Monday, April 13, 2020

We Count

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As the current pandemic holds us prisoners in more ways than one, I find that my days are now filled with counting...

I count the days since we’ve self-quarantined, and the days until the virus will peak, and then hopefully die.

I keep track of the count of the number of positive cases—in our towns, our cities, our nation and the world. 

I count the days before touching something that’s been delivered to our home. 

I count the number of seconds when I wash my hands; or when I let the disinfectant dwell on my surfaces. 

I count the rolls of toilet paper we have left in our home. 

I count the cans of soup, corn, beans, tuna left in our pantry so we can ration more efficiently. 

I count how many more days until we would need to step out and buy more groceries, possibly exposing ourselves to the virus. 

I count the distance between myself and a stranger, making sure it’s at least 6 feet. 

And after every essential trip outside the home, I count the days—3, 5, 12, until day 14—before I allow myself to get a full sigh of relief for reaching the maximum incubation period of this virus without feeling ill. The cycle repeats every time any of us leaves the house. 

For an anxious person like myself, these are torturous—even debilitating—times. 

But I know all this counting is done from a place of privilege. The neuroticism has to be tempered by a dose of gratitude... 

I still have supplies to count. 

I have running water to constantly wash my hands with. Not everyone is as fortunate. 

I can rely on others to shop for our family so I don’t physically enter the stores that have now felt like land mine-laden real estate in my mind. 

I, with my husband and child, can afford to stay home and not put ourselves at risk unlike the healthcare, emergency, and other essential workers who have truly stepped up and become our heroes. All of them, I’m sure, can’t be bothered to obsess about the incubation period. There is only every day to count and be thankful for. 

On the flip side, this pandemic has also forced me to stop counting certain things...

I’ve given up on counting how many pounds I’ve gained, or if I’ve eaten too many chips or cookies today. 

I can’t be bothered with obsessing over how many more gray hairs I see on my head, wondering if I’ll ever dye my hair again. 

I couldn’t care less about how many people in my social circle annoyed me today, especially on social media; I see clearer than ever who matter and who don’t, who I’ll miss most and who I can do without. 

I certainly couldn’t keep track of how many times I’ve cursed, either out loud or in my head, whenever I see or hear people deny science in understanding this virus, and refuse expert knowledge to guide them in conducting daily life. In such instances, I do my best to soothe my rage and fears with deep breaths and prayers recited ad infinitum. 

In the end, it’s all a personal decision as to what we each choose to count and not count, what we still consider to have real weight during this time when we are all fighting for our lives and sanity. 

However, I do hope it becomes clear to each of us that one thing we can’t put a limit on—one thing unequivocally worth keeping track of—is the question of how we can help and be there for others today, no matter how small the effort may seem. This, after all, is what truly defines our humanity. Let no virus or pandemic strip us of that.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Weight on My Soul

My annual physical exam is coming up in a few weeks and sadly, the part I dread most about it is when the nurse weighs me. I know I won’t love the number that will show, but just so I can feel less shame— even if it’s just 3 ounces less—I would carefully plan for my outfit for that day so that I only wear clothing with the lightest materials while still looking decent and put together. At the same time, I plan on not taking my shoes off so as to give the nurse the impression that I just don’t care and that I’m not neurotic about my weight. See how neurotic this all is? 

Weighing scales terrify me. All they do is remind me of all the self-loathing and dissatisfaction I have with my body. I'm reminded of who I've never been and might never be and the whole futility of a dream. The numbers on it hardly change now, especially after turning 40, and stepping on it each time is like allowing myself to be mocked or shamed for what I'm doing or not doing enough of. It makes me want to smash it or throw it out the window but I know that every time I step on it, it's also a challenge to accept where I am, who I am and how I'm built. Its existence is a constant reminder of how far I still am from truly loving myself, JUST AS I AM. 

It's not a big secret that I've struggled with my weight and my body image for as long as I can remember. I've never had an eating disorder and have never really experienced severe weight cycling. I’m not one of those who grieve the loss of their skinnier young selves, because I’ve never even experienced being just average or of a normal weight. All my life, people have always categorized me as 'chubby', 'round', 'sturdy', ‘fat’, ‘big boned’ (my favorite!), or simply ‘overweight’. Whichever term it was, I was always made to feel bad about my size. 

From childhood to my 20s, I've always heard backhanded compliments such as "Oh, you have such a pretty face, if only you'd shed some weight." Or as a kid, I heard a lot of "Ah, this one was let loose in the kitchen" as other adults spoke to my parents about me. It hurt. I resented those adults. But the damage was done the moment I heard them and unfortunately, can't be undone just as easily. 

