Arts and Culture

Things that help with my depressive episodes: KPop, BTS, and the power of a good origin story.

Hey guys! So I guess this might be a semi-regular “series,” so long as my schedule permits. I thought I’d talk a bit about stuff I’ve been using to help manage my dysthymia, while I’m still trying to find affordable therapy options. Take note that I don’t think these things will work for everyone, and they aren’t a substitute for therapy, especially if you have a more severe mental illness than I do. I’m “lucky” enough that my symptoms are relatively mild.

I say relatively mild, though, because sometimes I do have rather intense episodes of a deeper, more disruptive depression. This is why I am seeking a second check-up; I don’t think I can totally rule out adjustment disorder, since these intense episodes often have identifiable triggers. To return to my allergy analogy, you can live with allergies day to day, and occasionally have a really bad attack thanks to a weakened immune system and exposure to a particularly potent allergen.

Last year, around quarter four, that exposure happened: a combination of moving jobs, burnout from conservatory studies, the stress of my EP launch, and–what ultimately triggered the whole thing, I think–all my bands more-or-less officially breaking up. It took one Facebook message–sent just a few days after my EP launch party, which should have seen me still riding high on endorphins–to send me spiraling. And I spiraled hard.

If you follow my blog or me on social, you will probably be able to tell that music is a HUGE part of my life. Heck, I went back to school for it! I’ve been singing since I was three years old, picked up violin at 12 (and dropped it at 16), then started playing guitar (and writing songs) at 20, which was also around the time I joined–or maybe I should say was picked to join, since honestly we were assembled more than anything else–Stories Told, an indie pop-rock band started by a dude from my university and his highschool-age drummer brother.

While I’d been trying out going solo for a while, I never considered it my main thing. My loyalties were to Stories Told, the band that had “saved” me in my last year of college, had picked me up and shown me the stars. It was where I’d staked my future, and my solo music was just something I did for fun. When I got the message that the band wouldn’t likely be coming back from hiatus, it felt like all my hopes had derailed, and I was, after three years riding high on dreams of touring and brotherhood and indie music stages, effectively back to zero, and all on my own.

This, coupled with my challenges at music school started making me question my capacity to pursue the passion I’d basically built my life on. Sure, I loved music, but was that enough? Was I enough? Or had I been fooling myself for twenty-four, nearly twenty-five years and was it finally time to stop playing and grow up?

When I have an intense depressive episode, one of the first things I do is I start cutting off contact with a lot of friend groups. I don’t like people seeing me at my most vulnerable and volatile, so I pull away, convinced I’ll be a burden and secretly grateful for the reduction of sensory input. This is probably the least healthy thing to do when you’re going through something like this, but it’s what I did last year, limiting my contact only to people I felt might “understand.” Thankfully, one of those people was my long-time creative collaborator Kristin.

One of the best things to have, when you’re in-between lucid moments, is a friend who is not only willing to put up with your issues, but also refuses to let you wallow in them. Kristin is one of those people. She would patiently listen to me vent my anxieties, but once I was “done” she’d find ways to direct the subject elsewhere, so I wouldn’t re-enter the spiral.

Her favorite method was to bombard me with images and links of this KPop band she liked at the time. I had a pretentious hipster’s distaste for KPop, which I found too “manufactured,” but I liked my friend so I figured if she could put up with my madness, I would put up with hers. I added a song called “Blood Sweat Tears” to my Spotify playlist…

…and several replays, Tumblr memes, and VApp Episodes later, I found myself a member of the BTS ARMY.

For the uninitiated, BTS (short for Bangtan Sonyeondan, or Bulletproof Boy Scouts) is a seven-member boy group from South Korea that skyrocketed to global prominence last year when they became the first Korean boy group to win a Billboard Music Award. While most of KPop’s “manufactured” idol groups (many of which I’ve now come to like) come from the “Big Three” of JYP, YG, or SM Entertainment, BTS came from a tiny, fledgling label called BigHit. In a world where even big-label rookie groups can mocked and ridiculed by the industry and fans, BTS struggled from the get go with negative press, accusations of unoriginality from “antis” (anti-fans, many of whom can be vicious and even drive idols to suicide), and even lack of funds. That they managed to go from “dirty spoon idols” (a mockery of the term “golden spoon idols,” or idols that come from privileged backgrounds) to a global phenomenon in under five years is basically the underdog story on steroids, compounded by the fact that BTS, having the rare opportunity to co-write their songs, openly documented that struggle in lyrics and music videos.

