to deserve this? We were right outside the fence of my half-basement apartment, her standing, me sitting on the stoop of the sidewalk, the street cast in an orange glow against the dark. I listened to her rant as tears burned down my cheeks and could not believe that I was capable of causing such pain to her. I beseeched her that I would not be acting this way if I were normal. I told her that I would think about returning to Korea, which relieved her momentarily, then went back on my word. Work was my only source of worth at the moment even if I sucked at it. My mom grew tired.
Even my big brother, who’d had his own troubled past with depression, told me that it would be okay, and that this was nothing, waving his hand casually. Another family friend told me that, smiling. This is nothing. You are so young and you’ll look back and laugh at yourself for this tiny blip. This is nothing. When this was everything to me. When this defined my every breathing moment to me and made each one torturous. Apparently, this was nothing.
Words are not enough to convey how much I wanted to escape this smothering reality. When I was officially diagnosed with depression, I returned home, and screamed. I screamed and jumped in place, the bottoms of my feet slamming the floor. I slapped at my reflection in the mirror and screamed how much I hated myself and cursed myself out. I slapped my face again and again. I was so young and so full of potential. I was not supposed to be depressed and I would not accept it I could not but I had to. I begrudgingly took my pills each night, feeling like a robot who would wake up and eat and shit and take pills. Sometimes I skipped them to feel more normal. When I did take them I would lie in my bed afterwards as the nausea inevitably swirled in my stomach and up into my chest, and I willed myself to sleep, my only escape.
I blamed myself. It was my fault for making myself so stupid. It was my fault for wasting so many days, so panicked and unproductive, scanning various outlets for story ideas instead of producing stories themselves. My incessant web-surfing had decayed my mind. It was my fault. So I should suck it up and accept this new reality, this new me. But later even that became hard. At times, it felt like time was jolting forward so quickly for me, like a day would go by in two hours, because my mental state would not shift at all during that time. I felt like I wasn’t really there when I was with others. I was an unwilling and tortured time traveler.
Every morning, I would go for chest-searing, lung-splitting runs because that was the only time that time slowed down to its normal pace, when it was measured not by time but by physical pain, and it was the only time that I could feel something. I would fly past the brick townhouses of Capitol Hill and snake up and down the stairs of the Supreme Court. I relished the pain in my throbbing chest and the sweat guzzling down my back. As I rounded the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol, I would imagine my parents and friends cheering for me on the sidelines, cheering for me to finish this marathon that I had never signed myself up for. Running was the only reason I got up in the morning, because otherwise I would have slept forever. I preferred to dream than be awake, and when I was awake, I would constantly fantasize about a more endurable reality. Running was the only thing tethering me to reality.
But even running became a torturous lie in my head. After one run in which my lungs didn’t feel like they were splitting because my body had become physically strong enough to endure harder runs, I deemed myself a liar. I couldn’t even go for a proper run. Even running, my only truth and anchor at the time, had become a lie I told people out of the many lies that I was doing fine at work and I was all fine, it was all fine. I was not just a failure at journalism and a waste of money and people’s time, but an active liar.
Words are not enough to convey how inhuman this made me feel. I remember going to Old Town Alexandria with my mom, and sitting down at a restaurant by the harbor. The sky was a bright blue, as was the river, and the dock was dotted with bobbing white ships of varying sizes, slightly gleaming from the sun. But I could not tell that it was beautiful. I felt absolutely nothing. I wondered out loud to my mom if I should check into a mental hospital, and her face crumpled, as did my heart. Why did I pain those I loved the most?
To me the only option stood that I should disappear from the world.
I was an inconvenience at work, because I could not understand directions or compose a coherent script. I was making my colleagues’ jobs harder for them, as if they weren’t stressed enough. I didn’t have any ideas or opinions to offer. I was too stupid for my job.
I was an inconvenience to my friends because I had nothing joyful or uplifting to say to them. My presence bred not humor or love but darkness and discomfort. I couldn’t find their jokes funny, nor could I offer any of my own. I could only wheeze about my current thoughts, showing them only a glimpse, because the totality of it was too dark and nonsensical for anyone to handle. After all, my thoughts told me all day that I was a fucking piece of shit. How would that make anyone’s day, as hard enough as it was? My friends’ words were kind but mostly unhelpful. It’ll get better. You’re strong. It’s just a phase.