And so I grew up being unhappy with my body, dreaming of a magic number on the scale or some coveted clothing size tag that will finally make me feel great about myself and tell me that I do look great. 

But it never comes. I've never seen it. Once I see something less or smaller than the one I had before, it's still never really enough. Never small enough. Never light enough. I almost feel like I'm chasing the end of the rainbow, but in pursuit, I always just end up tired and hitting a pot of M&M’s or Cheetos instead. 

So you can understand my aggression towards the weighing scale. All I see when I look at it is judgment. All I experience from it is defeat, an unfathomable sense of lack. 

I want to be happy where I am now. I want to accept my body for what it is—plump but not in a curvy or sexy way; straight but always lumpy and way too rounded in the wrong places; breasts not totally flat but never bigger than my stomach; legs that still have some shape but will never fit in regular width tall boots either. It's where I have always been, where I am now, and maybe it'll never change. 

I just wish I were at peace with it and would never feel, or be made to feel that I need to do more, shed more, just to be 'better'. I wish I could reach that place where a better version of myself no longer includes how I look on the outside. It's a gift only I can give to myself but still don't know why I could never seem to afford it. I know there are real problems in the world, but this is a burden I carry, the weight on my soul I don't quite know how to shed.

*This post was originally published on CATHARSIS under the title My Real Weight (2015). It has been edited from the original. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Simple Self-Care Habits for Your Mental Health

During these past weeks, I have really made the serious effort to focus on self-care. After coming to terms withand feeling less shame aboutmy depression, I've been more open to receiving support and also allowing people to see and know how I'm tending to my mental and spiritual health.

Certain habits have proven effective for me, which brings me to an important point about self-care when it comes to depression, anxiety, or overall mental health: it's highly personal. No one should dictate to you how self-care should look like for you. You can listen to what's worked for others, try it, keep it if it helps, but don't feel guilty or ashamed if it doesn't. Choose something else. 

The most important thing is to own the need to replenish your peace and sense of self-worth. 

So, what tools have been working for me? Here they are and they're worth giving a shot if you haven't yet.

Prayer and getting more attuned to the Divine
Whether this means starting my day with Bible quotes or verses, or pausing any time of the day just to say 'Help me, guide me, show me the way out of the darkness', I've found that this habit helps me find my center. It's not that I always hear Wisdom literally talk back to me but more often than not, there is a tug, a hunch, a relentless helpful thought, that echoes inside. You can label this how ever you want but my faith calls it the Spirit, and all that matters is that it comforts me. 

Mindfulness Practice
This is about me taking pauses to be more aware of my thoughts, especially when negative self-talk happens. It's to force myself to focus on my breaths which helps, not to reduce the mind to a complete blank slate, but to create distance between my thoughts and who I am; to know that whatever thoughts I may be having, they will pass; and most of all, to know that my thoughts and feelings, though I accept them fully, are not all that I am. The voice in my head saying 'You are worthless' is just thata voice, an idea. I hear it, it's there, but with every mindful breath I take, I am able to create distance between the voice and Myself, until the rising and falling of my stomach with every breath taken, becomes the stronger focus and not the self-deprecation anymore. 

Exercise, and in particular, Yoga
I walk on the treadmill 5 days a week. But I suppose because it's fairly easy and mindless, it sometimes ends up just fueling my rumination. Yoga, on the other hand, has been the more effective friend and remedy for me as of late. The stretches and positions, no matter how basic, challenge me to focus my mind on my limbs instead of thinking of something else. The breathing, on top of my desire to make sure I'm executing the movements correctly, give me a welcome distraction. And most of all, I'm convinced that the yoga stretches and positions allow for a better flow of Qi (Chi) in my body, hence promoting a more positive feeling. 

Practicing Gratitude
I always thought writing gratitude lists was all BS. But you know what? I gave it a chance and realized that the items on my list don't have to be anything grand, they just need to be specific. Maybe I'm grateful for a friend giving me a heartfelt hug. Or maybe I serendipitously came across an inspirational quote. Perhaps it was a delicious cup of coffee from the cafe, or a calming tune I heard on the radio. When I start really making the effort to find things I can be grateful for, it makes me feel more present, less forgotten, more connected to the world.

The last one I want to share is probably one we easily take for granted but is extremely consequential in my view. Though it should be practiced by anyone, I feel it's paramount that those of us suffering from depression/anxiety heed this advice...

Be very selective with the people you surround yourself with

Yes, choosing who you spend your time with is a crucial part of self-care. We are all energy. And each of us brings energy to situations. I have always been quite intuitive, and when I meet and spend time with people, I can pretty much tell if I like how they 'feel' to me, the energy they emit or bring forth. Some feel too heavy for me, some too strong that they drain me, while there are those who I can feel just don't care, are insincere, or would rather be some place else. In other words, I end up feeling worse about my life.