From left to right: Kim Taehyung (V), Min Yoongi (Suga), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Jeon Jeong-guk (Jungkook), Kim Namjoon (RM), Park Jimin (Jimin), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope).

Instead of keeping up appearances, BTS has chosen instead to publicly acknowledge the pain, fear, and anxiety involved in debuting and making the climb up the charts, with one member–my bias wrecker Suga–even dropping a mixtape where he narrates a severe bout of social anxiety that left him wanting to run and hide and die the night before a concert. You read that right, friends: these boys sing and rap about mental health, societal pressure to succeed/conform, and even issues such as breaking the glass ceiling.

As many ARMYs and even BTS’s “leader,” Kim Namjoon (a.k.a. RM) himself will tell you, the band’s relationship with the fans has always been positioned as a side-by-side struggle and climb. That this is savvy marketing, I won’t deny: legends are built on their origin stories, and BTS has I’m sure purposefully crafted a near-perfect one for the ever-anxious, ever-hungry, ever-hustling millennial generation. But that doesn’t make that story less inspiring, especially when you consider that within the overarching narrative of the band, there are sub-narratives specific to the individual members.

In KPop tradition, fans have a “bias” and “wreckers.” A bias is your favorite member, while wreckers are the members you also are crazy for, who “wreck” your loyalty to your bias. The running joke with BTS stans is that you always have one bias and six wreckers, and this is true: as you get deeper into the fandom and get to “know” each member’s story, you can’t help but fall for them in turn. But your bias is always special, and mine is Kim Seok-jin, a.k.a. Worldwide Handsome, BTS’s eldest hyung.

Most people assume Jin-stans are in it for his good looks, and it’s not hard to see why: Jin, along with V, are both considered the “visual” members, and Jin did create a Twitter/Weibo frenzy due to his gorgeous looks in award show photos. But, in my case, while I was initially attracted to Jin first (a fact that shocked Kristin, as Jin is traditionally in the back of dance lines and is usually overlooked in favor of Namjoon, Taehyung, or the ever-popular Jungkook) because of his looks, what cemented his status as my bias was, well, his story.

On their second most-recent album, WINGS, each BTS member is given their own solo song, including Jin. Awake is a ballad, befitting his high, nasal voice, but while the song itself is a beautiful barnstormer with serious Ken Hirai vibes, the lyrics, penned by Jin himself, are heartbreaking. In it, he acknowledges the “truth” of what’s been said about this oft-overlooked band member (who gets so few lines in group songs): that he is neither the best nor the brightest of his band, that maybe he will never fly as high as they will, but that he just wants to run, for just a little bit longer, because he loves his six other flower petals so much. He holds on to them, walking through the dark, covered in bruises and scars that are implied are partially from his own insecurities.

Born in the first quarter of 1993, I was the oldest member of Stories Told, and, like Jin does (though he dislikes the title) for BTS, I functioned much like the band “mother” of this bunch of boys I’d come to view as family. In our darker moments, I’d been encouraged to strike it out on my own, but I never could because I didn’t want to do music alone. Part of the appeal of being in a band was the family, the tenderness of belonging. I liked having people to dote on, to hug and cling to and treat like the younger siblings I never had.

Like Jin–a non-singing, non-dancing film major initially recruited by BigHit as an actor–I was the least talented, with no band or formal musical background (unless you counted classical/broadway singing) to speak of. As frontwoman, I was the “visual,” the de-facto “best looking” of the band by virtue of being the only girl (though, like V, it was my “vampire twin” who was ultimately considered more handsome, and, like Jungkook, our youngest member who attracted more attention due to his many talents), but other than a pretty face and sort-of gift for spieling, I wasn’t the band’s standout member, even if I had “center.” Jian produced and mixed everything. Aned was a wizard with the loop pedal and churned out hit chord progressions. Dan was charming and played a mean bass. Jedd…well Jedd ran the band, a maknae on top if there ever was one. I was the awkward one with dreams, who desperately wanted to keep the family together for as long as she could.

You always hear the narrative of the talented but underappreciated band member ditching his group to be true to himself, but in hearing Jin’s Awake, I finally found a story that spoke to who and where I was: a dreamer who wanted family, who understood their limitations, would work hard to overcome them, and, having made peace with the possibility that they could one day get left behind, would keep running for as long as their legs could manage.

