[Warning: Depression and Suicidal Thoughts]
I’ll start this off by saying that the first year on JET was full of highs, like super highs. I got to travel to places most people only ever saw in travel brochures, and one of those places was Hokkaido. I never imagined I’d end up in those places, and getting to see them was wonderful in ways that I can’t ever explain fully. I traveled with mostly like-minded first year ex-pats, people who also felt the awe of what we were doing.
What follows is a mostly truthful account about the February of 2012, but I left something out back then because I was too asheamed to talk about it. Even today as I’m writing the post, I feel like I shouldn’t talk about it. Mainly, the words that prevent it is the idea that “it wasn’t that big of a deal.” As if feeling like I did was just a hiccup in an otherwise fine month.
Depression has become a sort of easier to talk about thing than before, but I still suffer from the words of my old fashioned thinking people back home. Most of the time when I try to explain it, they tell me to just change how I think, “Be positive!” which just makes me always feel worse because I can’t. Not when it gets bad, not when I want to die, but all too often I will get scoffed at and told to just eat something or get over it.
I think part of the problem is when people meet me and talk to me, I don’t appear like that stereotypical depressed person you’d see on TV or read in books. I am what my therapist back in high school would call “functionally depressed,” as in I don’t need daily medication and I don’t usually need to keep up with a psychologist. Usually being the key word, though. I go out and see friends, I make plans, I travel to distant lands and smile in all the photos, I date on occasion, so it’s hard for people to blend together those preconceived notions of what it means to be depressed and who I am.
So let’s start with the good stuff, the thing I posted, what I usually do with my “public face.”
THRICE DAMNED FLU SEASON, HOKKAIDO, AND VALENTINES DAY
Posted on April 10, 2012 under Working and Living in Japan
February was an exciting month for me. I planned on starting it off with this epic adventure to Hokkaido. I’d been excited about this trip for months. I paid for it in December, and I was all kinds of happy. I was going to be around JET friends I don’t get to see very often, ski and/or snowboard, eat crab, buy a whole bunch of souvenirs, and take too many pictures.
However, a few days before my quest began, my body decided that was the perfect time to catch the flu. I will admit, the first day I was in complete denial. I went to work, struggling the whole way through, but I could claim it was “just a cold.” The next day, I wanted somebody to shoot me in the face, but I still went to work. My teachers were looking at me like I was insane and there were some polite suggestions about taking ninkyuu and going home. However, I forced myself to keep going.
On Friday, I’m fairly certain I was close to dying. My temperature got over 38°C at one point and I vaguely recall thinking I needed to go to the hospital. Instead of doing that, I went to the clinic and waited patiently for the doctor. Sure enough, I tested positive for the flu. He gave me some inhaling medicine I’d never seen before, and told me to drink fluids and rest. When I got home, I wondered how I could possibly turn this around. I did everything I could possibly do. I drank tea like crazy, took a crazy mixture of medicine that also should’ve probably killed me, and slept for about eleven hours.
The next day, I felt bad, but not awful. I figured that was close enough and I got on board with the vacation plan again. I met a couple of friends at the bus station and we headed off to the airport. I slept on the bus and on the airplane so that I could feel less of a zombie by the time we landed in Hokkaido.
I like to push myself, because sometimes that’s good for me. After all, who doesn’t like to travel? But it’s easy for me to forget that by pushing myself I have a 50/50 shot of brining on a depressive state. I figured that I was going to be just fine, because how could good stress hurt me? I liked all these people, I was going to enjoy the trip, so I’d be fine. I kept telling it to myself all three days of the trip, over and over, ignoring the tightness of my chest and the soft tears I’d cry in the bathroom where no one could see me.
I was all kinds of happy when I saw the vast acres of snow. I was surprised to realize how much I had missed the cold, white stuff. I’m not really a big fan, but I guess in my head it’s just not winter if there’s no snow. I took so many pictures of the landscape.
It’s just like the ink paintings!
We went to Niseko, a ski resort. We split into groups and stayed at two cabins that were drowning in snow. It was so cool! Ha, get it? Yeah, I suck at humor. Deal with it.
There were so many bugs. No one warned me that Hokkaido was full of stink bugs, bugs you can’t smash without releasing a foul stench into the air that would’ve lingered forever. Grooooosss!
On arrival day, people went off to go buy stuff at the grocery store. I stayed in reading the Hunger Games (By the way, it was a good read and I recommend it to you all). The next day was spent running around with my friend Jason at various shopping places and discovering an Irish Bar (that I never got to drink in, and I still regret it). I found myself a new pair of boots that are awesome. That night we ate Genghis Khan, a lamb barbeque dish.
We checked out in the morning to move onto Sapporo. I finally got around to skiing. I went ahead and bought two hours with a skiing instructor. It was my first time so I know I wasn’t very good. I fell three times and felt really freakin’ tired by the end of my session. However, my teacher, Gordie, told me that I caught on fast and next time just go. No more instruction needed. I felt proud of myself, but I wonder if he was just being nice.
After my session, it was time to hop on the bus to Sapporo. At Sapporo, I saw the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival, in English). Basically, it’s a huge event wherein people compete in a snow sculpting competition. These things can be huge!
It’s a recreation of a temple done as an ice sculpture. They put lights in front and behind to create this effect with the ice.
I really had a good time. However, by the end of it I was completely prepared to go back to Itako and get away from the snow. I can only take this stuff in small doses.