The truth is, it matters how people make you feel about yourself. Why surround yourself with those who further minimize you or have no desire to understand the journey you're in? Self-care should always include being careful with the energy you interact with in your state of utter vulnerability. 

Depression and anxiety deplete one's mental stamina, and as ideal as it is to say we each choose how to feel about ourselves and that others should not have control over that, this view is also very naive and uncompassionate. Depression depletes your energy, your self-esteem, your patience, your interest, and many other things that unaffected people take for granted. It affects your sense of agency. In that state of depletion, what we need are people who are compassionate and will not be callous with their words and attitudes towards us; people who bring positivity even in just their quiet yet assuring way; people who can be equally vulnerable with us, which in effect makes us grateful because then we realize, unequivocally, that we are understood and accepted, and that we are not alone.

This is a journey I would never wish on anyone. But if you are in it, as I am, I hope you know that there are ways out of the darkness, and that a lot of us know how challenging it is. The world is more compassionate than we think. We just need to keep moving, one foot in front of the other, until we find the strength to reach out. I'm certain there will be a hand from the other side, to hold yours firmly, and assure you that you are absolutely worth holding on to. Hang in there. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Miracles of My Depression

It's true that labeling something is often the first step to a healing journey. 

It's true that naming something is recognizing its reality, hence pulling it out of the shadows and allowing the light to weaken its hold on us.  

That's what happened to me when I wrote last month that I could be suffering from depression. At the time, I still could not fully own it, though I was candid about the dark thoughts that plagued me. Anyone who is familiar with depression, or who was even just slightly keen enough while reading my words would have undoubtedly concluded that I was suffering from the condition, albeit moderately.

Depression is not easy to admit and I'm very careful throwing my self-diagnosis around. But I have read enough of it, know my own self and predispositions (genetic or otherwise), that I can be certain of its presence in my life. 

It shows up differently to different people, leaving its unique brush strokes as it imposes itself while we write the story of our lives. I count myself among those who are fortunate enough to still be able to control this presence, to still be its master on most days and not the other way around. I know it has significantly strengthened in the past two years and I'm not sure if I could even pinpoint a specific trigger. 

What I do know is that I began to question my worth more and more as I heard of other moms finding work outside the home. Or maybe someone close to me said something that, though not pertaining to me, might have hurt because it had to do with not being able to earn money on my own. Suddenly, I started to question my sense of purpose as a mother and learned to belittle my devotion on a daily basis. The sense of uselessness and hopelessness, all the self-loathing, would become unbearable on some days and I knew I was drowning. I became an expert at putting up a facade of contentment and stability. It wasn't out of a desire to deceive but more of a fear of inconveniencing others. I didn't know how people close to me would take it. I didn't know if they were capable of accepting my truth. I didn't want any of them to worry about me, treat me differently, or change anything about themselves just to accommodate my issues. 

But it's true when they say that it's 'only at the precipice do we evolve' (The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2008). And it's also very true that it's only when we open ourselves upwhen we allow ourselves to be vulnerablethat we are able to receive love and recognize its abundance around us. 

My writing and coming out was no doubt a cry for help. And I am forever grateful to the special souls who stepped up to hold me either physically or virtually, whether through your words of support or thoughtful actions. I know it was the Universe's way of clearly telling me that I am not alone and that healing is possible. 

Writer and blogger friends offered their advice. People I've never met before gave me words of inspiration. Friends living abroad sent me messages just to let me know they are there for me. One old friend reminded me of a simple fact that truly jolted me into my senses: that a person's worth is NEVER measured by the money they make. I've always known this about other people, so why can't I apply the same to myself? When did I stop being kind to myself?

The afternoon after I published my 'coming out' piece last month, a sweet neighbor friend walked over to my house and gave me a beautiful bouquet of wild flowers and gave me a hug to make me feel better.  Words weren't necessary. I felt her love and support and I hope she will always know how she inspired me to choose to heal. 

I guess what I'm saying is this: Miracles are there. Kindness is around us. Help and guidance are available, whether physical or spiritual. 

After surrendering to the reality of my misery and praying for help, insights started coming to me. A particular one that truly made me want to find healing for myself came in the form of a question: 

If I knew I were dying tomorrow, how would I feel knowing that I wasted years of my life feeling useless, convincing myself that I'm useless?

The more I tried to think of the question and the answer, the more certain I was that the critical voice in my head is not necessarily right. Neither is this voice ME. 

