“SMILE, BECAUSE it’s easier than explaining what is killing you inside.” For so long, I related closely to this quote by Joker in the film The Dark Knight, as it was representative of my own mental struggles. After a bout of mental trauma that struck me last year, 2019 has been a wayward journey of overcoming depression. Looking back on the year, the lessons I learned help to do away with a pretentious smile and put on a genuine grin.
The downward spiral
Ever since I was a child, I believed that helping others was the most noble thing a human being could do, as I regarded human life as something beautiful. This was my core belief, and I came to define my happiness with the act of altruism. It also motivated me to work tirelessly towards my dream: to work in an international organization and to serve the global community one day. So it comes as no surprise that the most traumatic incident in my life occurred when this belief was shaken.
It all changed at the end of last year, when my supervisor threatened me with a physical beating during an overseas program in India. Despite working day and night for two months to host an international conference, a punch came flying at my face because I stood up to the supervisor after witnessing my partner being treated unjustly. I was confused and disappointed beyond limit as to why my choice had led to such a terrible consequence since all I had done was act according to what I believed was right. Ever since I got back to Korea, my outlook on life became much more dispirited as I started to generalize all my misfortunes, regarding life as a series of unfortunate events. Thinking it simpler to hide my true self from others, I began to smile and laugh despite slowly dying inside.
Coming back around
No matter how hard I tried to pretend everything was normal, it was never the same. I still loved the world and its people, but it seemed so clear I was not loved back. Consumed by my own emotions, I excessively drank to forget my problems. My relationships with people became unstable and sleeping at night was harder than ever. After four months of chronic stress, I came to accept that this problem was unsolvable on my own.
I finally began the journey to heal myself as I decided to stop and take a break, taking a leave of absence from school halfway through the semester. It was certainly a bold decision, but the two months of respite became my process of healing. I started by voluntarily knocking on hospital doors in search of a psychiatrist, seeking professional help and candidly talking about my problems. After unraveling the causes behind my pressures, I slowly started to open up again to positivity. I did things that would be difficult during school, like taking a spontaneous trip to Gangneung and going on a blind date. Taking time off to reorganize myself allowed me to start afresh.
The will to heal
Like how steel is forged through fire, the period of depression changed me into a more resilient human being. The first lesson I learned is that there is little harm in being optimistic. I underwent depression because I impatiently concluded that my past misfortunes were all there was to life, but I could not be more misguided. You never truly know what lies ahead and blaming yourself for bygones is highly self-destructive. Sometimes slowing down to relax and observe the unseen beauties around you is the steadiest approach to move on with life.
Though my belief of altruism still stands to this day, the most important lesson I learned is to take care of myself before helping others. Happiness is something that comes from you yourself, and true satisfaction is achieved by taking the initiative to better yourself as well as others.
There will always be challenges in life, and perhaps another accident that shakes my beliefs is awaiting further down the path. Should something similar happen again, I will push forward with a more flexible attitude while continuing to have respect for my beliefs. What should be done is not to deny such a misfortune, but to accept it as it is and work on the things that can be changed for a better future. I take pride in having overcome a challenging period of my life, and every casual thing I do like joking around or hanging out with friends feels like a gift. Right now, it feels like every day will be a better one than the last.
Though the lessons I learned may seem obvious at face value, I believe they speaks with power in terms of mental health recovery. To continue moving forward within the indifferent flow of time is the best one can do, and my life will be what I make of it both physically and mentally. Whatever it takes, I will see my story through to the end with a burning passion in my heart and a grin on my face.