The skinny on mental illness

Oh, we want to pin things down so much, get them just so. We are so afraid of the alternative. We do not believe that the water will buoy us up, so we thrash around, and drown.

– Tim Lott, The Scent of Dried Roses (1996)

The sentence you’re reading right now has been revised for up to 20 times. I’ve typed and backspaced, typed and backspaced, typed backspaced typed backspaced backspaced and typed to craft the ‘perfect’ opening line which you’re not reading because I’ve not, for all intents and purposes, managed to come up with a perfect opening line.

This isn’t a case of writer’s block; I’m just hesitant to introduce my topic, because I anticipate that some readers will find it too sensitive.

So, caveat lector: this post is going to be more personal than usual, and if you’re not comfortable with the topic, then feel free to click out of the page.

Today, I’d like to talk about mental health.


Edvard Munch’s ‘Melancholy’ (1894)

Out of the blue: the inspiration for talking about the blues

A student of mine recently wrote an essay on combating depression, titled ‘How my blog can help you become a happier person’. I’ve just finished teaching my blog-writing module, and the assignments I’ve received are a ragbag of not-so-pleasant surprises. I have students offering to help me ‘become an outlaw’, be ‘less optimistic’, be ‘better at smuggling’ etc.

As kooky as these essay topics sound, none of them has stuck as much as the one on depression and happiness, mostly because I wasn’t expecting it from that one particular student, who has always struck me as a cheery soul.

His essay is also incredibly mature for a thirteen-year-old kid, in which marks of empathy, sensitivity and open-mindedness abound. Here’s a snippet of his work:

I was a victim of depression like some of you, and I believe that blogging about the mind can help other teenagers who are in pain or in suffering. You may be wondering if this blog will consist only of overly vague ideas that you’re tired of hearing, presented in long clichéd paragraphs of famous inspirational quotes. Don’t worry, I have been in the same position. There are thousands of essays and blog posts out there on how to handle sadness that are just – not – practical.

However, I promise that my blog will be helpful and hopefully save you from the vicious cycle of anxiety or depression.

Today, I would like to discuss the importance of having Mother Nature as your friend.

(My student gave me his permission to publish this here.)

He then goes on to talk about re-discovering happiness by being at one with nature: after taking a walk in the park and paying attention to the minutiae of his surroundings, he is able to distance and distract himself from the worries that daily besiege his mind.

If this is anecdotal, then I am happy for the kid. His remedy reminds me of Keats’ ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (1819), in which the Romantic poet prescribes a similar course for consolation:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies…

(Lines 11-17)

So alike and yet so different: feeling sad v. being depressed

Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, I don’t think I’ve ever been cripplingly unhappy, and for that I’m grateful, to say the least. I think optimism and a healthy dose of ignorance help.

Having said that, there were definitely times when I fell into deep bouts of melancholy, during which my thoughts would layer up like the skin on a callus, as a spot of bother that grows into a sand dune of discontent. Its presence is unpleasant, and yet the temptation to pick at it, examine it, exterminate it but not so much you can’t pick at it anymore remains, biting at your hand until you give in.

joni mitchell_both sides nowThis isn’t to poeticize sadness, although I think you’d be hard pressed to deny that sadness has served as a ripe source of inspiration for writers through the ages. As per Joni Mitchell’s interview with Malka Marom, “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I’ve created out of that”.

It is important, however, that we don’t typecast those afflicted with depression as Byronic brooders and ‘artistic souls’, or to belittle their pain as if the solution is to ‘capitalise’ it for creative impetus. I’m not equating depression with sadness either; I realise they can be very different things, with the former being a chronic condition (both endogenous and reactive), and the latter a passing emotion.

Time, intensity and genesis set them apart, but they do share a common denominator:

No one wants to experience them.