It didn’t seem like a phase. It seemed like it would be eternity. I would be eternally selfish and stupid and worthless.
I was an inconvenience to my parents, because I was using up so much money on psychiatrists and depression medication that didn’t seem like it was working, medication that made my head feel like it was being squeezed by a lemon peeler all day, and because I knew how over-worried they already were as parents, and I was pushing them over the edge.
I had seen my dad cry for the first time in my life when he picked me up in Vermont. We were sitting in the rental car, the key ticking in the ignition, and it was so cold that every time he spoke, a puff of air appeared from his mouth. A tear rolled down his cheek as he said his chest felt like it was tearing apart to see me like this.
Why had I become like this? Why was I making my parents and friends and everyone I loved so much suffer? It was my fault for making myself sick.
My only solution to the love and concern of my family and friends was to disappear. I was inconveniencing them, I was making their lives more painful than necessary, I was not a productive or loving human being. My life and presence were not worthy.
One night I lay in bed as I casually contemplated my death. How could I carry it out? I didn’t have a gun. Maybe I could swallow a lot of pills. But in the bottom of my heart, both sounded too scary, and like an extreme solution to what my parents and doctors and friends were clamoring was a temporary condition. I just couldn’t believe it was temporary, because this was my mind. I couldn’t escape this wound because this wound was my perspective and this wound was how I saw and took in the world, and the wound told me that I should die.
But as I rolled onto my side in bed, I decided that it was too scary to end my life. Death was scary. And honestly, I didn’t want to start over a completely new life and get another set of family and friends and memories. They were pretty great. It would be a waste if I just went off and died. Plus I would really miss eating meat. Even during my depression, I loved the taste of grilled Korean beef, a dish my mom made for me frequently as she stayed with me. A mix of my laziness and pragmatism and carnivorism pulled me back from veering off the edge.
So my only option was to return the love that others were pouring into me. But it was so hard, harder than I had ever felt before, when I could not feel genuine emotion. I had to carry out my acts of love from pure logic. When my close friend’s birthday came around in April, I reasoned to myself, okay, it’s his 23rd birthday, I’ve known him for four years, I care about him a lot, we have so many memories together, he’s such a warm and funny and loving person, let’s write him a message conveying all of this. But words did not come to me naturally. I had to rummage and claw desperately for them in my decayed mind, and this devastated me. It took me four days to write a letter to my friend, a letter that read horrifyingly clinically and disingenuously in my eyes. What worth was I if I could not even write a genuine letter to my friend? What worth was I if I could not even genuinely love? What worth was I if I, a writer, had lost my words?
I started getting better in mid to late August, as the new medication I had started in June finally started to kick in. One day in August, I noticed that the world had more color. I could smile and laugh genuinely at jokes and even crack my own again, even though the humor didn’t completely fill me. But I felt the ghost of it, which was exponentially more than I had felt for months. I still felt very empty, though, and knew I was still cognitively incapable of working (I had left my fellowship after June, two months early). So I drew comics from the volunteering gig I was doing with Little Lights, an organization that works with poor black families and children living in public housing projects in DC. I drew out their quirks and hysterical one-liners (a pre-meal prayer from a particularly solemn four-year-old named Nehemiah, who we endearingly called Nemo: Dear God. Thank you for waking us up. -long silence- Amen.) and tried to draw out meaningful conclusions from them. Their antics taught me how to smile and laugh again. I was inching back towards the person I knew myself to be, and it gave me hope, even as the last vestiges of my depression and my recovery jolted me awake at night, even as I endured a panic attack when I started reporting a story again. It was the first one I had worked on since April, when I left Vermont.
But I knew I was better when my words came back to me. I knew I was better when I could position and angle them precisely again, and when I could feel and think colorfully enough to warrant their use.
As I continued to process this year from a safe vantage point removed from my depression, the last vestiges of it, two weeks away, three weeks, now about one month — I realized this.
There’s a reason why I wanted to die over the past eight months.
It’s so that I can help others want to live.
Now, whenever I see a homeless person on the street, a woman with sagging dark circles around her eyes, with frizzy and unwashed hair, a perpetual stench of urine around her, who sits in a wheelchair with a cat on her lap, who mutters and yelps incomprehensibly as she shakes her ragged cardboard sign, I will never again be able to walk by her without feeling her pain as my own. It will rip through my chest. I will feel vividly her anger and sorrow and utter frustration that her mental condition is not something she cannot control, yet it controls her, and society spits and exiles her for it.
