Depression is like a bear hug. It can sneak up on you gradually or it can pounce on you suddenly. It may feel good at first to be held in a strong embrace, but eventually it becomes suffocating. It’s also hard to break yourself free from depression once it has its claws in you. I have met people from all over the world, from all kinds of social, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and nearly everyone I have met has been somehow touched by the grips of depression: if not directly, by a close person in their lives.
I am writing a book called “Her City of One,” where the heroine is in a losing battle against depression (you can read about it by clicking “Her City of One” on the menu on the top upper right hand corner). The subject of depression has long touched me, but I have never really been able to express it – mostly because mental illness is so taboo in the Korean Culture. But being Korean-American, I am much more open to discussing mental health than first generation Koreans. Both Fred’s and my family have members in which the fight against depression has been lost. And both he and I had our own bouts with it – though thankfully we have been able to overcome it. So while I am writing my novel, I want to focus on how universal depression is, and in some small way help those who are afflicted by it, or those who have loved ones afflicted by it, to some how help them understand that though they feel alone, reality is rarely as harsh as we imagine.
When I was an elementary school student, I was on the chubby side and painfully shy to boot. I had this crush on a boy named Mark. He had these large ears that stuck out and were really cute under his mop of wavy hair. Somehow my brother found out and decided to tell Mark during little league practice. My brother said to him, “I know someone who likes you.” And Mark replied, “I hope it’s not someone like Yong.” Years later, I grew taller and that somehow managed to distribute my chubbiness much more evenly so that I was somewhat normal looking. We were in High School and Mark paid me a little compliment on a Yin-Yang ring I had that actually came apart into two. It made me smile for days, and I became very proud of that silly $10 ring. Not long after he took his own life. It shook the entire school, especially our grade. We had known him all our lives and suddenly he was gone, and many of us didn’t even know that he was feeling the way he was. After the fact, I heard he had recently broken up with his girlfriend. Maybe that was when he decided to start a conversation with me. Maybe I should have been more attentive. Maybe I could have said something witty or charming that would have lifted his spirits. Maybe I should have been nicer instead a shy ball of wax. I don’t know. I wasn’t really friends with him. Of course I new him, but we never hung out. So when it was time for his funeral I didn’t go. I felt it would be hypocritical of me to go when I barely new him, as if my presence there would shout that I was some kind of fraud. My friends went, even though they new him even less than I did, but I didn’t go. But I do think about him every now and then. I hope his parents know that there are people out there who remember Mark fondly.
When Fred returned to Lebanon after 15 years of living in the “west” he was shocked at how little things had changed. Bullet ridden buildings still adorned the streets. Completely new buildings stood next to those that had never been repaired after being bombed. The famous “Holiday Inn” was still in shambles. He was shocked because his parents had boasted of all the things that had improved since the last 15 years. But ruins improved to shambles is nothing compared to the skyscrapers of New York City. The 2006 war was especially hard on him because he was re-immersed into the shock of bomb raids and this time with the fear of death for his child. During the Civil War in Lebanon, death is so common it becomes a non-event. Depression is laughed at because everyone is depressed. His mom’s heavy metal sojourns to the beach were not concerning. But after having lived in true civilization and having Leila under his charge, the fear of death pounced on him. He couldn’t bear the thought of her losing him and being alone in Lebanon, and even worse, the thought of even the remotest possibility that she could be lost would bring him to tears. So during the war they stuck together every second of the day. If they died, he thought, at least they would die together.
When he came to Japan, he was dealing with so much more than just the massiveness of the Culture Shock of being thrown into a completely foreign country. He was dealing with the fear and depression that the war had thrown at him. He was dealing with the fear and frustration of having his parents still in Lebanon and the war still raging on, and no information except for the slight coverage on the Japanese news that he couldn’t understand a word of. Plus he was dealing with our new again relationship. It was a lot for him to handle. And he was a lot for me to handle.
Several months later, I was pregnant with our second child. We were still working on things between us. The war was finished, we had an internet connection and CNN and BBC on satellite TV, and we were overjoyed with the news of a new baby. But our happiness only came in bursts back then. We needed to find a way to sustain that happiness. But the pregnancy got the better of me. Hormones played with my emotions and I found myself spiraling down a familiar path. My first pregnancy was the worst time of my life. My mother was adamantly against me starting a family with Fred, and anything she could do to convince me that I was headed down a path of doom, she did. She made the first months of my first pregnancy a living hell. And the emotions of that somehow slowly crept into my second pregnancy, and I needed Fred more than ever. I needed him to be strong for both me and him. But he was still recovering from his own moment of weakness, and I felt that he would crumble if I leaned on him too much.
So I found myself alone for a while. Alone in the country side of Hokkaido, Japan. Alone, but having to pretend not to be for the sake of Fred and Leila. And that is when I thought about “Her City of One.” About a girl that is so blinded by her depression that she doesn’t even recognize how her life touches others. And I thought about Mark. And I thought about Fred. And I thought about my mother…