cw: depression, anxiety

Recently, I was playing a game of Bananagrams Snatch with some friends at a student retreat. Though I did not let it show, I remember walking away from that game extremely down and dispirited: throughout the course of the game, I had failed to ‘snatch’ a single word for myself. At that moment, I realised how much my mind had been affected by depression. Whereas word games like Bananagrams used to be among my most enjoyable pastimes, that particular occasion must have been one of the most terrible experiences in recent memory. Simply put, I no longer possess the speed of word recognition that I once did. In fact, everything thought-related has slowed down. And as someone who heavily prizes my own intellectual capability, it has been a real blow to my sense of self-worth. The “cleverest guy in the school”, admittedly a title that I was slapped around with during my late teens, now fails to fluently string words together to form sentences. I used to make impromptu speeches in public and take part in debating contests, for goodness’ sake!

how the mighty have fallen
2 Samuel 1:19

I did not even know that slowness or, to use the clinical term, psychomotor retardation is a symptom of depression until I went to my GP. While painful, this new knowledge did finally allow me to make sense of a lot of my experiences over the past few years. Slowing down was a very gradual process for me, such that it was hardly noticeable. Yet now when I think back to my first year at Oxford, I remember being able to read for and write a tutorial essay across two weekdays. In comparison, back in November of last year, the final essay I wrote before suspending my studies took almost a week and a half to complete. It was also submitted late. The information simply did not stick: I found myself re-reading journal papers multiple times, frustrated at my lack of concentration and retention. Sometimes I just sat and cried because reading used to be another of my favourite hobbies: I used to devour books with joyful speed, regardless of size or genre. Once one of my loves, the library became a reminder of my crux. And when I finally opened that Word document to start typing, it was a struggle to turn my notes into full sentences, let alone a flowing argument related to the topic in question. Each essay that I did eventually complete, I attempted to the same high standard that I set myself: this was reflected in the marks and feedback I received from tutors. On paper, everything seemed fine, which made my deception easier to accomplish. The same could not be said of my college ‘collections’, internal examinations at Oxford used to monitor academic progress. Under the timed conditions, the question that I answered towards the end of the three hours would be my worst: short, choppy, incomplete, and lacking case studies. One of my tutors commented that I was her “most frustrating student”, given the disparity between the quality of my work in tutorials and in collections: evidence showed that I do score highly, so I just needed to consistently commit enough effort to learn every topic. She could not have known back then, because I did not share my condition with her until recently: I do not blame her at all. However, those words did hurt because they were true. They expressed the frustration that I felt at my own mental deterioration.

there is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts
but the tongue of the wise brings healing
Proverbs 12:18

There are a few memories from my secondary school years that still haunt me regularly: one is particularly relevant here. I once called a friend “dumb” for his failure to quickly navigate a dictionary in an English lesson. Truth be told, the words left my mouth without much mental processing and I was sharply rebuked by the substitute teacher. “Don’t you dare call him ‘dumb’!” she roared at me, and rightfully so. I was silent for the rest of that lesson, pondering the connotations of that single word. I used the adjective “dumb” in jest, but to listeners, it probably sounded prideful, arrogant, condescending, ignorant, hurtful. “Dumb”. “Retard”. “Idiot”. Too often, we throw words around without much thought or care. I know better than my teenage self because I have now experienced both sides of this coin. Words have power, far beyond their surface meanings, to build up or to tear down. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Simply put, this saying is a lie: words can really hurt. As a Han Chinese kid growing up in the UK, I have borne the brunt of racism for many years, everything from being asked random maths questions by strangers to shrieks of “Ching chang chong!” and “Can I buy a [pirated] DVD?”. The derogatory remarks and rude inferences hurt because they symbolised the chasm between ‘them’ and ‘us’. And I was helpless to change it: I cannot alter this physical inherited part of my identity. At the same time, I realise now that I must have hurt many other people around me with the words that I spoke, people who differed in opinion and character, more than I could possibly remember or apologise for. Even so, as the proverb alludes, words can also bring healing. That is what I wish to do with this blog: to share words of encouragement and support, words that promote compassionate dialogue. This does not excuse the wrong things I have said in the past, but I hope it brings some healing in its stead.

modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization
the defining force of a new social order
in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity
imposed on all human activity
Jacques Ellul, philosopher [1]

Personally, trying to find healing amid my retardation has been quite difficult. The concepts of efficiency and its close neighbour productivity are deeply rooted in the modern world, which has witnessed over the past few centuries very significant defining periods such as the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution. Communicating with a friend on the other side of the world is now faster than ever before and consumes far fewer resources. The fact that we have nicknamed the ordinary postal system “snail mail” is a case in point. As a result, efficiency and productivity are also deeply rooted in my own mentality. The academic environment at Oxford has merely exacerbated their prominence in my mind by placing its heavy demands on me to do well in every sphere of life, present and future. I am not blaming the university by any means, but more the culture as a whole. Students, tutors, alumni, the ‘system’, tradition, legacy: they all play a part in this race to the top. And the more I think about it, the more I recognise that I am a part of that culture.

Those who know me well would have probably heard of my dislike of Hong Kong, specifically because of its culture of efficiency. Do not misunderstand: I do love my birthplace. It has a deliciously diverse cuisine, excellent transport infrastructure, and beautiful scenic views. I simply do not see it as a likely location to settle in the long-term because of its pervasive idolisation of efficiency. These are strong words, and perhaps my friends from Hong Kong might not recognise it as such, but they do succinctly describe my experiences there. In many senses of the word, London is far more ‘chill’ than Hong Kong. In the past, when I visited with my family, I would regularly receive criticism from strangers for my comparative slowness as a foreigner: I was slow at speaking, eating, walking, making decisions. This criticism was scarcely outspoken and vocalised, but I could discern their feelings from the way they tapped their fingers and grimaced in my direction. Eating out alone was especially difficult because it combined selection, expression and consumption tasks into a single half-hour. My slowness compromised their maximum efficiency: was it even worth serving me, if they could serve two or three others instead? I cannot imagine what it will be like going back again this summer. I anticipate an even more difficult two months, particularly since I have been told by my parents that societal understanding of mental health is worse there than here in the UK. This certainly does not help my anxiety regarding the impending visit. Yet despite my supposed displeasure at Hong Kong, I now grasp how highly I too had desired efficiency.

being smart was the only thing that gave me value
without it I felt like a mollusc, de-shelled and set adrift
Emma Scrivener, author [2]

I myself had made efficiency and productivity into an idol: not that these are bad per se, but that I had lifted them to so high a pedestal and bowed beneath them. Their importance in my life was apparent in the utter euphoria of success and the utter despair of failure. Throughout my years at school, I had formed such a core part of my identity around work that when work started falling apart, I started falling apart. I fell further and further, eventually to be consumed by depression. At some point, there was no more euphoria: despair was all I knew, even in success. So to some degree, I think healing for me revolves around caring less about these abstract work-related notions. I need to leave behind what I was and accept what I am because ultimately it is not about my ‘works’ but His ‘mercy’. The wise words of healing from the Bible, below, remind me that my worth does not depend on my achievements and success. I know the burden is lifted from my shoulders to God’s, but my stubbornness clings on in folly. Freedom is found in surrender, yet it is so hard for me to let go. Even now, as I slowly finish writing this blog post, a part of my heart weeps at the slowness of it all. It says, “You hopeless retard. Why bother? You have no future.” By God’s grace, may I be able to respond, “I am slow. I am loved.”

when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared
he saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness
but according to His own mercy
Titus 3:4-5

1. Darrell Fasching (1981). The thought of Jacques Ellul: a systematic exposition.
2. Emma Scrivener (2012). A New Name: Grace and healing for anorexia.

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