The thing with depression, at least for me, is that by itself, the sadness isn’t that bad. Oh sure, it’s bad, but what really crushes is the sense that I am alone in it, that no one can understand what the inside of my fears and struggles looks like. It’s the illusion of isolation that feeds the depression, trapping me a spiral. Breaking the illusion interrupts the spiral’s momentum long enough for me to eventually crawl my way out, and in those long, dark days of Q4 2017, KPop and BTS, but specifically Jin’s story, were what helped put a crack in that illusion. One of BTS’s albums is called “You Never Walk Alone,” and that was exactly how I felt, listening to their music and poring over their lyrics, watching as my bias went from dance wrecker with barely any singing lines to dancing center (if only for a moment) and singing triple-high-notes. This boy had managed to go from least talented to most improved by simply accepting his limits, and resolving to do his best anyway.

These days, it’s harder to watch Jin. As he gets older and his enlistment date approaches, I can feel a sense of foreboding that, despite all of BTS’s promises to stay together, his time might be almost up. After all, he still gets little to no PR outside the group (aside from variety shows), no offers of roles in television or serious hosting gigs outside of his few award show MC moments. There’s a sense, too, that he’s come to accept this: his answers to interview questions about the future revolve more around present happiness than future hunger for musical development. But even if “the end” may be looming, Jin doesn’t seem so much bitter as sweet: there’s a sort of joy, a genuine gratitude that overflows from him in every fan message or VLive snippet. He continues to work, to do his best, and ro enjoythe ride, appearing thankful for every moment. And while it might be easy to envy the other members their future–something I know I did with the members of ST–Jin doesn’t seem to. He just continues to care.

Perhaps I’m projecting or speculating. That’s the thing with idols: their relative distance makes it so easy to taint their mythos with your own. I’m reluctant to overreach, because it feels like an insult, superimposing my workaday issues over the life of this global star. What I can say is this: from what I can see, Jin has not let any potential insecurities or limitations stop him from trying anyway, and that hard work has taken him to his personal best, which frankly is impressive regardless if you hold him up next to the other six, more naturally gifted members.

My stanning for BTS and Jin is inspiration wrapped up in the sugarpill of escapist distraction. I jumped down the KPop rabbit hole to escape the black hole of my own depression, but found at the bottom of it things that helped me wake up and keep going. I may not have bandmates or an ARMY, but I have a family of friends who care for me (and who I can care for), and inspiration, and an origin story I can tell myself when my fears threaten to get too noisy. While I’m loath to believe too much in the “power of positive thinking,” I do think that having something that means a lot to you, even if it doesn’t cure the sadness, can help keep you going until the cloud cover does break. BTS isn’t my cure, but it helps me cope, and certainly it doesn’t hurt to be inspired.

One last thing: when I was going through this depressive season, a friend made the misguided attempt of trying to cheer me up by sending a joke comic in a group chat, describing friendship with me as involving the dubious privilege of being attacked with my emotional baggage or, as he playfully called it, my #firstworldproblems. See, compared to many of my friends, I was privileged: I had a job I liked, received parental support in order to return to school, and never really seemed to want for anything. This joke made me conscious of opening up about my struggle with mental illness, because compared to their “real” problems it felt like an entitled excuse to have issues.

I’m sure a lot of people feel this way. Because we’re fighting ourselves–our own emotions and instability–it can seem like our problems aren’t as serious as people who are fighting “real life” problems like rent and unemployment and physical illness. But I’m learning to understand that every battle is a battle, and this goes not only for ourselves but for the people we encounter. We’re made to be here for each other. And, well, my bias said it best:

I hope 2018 is a year you’ll keep healthy, and tell people when you’re hurting, and be there for hurting people too.

That’s it from me for now, but I’ll try to update again soon with more things that keep me afloat. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I love telling you these stories.

Until the next one, stay healthy, and I remain:

~aRoamingTsinay~

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Seeing Wonder: On Engaging, Grace, and Believing in Love

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Source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Every year, our church does a series of sermons on the idea of discipleship and engaging our community. It’s a regular “tradition” in the church calendar, varying only in the Bible verses we’re led to reflect on in our small groups. This year, we pulled from the life of Peter, with the topic of engaging being linked to Peter’s ministering to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Our small group material in particular focused on Acts 10:9-16, which is about the vision Peter has before he’s asked to see Cornelius. (TL;DR, In the vision, Jesus reveals that we are called to reach out to all people, building on the Great Commission of “…going into all the world.”)  

It was a really great message, but while my fellow small group mates seemed absolutely hyped on God’s mission, ready to go out there and reach out to people and do some good in the world, all I felt was…resistance. 

Confession: I have never been good at engaging, and every year when my church does this message I sort of…tune out.  I tell myself that, as an introvert, God surely doesn’t intend for me to actually go out there and directly reach out to people.  Nah, let them come to me; I won’t go first. I never go first.