In hindsight, one may emerge stronger for having been through these emotions, but I don’t believe that anyone would seek out opportunities to wallow in sorrow.

open city
In Open City (2010) – Teju Cole’s wonderful novel about a psychiatrist’s love of solitude and his wanderings in Manhattan, Brussels and Lagos, the writer hits home the difference between those who experience sadness at one point or another in life (most people), and those beholden to sadness as their default way of experiencing the world:

There is a long marriage between comedy and human suffering, and mental illness, in particular, is easily played for laughs. But… sometimes it is hard to shake the feeling that, all jokes aside, there really is an epidemic of sorrow sweeping our world, the full brunt of which is being borne, for now, by only a luckless few.  (p.208)

Lately, it seems that this “epidemic of sorrow” has swept across Hong Kong’s millennial generation, what with the 25 student suicide cases that have taken place since September 2015. Over the past weekend alone, 4 more cases of students plunging to their death have been reported. One of them, an Arts student from the University of Hong Kong, left a death note saying that ‘he is a perfectionist, and yet has failed to achieve the perfection he has set out for himself’.


A report from the South China Morning Post

As I have written before, the desire to be perfect is anathema to happiness, largely because the impossibility of being ‘perfect’ is a foregone conclusion – for everyone. To fully accept this is easier said than done, but I think the awareness of this truism isn’t evangelised enough.

At least for me, perfectionism is more often than not a defence mechanism, the pursuit of which is a way to over-compensate for my insecurities, guilt and fear.

A trip down memory lane: How my unhappiness stemmed from insecurities, guilt and fear

Looking back, the periods in which I was most unhappy were also the ones when I had been most insecure about myself.

Back in primary school, I stood out like a sore thumb for being the tall girl with eczema, and as a result, I was both a victim of bullying and a bully to boot. I would react to the slightest provocation with a rage that the situation did not warrant, which in turn only made me an easier target for more provocations. For the first six years of my schooling, I was, quite literally, a lone child in the playground. My fragile sense of self, coupled with an only-child kind of need for attention, moulded me into someone both the people around me and I myself didn’t like.


Spot the odd one. I didn’t quite know where to place my hands, hence the awkward positioning.

It wasn’t until junior high before I fully grew out of my self-hatred, for which I have my best friends to thank, who accepted and continue to accept me for who I am, warts and all (Shout out to B and G for our decade-long friendship). It was also during Grade 8 when I slowly found my academic edge in English, and in the years that followed, I was lucky enough to transition from being a ‘playground bête noire’ to a self-fashioned ‘walking dictionary’, which fostered a confidence that allowed me to just be myself.

I was able to hold fast to this identity until my first year at university, when the changes in geography, environment and people once again put my sense of self to the test.

After 18 years of living with my parents in Hong Kong, I was left to my own devices in a dorm room in England; after 12 years of being in an all-girls school where the familiar faces where all either Chinese or Indian, I was suddenly thrown into the folds of a foreign society and culture. I distinctly remember a girl coming up to me to ask if I “fumed”, and it wasn’t until she took out a packet of Marlboroughs that I realised she meant ‘do you smoke’.

No longer was I the token ‘Best in English’ student – everyone around me in the English Faculty library was English (or Scottish/Irish/Welsh, and the odd American), while I was still trying to figure out if the potatoes I had for lunch earlier were just really undercooked potatoes or actually boiled parsnip and swede. One professor was on the brink of failing my Victorian lit essays because of the way I wrote – I had tried too hard with my ersatz academese, could I please curb my pseudo-scholarly enthusiasm and say ‘painting’ instead of ‘trompe l’oeil’?

Two months in, I was already feeling like an impostor, as the scaffolding of my painstakingly constructed identity began to fall apart.

Then, immediately after my first term at university, my grandma passed away on 18 December 2012. I was always close to her; we used to have weekly luncheons after which she’d take me shopping at Chickeeduck or Kingkow.


My last ever photo with grandma, taken at her 80th birthday party

Her death, in a way, catalysed the anorexia that soon set in for me. Upon returning to the UK after her funeral, I remember walking into my college at 5 am feeling like a failure – as a student, a friend, a daughter and a granddaughter. I had left my best friends and family back home in pursuit of personal goals, which I wasn’t even fulfilling all that well judging by all the shit essays I had been writing.

I couldn’t help but recall that grandma didn’t want me to leave HK for university, which was something she had made clear before her health took a turn for the worse. I also remember being irritated by her comment, and this, of course, only compounded my guilt.

