Personal / 秘密
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The Noonday Demon

At the end of last year, I quit my job, where I became the punching bag for a lot of people in Shanghai, and oh, I punched back. I should have quit earlier, and it wasn’t so much as a resignation as it was just FLEEING the scene of a crime: the death of Stephanie.

Once the afternoon train disappears down the track, the place grows quieter than ever. The sun begins to sink. It is time for the cats to come. The young man knows that he is irretrievably lost. This is no town of cats, he finally realizes. It is the place where he is meant to be lost. It is another world, which has been prepared especially for him. And never again, for all eternity, will the train stop at this station to take him back to the world he came from. (Haruki Murakami, The Town of Cats)

I marvelled at how I could have possibly  gotten to this state; but also knowing deep down that the answer was absurdly clear:

I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life. This is very clear in retrospect, but in the moment I had no idea. A symptom of depression – what makes it so debilitating – is how it entwines itself, like a sinuous vine, into your personality. It becomes inextricable. It is not the awareness of a grey veil, through which you see the world. Rather, you feel that the veil over your eyes has finally been lifted, and you are seeing truly for the first time; you have been confronted with the paralyzing truth of you own insignificance.

You see, suffering from depression feels like you were once a train going somewhere, with lots of other people, just like you – or so you thought. Murakami’s short story The Town of Cats is a searing allegory of the aloneness-made-manifest experience of living with depression. You are irretrievably lost, because you have been knocked from some vital momentum and into a land of sadness, prepared for you alone. The train carrying other people towards love, hope, fulfillment will never stop again.

 The place grows quieter, and the sun begins to sink, and he feel with profound certainty that he is  “irretrievably lost.”

I can wait at the platform; I can even see the train as it streaks past me, but it will never stop for me; I will never be able to board. Most people have had moments of inexplicable despair, often in the middle of the night or in the early morning before the alarm clock sounds. If such feelings last ten minutes, they’re a strange, quick mood. If they last ten hours, they’re a disturbing febrility, and if they last ten months; ten years; they’re a crippling illness.

In case I hadn’t made it clear enough, it is an awful thing; to be the walking, invisible dead In an attempt to numb myself to this fact with drugs and alcohol, I gave my power to people that didn’t deserve it; I spent nights agonizing over things that didn’t matter. What it finally took was this: leaving a certain luxury hotel along The Bund at 10AM in the morning after doing some really shitty molly and feeling – for the first time ever, though I’ve been struggling with depression for years – that why yes, yes, it would be pretty nice to walk out into traffic. It is going to take me a long time to recover from the trauma of that moment, squinting my eyes in the winter sun, seeing the cars zip back and forth along the curve of the Huangpu River. But that – I hope – was the bottom. Every time now, when I feel the vine wrapping around me, when I feel the urge to self-destruct, when I feel the breath of the noonday demon on the side of my face, I will remember that moment on the Bund – and truly, devastatingly empty I was. I’ll remember how I got there; I’ll remember all the choices that brought me to the edge of the abyss.

But how quickly we forget; what it feels like to stand on the edge. How quickly the wild fear in the eyes fades; to the point where you think that you were the lucky one that just “just escaped” from “all that” and “wow, seriously, it was timing. Such a perfectly timed miracle”.

Two changes occurred in my life just around the time I left my job in nightlife; things unexpectedly put in front of me. I feel sad when I reflect upon my naivete; how gleeful I was; how relieved I was in my castle made of sand. Meanwhile the noonday demon stood outside, drawing the breath that would knock it all down. This might have been a sign: Even as I felt happy, I couldn’t relax into that happiness, like I do into sadness; intuitively, I was suspicious about the premise. And as soon it was revealed – in breathtaking clarity – that the whole charade was up.

How naive I was to think that some glamorous new job or some equally appealing new man would be able to override  A. MY BRAIN CHEMISTRY  and B. YEARS of fully embracing the destructive behaviors that sprung from – and yet ultimately masked – my depression. I really thought it would be so easy as swapping a green juice and a movie for a tequila shot, no more white lines in the toilet? Suddenly I’m cured? I even threw away my meds.

