For most of my life I had felt a bit lost.
Just like a ship unmoored, floating in the open ocean, unattached to an anchor, without orientation, without even a destination; I have floated through life as well.
There was a disconnect between how I thought the world expected me to present myself and how I actually felt inside. I saw other people as if they were ships passing by, sleek yachts, grand cruise ships, agile sailboats, gentle tugboats, even small rickety boats; they all look and behave differently, but they all seem to be certain of the destination they are heading.
I don’t remember how it began, this feeling of being lost. All I know is, I spent most of my life second guessing myself, and this nearly always led me to feeling disoriented in my own skin.
“Am I a good friend?”
“Am I lazy?”
“Am I a good person?”
“Am I pretty?”
“Am I smart?”
“Do people like me?”
Even when things were obviously going well, my mind had a way to twist itself with doubt.
So thoughts like: “Oh! A lot of people wished me a happy birthday and did nice things for me” was nearly always accompanied by, “Why do people like me?”, “Do they really like me, or are they fooled by this person I’m pretending to be?”, and it often ended in “I really don’t deserve all this.”
The list of questions I had banked in my head is endless; the downwards spirals caused — countless.
So, in desperation, I tried emulating the confidence of those people who seemed to sail through life’s ocean with such certainty. I pretended to be sure, grand, agile, and gentle. I pretended to look like I had no doubt where my destination was. Maybe that was the problem — I pretended.
By late 2018, I had identified that one of the main causes of my anxiety had been my dissatisfaction with my body. Being a person who likes to exert as little energy as possible when achieving a goal, I looked into intuitive eating. I thought it was the option that would cause the least hassle and still help me achieve weight-loss. Little did I know that it would be the start of my healing. I remember this Instagram post by Jennifer Rollins to be the starting point:
The post had helped me make a connection between my eating habits and my emotional wounds.
I discovered that eating to comfort yourself is as natural as sleeping to avoid facing your problems, but when left unchecked, it may turn into unhealthy habits. And restricting yourself from food instead of looking into the emotional root of the behaviour is the equivalent of slapping on a band-aid on a deep internal wound.
Ever since I came across that post, I felt I had a new destination. I felt elated, nearly euphoric that I had found a place I wanted to reach, so I embarked on a journey to learn about the many facets of my inner-landscape and how they manifest in my behaviour. Being a mother, I saw how my unresolved issues manifested in patterns of behaviour that I modeled for my son.
I became desperate to make changes, so I scoured the internet for articles, checklists, workshops, journaling challenges, spiritual healing programmes, parenting guides, and inner-healing guides. With so many counselors, life-coaches, and healers sharing their tips and tools for free on their social media accounts and websites, it was easy to find them. Thus, I began collecting anything that I deemed useful in my quest to become the best version of myself.
As I went about my days, I continued to click on the bookmark icon on the posts that came up on my Instagram feed. Looking back, it was insane that I had tried to take on self-healing work while I changed nothing about how I spent my energy every day. I had continued to teach part-time, drive my son to and from school, conduct training, take care of our parents, keep up-to-date with my son’s school schedules, take our father to his doctor’s appointments, take care of our house, take care of our cats, maintain my relationship with my loved ones, etc.
It’s now crystal-clear that I had been overextending myself, but when I was in the middle of the grind, I felt like I had no choice but to continue sailing forward. As the number of bookmarks I had on Instagram increased, I felt a false sense of having worked on myself. But the longer I bought into my own lie, the more obvious that though I felt like I was moving, I was no closer to the destination I dreamed of. This had left me feeling bitter because I began to think that my destination was impossible to reach, not because I didn’t know the location, but because I didn’t have the capability to reach it.
The Learning Process
Let’s take a quick detour: I am familiar with the learning process. I teach English as a Foreign Language, so I learned about this in my teacher training courses. One of my favourite aspects to teach is vocabulary. When teaching new words or phrases, I have to think of ways to help the students go from being unaware of the word or phrase, to being able to use it correctly.
The process is:
- The students read or listen to a text with the new word
- We discuss their comprehension of it based on the context of the text and they can create a definition using their own words
- They see it again in use in many different contexts and maybe different forms (comfortable [adjective], comfort [noun])
- Practice using it using their own personal context (make sentences about themselves)
- Continue to use it regularly until it naturally becomes a part of their vocabulary
I’m sure you can see from this list, this is a process that takes place over a certain amount of time. This is not something that can be achieved in one lesson! Most likely this will be a part of many lessons spanning many weeks if not months and that most of the steps will need to be repeated.
Using this process as an analogy, what I had been doing to help myself heal before the pandemic had only been gaining comprehension of what new information I had, and continuing to accumulate information everytime I went online (the equivalent of step 1). Yet, I was somehow hoping that simply by doing that, I would be able to see improvements in myself (reach step 5 right away).
Thus, instead of helping me, the knowledge I had ended up chipping away my faith in myself. Without realising, thoughts like, “if I know all this, but still nothing has changed, things must really be hopeless,” became the white-noise of my psyche.
It took a pandemic to help me realise the link between my experience to this process. You see, the funny thing about the learning process is: the more you feel forced to learn something, the less likely you can learn it effectively. I still have memorised details from my favourite novels that I read when I was 12, but I cannot tell you even one clause or verse from the Indonesian Maritime Law that I studied for a semester at university. I’m sure you have similar experience as well.
So, the more desperate I was to ‘be good at life and not get left behind’, the less likely I was to achieve the desired outcome. The pandemic was the great equaliser because everyone had to stay put. I didn’t feel like I was being chased by time anymore because everything stood still. And unknowingly, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed and read people’s stories, my mind roamed free and made connections between my new-found knowledge and my past experiences.
