In The In Between: Depression + A New Year

"In the In Between" is AC Dumlao’s monthly Hella Pinay column on what it means to be (in(side) the) in between of two places, identities, concepts, constructs, and more. January 2018’s column is a reflection on the past year, focusing on what it means to make a list of new year’s resolutions while having depression.

 

It’s January. The last time I wrote for this column was October. Not only was that the last time, but that was my first time. I missed two whole months of my “monthly” column. I feel like a certified failure. At least I feel like one. But we’re starting again. That’s what the new year is for, right?

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I want to tell you about my mental health. I realize this isn’t a “Filipino” topic, but that’s part of what I wanted "In the In Between" to be: a place for me to write on the betweens of my life. Because I am Filipino, this is a Filipino story.

So: Depression. I have it. Depression and anxiety. My two best friends. And while they’re easy for me to talk about in public, and have turned into a fundamental part of my activism, it’s possibly the between that I’m struggling most with at all times. In the concrete: I’ve turned down interview opportunities because of a bad mental health day, week, month. It’s why I wasn’t able to complete a November column entry. Or a December one. Living at the in between of having mental illness and living a “productive” life as an activist, professional, human person on this planet, feels disorienting. This pressure is further magnified by the coming of a new year: a time to renew, to refresh, to become better.

But what if I never get “better?”

People thank me for my visibility in speaking about mental illness. I shy away from this compliment, because it feels too easy. It’s easy for me to talk about depression. There’s no research involved! I live it every day! I don’t feel particularly brave about doing this. In fact, it leads me to feel more like a fraud. I second guess my high-functioning ability to upkeep a full-time job, to rent an apartment in New York City. It’s a back and forth: am I really depressed?

Self-portrait of AC on the eve of their birthday, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Self-portrait of AC on the eve of their birthday, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

What does my depression look like? It looks like too-long naps on the weekend. It feels like a heavy cloud pressing on top of me. It looks like canceled plans at the last minute after a back and forth of weighing whether hanging out will make me feel better or if I’ll feel miserable the whole time. It’s seeing a full e-mail inbox and closing it right away. It’s replies that begin with “I’m sorry…” It’s receiving texts at a busy time, then being unable to respond to them when I have the time because I don’t have the energy for communication. It’s questioning if how I feel is real or if I’m just lazy, or worthless, or an idiot who cannot get it together. It’s having a really great day and feeling like I don’t deserve it. It’s having something wonderful happen, and then wondering how soon it will be until I don’t feel good anymore.

My depression gaslights me. It blames me for not visiting my family enough, for not upkeeping my study of Tagalog. Of not being Filipino enough. Of not assimilating enough. Of not being far enough in my career. It tells me that the successes I’ve achieved mean nothing, and that all of my peers are light years ahead of me. It is wary when I am able to protect myself and put myself first. It’s not a tug-of-war, but very slow quicksand.

I also questioned writing about this topic, because my depression will never come to a full conclusion. There is no goal to reach. There is no “better” to accomplish. There are only tools: very simple ones that I work on practicing, fail at upkeeping, and work to try again. It’s hard to fail at something.

Failure was not an option growing up. I grew up with immigrant parents, and as a first-generation American, I was pushed to do my best. This is the so-called “universal” “Asian” story, but it’s truly mine. I excelled in school at the top of my class. I have a vivid memory of getting out of a class after receiving test grades back, with the second section of the class waiting outside. My fellow quasi-nemesis star students called after me to ask what my scores were. I was the one to beat.

When I look back to that time, I’m not thinking that I wasn’t depressed then and in college I started being depressed. I did think that way once. But then I remember - I assumed it was normal to feel nauseous in the morning from lack of sleep, not yet recognizing that was anxiety. I pushed away any feelings of melancholy or less-than-happiness. What was there to feel bad about? It was only from college through my current adulthood that gave words to my mental illness.

Today, I’m not all better. I don’t need to become better. Hell, I’m the person who spilled all their antidepressants into the bottom of my backpack just before I had to catch the train home. The little voice in my head automatically said, “AC, you’re an idiot, a mess.” It’s harsh, that automatic language. That negative self-talk. I call myself a mess, but then the self-care second voice in my head tells me not to talk to myself this way.

It can feel like a burden to be so self-aware of, well, everything. But I’m a proponent of talking about everything. If you can. Honestly, in many ways, “In the In Between” is selfish for me. It forces me to put words to feelings, and to parse out the layers of living that for so long were left unexplored.

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2017 was pretty monumental for me, and started me on this media path, a place of visibility in not only the Filipino community, but the LGBTQIA+ community and the Asian community at large. As well as the invisible illness/mental health community. It gave me this column.

Do I have resolutions? I do have a few. But I’m going to keep editing and updating them. I’m not going to hold myself to a list started on December 31st to be completed 365 days later. To start off the new year, my number one resolution is to upkeep my monthly column here. It’s not earth-shattering or life-changing. But it is something I can commit to, that I believe that I can push myself to do. I want to be better about letting myself breathe and releasing myself of the painful pressure of perfection.

I’d also like to get a cat. But let’s check in about that by December 31, 2018.

 

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AC Dumlao

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AC Dumlao is a queer trans non-binary first-generation Filipino-American advocate and artist.  AC’s work is dedicated to affirming and centering underrepresented people and their intersectional identities. They were profiled by NBC Asian America for the 2017 “Redefine A to Z” list of AAPI emerging voices. AC is also the creator of the social justice Facebook page Call Me They. Their writing has been published by The Huffington Post, Autostraddle.com, and Wear Your Voice Magazine.