Behind every smile is a pain, behind every pair of eyes a story that will break your heart. It’s hard to remember that sometimes, especially when we put up the ‘gram-worthy facades that make it look like everything is peachy-keen. Remember when Robin Williams died? It shocked everyone, that behind the mask of the Jester who made the world laugh was a sad, broken man grappling with perceived irrelevance and the terror of imminent physical decline.Behind every smile is a pain, behind every pair of eyes a story that will break your heart.
We see this aura of projected positivity in the world of influencers — travel bloggers specifically.
Look at me, look at my travels, look at this life I’m living! Isn’t it grand?
That’s what you expect. That’s the expectation I feel. With this life of undeniable privilege, this life that lets me earn a living while exploring a new part of the world, how could I not feel grateful and content?
I realized it a couple of weeks ago. The signs were there. The listlessness, the inability to focus. The sensation of my chest being squeezed, the muted thunder of my pulse one stressor away from drumming in my ears. The struggle to climb out of bed each morning.
I was depressed.
Admitting that to myself, then to my girlfriend, seemed to lessen the burden… if only a little. As they say, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. But it’s not enough to just admit something. When it comes to matters of self, the things that make us tick, one must wield the scalpel of self-reflection and face the ugliness within. I needed to find the root. I needed to know why.
As I became comfortable with depression and I started to see things in it that I had not noticed before. Depression changed from a dark and painful experience to one that was rich in detail. As my awareness of the details expanded so did my understanding of what to do with them.Tom Wootton, from ‘Robin Williams’ Depression and Suicide‘.
The first thing that came to mind was the sun. I hadn’t seen the sun — properly — in what felt like forever. Winters in eastern China are a grim, drab affair, with a thick haze choking the sky and keeping the healing light from Nature’s lodestar at bay. I could feel it inside me — a thirst for the warmth of the Sun’s touch and a yearning to breathe deeply of crisp, alpine air. To bask in the purity and focus to be found there. The coastal plains outside of Shanghai are not a good place for that.
But there was more. There was loneliness. I’ve been busy with work and personal projects since coming here, and my social life has withered. I haven’t put much effort into making friends, and the desire to go out and explore seems to fade with each passing week. My best friends are elsewhere, and I feel the distance keenly. My girlfriend and I live in opposite time zones, and each of us is busy with work. Our communication has been sporadic, and the distance feels greater with each passing day.
Should I even be here?
Complementing that loneliness, increasing its potency, was the tang of unfulfillment that seemed to season each day. I found tendrils of this everywhere, from unhappiness with my living situation to unhappiness with my job. A realization that I don’t like this part of China as much as the part I’d visited previously. The knowledge that I am trapped by my financial situation and the open road is closed to me for the foreseeable future.
And there was the final thing, that expectation I mentioned before, and the failure to meet it. Why aren’t you happy?
Social media has changed the way we perceive each other, and, in turn, ourselves. Most people filter what they post, weeding out the painful, awkward bits to present a rosy picture of themselves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can be extremely damaging when we start to compare the unaltered entirety of our situation to the Insta-filtered version of someone else’s. This leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy.
Among other dangers that Facebook might possibly pose in our lives… is this habit of always comparing ourselves to others. People, when they are happy, post a lot of happy things. But when I’m not happy I will consciously, or unconsciously, compare myself to others. As a result, I create a world that is not a true world because I imagine that everybody is happy in that world, except me.Dr. Ali Jazayeri, associate professor of clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s L.A. Campus. Taken from “A Virtual Life“.
What am I doing wrong?
All of these things — the weather, the loneliness, the unfulfillment, the expectations — they all came together to create one hell of a cocktail, one that nearly incapacitated me before I realized what was happening.
But this post isn’t just about suffering from depression. It’s about overcoming it. I am lucky. I have people in my life who’ve been through much worse than what I was experiencing, people I admire who will speak truth to me when I need to hear it. I have people who support me even when I’m at my lowest, and I can’t convey how much that means to me. I can’t overstate my privilege to have that.
One of those people was my friend, Cody Beverstock. He overcame a lot of obstacles in pursuit of his dreams and was one of the most introspective, discerning people I’ve ever known. This is a quote from his blog:
After being diagnosed with clinical depression, I became extremely introspective and began analyzing everything about myself, specifically, my inner thoughts and how those thoughts affected my emotions. I began to learn and identify specific thought patterns and behaviors… that would trigger specific emotions within me that would ultimately lead to slipping into a state of depression. Once learning my triggers and the associated patterns, I began to teach myself through trial and error specific actions I could take to avoid the trigger or overcome it. And through hundreds… of times of trying and failing, eventually I began to take ahold of my life.Cody Beverstock
What Cody describes is something I’ve tried to take and practice in my own life. I’ve tried to be cognizant of the times when I’m not feeling right and to analyze myself with a critical eye in order to figure out where that imbalance is coming from. After all, I know myself better than anyone else.
I’d done that, and I’d figured out what the problem was. But what needed to come next?
Self-affirmation. Rediscovering agency. Taking positive action.
Another one of Cody’s sayings is, “We all have greatness within us.” It reads like a motivational poster, but it’s so true. We are all capable of more than we’d expect, if we could only be pushed in just the right way… Oftentimes the only thing standing in the way of us realizing this greatness is a mental block that we ourselves have erected, whether it be a lack of confidence or a feeling of being stuck in our current situation. I had to break past this.
For me, I do this incrementally. I start small and find victories in the small things. You know that old song that goes, “You put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor…”? It’s like that.
Hey, Nathan, you got out of bed today, nice work. Now make yourself breakfast. Woah, well done! How about doing yoga before work today? Look at you go, it’s 7:30 and you’ve accomplished 3 things. You’re a frickin’ rock-star.
These mini-victories are all about self-affirmation — the art of building yourself up, bit by bit, until your confidence blooms once more. Positivity is a choice — a tough one, but a choice nonetheless. It can take time, and there can be setbacks, but it’s essential to recovery. For me, as my confidence returns, so does my sense of agency.
The weather, the loneliness, the unfulfillment, the expectations. Which of these did I have the power to change?
Sadly, not the weather. Try as I have, I’ve not yet been able to manifest power over the elements. Comic books are a lie.
But my feelings of loneliness, of being unfulfilled, and not living up to expectations? Hell yeah, I could do something about those.
That’s what this week has been about. I moved into a new apartment. I forced myself to start writing again. I set the wheels in motion on a passion project that I’ve been planning for 6 years (stay tuned for updates on that!). I’ve taken steps to alleviate my financial stresses for the time being, and I’ve started applying for dream jobs that I haven’t pursued in a long time. Maybe, just maybe, if I keep this up, I can be reunited with my love sooner rather than later.
Then and now, I’m going to focus on — as a great man once said — following my bliss.
I’m not out of the woods. I’m feeling productive and motivated, but there’s still a heaviness I haven’t been able to shake. This type of thing doesn’t just switch off. It’s more akin to pulling blackberries out of a garden. The bastards keep coming back, but each time, they’re a little less thick, a little less gnarly. Slowly, surely, we beat back the thorns to create something beautiful.
Here’s to that!
Last week, the flowers were blooming in Yangzhou. Perhaps I don’t need to change the weather after all…
How about you? Have you ever struggled with depression, either at home or abroad? How were you able to move past it? Or what’s keeping you from doing so? Answer in the comments below, and make sure to check in with those close to you to make sure they’re doing alright. Sometimes all you need to do is ask <3