That night, in small group, I realised these were all excuses I was telling myself. The reason for my reluctance wasn’t so much that I was an introvert. No, it was something that ran a little deeper than that.

It was because, when I was twenty-three, I decided I didn’t like people.

This wasn’t some sort of impulsive thought: “Oh, I don’t think I like people today.”  No, this was a conscious choice on my part: I would not, could not like people, and I would not trust or engage with them. It helped that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, which is extremely good at portraying the dark, twisted roots of human motivation. It also helped that around that time, everyone was talking about the fate of Jon Snow: stabbed by people he trusted, by his “brothers,” and left to die.

Something that felt a lot like that—and I won’t go into details—happened to me.  This wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst time.  And so, after filing a very long leave from work and stewing alone in my room for several afternoons, I made my decision: I did not like people.

And people did not deserve to know me.

From that moment, I made a conscious effort to start…closing myself off. Some of it made sense: I get a bit anxious in large crowds, am not fond of small talk, and do not like partying.  Again: introvert.  But other things had less to do with introversion and more to do with the satisfaction of pushing away people I did not trust. Who had hurt me (consciously or unconsciously). Who I believed would hurt me again. Years of being bullied in grade school and high school had already made me a little wary of friendships, but this was the first time I was outright refusing them, putting up walls and putting on masks.  It made me feel like I was taking control of my life.  It made me feel good.  And if I ever felt isolated, well, it was better to stand alone than to be fighting alongside and for people who, in the next breath, could be turning their swords on me.

Essentially, I was enacting a closed-door policy on my life, which, as you can guess, does not go along well with the whole Christian commission to engage with the community and care for people.  But I figured, I’d find ways to get around it. I served in church. I still held small groups. I volunteered for orgs that did good work. And I had friends, people I would talk to online even if I avoided meeting them in person.  And I cared about these friends…

…but not as much as I cared about myself.  Real talk: if any of them were in the way of a passing truck, I do not trust that I’d have pushed them out of the way.  If it was them or me, I might have chosen me.

The world—and Game of Thrones—paints this “me first” mentality as wise.  Encourages you to lose your faith in people, to “…kill the girl and let the woman be born.”  Only the naive believe in the fundamental good of humanity; growing up means realising the truth, that man is wolf to other man and that you can trust no one because the more you care, the weaker you are. The more you love, the weaker you are. Because one day the inevitable will happen: those closest to you will either turn on you or leave. Or both.

And so I did not engage, because I did not want to care about people who would turn on me or leave. I kept people at arms length, stayed behind walls, ate at my desk, refused invitations with the bright and beaming smile that was both sword and shield to me.  This was self-defence, I told myself, even as it felt—and kept feeling—wrong. 

Small group was the first blow to this worldview.  The second was Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure: while I am a geek, I’m not a comic book geek.  I have watched zero of the Marvel blockbusters (despite some of them garnering critical acclaim), and, up until recently, had the same batting average for DC. But when a post came out talking about how Wonder Woman seemed like it was being set up to fail at the box office (and thus prove stories about empowered women did not sell), my baby feminist heart could not handle it. I told my mum we had to book tickets to watch this movie when we came out, which we promptly did.

It was, in a word, a wonder.

While I have watched/read female-centered franchises before (I was a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and in Game of Thrones I cheered when the last season featured strong female-centric plotlines), Wonder Woman was…different.  The movie felt so unapologetically idealistic, so full of empathy and tenderness even as it celebrated the superhuman strength of its lead.  It was the total antithesis of the gritty cynicism that seemed the highlight of current male superhero mythology and even my mainstay of GoT.  Wonder Woman did not sugarcoat how dark people could be—“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” says Queen Hippolyta, early in the film, “They do not deserve you.”—but without completely absolving mankind of that darkness, it still presented a reason to hope.  Yes, people are cruel and easily-corrupted, cowardly and twisted and undeserving, but, as Diana says in the climax of the film, “It’s not about [what people] deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Despite the fact that I am an avowed cynic, I do believe in love. In fact, that belief is at the core of who I say I am: as a  Christian, my very existence is founded on the idea of grace, of receiving a love I did not deserve.  I lash out at the people I think hurt me, but the truth is I too am just as cruel, just as unforgiving, just as—or rather, more so–twisted and bitter and dark…and Someone I did not deserve came to fight for me.  To save me, even when I was not worthy of saving.  The very essence of Christianity is that no one deserves anything: love is a gift. Love is a grace. And when you receive it, you can’t help but give it away.

