Society/Pop 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 to enjoy the 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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Hello! I have dysthymia.

Hello! Frankie here! It’s funny how I’ve never really directly addressed something that I’ve learned about myself last year. I suppose I was afraid, even after a formal diagnosis, that I was just making a big deal out of being “emotional”: something I’d been labelled since I was a kid. But I suppose I’d be making an even bigger deal out of it if I pretended to be “fine” when I’m obviously not, so here goes!

Last April, I went to a psychiatrist in order to confirm or else refute suspicions I’d been having about myself since late 2013. As I said before, I’d always been a rather emotional person, but back then those emotions had been easier to understand as they had obvious triggers. Starting December 2013–around the time my dad had a massive stroke–that started to change, until by February 2014–the month my paternal grandmother passed away–I was grappling with bouts of sadness, anger, and fear that felt like they would come out of nowhere.

It was around that time that my mother revealed we had a family history of depression/depressive episodes, but I suppose both of us were reluctant to make that suspicion official for the fear that naming it gives it power. I have always felt that people consider me a “drama queen,” and feared this would just look like another bid for attention. Still, something really did feel seriously wrong, and while I got somewhat used to living with it (I became very good at putting up fronts for long stretches), it got to a point where I couldn’t pretend I was okay anymore. I wanted to know if I actually had something or if, indeed, I was simply an emotional drama queen seeking attention.

Last April, I took a day off work and visited a psychiatrist referred to me over the holidays by a relative whose own child was grappling with mental illness (anxiety, in their case). I won’t reveal the name of the doctor–for reasons that I’ll make clear in a bit–but I will say that they came highly recommended as supposedly they had experience with individuals coming from traumatically broken families, something that my relatives speculated was contributing to my psychological health. While I don’t believe I am “damaged” by my family history (or well, no more than usual; didn’t an author say somewhere that all families mess up their members somehow?), it seemed wise to visit someone who might be able to understand my situation better and chalk things up to unresolved issues versus actual mental illness.

I was very nervous walking in to the appointment, more so because the receptionist had asked me point blank if I was bipolar (apparently there was a “look”? But then again, the receptionist didn’t exactly have psychiatric training.). Half of me feared a diagnosis, while the other half feared that I didn’t actually have one and, again, was simply a weak and wimpy drama queen with no emotional maturity. My nervousness was apparently obvious to the doctor, because when he finally saw me he asked if why I seemed so scared.

The interview/consult itself didn’t go the way I expected. Really, I’m not sure what I was expecting: more…tests? Instead, we had a freeform chat where he asked me why I wanted to consult, what I had been experiencing, what I think triggered it, etcetera. He told me he found I often used “intellectualizing” as a way of deflecting emotions, which was odd because I definitely saw myself as more of a feeling than a thinking person, but when he mentioned that I probably had walked in with a suspected diagnosis because I’d already pre-researched my symptoms…I figured he might be on to something.

What I thought I had was something called “adjustment disorder,” which is described by Psychology Today as:

…an abnormal and excessive reaction to an identifiable life stressor. The reaction is more severe than would normally be expected and can result in significant impairment in social, occupational, or academic functioning. Symptoms must arise within three months of the onset of the stressor and last no longer than six months after the stressor has ended. The response may be linked to a single event (a flood or fire, marriage, divorce, starting school, a new job) or multiple events (marital problems or severe business difficulties). Stressors may be recurrent events (a child witnessing parents constantly fighting, chemotherapy, financial difficulties) or continuous (living in a crime-ridden neighborhood).

Adjustment disorder often occurs with one or more of the following: depressed mood, anxiety, disturbance of conduct (in which the patient violates rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules), and maladaptive reactions (i.e. problems related to work or school, physical complaints, social isolation).

I guess the words “abnormal or excessive” appealed to me because they felt suitably intolerant of my turbulence, which I disliked because I didn’t understand it (if you can’t tell from this blog, I like reasons and understanding things). Still, my self-diagnosis was bunk since it’d been more that six months since my identified triggers (dad’s stroke, grandmother dying) and I was still unstable.

In the end, after what felt like a relatively short talk (turned out we’d been chatting for an hour and a half), the doctor laid out his diagnosis: dysthymia, which he was kind enough to spell out for me knowing that I would try to Google it later. He also described my constant lack of will to do anything as asthenia, and recommended supplements for it (which, looking back, I probably should start taking again?). He explained my body possibly had a hard time converting serotonin, so said that my self-medicating with 5-HTP (something an officemate had recommended; it’s a mood stablilizing, organic food supplement) was a step in the right direction, but that he feared I might become more “unstable” in the future, and suggested I look into…well this is the reason I didn’t go back to him.

He suggested I go on lithium.

I’ve since sought a second opinion on the meds and everyone agrees lithium is pretty much overkill, but other than that the diagnosis seems pretty sound, especially considering people’s descriptions of me as “having a permanent cloud” (despite also being probably one of the wacky drunk-est sober people ever). It was a relief to know that this was actually something, and while I can’t as yet afford regular therapy (hence me trying to angle for a schedule at at UST), so far I’ve been able to manage it with a support group, plus occasional consultations. It helps to know that my perennial sadness is basically a “brain allergy” versus a character flaw (which was how I treated it), and knowing that my body’s just wonky somewhere has helped shut up my self-condemnation a bit.

I’m probably going to go for another check-up since I’m at UST now and I think they’d be less inclined to throwing heavy metals at me, but for now…hi. I’m Frankie, and I’m one of a huge number of people with some form of mental illness. And all things considered, I live a pretty normal life!

I hope this helps encourage you, if you feel you might be struggling with undiagnosed mental illness or just an emotional problem you feel you need to address, to seek counseling or diagnosis from a medical professional. Let me be the first to tell you that you are not being a drama king/queen, and that getting checked out is a perfectly valid act. I treat this a bit like having a chronic allergy: it’s just your body needing a little help running.