For me, sadness always has been and still is a more powerful feeling; and if that is not a universal experience, perhaps it is the base from which depression grows. I hated being depressed, but it was also in depression that I learned my own acreage, the full extent of my soul. (Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon)

AND SO THIS IS WHAT  I HAVE LEARNED: If you do not do the WORK – and it is tiring, grating, fall-ten-times-get-up-eleven kind of work – of overcoming depression, do not think because certain circumstances in your life have temporarily changed (i.e. you got your dream job, a new man in your life) that you have been cured. The truth is, there is no cure. Walking out of depression requires you to think about a million times I’m never going to be able to do this, and conversely This doesn’t feel like its working but I’m gonna fucking do it anyway and Wow, I feel incrementally better – but only incrementally – than I did yesterday. That’s how you fucking slog out of the swamp that is depression; and if you do not put in the work, then it will follow you to your dream job, your dream man, any country, city; any mountain you climb will not be high enough to escape from it. It is messy and sloppy and so tiring; and you will ask, also a million times Why do I have to be the one going through this?

And I mean, yeah, why? Why can’t I just get on the fucking train and ride it onwards – like everyone seems to? And it comes to Aslan’s gentle reprimand in CS Lewis’ children’s classic: “Child, said the Lion. I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”  

Just know this: the longer you sit on your ass squalling about the unfairness of it, the longer you will stay mired in it. It is admitting certain unsavory, unglamorous truths about yourself: admitting that they’re probably not going to change; and the challenge now lies in finding a way around it to make your life easier. It’s just slogging through (that’s really the best way to describe it) and tweaking certain habits, – things like I really love late-night cafes but I cannot have coffee after 10am. If I don’t wake up before 10, I don’t get coffee; because if I have coffee in the afternoon, I will not be able to sleep; and I have a problem with insomnia and night terrors. Okay, I quit coffee, went through caffeine withdrawals even and now I’m still having even worse nightmares. Perhaps I need to talk about taking stronger pills. It’s a push, pull, adjust, inch forward.

There truth is that there are no miraculous recoveries in depression; no miracle cures. You’ll be inching along, and accumulating the little victories, and one day you will look back and find that the miracle that you were waiting for happened a long time ago; and it keeps happening. It happened when you recognized you had a problem; you envisioned some better version of you that was possible. And it happened each time you made the choice to at least go take a lap outside in the park, when you felt that it was impossible to go to the gym, face the grinding of the treadmill and the blank stares of others. It happened when you chose to squash down the internal voices that screamed SOCIAL STIGMA when you made the appointment to get the dreaded, horrible, horrifying MEDS.

It’s in each time when a friend, a person who loves you, asks “How are you,” you answer honestly, “I didn’t really have a good night of sleep this whole week. Hoping things improve after I stop drinking coffee in the afternoons.” Instead of saying “Yeah, it’s all going great”. A miracle when someone says, “Man you’re so lucky to travel; your pictures look sick,” to go: “Thank you! Yeah, I really am blessed that I was born with a supportive family, found a city I feel absolutely comfortable in; which is only 90 minutes flight from a city that I consider my second home; and that I have friends in Panama that welcome me with love and care; so I could discover a new hobby: diving.” Imagine, revel; in the incredible luxury of it. 

We are all so completely poleaxed by our own longing, by our own magical thinking, by our own physical resistance to hard work. We put our faith in prefabricated fantasies instead of reality; we believe in easy answers and short cuts instead of craft.

In the end, these are the miracles. They feel like work, because they are. But it is the truest way.

There is a basic emotional spectrum from which we cannot and should not escape, and I believe that depression is in that spectrum, located near not only grief but also love. Indeed I believe that all the strong emotions stand together, and that every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite. But pain is not acute depression; one loves and is loved in great pain, and one is alive in the experience of it. It is the walking-death quality of depression that I have tried to eliminate from my life. (The Noonday Demon 

(Photo by Chinese artist Ren Hang: One of China’s most provocative and talented young photographers, took his own life this past month. He appeared to struggle with cyclical depression, which he journalled on Weibo, his intimate blog posts appearing from 2007 onwards to just before his death. Amongst the published excerpts: “When I view my reflection in a mirror, no matter what angle I look at it seems like I’m about to go attend my own funeral. The negativity is that heavy.”) Rest in peace, Ren Hang).