Breaking point

As luck would have it, I broke my arm in the second week of term – a result of slipping on ice on my way back from an Old English lecture. Great, I thought, I suck at functioning as a normal human being too, let’s see how much farther I can push this. At that point, I felt unmoored from every aspect of my life, and so to regain a semblance of control I started following a policy of ‘reduce and retreat’.


Me at my skinniest, taken in London

As I let my BMI drop from 22 to below 15, my mind convinced me that I was installing Spartan structure to internal chaos, as if the weight I had lost was transposed from the body to the soul, and the well-being of my state measurable like numbers in a ledger, tallyable by figures on MyFitnessPal. I would sleep for 11 hours on end because my body was so weak, but mostly because I didn’t want to face the world, which would require me to fashion a new ‘identity’ from the ashes of my old ones. The problem though, is that I missed the old ones, and the ‘new’ one – if there even was a new one back then – I couldn’t quite believe in or come to terms with yet.

I don’t think anyone can describe my feeling at this time as well as Tim Lott, who, in his beautifully moving memoir The Scent of Dried Roses (1996), breaks down the nature of depression as such:

It is the illness of identity, it is the illness of those who do not know where they fit, who lose faith in the myths they have so painstakingly created for themselves… It is an attempted defence against the terror of losing your invented sense of self: who you believe yourself to be and the way in which you think the world operates. It is fear of annihilation, of doubt, of insignificance. It is a reaction to a very particular kind of stress, the kind that brings into question the world that you, being human, have to imagine and reimagine, maintain and defend every moment of every day, in order to keep chaos at bay. (p. 265-6)

In order to keep chaos at bay”: touché, I say.

Simply put, I was afraid of change. Having spent so long not knowing where I fit in as a child, the eighteen-year-old me was loath to go through the same process of self-vetting and self-fashioning to once again prove my ‘place’ in a new landscape. The sense of self that I had previously “invented” back home no longer applied, but my realisation of this didn’t square with my emotions, which were urging me to hang on, lest I receded into the “insignificance” I had tried so hard to fence off.

tim lott_scent

Fast forward: Three years on

Nowadays, I’m a lot better at looking past things I can’t change, and at the same time learning to be okay with the changes life throws my way. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel sad or self-conscious from time to time, or that I no longer harbour insecurities about my body, mind and identity. I still do. There are days when I wake up feeling like a fat piece of crap, when I feel stupid for having made a blunder at work, or when I upset my family and friends and feel shit about it afterwards. Or even:

I wish the pores on my nose were smaller;

I wish I was better at maths;

if only I could be less awkward, shy and stiff in social situations;

if only I could be shorter and not tower over everyone on the street.

Yada yada yada.

What’s funny though, is that if I didn’t have these ‘flaws’, I would cease to be Jen Chan altogether – I’d be a completely different person who probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.

Instead of an identity crisis, I’d have an identity replacement, and that, I think, would be one bargain too many.

This was a difficult, but cathartic, post to write. I can only hope that it helped some of you in some way.



4 thoughts on “The skinny on mental illness

  1. Wow, this is just a great blog. I am actually studying to become a teacher myself, so I might have my student create a blog too. Sounds like a great way to get to know them. Anyway, I think it is really interesting how the ones that are the saddest seem like the happiest. I always heard that I was always happy and smiling, even when everything was awful. And I do agree that although going through bad times might make you stronger, nobody wants to experience mental illness. Also, there’s always the possibility of not coming our of it, and even dying as a result. So it’s definitely an important topic to discuss, and people generally have very little knowledge about it. It does really bug me when people think liking things a certain way means OCD, being sad means depression, and haing bad memories about something means PTSD.


    • Thanks for this, Martine. Yes, I definitely agree that there’s a stigma attached to discussing mental illness-related topics, so the only way to change this is to have more people open up about their personal experiences. Let me know how the blog idea goes with your students, and ping me a message if you want any ideas – would be glad to help 🙂


  2. This was a really beautiful post to read – it can be difficult to open up about mental health issues, as it’s still seen as a big taboo or stigma. I found your story really inspiring to read, and the topic of your student’s blog sounds fascinating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s