This article has taken a long time coming.
It’s very easy to pack up and take off to a new place in the world; people do it all the time, with varying degrees of success. It’s also easy to think that the further you travel, the easier it’ll be to shake off or out run feelings that restricted you in the first place. A new environment holds intoxicating promise: new faces, new places to go, new activities to fill your time with – maybe I’ll be too busy to feel like crap, or I’ll be having too much fun to notice the days that I don’t. It doesn’t work that way.
This is my second year in Hong Kong. The first year was incredible. I replaced nagging restlessness and a long-term, low-key anxiety problem with the commitment of an unfamiliar and exciting job, and a newfound assertiveness that filled me with pride and positivity. I had, in many ways, a point to prove. University had failed to live up to its promises of self-assertion and skill-building. I came out, 15 grand poorer and as naïve and unhappy as I had entered, with no direction and no desire to stay still in the same place for long. Moving away was an opportunity to start over somewhere expectation-free, to find a foothold and a focus. And I did.
The second year is proving harder, and that same inexplicable, unexplainable restlessness and uncertainty is making itself known again. Like an unwelcome friend at a table, it is unavoidable and uncompromising. I am trying to come to terms with a part of myself that I can’t really refuse to see anymore, and it is a difficult fucking process. Looking for reasons and overt causes is pointless, I know that from trying. When people ask me what exactly it is I’m unhappy about, there’s no satisfactorily specific answer I can give. This isn’t an equation with a straightforward right or wrong solution. This isn’t a fucking maths problem. It’s my life.
And it’s really hard to describe exactly the frequency and the intensity of how I’m feeling (so I can be charted on some sort of ‘sadness scale’?). How can you explain to someone that no, you’re not perpetually on the edge of some yawning black chasm of desperation, because a) ain’t nobody got time for that, and b) you’d describe yourself as ‘upbeat’ with some degree of sincerity. Rather, there are those times – not infrequent but not frequent enough to be worried about – when your edges seem to be crumbling. There’s a vague sense of not feeling quite ‘right’, the sense that something is slowly chipping away at your resolve and your reserve, barely enough to be perceptible but enough so you feel unbalanced, wrong-footed. How can you say words to that effect without sounding like you’re losing your mind?
Gosh, it’s cathartic to write this.
Mental health is a scarily unknown quantity. We still don’t always know why we do what we end up doing, or if there’s a reason at all. As is always the way, we attach a stigma to the unfamiliar. We compartmentalize, until ‘us’ and ‘that’ are so far apart that to associate one with the other is unthinkable. Mental health is a topic that’s off the table, one we’re uncomfortable discussing because it’s associated with weakness and God knows we don’t want to be thought of as weak.
But what’s so weak about taking a long and truthful look at yourself? There’s nothing weak about admitting that you’re in the minority, that often you don’t feel as good as you’d like the world to think you feel. I’m aware that there is an inherent part of me that will lend itself to unhappiness, and while that part may be inherent, it is not insurmountable. Nor is it a failing of any kind. It’s a simple, wired truth that I can’t explain away or pretend isn’t there.
There are millions of people out there who are inspiring because they can keep their shit together on the outside, even when the inside isn’t as stable as it could be. To me, the most inspiring people are those who admit that there is something amiss inside them and are unapologetic about the fact. The people who reject ‘getting over it’ as a viable solution, but make peace with their mind and it’s mechanisms.
The most commonly cited statistic is that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health disorder at some point in our lives. The ‘time to change’ pledge to end mental health discrimination has a great website with lots of information and contacts, if you want to learn more. Unhappiness is not a failing. Not accepting yourself for who you are is.