I remember something a pastor said when I volunteered at a soup kitchen ministry, Eagle’s Nest, at dawn in Atlanta. We would gather in a white, dilapidated building at 6 in the morning to serve a simple breakfast — toast, scrambled eggs, sausages — to the homeless men and women who came through, and listen to the pastor’s sermon before the meal. In that moment, a woman who was clearly mentally unstable had just gone out the door. I wish I could remember more about her, but I don’t, just that she was white and perhaps had dirty blonde hair and didn’t say much as she took her food and stalked out.
The pastor, a large and generous black man named Larry who had devoted his entire life to this ministry, sighed and said this. Someone out there loves her too. I never forgot what he said.
I will never again be able to listen to a friend with depression, someone who ruminates and tears themselves down with their self-loathing, daggered words, without patiently and consistently and aggressively speaking words of kindness and affirmation and love into their diseased mind, without praying for them daily. My words will be a shield against their self-inflicted daggers. I will never be able to get on with my day without thinking about them, and desperately praying to God for their healing and restoration and redemption.
Recently, I’ve discovered that so many of my close friends have had and still have this disease. The ones who spoke the most empathetically to me when I was sick, the ones who said I was okay the way I was, the ones whose heavy, knowing sighs spoke more volumes than others’ simple and dismissive encouragements, were the ones who suffered from it as well.
Now that I am better, I realize how lucky I was, for their condition is more chronic and continuous and begrudging than mine. And how lucky I am now that I can climb down the ladder into the dark pit that they are entrenched in, safety light in hand, and tell them, that I can understand to some level, and that they have worth, and that I love them. Do they know that? Do they know how incredibly loved they are? How lucky I am that now that they can perhaps feel like they can unburden their weight onto me without feeling like I will judge or misunderstand. How lucky I am that we can talk about wanting to disappear and joke about it to take away its deep sting. How lucky I am that my love and empathy for my friends have been deepened forever. Their pain is now mine.
I will never again be able to see the phrase “mental illness” without feeling, bone-deep, the implication of those words, what they meant for me, and what they may mean for others. I will not be able to see those words without my mind splitting into a million potential stories. How can I channel my Asian and Asian-American friends’ silent suffering with this disease and other mental illnesses into nuanced stories? How can I represent the unique pains that manifest from the pressures they enforce onto themselves because of their parents who came to America desperately hoping for a better life for them? How can I convey, though, that sometimes mental illness appears regardless, and that it’s very hard for Asians, in the US or in their home countries, to speak about it because often times, their families and societies still equate mental illness with lunacy? How can I convey this deep stigma, the shame? How can I convey how hard it is to find a therapist that fits our unique backgrounds and needs, one that doesn’t tokenize our pain into an immigrant experience, through the bureaucratic nightmare of health insurance companies? How do I even begin talking about how so many Koreans in Korea — from high school students buckling under sky-high expectations to get into one of three elite universities in Seoul with four hours of sleep under their belt, to old people who live alone on poverty benefits and lie in bed and watch television all day — how so many of them are so wretchedly depressed but don’t even know that they are and don’t get help? Where do I begin? Their pain is mine.
How can I convey the pain of forced migrants and refugees and victims of sex and labor trafficking in the US, in Korea, who will have to sort through their trauma forever, because their trauma is not temporal, like mine, but chronic and defined by civil wars and poverty and vulnerability and insecurity and corruption and forces that are too big and global and out of their control? How can I channel their pain into stories? How can I capture and convey their words so that they finally matter?
I will never again be able to see these people’s pain without feeling and remembering it as my own. My pain will expand and enrich and embolden my love for them, whether they are close to me or seen in a passing glimpse.
That is enough. That will be enough, even if my depression returns in the future and cripples me again. That will be enough even if I want to die again and seriously consider the methods to execute it. That will be enough even if this disease hovers over me tantalizingly for the rest of my life.
Words thrust me into my depression and words kicked me repeatedly while I was in it until blood streamed from my broken mind and heart and words were never enough to assuage those wounds, but I will use words to uplift and pray and write with a ferocity for those who feel utterly broken like I was, for those who feel like their lives have no value. I will use words to love them. Words will be enough to convey my love for the people in pain I see around myself, in Korea, in America, around the world.
Words, finally, will be enough to convey my redeemed soul.