As luck would have it, the snow followed me home! Itako had its second snowfall for the winter when I got back. I grumbled about it, but I lived. Besides, it was time to work on Valentines Day! February 14th was just around the corner. I bought construction paper, pens, and stamps. I was determined to show my love and make a Valentines Day card for every single student at both of my schools.
By the time I was done with the Valentines Day cards, my hand hurt like hell, but I managed to complete my task. I made OVER 300 of those little things! I have vowed to never, ever pull this stunt ever again. Next time, I will buy them all or do something creative after I printed out the message. My hatred for the sight of red and pink has not wavered since that day.
The kids seemed to like them, but the boys kept shouting over and over again, “Why no choco?!” I explained, “That’s a Japanese tradition and I’m not Japanese.” Of course, that’s not entirely the reason. I kind of bought a lot of chocolates for them at Christmas time and that stuff was expensive. Also, I need special permission to bring in food to class. I just decided this time that I would just do cards, and maybe next year I’ll figure something out with my JTE and principal in advance.
I surprised the teachers at both my schools with small cards and Kit Kats. They seemed to like it, and now at random times I’ll find chocolates on my desk. It makes me so happy!
And that’s pretty much the big events of February. I’ll update again pretty soon.
As of writing this post, I only ever told one person about how bad I fell into despression after the Hokkaido trip. I fell hard, the whole nine yards of bad: fatigue so deep set I couldn’t get out of bed, crying fits that lasted for hours, followed by numbness, and finally just the demeaning thoughts about myself. Insidious little poisonous thoughts like, “Look at how weak you are. Can’t you just be happy? How can you be so ungrateful about your life? You don’t deserve it. Why don’t you just do everyone favor? You’re so hard to love, you know that, you’re awful. You’re useless, just lie down and die.”
I spent two or three days holed up in my apartment, not eating much of anything, staying away from social media, usually curled up under my kotatsu waiting for it to pass. I managed to make the Valentines Day cards on the third day, like a robot. It’s ironic in hindsight that I was making all these cards out of love for my students, but all the while hating myself so intensely. I stopped at one point when I wondered if the blade of my scissors were sharp enough to cut skin. Then I put it all away and headed to bed, watched a few bad horror movies to make me forget how screwed up I was for awhile.
When I returned to work, I just put on my game face and did what needed to be done. But when I finished work, I would just get into bed and stare at a wall, or fall asleep, or watch movies. I didn’t eat much, some snacks and hot chocolate mostly. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone, I don’t even think there was a psychologist or therapist in my town. I heard rumors that people got fired and kicked out of JET for being depressed, so you never talked about it with people at school. I lived in such a small town that everyone knew everyone, so I knew there wasn’t anyone I could safely talk to without it getting back to my employers.
Then, I felt like I couldn’t reach out to my friends either. How unappreciative would it sound to say something like, “Hey, so my awesome vacation kind of broke me, and I feel shattered, so can I talk about that?” My mother is a great mom, but I didn’t want her to worry about me where she couldn’t reach me. I boxed myself in with all these thoughts, isolated myself, because that’s what depression does: it ruins your ability to make good choices.
After about two weeks of persistent suicidal and self-harming thoughts, I managed to finally tell one friend from university how I was feeling. She and I had an hours long chat, but looking back I know I downplayed it, made it seem like I was just having a bad time adjusting. She didn’t tell me to suck it up, she just listened, and reminded me that writing can be good confessional material when people weren’t around. I’m glad I talked to her, because it helped. It wasn’t an instant cure, but as time rolled on into March I got to feeling better.
I still have these moments, but nothing since then has been so intensely hateful towards myself. Sometimes it’s a few days of numbness, sometimes it’s a month of fighting through lethargy, and sometimes it’s just a lingering malice towards how better I should be but I’m not. I’m able to now talk with people, I have a better support network made because if that incident to work through my problems, but no medication. Medication would be something I would love to try out someday when I’m not in such a transitory lifestyle, but for now it’s just me and my people.
I know there are ex-pats out there doing the same thing I did, keeping their diagnosis a secret and fighting their battles basically on their own. There are others out there suffering, because they don’t see a way to get help. I felt it was important to write this post for them, even if only a few people see it. It’s fine if you’re feeling bad and awful sometimes, humans aren’t built to be purely happy. We’re complex emotional beings, and some of us have chemical imbalances that make emotions harder to regulate than the average person. That doesn’t mean you’re useless, you deserve what you’ve worked hard for, and you’re worthy of the love your family and friends feel for you. I know it’s difficult to remember that sometimes, but try to keep that close when you fall hard like I did.
Also, there are options available. I discovered TELL Japan not long after that, it’s a wonderful service that helps people find counseling services that work for them, and it’s all English friendly too. As just an easy shortcut, if you’re worried about people in your town or your employer finding out about your diagnosis, pay out of pocket for medical and mental health services in the nearest big city close to you. Most of the time, paying out of pocket isn’t nearly as expensive as America, but for Europeans I’ve heard the charges can seem too high, so get an estimate before you arrange appointments. But finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to the people who love and support you back home. Tell them your problems, not everything has to be perfect just because you’re living somewhere cool and new.
I hope that this helps someone to read, or at the very least helps people realize that depression doesn’t mean people who are just sad all the time. People with depression go on vacation, they go to work, they smile and hand out Valentines Day cards, they push through sickness to make great memories, they live abroad, and all the while they’re dealing with an invisible illness trying to break them down.
I’m always going to be fighting with depression, even if people don’t see it, and I’m not going to keep it a secret anymore.