I still remember the summer my life fell apart.
I’d been living away from my home, the UK, to teach in South Korea for about a year. My fiancé was about to move in and I was ready for another spectacular Korean summer: day-drinking, sight-seeing, and the kind of luscious heat we never get in the UK. Other people hate it, but it makes me feel like I’m living a perpetual holiday. Then my dad called me up, crying.
‘Your Nan is dying,’ he said. ‘You need to come home.’
About a month later, my friend called me to tell me that another friend – a friend we both loved, the kind of person you never want to stop writing about – had killed himself.
I thought she’d have happy news – the kind of wonderful news that’s so special you have to call in the middle of the night, as soon as you can. Maybe she was getting married or had a new job. What a terrible cold shock it was to find out, out of nowhere, that someone we both loved so much was gone forever. Two people I loved had died in a very short space of time.
With my friend, it took me a while to understand what she was saying. Then I sat very still and said nothing for a long time. In my memory, we were sitting up late, laughing about something I couldn’t remember but…… what happened to that happy ending? What about all the other things I was forgetting? I wondered how he had died. Probably alone, maybe frightened. I couldn’t bear to think about it, but it was all I could think about.
I didn’t want to go out anymore. I burst into tears for no reason. I just wanted to stay home and try to hold all my thoughts together. Around the same time, my fiancé moved in. This was something we’d been very excited about but the housing we’d been expecting fell through and we ended up in a tiny damp apartment. The shower didn’t work. We were trying to organise a wedding. It felt like a lot of people thought the wedding was a bad idea.
A lot of bad things were happening at once.
I thought I was going crazy. I was not a lot of fun to be around. I cried and stared into space a lot. If my fiancé was a little late, I thought about all the reasons something might’ve happened to him and he might actually be dead. I texted him a lot. I was easily hurt. I found it hard to go to work and carry on being aggressively enthusiastic to my students. I was too embarrassed to call up my parents and tell them that my life was falling apart. It was very hard to try and explain this all over the phone to my friends back home – I didn’t know how to make sense of it. I didn’t recognise myself anymore. I was hurting so much but I couldn’t begin to explain it.
But I got better.
A lot of time in the media, we only see the unhappy ending. We hear a lot about people dying but we don’t hear much about people getting better. If you’re hurting, it’s important to know that things can and do get better. Sometimes I felt like I was radiating pain and sadness and it’s hard to know where to begin.
Firstly, I think going to therapy was the first step I took in getting better. I didn’t want to go to therapy or, more honestly, I didn’t want to pay for it. After all, part of the reason I was stressed was because we were already strapped financially. HOW WAS SPENDING MORE MONEY EVER GOING TO MAKE ME FEEL BETTER? When a family member was depressed, she was told she didn’t have real problems and she should cheer up. Did I even have real problems? Even if I did, what was the point in talking about it? He was dead, and no matter what I said that was never going to change. But I got to a point that I was desperate enough to try anything.
So I forked over the cash and met a lady who told me that if I wanted the grief to get better, I needed to talk to my friends about it. I was aghast. Wasn’t that the whole point in paying her? So she had to sit there and listen to my slow, meandering, incoherent ramblings about all the things that were too late to change? Now she was telling me to talk about it to someone else? Didn’t she understand that when I talked about it, it was like there were glass shards choking up my throat?
However, looking back, she was probably right. Therapy is helpful for different people for different reasons – the main way my therapist helped me was reassuring me I actually wasn’t crazy and there was nothing wrong with me.
Something detrimental that I’ll always contribute to my healing was my wonderfully supportive group of friends. When our shower didn’t work, I spent nearly three months showering at my friends’ house. They never minded. In fact,
In our crisis chats, a theme that comes up time and time again is the importance of friends. It can make an incredible difference to someone who is really hurting, if they have someone they can talk to about it and if they feel like someone cares about them. That was definitely true for me.
You wouldn’t think but moving out of my subpar apartment was a relief to my suffering mental health. Wow, what a difference! To be in a light open mo
uld-free space! To have a shower that worked! To unpack my stuff and not be wearing the same three dresses over and over again! Your environment can have a staggering impact on your mental health. And now we had the internet in our new apartment, which led to-
Taking classes to learn Korean….Yes, this might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about feeling better again but taking small steps working towards something that was important to me and slowly getting better at it, made me feel like things were possible again. It made me feel smart again and more like myself. Sometimes, we expect to be disappointed but if we take a chance, things can go better than we ever imagined possible. Being good at something made me feel like my life was less of a train-wreck.
Lastly, volunteering. Sometimes when we feel powerless and overwhelmed by all the things that can go wrong every day, it can be hard to know where to start. Volunteering made me feel like I was doing a small part to make the world better. I was proud of myself again. It was a huge boost to my mental health feeling like I could make a change in the world.
Time passed. I still missed my friend every day, but things were getting better. I started enjoying things again and as time went on I realised a lot of the things I’d been completely certain of were just not true. I wasn’t a boring miserable person who was never going to be happy again – I had just loved two people I loved in a short time and life was different now. I was not paranoid and crazy – I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing anyone else and therapy helped me realise that most of the time, the worst thing didn’t happen. I actually enjoyed going out and seeing my friends and trying new things – there had just been a time I needed to tread slowly for a while but it didn’t last forever.
What I’m trying to say is things get better. Sometimes in ways you never would have expected. The same things don’t always work for everyone but it’s more important that we be kind to them and to ourselves this year.