1 Comment

  1. A reader who cares says

    Dear Stephanie, I’ve been following your writing for awhile now and I’ve always found it to be so lovely and haunting. It has always so completely resonated with me – not only because I’m also Taiwanese American and feel a strange transplanted nostalgia whenever I’m in Taiwan, but because you so perfectly verbalize my emotions about emptiness I can never quite put into words. Initially I always viewed it, like you said, a “reset,” a clean slate the next morning. I would throw my dirty clothes into the laundry basket beneath my dorm bed and forget about the beer spilled on my favorite white top last night and the boy who spilled the beer – of course, it was accident, he claims as he slips an arm around my waist. There was always an antsy gloom that set over me before I went out: half feverish excitement, half bewilderment (what am I doing? This isn’t even making me happy). Eventually I realized that these actions I had initially found so freeing and liberating were in reality binding me to something temporal. It was a sickening routine but I sank deeper the more I fell into it. What I had considered freedom was really an illusion. I found myself bound to things of no substance and forced to repeat them in order to grasp some sort of feeling that would make me feel whole, or feel anything at all.

    Reading this post really broke my heart. I can’t begin to imagine what you’ve been living through. I feel as if within my own life I often convince myself I am living in a different reality that ultimately is nothing but a fleeting illusion. Last week I was at a church event and the guy speaking said these words: “Religion killed Jesus. Jesus is relationship, not religion. Religion teaches a formula to get to heaven when no such thing exists.”

    I don’t mean to drop the bomb here and try to convert you and I know you’ve had your qualms in the past with this faith, but from reading your posts I feel as if the faith I am speaking about is different from the ones you are referencing. The one I speak of is whole, complete, but most importantly (to me at least), utterly unconditional. I am not a believer in the term “religion”: it puts a label on things and suggests that this faith is something that is a side activity, that coloring within the lines will bring you to salvation.

    It can seem impossible for you to seek out the Lord right now, but I can tell you I know full well about the feeling of being on the train. I think earthly things were on the train to begin with. You’ve wandered off, but I don’t believe our good Father is trying to lead you back to the train – instead, he is leading you above, to something that is greater than what the train, constantly moving and never stationary and always reaching for some destination that never seems to arrive, could ever offer. He completely satisfies.

    When I first decided to let Him back into my life again I felt like he was ignoring my pleas of help and my cries. But through a season of growth I’ve realized that I won’t be able to find security in Him unless I give my security to Him. I had so wholly invested my worth in earthly things (and I still do) that it had created a wall I was unwilling to break. But He is so good and He loves so deeply and wholly, that there is no mountain high enough and no wall strong enough to separate us from His love.

    He has already taken the burdens you are suffering right now upon the cross. Thousands of years ago, He knew your story and he took the pain and grief you felt, along with the rest of the hurt and damage the entire world would ever feel, and brought it to death along with Him on the cross. I don’t think I’ll ever begin to wrap my mind around the magnitude of that act.

    I know from your posts you might have an aversion to this faith, but I hope you know I’m really truly praying for you. I always felt as if I had found a kindred soul in you, and you almost feel like a close friend I have yet to meet. I feel rather silly typing this post out to you that you might never see and and I feel embarrassed, but I also care so much, despite you not knowing who I am.

    1 Corinthians 13:4-8 – Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.

    I used to think that I was too far gone to ever try to become some sort of “Christian” again. I had steeped myself in a lifestyle that I didn’t think I could leave. I had developed too much of an attachment to things of no substance.

    His love is perfect. This faith is about an intimate relationship and reliance on someone who will forever and always completely satisfy. It can be so scary to take the step and learn to trust Him once more – especially if this sort of trust is one that is not tangible – but I can guarantee you that it is so, so whole. There are no rules or checklist to follow to get to heaven, and this is not a religion but a relationship.

    I hope you do finish reading this and it didn’t bring too much aversion. This is just from a reader who really does care for you and feel for you. I agree there’s no magic pill and there’s no immediate cure to what you’re experiencing, but letting Him into your life again will completely turn it around and transform what you think you have always known. Walk with Him, for He loves and delights in you so much and has such a splendid plan for you.

    Much love and will be praying for you.

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