journey

cw: depression, suicide

In March 2018, soon after I suspended my studies, I started this project as a space to reflect within and invited the world to join me in my walk with depression. It has been over a year since I have updated this blog. Though I am still not yet ready to share everything that has happened, for it is difficult to present stories which lack a satisfactory conclusion, a number of things have changed: I have fallen out of contact with many people I care about; I have made some new friends; I have learnt to be more expressive yet more sensitive in the way I talk about mental health; I have been sucked into the wonderful world of k-pop; I have deleted all my social media accounts; I have had to make some very significant decisions about my future, ones which weighed heavily on my mind for months on end. Having said all that, my year of 2018 consisted mostly of rest, reading, and recovery. Taken at face value, it all seems very static, even to me. A case in point is when I joined a new Bible study group back in October. To make conversation, people asked me what I had been up to during the week, and I was embarrassed to realise I had accomplished pretty much nothing. By contrast, they had completed essays, joined societies, attended parties, met up with old friends, secured accommodation…

However, upon further reflection, I can now appreciate how much I have moved on over the months. I have journeyed: slowly if compared to most others my age, and perhaps even backwards and around in circles at times, but I have not been motionless. In fact, ‘motionless’ is the worst state to be in, for it is the outward manifestation of internal defeat: stumbling and flailing into a permanent posture of prostration, crippled by the burden of depression. That is when the temptation to prematurely conclude the journey grows exponentially. That was me at Oxford for a time, for too long a time. I am relieved that was not me this year, though it could easily have been.

if 10 years ago someone told me that in 10 years
I would be routinely sitting in my room all day
doing nothing to make myself a successful man
but eat, sleep and use my phone/pc
and sometimes go out for a [sic] lonely aimless walks
I would never believe them
coolmast3r, Redditor [1]

This simple but pointed post in the depression subreddit was 100% upvoted more than three thousand times. It frames the unpredictability of mental health, and indeed all of life, in a remarkably personal way. It cuts close to the heart because of its candid truth. If you told my twelve-year-old self that he would be slowly rotting to death at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, he would never believe you. And if you told my twenty-one-year-old self, the one slowly rotting, that he would be working a forty-eight-hour week in two years’ time, he would never believe you either. After all, he did not think he would survive another two years of numb semi-existence.

Life is incredibly fickle. Change is not a mere possibility: it is an inevitability. For those stuck in a rut, this truth is a source of hope. For those cresting the waves, it serves as a sobering reminder of the gravity of the situation. Having experienced both the highs and the lows, the mountains and the deep-sea trenches, I now believe it is of utmost importance to keep moving, to keep journeying on in life. Learn from experiences, sure, but avoid excessive lingering. Do not waste away, reminiscing about the things of the past. Not only have their surrounding circumstances changed: the individual has also changed. When my peers at Oxford finished their exams and graduated, I saw their jubilant photos on social media. During those weeks, I was dangerously close to slipping back into the gutter of speculative nostalgia: that could have been me, if only I had done this and not done that…

But that is not me: this is me, the one who did not complete his undergraduate course in June 2018. I am unable to change this reality, so I accept it as it is and move on, focusing my physical and mental energy on the things that I can change. The professionals call this thought process radical acceptance: radical for this era and culture perhaps, but absolutely rational and realistic. Radical acceptance is now viewed as a therapeutic skill that requires regular practice to be effective, and while I certainly have not perfected it yet, learning it has helped me immensely in my recovery process. Note that acceptance does not equate to approval: it does not conclude that the situation is right or just, but that it merely is. This form of acceptance has allowed many to carry on in the face of suffering and hardship. Notably, it is the mindset behind the Serenity Prayer, which was popularised by Acoholics Anonymous in 1940 and has been adapted for use in various twelve-step programs around the world. It also fits very well within the broader Christian worldview: one which also acknowledges and accepts, but neither approves of nor downplays the severity of, the twisted and broken nature of the world as it currently is. For the Christian, acceptance should not be particularly radical, for the present flawed reality is explained by the fall and corruption of creation. Yet the Christian is not limited to acceptance, but must also rest on the promised hope of future reconciliation and the renewal of all things in Christ Jesus. Remembering these two realities, the now and not yet, and holding them together in tension have been vital to my well-being.

for we know that the whole creation
has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now
and not only the creation
but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit
groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons
the redemption of our bodies
Romans 8:22-23

Radical acceptance informed one of my biggest decisions: to withdraw from my undergraduate course at the University of Oxford. The plan initially was to suspend for a year, resolve my mental health issues, and then to resume my studies and complete the geography course. However, as summer drew to a close and the anticipation of return loomed before me, I began to carefully reexamine my situation. Practically, I found that I did not possess the ability or the motivation for academia at the required level. Sure, I was once admitted into Oxford based on my academic potential, but as I explained to my Senior Tutor, I am no longer not the person I was three years ago. Furthermore, I dreaded going back to the familiar yet estranged lifestyle of a student, isolated away from my family and the support systems I had established in London. So I accepted the new person that I was and moved on from Oxford. Whenever I share this decision with others, even close friends, I am often met with shock or disbelief: I always reassure them that I was not and am not giving up. Perhaps they see this as a lost opportunity, a waste of time, a fall from grace: surely it made more sense to forge ahead, finish the final six months, and obtain a degree? To me, however, this decision was a step up from the depths, away from the past, and towards a new direction on my personal journey in life.

what matters in the art of journeying
isn’t not falling but not staying down
Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome [2]

Instead, I decided to pursue a different passion of mine: cooking. Being a bright kid at school, a top university was always the expectation for me. The education system here in the UK certainly reinforces this path. The standard route is GCSEs, A-levels, a university degree or two, and on to a well-paying office job: meanwhile, skill-based careers are accessed through diplomas and apprenticeships, courses supposedly reserved for the less academically gifted. That is how I felt the options were presented to us, anyhow. I often wonder what my life might have been had I chosen to seriously invest in and develop my creative skills, instead of going to Oxford. Then again, this too is a thing of the past that I cannot change: whenever the thought pops up, I refuse to dwell on it for too long. I accept my experiences during my university years for what they were, acknowledging that each and every bit of it made me who I am today. I do not regret them, and slowly I am learning to be thankful for them too, even the dark and dreary days.

After much deliberation, at the start of this year I enrolled at a culinary school that follows a cooperative education model: its short Professional Chef course consisted mostly of a two-month internship at a fine-dining restaurant. Upon completion of the course, I was accepted for a full-time paid position at that same restaurant as a commis chef, where I have been working since. The hours are long and anti-social, the work exhausting, and the environment not always the easiest to function in. However, I have definitely enjoyed my time there so far: in particular, I love the space it allows for creativity. This aspect of work, I feel, was stifled at Oxford. With the constant pressure to produce weekly essays, researched, structured, and referenced to perfection, there was little room to express my individuality in my work. Now, while there are certain standards, each seaweed salad I make is uniquely and beautifully handcrafted. After all, the inflated price point in fine dining is justified by the use of quality ingredients and the presentation of edible artistry that is pleasing to the senses. I am taking my first steps as a chef. There is still so much for me to learn and explore in the world of food and hospitality, and I look forward to the challenges ahead. The tasks in the professional kithen are physically engaging and often almost therapeutic: they require me to keep my eyes focussed on achievable goals, visible results, and incremental improvements. Now, instead of worrying about a twelve-thousand-word dissertation over the course of a year, I can focus week by week on decreasing the time it takes to thinly slice a box of spring onions.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up
my eyes are not raised too high
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me
but I have calmed and quieted my soul
Psalm 131:1-2

Never in a million years did I imagine working full-time as a chef. It is true that ever since my mum got cancer in 2010 and we were each required to take up some of the household chores, I have enjoyed cooking as a hobby. I experimented with ingredients and found recipes from different cuisines online to try at home. I also did do some catering for church and the Christian Union while at Oxford. However, I reckoned I would either join a non-profit environmental organisation or go into full-time ministry somewhere after university. My plans for myself were clearly not God’s plans for me. Though my plans may have been good, His plans must be far better because of His infinite wisdom and love. This is one of those situations which requires faith: I do not think I will ever know, this side of paradise, how journeying with depression can possibly be better than journeying without it. However, I can and do find immense comfort in the knowledge that every one of my steps is established by the God of the universe who is also journeying beside me. Though I carry the weight of depression upon my back, I know that when I can no longer find the strength to stand, He will carry me and all my baggage upon His back. And He does not tire.

the heart of man plans his way
but the Lord establishes his steps
Proverbs 16:9

I hope to update this blog more frequently from now on. There are still so many aspects of depression to reflect on, stories to share, Scriptures to expound, songs to write and songs to sing. I suppose it depends on how energised I feel on my breaks and days off. Completing this post has already boosted my motivation to continue writing here. Thank you for stopping by and listening to my story so far. Keep journeying on, my friend, and look out for your fellow traveller. Until next time!

Footnotes
1. coolmast3r (2019). If 10 years ago someone told me that in 10 years. Reddit.
2. Dennis Coday (2013). Pope’s Quotes: Faith as a journey. National Catholic Reporter.

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