My desire to recover, to stay afloat and breathe more steadily rather than just occasionally pop to the surface and gasp for air, led me to learn more about the practice of mindfulness. 

I know my troubles are around me. Mindfulness will not make them magically go away. But if I keep practicing it, I will learn more how it is to be present in the moment; to learn to distance myself from the voices in my head so they do not dominate my reality; to learn to find my centerbreath by breathknowing that this too shall pass.

I'm not fully healed. If there's one thing I'm realizing about depression, it's a chronic condition much like addiction, heart disease, or diabetes. One is never fully cured, you simply learn to manage the condition. It's a journey with both good and bad days, and you take it one step at a time.

Today I feel strong. Today is a good day, thank you for asking. 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Opening the Floodgates

I’ve been MIA for a while now and I know this story is getting old. Yes, I’ve been busy, I have my parents here with me visiting from the Philippines, we’ve been traveling and enjoying our summer vacation, been working on DIY projects around the house, yada yada yada….But the hard truth and the only one that truly matters in this space is that I have not felt any real motivation to write. 

I’m struggling. How much?...Well, enough, that I’m seated here outside the indoor tennis court where my son is taking his class and feel that I would rather apply lotion to my hands mid-sentence and take the time to stare at middle schoolers fumble with their strokes, than focus on finishing this paragraph and actually make sense. 

I never feel like anything is important enough to write about.

I never could find enough fire in me to share what's swirling in my mind.

I never feel like anyone would be interested to read, let alone find any value in what I have to say. 

I never feel like I have the energy to develop an idea so it can have some semblance of coherence worthy of being allowed to seep out of my inner world. 

I never feel like there is enough quiet space in my mind to accommodate sentences and creativity.

Could I be suffering from depression? I wonder. A lot. 

I’m functional, sure, but there is something in me that doesn’t feel right. It's a struggle to even talk about this now because I know a lot of people won't believe me and think I'm simply overanalyzing myself. I'm organized, do everything I need to accomplish for my family, feel grateful for the life I have, look happy and warm in social situations and overall, seem...fine.

But I am struggling with a lot of my demons. 

Could I just be feeling lost, trying to find more meaning, and drowning in my perpetual existential crisis? I don’t know.

I’ve been trying to 'fake it ‘til I make it' in this space, been doing my best to write what I feel might be of some value to someone out there, but it’s obviously not working. It hasn’t changed anything much in me as far as jumpstarting my writing, my motivation, my happiness. 

It’s a vicious cycle. I’ve always felt that writing and publishing on this space gave me bursts of happiness, a sense of accomplishment and affirmation. Being able to craft something with my words always gave me some sense of purpose. But I haven’t been able to do so because of my mental and emotional state, which makes me feel miserable because not only do I know I’m not able to create, I also feel like I’m failing in some way, which makes me feel even more of a disappointment, a useless waste of air. 

I’m full of self-doubt to the point that it can incapacitate me on some days. 

I feel like I have nothing valuable to give.

I feel like I have no real value in this world. And this thought is further compounded by the fact that what I enjoy doing and feel I'm capable of at the moment don't translate to any monetary contribution.

I have an overwhelming need to always feel safe, in my cocoon, in my comfort zone, where everything is predictable and there is no real risk to fear.

I have become more secluded through the years, save for the occasional time spent with a very select few who I am comfortable with. 

Please don’t tell me going out more will make me feel better. I’m an introvert and forcing me to go out and mingle will not solve anything for me and may only make things feel worse and draining. I can’t feel any more drained than I already do. 

Don’t tell me to apply for jobs and that earning money will make me feel better. Maybe it will. But if it were that simple, don't you think I'd have already done it?

Don’t tell me to go find myself a good therapist and medicate. It’s not something that’s within our family budget at the moment and something I’m not ready to commit to. I know my husband won't mind but the thought of making him spend that money on me will only make me feel even worse. 

Don't think I'm fragile and act like you might shatter me next time you see me and talk to me. Don't think I'm a  fake when you see me smiling and being like everyone else. Just know that people are more complex than what your eyes perceive and try to see with your heart instead. 

I know I'm annoying a lot of you right now, especially those who identify as proactive. I don't need to be analyzed, I don't need you to solve anything or figure things out for me. I don't expect to be understood by everyone, nor is this meant to be an excuse. 

I'm simply coming out. 

Everything has consequences, I know that. And my raw honesty now won't be exempted from that truth. But if I keep fearing what could happen next and shred every scenario to pieces before I speak my truth, then I might never have the strength to open the dam. 

My only intention is authenticity. I'm just hoping that maybe my coming out as raw as I've never written before may help my energy flow better as I step out of hiding. I know there is much more to write, but for today, this is all I can offer.