An Example Lesson
When I think about my 2020 experience, I will always be grateful for my privilege and fortune. I had the privilege of staying at home during this pandemic while still being able to meet my basic needs. I had the fortune of discovering BTS in November 2019 and joining the fandom through Twitter in January 2020.
In the first two months of that year, I forged online interactions with many fellow fans as we collectively expressed our love and appreciation for the group we adored. The ARMY (what BTS fans are called) community is huge and diverse. I became acquainted with more people within a short period of time than I had in the past decade. We converged on the timeline with the aim of escaping our real lives and sharing our happiness with each other.
Even before the pandemic, I had recognised the diversity within the fandom. I was able to hear different points of views about different matters first-hand from the communities who experienced it. It reawakened my sense of curiosity and allowed me to empathize and relate to their stories. Thus, when the pandemic hit and I spent more time online, I saw more people sharing stories about how they overcame problems that were similar to mine.
I was given one such reminder when I came across a post in my Twitter timeline. A fellow ARMY had retweeted a comic strip created by Pina Varnel, an ADHD awareness activist who creates drawings and comic strips to illustrate the realities of being an adult with ADHD:
When I was learning about self-healing, I came across many mentions of ADHD, and I wanted to learn more. Alas, amidst the deluge of tips, checklists, and affirmations, this topic became lost among the hundreds of posts I had bookmarked on Instagram. Going through the suggested accounts on Pina’s page, I found Jessica McCabe, another advocate for ADHD awareness, and her channel: How to ADHD.
I tried watching a few videos, and without realising, tears rolled down my cheeks because I could relate to so many things she had mentioned.
One that hit me profoundly was this video:
Right before discovering Jessica’s channel, I had told my friends about how gratitude lists made me anxious to the point that I avoid them like the plague. Which is why Jessica’s clear explanation:
“In our experience, asking our brains to be grateful on command is a lot like asking them not to think of pink elephants. We can try, but our brains don’t always cooperate.
…. I’m happy and grateful like 80% of the time….One of the things I’m most grateful for is that I don’t have to make gratitude lists to feel grateful. Turns out gratitude doesn’t come from naming what you’re grateful for, it comes from processing why you’re grateful for it.” — Jessica McCabe (How to ADHD, 2017).
— considerably lessened the guilt and worry I had over not being able to create gratitude lists, or to comply when someone reminds me to be grateful when I complain about something. It made me stop asking the question, “is there something wrong with me?”
Let me be clear: watching a video will never equate to a diagnosis¹, so I don’t know if I have ADHD yet because only health care providers can provide a diagnosis for this condition. However, I was still able to relate to many of the symptoms described. And really, it is the stories that Jessica and other adult ADHDers had shared that changed something in me because I now have the vocabulary to describe my experiences, and this gave me more room to recognise my own limitations and work with them instead of against them.
What I had perceived as laziness and carelessness, I now recognise as my inability to control my impulses and my tendency to easily become distracted. My habit to procrastinate might be a sign that my brain simply requires more time to get over a perceived mental wall, and that shouting at myself would only make the wall grow taller. I also realised that getting enough sleep and movement is a very important factor in improving my ability to regulate my impulses and emotion.
So, while I may not have a proper diagnosis yet, I have gained the capacity to be more compassionate towards myself. This is a fundamental shift in my perspective, because this better and kinder understanding of how my mind worked had rekindled my will to work on myself again. I realise now that I had not been fair to myself because I expected myself to process everything the way most people do, and when I failed to do this, I believed that there was something inherently wrong with me, which in turn left me feeling hopeless.
Now, when I feel that I have regressed and become impatient with myself, I accept that as a part of the process, not a sign of hopelessness. I am learning to accept that how I process things might always be different from others, and that as a consequence I may need more time to reach my destination. I now know that I will always experience up and down cycles, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t improve, and that on some days, simply hanging on and existing is enough.
That is how someone’s story helped me make better sense of mine. Jessica’s clear description of her experiences helped me identify parts of mine that didn’t make sense before I heard her story. The pandemic was the catalyst to my awakening; an incubator where all I could do was float around in virtual space absorbing stories and learning from them, and this particular lesson was especially meaningful because it helped me regain faith in myself.
Here at the start of 2021, I look back on 2020 as the year where I seemingly stayed put but actually went on countless journeys inwards. I found new vocabulary and new perspectives from other people’s stories to help me make sense of the world, and by extension help me make sense of my inner universe.
This was all because I had the time to process things without the grind of daily life chasing me down. Again, I’m privileged to have the luxury of getting lost in my thoughts no matter how torturous the process may have been at some points. I didn’t have to worry too much about fulfilling our basic needs, something that isn’t true for far too many others.
With the intent of not squandering what grace the universe still bestows upon me, I aim to make notes of the most profound realisations the pandemic has allowed me to come to and share it. This is what I hope to be the first of many steps that I will take to pay forward the benefits my privilege have gifted me with.
Other people’s stories have helped me make sense of mine, so I hope in turn my story can play a part in helping you make sense of yours.
As of now, I have accepted the fact that my journey is one that will continue till I cease breathing, but lately I don’t often feel unmoored anymore. And when I do, I have the patience and strength to at least wait and read other people’s stories until I can believe again that: whatever hardship I face at that moment too shall pass.
I hope the same and more for all of you.
- Diagnosis of forms of neurodiversity can only be done by health care providers. If you’d like to know more about ADHD, I suggest going through the videos on this playlist and exploring the resources there: