As bizarre as it sounds, there have been many times in my life when I’ve felt like a stranger to myself, like a mere observer to the thoughts and actions of someone named Cynthia towards the people around her. I’ve spent much of my life in survival mode, living apart from myself, as a means of protecting myself from the hurt and confusion of being left in the debris of my parents’ divorce, coping with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy borne of my inability to protect my most beloved sister from that fallout, and gathering up whatever scraps of validation happened to fall into my vicinity in order to continue being strong and good. It’s probably not surprising then, that I’ve been sad, depressed, anxious, or whatever other shade of negative emotion you can imagine far, far more often than I care to share, and these emotions have, at various times, prevented me from being the sincere, brave and compassionate person I aspire to be. That’s not to say I haven’t experience happiness or contentment, it’s just that those periods are often short-lived, seemingly capricious and experienced at a distance from myself. I’ve attempted a little to delve into the strange and dark intricacies of mental illness, but Marissa Betley definitely does some pretty accurate visual depictions of what my mental state feels like it collapses into at times.
It feels like you’re a pendulum swinging between delusional extremes – perfect delusions of being amazing, successful and everything anyone could ever want from you; and self-loathing delusions of being unworthy, utterly insufficient, and a disappointment to all the love you have been given. What’s worse is that your life is not even sufficiently difficult or tragic enough to warrant such trivial disappointments or discomforts. You have no excuse for your instability; it simply exists in you, and before you know it, it begins to define you. You are the crazy, manipulative, controlling tyrant of your relationships; so self-absorbed with holding together your fragile ego that you are totally incapable of any generosity, or sincerity.
Then begins the desperate and ungracious struggle to love yourself despite how clearly unworthy of love you have drawn your image to be. So you draw a second image of yourself, a perfect self, and begin counting the points – who do you most resemble? Which end of the pendulum will you occupy today?
The worst of it is that you end up trying to test these images on others, to bring your perfect caricature to life through the convincing of others, you ask them to tell you that you are perfect, or at least sufficient, and to assure you that you are not the weak and unworthy tyrant you are afraid you might be. You design an elaborate sequence of seemingly logical indicators, validations of the character you seek to be – a minefield and a maze. Then you invite the very people you claim to love to dance to their deaths, because how can they exist once they become lying magic mirrors for you?
The unexpected homesickness, and disorientation, that I experienced when I moved to Bangkok earlier this year, suddenly and rather traumatically invited my stranger back into my life. I spent much of my first 2 months here walking on a tightrope of anxiety. Perhaps a lot of that was due to my unyielding insistence that I should have coped better than I did, an inability to confide in my friends or family, and an unfair judgement that the things I was struggling with were just, only, merely, little, trivial things. I felt ungrateful and unjustified in my struggles, given how privileged and lucky I am to be living and working so comfortably in Bangkok straight after graduating. Much of my writing also read like arrows imbued with bitter disappointment, shot straight into my own heart.
I wanted to be making the most of this opportunity, to be learning and growing in a professional sense, because that’s all LinkedIn cares about. I didn’t want to be struggling with negotiating living arrangements and stipends, or navigating the frustrating politics of the office and idiosyncrasies of my own boss. I just wanted to be doing productive and meaningful work like I had expected to do; but I quickly learnt the realities of my workplace were not quite Management 101 standard. Added to my frustrations with settling in at work, I was frustrated that seemingly trivial choices could overwhelm me – silly things like what to eat for my next meal, how to furnish my apartment, or what to do on the weekends. But at the end of the day, there is a sense of achievement to be felt for settling these lifestyle and work choices, and I wish I had been kinder to myself during that time. Instead of giving myself space to settle in, and find my feet in my new home, this beautiful city Bangkok, I spent far too much time berating myself for failing all the challenges I wasn’t yet able to take on – challenges of self-compassion, mindfulness and sincerity that I am still taking on ever so gradually.
Thankfully, I’m blessed with friends and family who have gently reminded me that I am human. They have reminded me that I am more than the bouts of spiteful ungraciousness I am prone to when hurt, and that regardless of whatever regretful behaviours and actions I may have shown, I am intrinsically sincere and loving, not defective and needing repair. I’ve been reminded that I can and will strive to do better next time, at being more compassionate, at letting sadness sink into me with full awareness and meaning, rather than engaging in a fruitless battle against feeling. I’m grateful for being reminded to respect the process, to allow myself space to grow, and to trust my own sincerity and goodness – not as perfect but as earnest. I am coming to accept that it is okay to lose sometimes, that doing better next time doesn’t have to be fixing last time, that it is okay to move away from people and situations that undermine my growth, that trigger my anxieties or make me doubt my capacity for love and feeling.
Settling back into myself these past few weeks has allowed me space and perspective on how I can leave behind my stranger, and live bravely as my whole self. I’ve felt myself coming back into my own, breaking through my defensive walls of artifice and spitefulness, and settling into a rhythm of laughter, compassion and strength. I have learnt that striving for excellence and exceptionalism, a bar I have almost strangled myself with on multiple occasions, is a privilege and a luxury, and sometimes you need to take a break from shooting for the stars to attend to the less glamorous endeavours of housekeeping and self-care. I’ve recognised that I still have innumerable bridges to cross and I may very soon fall back into the raging rivers once again. But that is just how life must be lived. This current tranquility is not, and need not be, some ultimate, happily-ever-after, definitive triumph. I am still looking for safe spaces to leave my stranger behind, to farewell the familiar but self-sabotaging comfort that has helped me survive until now, and to let go of my reliance on the intellectual, rational love and thinking that has kept me from myself. There is no hurry, but I feel a quiet optimism that this time I will be able to fully embrace the awkward necessity of asking for help, of viewing all my struggles as equally worthy of attention, of giving time and effort to taking baby steps first before attempting to fly. This year might not be the gold star of my career as judged by the hyper productive success story standards of professional society, but perhaps I am lucky to have landed in a 9-6 job that allows me the time and mental space to explore who I am outside of the rat race, and live fully in myself, away from the city where my stranger and I grew up.