Anyway, that’s all for now! I hope I can update more often, but I promise that, at the very least, I’ll be posting a blog on how I coped with my most recent–and quite intense–depressive bout, which happened in Q4 of last year. Hint: it involves KPop.

Until then, I still am:

~aRoamingTsinay~

Outstretched Arms, or, My Answered Prayer Was A Gay Atheist

Flashback. It is college.

I–a purity ring-wearing, worship service-attending, raise her hands to praise Christian girl–have my first ever barkada: a group of pious Catholic kids who go to confession every week and attend spiritual formation at a “Center.” Despite some niggling doctrinal differences, I truly believe I had found my tribe.

Three weeks later, I am dumped. Somehow, by being my borderline-manic, socially-awkward, embarrassingly earnest, consistently tactless self, I manage to offend/irritate every last one of them.  In the words of the group’s de facto “leader,” I’d proven “…too much to handle.”  As quickly as I thought I’d found a place to belong…I am alone again.

I’d spent ten years of my life alone. Having gone to a conservative Baptist-oriented school where I was one of the few kids from a broken family (anger issues included), I literally had zero friends from grade school and high school. While not really “bullied” in the conventional sense, I was definitely ostracized, seen for most of my time there as a “problem child” who either needed to shape up or get out. Starved for human kindness, I’d hoped college would be different: here, I could finally have a brand new start.

It appears I am wrong. This is high school all over again, five more lonely years of floating and feeling like I have to apologize for existing, that somehow my very presence offends.  I spend three weeks dodging my ex-barkada–and my whole college block, who also have reasons to dislike me–and discovering every last corner where it is safe to cry.

In desperation, I turn to the Bible. I pray my way through Psalms–David is about as distraught in most of them as I am–beg God to not let me be so alone.  I do this for probably a month, until one day, as I am moping on the couch in the lobby of our faculty building, a boy walks up to me with what is probably the best/worst icebreaker in human history: “You’re a Christian, right? So what do you think about Leviticus?”

(Yes, he means that part of Leviticus.)

After offending what feels like everyone else on campus, by some miracle, I do not offend him. This boy becomes one of my best friends in college, the person who picks me up and swings me around when I make it to the Dean’s List for the first time. Who listens to my first (horrible) attempts at writing songs. Who calls my mother on my eighteenth birthday to tell her he’s buying me my first drink (a tequila rose; I discover I do not like alcohol).

After ten years of being a label, this is the first person who sees me as a human being.

He is gay, and at the time he was an atheist.

Before I became a Christian, I understood judgment better than I understood grace. Raised, as I mentioned, in an uber-conservative school environment, I grasped very little of homosexuality beyond the fact that “it was bad:” the sort of shallow theology that, if allowed to grow, leads to justifications of cruelty and violence, to concentration camps and mass shootings. Back then, befriending a gay atheist would have been unthinkable. It is easy–so easy–after all, to demonize a label.

But then, that label saved my life.

Yesterday was, I am told, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT). A few weeks ago, in celebration of it, I was tagged in a challenge to rock rainbow-colored lips as a symbol of protest against violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

I could not take that photo, because I am not an ally, because as a Christian my stand is that homosexuality is a sin, and I cannot celebrate it. But, as a Christian, this is what I know: we are all sinners here. Jesus died for us all. And in that death, he marks us all as being of equal value

The dead in Orlando. The tortured in Chechnya. The shunned in Manila. All of them are worth the death of God himself.  The blood of Christ is the price of every single one of these lives we dismiss as “abominations” in the name of “religiosity” or just plain prejudice.  I can’t be called an ally, but I am a Christian, and that means I try to follow what Christ has to say. And did he not say this, that “…whatever you do to the least of my brothers, so you also do to me”?

This is my stand, then, that whatever is done to a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is also done to me. Their lives are just as precious as mine, and honestly—if I think about the things I’ve done–maybe even more so. I may not hashtag #LoveWins, or paint my lips rainbow, or fly a Pride flag, or march in the Parade, but you will not find me picketing on the sidelines, screaming hate and judgment.  You will not find me cheering in approval as my brothers and sisters are thrown into camps or shot in nightclubs or beaten in the streets for sins none of us have any right to pass judgment on. Sins that all of us are guilty of.

Once upon a time, God answered my prayers: he sent me a friend, and that friend taught me grace.  Despite differing beliefs, and–as we would later discover–wildly different yet equally intense personalities, he treated me with kindness.  In the face of inevitable arguments, and myriad opportunities to cause each other offense, he treated me with dignity and respect.

When no one else did, he offered me outstretched arms, and for the first time I was not alone.

I have no idea why we’re still saying this in 2017, but gay people are people. And God loves people, even as he hates their sins.  If I raise a fist, or a voice in judgment, I do not do it in the name of my God, because the God I serve did not come with fists. He did not come with violence. He came with an offering of himself, a baptism in blood that was for everyone, regardless of who they were.

He came with outstretched arms.  

To be honest, my relationship with the gay community is a complicated one: many of my friends identify as LGBT, or else have loved ones who do. I understand how my Christianity–with the beliefs that entails–can often feel like an attack, like an angry mob with stones in their hands ready for throwing.  “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” has been so often misused it’s been reduced to a meaningless cliché, so much so I still struggle to articulate exactly what I mean when I say it.  I cannot offer easy explanations reconciling what seems to be an inherently bigoted worldview with a promise of love and respect.

What I can offer, though, is this: Compassion instead of condemnation. Kindness instead of repulsion. 

Whatever happens, my hands will always be free of stones.

~aRT~

A/N: Because I know a bunch of people are going to ask: No, I do not support conversion “therapy.”