Fun Fact: I was born on International Day of Happiness, which is March 20th. And I think most of my friends think that’s pretty accurate for me – I tend to be that friend who cracks jokes, mulut takde insurance buat lawak, I smile a lot and try to be a cheerful person.
That’s usually the case. But a couple years ago, when I found out my birthday ngam ngam dengan International Day of Happiness, I thought it was some cruel joke. ‘Cause really, I was super depressed.
HEALTH = HAPPINESS
2018 was a really rough year for me. I had just started as a junior and was asked to help with a series of projects! I’ve always been prone to mood swings but I thought cam biasa la, some days are more stressful than others. I always prided myself on being able to get through whatever hard times I faced. But then I fell sick.
It started with the flu. And then a cough. And then a sore throat. I thought it was just the regular flu so I didn’t bother seeking help immediately. Plus, I was juggling a lot of projects at work so I tried to just self-medicate.
Until one day, when I had to walk upstairs and I realized I couldn’t. My chest was so tight, I thought it was going to explode. That’s when I really realized something was not quite right.
I found out I’d caught a superbug – “hospital-grade bacteria”, as my doctor called it.
On top of all the stress at work and now fearing for my health and my medical bills, I had no time to rest. It was work, take meds, work, schedule clinic visits, doctor appointments, work appointments, deadlines, take meds, again and again, rise and repeat.
I only got rest 6 months later, once I finally went to surgery and had 21 days of leave to recover from it.
By that point though, I’d gotten so anxious about being away. And just so tired – it felt like I ran a marathon and when I finally was told to sit still, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt useless, guilty. Every day that I stayed home, I felt like screaming.
And things only got worse when I finally did go back to work.
THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK
My recovery hadn’t gone as planned – I still coughed and wheezed if I moved too much or too fast. And suddenly, I didn’t wanna be at work either. Every morning, it’d take so much energy for me to get in my car and drive to work. I became easily mad and miserable and I didn’t know why.
The one Sunday, as I was mentally preparing for work the next day, something snapped in my mind. “I’d rather be dead than go to work.” That thought kickstarted the mega-est breakdown of my life.
I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. That thought possessed me. It was like tunnel vision, except there was no light at the end of the tunnel. It was like staring into a dark well that just went on and on and on.
I fought hard with my thoughts that night. Crying, kicking, screaming, trying to understand why I felt that way. I was just done. I didn’t sleep till 6am, when I was completely drained. And when I woke up 2 hours later, I called my boss and told them I wouldn’t be coming to work anymore. And then I all but disappeared.
After that, I spent a lot of time locked in my room and when I did go out, I was so anxious – every second felt like a panic attack was coming. I cried. A lot. But that whole time I thought I’d get over it soon. But as the days passed, I just got more and more depressed because I wasn’t getting any better. Happiness became an impossible task.
And ya’ll, I blamed myself. I blamed myself so hard for being weak. And I thought other people would think the same, so I didn’t reach out for help.
I don’t know how I did it, but somehow as I was wrestling with my brain, I managed to pluck up the courage to talk to my elder brother about it and ask for his help.
Now, just to be clear, my brother and I have never been best buds. I think a part of me really expected him to tell me to grow up and get back to work.
So, I was very pleasantly surprised when he instead hugged me and told me he was proud of me for being able to talk about it. We sat on the balcony and talked till sundown before agreeing that I should seek professional help.
ONE STEP CLOSER TO HAPPINESS
The first time I met my therapist, my hands couldn’t stop shaking. And sweating. And it was all super uncomfortable.
I told Siew Li that I just wanted to be happy again, like how I usually was. I told her that I didn’t recognize this sad person I was, that it felt impossible to go back to being happy, after spending months in this pitch black place.
When I told her this, she just asked me straight up to name a few things that I enjoyed doing. At first I was like ‘huh, nothing, I’m sad duhhhh, what you talking about’.
But when I actually thought about it, I could think of some things. And once I started, it became easier and the list became longer – I realized there were still many things that could give me joy, big and small.
She then told me to start doing some of these things. Start small, she said. The next time I felt sad, she told me to refer to this list of Happy Things and to pick one thing I felt I could do. I made a lot of excuses at first ‘cause I was scared it wasn’t gonna work. But Siew Li memang smart and nasib baik I listened to her.
‘Cause the next time I felt really low and like I was gonna go into that dark place again, I did something on my list. It didn’t make me super happy, like I wasn’t cured or anything, but it distracted me from the overwhelming sadness. It distracted me enough from it, so I could actually do more things that made me feel happy. And soon enough it was like a snowball effect. I wasn’t 100% happy, but I was close enough.
This is just one thing therapy taught me. It taught me that it was okay to experience a bit of joy, even when the going is rough. That it’s okay to feel sad and bad, as long as you also allow yourself to still enjoy things. ‘Cause kalau tak, you’re never gonna move past feeling sad.
And really, allowing myself to be open to feeling joy again was such a big thing. I think, when I was in the dark, I wanted so bad to not be sad, that I focused so much on it, instead of doing things that could actually make me happy. I closed myself off so much – even when I knew deep down that help was what I needed to feel happy again.
It’s been close to 2 years since my meltdown. I don’t know if I’ve found HappinessTM. Tbh, I don’t even know if it exists really, true happiness. But I know that some things help more than others when I’m feeling low. Like talking to a friend. Lying in bed basking in the morning sunlight. Karaoke-ing.
If there’s one thing I learned from 2018, it’s that reaching out is so, so important. There’s no shame in asking for help – it was hard to believe at first, but once I started talking about my mental health with my brother and therapist, it got a bit easier to tell friends too. And not a single person turned me away. People are more willing to help than you think.
Now, whenever I get depressed, I do two things: I try to do something that I enjoy and I reach out to someone that I trust. And so far, I think it’s working. There’s a bit more light now.
If any of you reading this are feeling not-so-good, I hope you’ll take the time to think about what brings you light too. And be brave enough to be happy, even when things aren’t going your way.
I know that right now with COVID-19 and the gomen’s movement restriction order, a lot of us are feeling really terrified and anxious, and honestly, same. It’s scary!
But in these next weeks, while washing your hands and taking care of your body, don’t forget to take care of your headspace too okay. Your mental health is still important so let’s stay calm, stay healthy and look out for one another (virtually, like via Whatsapp or something k). Chin up. We’ll get through this together.