“Only Love will truly save the world.” says Diana. In a world that is hurting and broken and twisted every which way, Love is humanity’s great hope. And while it is tempting to keep safe from the world, stay behind my walls to avoid getting hurt, “How will I be if I stay?”

It was this message that hit home for me and sent me out of the theatre in tears. The truth is, considering the darkness we are capable of, none of us really deserves kindness or grace or an open hand. But it really isn’t about “deserving.”  Instead, it’s about what we believe in, and what I believe in—what I quite loudly shout that I believe in—is Love. A Love big enough to save the world, to cover over a multitude of dark and twisted and awful. A Love that was big enough to save me from myself, and to keep on saving me.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a victim, when you’re hurt, but the truth is the world is hurting. “We all have our own battles,” says another character in Wonder Woman. We all have our own darkness, and at the core of that darkness is pain.  The difference lies in what you decide to do with it.

And, as another of my all-time favourite characters, the Twelfth Doctor, puts it, the right thing to do is this:

“…do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

That is what engaging means: taking the pain, holding it tight, and deciding to fight it instead of letting it own you. And the way to fight it is Love, is sharing Love instead of keeping it all to yourself, hiding it behind walls and never letting anyone close. 

There are people I say I care about. There are people out there who I say matter to me. And there are people out there I don’t like. Who i don’t want to care about. Either way, they all need what I know: Love.  And so, even if the prospect terrifies me, even if I’m not some superhuman with armour and a shield and a magic lasso, I leave my island. I step out behind the wall. I stretch out my hand, and I let my guard down, and I have faith that, despite the pain…I will see grace.

I will see Wonder.

~aRT~

P.S.

For more comprehensive (and awesome) reviews/reflections on Wonder Woman, check out:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/30/15709572/wonder-woman-review-gadot
https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-message-of-love-cant-be-repeated-enough-right-now-62157 – Got the blog’s featured image from here, by way of Google Image Search.
http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/wonder-woman-is-the-hero-we-need-but-maybe-not-the-hero-we-deserve-9481938
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/june/why-we-need-wonder-woman.html

[travelogue] Coming Out of My Cage (And It Feels Just Fine)

A/N: Submitted this as an entry to World Nomads’ travel scholarship competition. I didn’t win, but it felt like a piece of travel writing worth sharing.

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It’s June.  The night is humid, glowing amber in the lights of Armenian Street.  I’m twenty-three, and girls much younger than me have done this before—wandered off at night in search of adventure—but I’d always been the “tame” one.  At home, they call me tita (aunty), lola (grandma). The girl whose idea of partying is having tea in bed after work.

Certainly not the girl who’d be rounding the corner of a graffiti-covered alley at half-ten at night, the remnants of a sangria buzzing in her blood.  But it was my last day in Singapore, and I’d found myself wanting to live a little.

Emphasis on a little.  There would be no shared drinks with strangers.  Instead, I was looking for new music, and Timbre at The Substation was supposedly the best place to find it.

Back home in Manila, I balanced a responsible, serious job as an agency strat planner with a self-proclaimed “career”—profitability be hanged—as a singer/songwriter for a rock band.  When my bandmates heard I was traveling to Singapore, they’d filled my head with stories of underground gigs with inspiring acts.  It was this promise that got me to wander a foreign city at the oddest hours of night.  I’d tried to find it in Clarke Quay, but the bands there sounded professional when I was looking for raw.  A quick Google search for “indie music gigs Singapore” pointed me in the direction of Timbre.  

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Several attempts at a cab ride later, I’m elbowing my way into the dark, open-air club, dodging a bunch of finance-looking bros nursing beers.  I grab a stool near the bar and, just as I catch my balance, there’s that familiar screech of an electric guitar being sound-checked.  Then, the mics crackle to life as a raspy mezzo-soprano (just like me) launches into the familiar first line of The Killers’ hit, Mr. Brightside.

Soon, it’s midnight. Though the sangria’s worn off, I might as well be drunk. I’m dancing in my seat, shout-singing along with those finance bros through a series of pop-rock hits. Later, I’ll notice my phone battery is dead.  Later, I’ll catch my first ever bus.  Later, I’ll huddle, scared, at a deserted taxi stand in a different part of town (How did I get here?!) until an off-duty cab takes pity on me and brings me back to my hotel.  

Later, I’ll wonder what possessed me to wander around at night, in an unfamiliar city. But, with rock music blasting from crackling amplifiers, later hardly matters.

For the first time, I’m coming out of my cage, and right now, it feels fine.

~aRT~