Memoir

Embracing ugly feelings

Living with the cold of the soul

THE FIRST TIME I was hospitalised, my mother visited me in the dank psychiatric ward bearing a three-tiered lacquer bento box packed with handmade delicacies. I told her I couldn’t eat. She began to sob, and in between wet gulps, confessed that my severe depression was her fault – the cause must be the frequent soap enemas she had inflicted on me as a baby, she explained. I began to cry then too. We hugged each other. We might even have shared a subversive giggle. Later that day, I informed the psychiatrist that I’d had a cathartic breakthrough, hoping that he’d release me from the horror of the locked ward, its floors reeking of spilt urine, the walls stained with other people’s anguish.

My mother knows nothing about Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. And far from a breakthrough, I’d merely experienced extreme emotional exhaustion masquerading as catharsis. The truth is, I was desperate for the doctor to see through my well-honed ability to neatly package up my despair, like a bento. I wanted him to see me, with all of my messy, dark, ugly feelings.

I’ve been hospitalised three times for mental illness – four if you count the time I karate-chopped a plate-glass window and sliced off the fleshy part of my hand. I’ve been therapied by psychiatrists, psychologists, ­counsellors; I’ve endured Gestalt psychotherapy, survived CBT. I’ve also attended my requisite share of goddess workshops, meditation sessions, acupuncture treatments. I was even seduced by crystal healing, once. And as you might expect, I’ve taken SSRIs on and off for decades, trading in my body for my mind – I got fat, got pimples, lost my sex drive, slept too much or not at all.

I’m not suggesting these treatments were ineffective. But despite the litany of therapeutic approaches I’ve sampled, I know all of them have missed something crucial: my race, or more specifically, how the experience of being from a minority race intersects with my mental illness.

 

THE FIRST TIME I attempted suicide, I walked out of my office in the middle of the day, set fire to my car in a multistorey car park and just sat in the driver’s seat. Needless to say, I botched that attempt, but it was enough to put me in hospital. The expression ‘commit suicide’ is out of favour today because of its criminal implications. But to me, the phrase evokes a kind of fortitude that’s needed to go through with the act, which I didn’t have that day because I got distracted. Sitting in the car in a fog of existential despair, I began thinking about this snot-picking boy from school who used to taunt me by yelling ‘harikari’ to my face, followed by a lame enactment of tortured death. ‘Harikari’ is of course the mispronunciation of ‘harakiri’ – the ritual act of suicide by disembowelment.

Such a forgettable kid for so many reasons, but he popped out at me from my memory because my warped brain figured that if I died that day, people like snot-boy would dismiss me as just another crazy Japanese person with a natural-born propensity for taking my own life. There’s irony in the fact that his memory saved me. How my Japaneseness is perceived in Australia has shaped who I am, so the idea that people might think I have the kamikaze gene (one of the other Japanese words kids liked to throw at me back then) disturbs me, especially when that black cloak of depression falls around me.

Today, the Japanese terms people fixate on tend to be glossy with new-age appeal. Just check out Julia Baird’s book Phosphorescence, which is about ‘the things that sustain you when the world goes dark’. It’s peppered with references to cool, enlightenment-infused Japanese concepts: shinrin-yoku, yugen, wabi-sabi, kintsugi. But appropriating these ideas that Baird seems to imply have a ‘lit from within’ positivity has the same effect on me as appropriating words expressing darker sentiments. Because singling out bits of my culture is akin to taking a highlighter to selected passages but not bothering to read the whole book. It’s a way to incomplete me, to make me feel unseen.

 

RACE AND INVISIBILITY are major themes in poet Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition. On the inside of the book’s dust jacket she poses a question: ‘How do you feel when your own experiences are consistently dismissed by a white world that doesn’t recognise your reality?’ The answer: ‘You may experience shame, suspicion and melancholy, otherwise known as minor feelings.’

Hong is the daughter of Korean immigrants and writes explicitly about race in the Asian-American context. I’m Japanese-Australian, which means I don’t relate to many of her ‘minor feelings’. But some aspects of her life I totally get, like her obsession with collecting stationery: ‘I had a special, almost erotic, relationship with my stationery when I was young,’ she writes. Is this an Asian thing, a girl thing, an OCD thing? I sensed warm recognition reading such sections of her book; other passages I read with cringing discomfort. Hong’s father drank, and her mother took out her frustration on her daughters ‘with a fury intended for my father’. This is a scenario many families who’ve experienced the trauma of migration and dislocation know too well, hide too well.

But what I like most about her essays is that she takes these ‘racialised emotions’ – shame, resentment, envy, frustration – and does exactly the opposite of what all my therapists did: she externalises them. ‘My shame is not cultural but political,’ she declares.

Locating psychological pain in the private sphere – the dysfunctional family, childhood abuse, the controlling mother breeding poo-on-demand babies – is therapy’s usual MO. And these days, there’s a growing demand in the West for (especially) people of colour to tell their intimate stories of race and trauma. I’m definitely not against deep-dive self-scrutiny or personal storytelling. But by confronting the reader with the ‘untelegenic’ feelings that arise from being a minority, I think Hong is saying that we need to pay close attention to racialised context if we’re to understand interiority.

I must admit I found some of her in-your-face polemics hard going. But I was reminded of the many times I’ve shared my frustrations – my ‘minor feelings’ – with Asian-Australian friends. Our usual topics for discussion: ‘what’s up with being the diversity hire?’ or ‘why are we constantly being asked to be the ethnic expert?’ The thing is, at the end of these conversations, we conspiratorially concur that we can never talk about these topics in public, lest we appear petty – or, God forbid, angry. We self-censor, and as a consequence we isolate ourselves. And I often wonder, where do all these ‘minor feelings’ go?

 

HONG CREDITS CULTURAL theorist and critic Sianne Ngai for inspiring Minor Feelings. Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings is not concerned with race per se but the ‘ignoble emotions’ that arise out of ‘obstructed agency’, by which she means social and political powerlessness. Ngai critiques film, literature and art – but rather than art that soars with grand passions, such as love or cathartic fear in the tradition of Shakespeare, Puccini or Star Wars, she’s interested in art that engages with ‘unprestigious’ dysphoric feelings, such as envy or anxiety, that are ‘explicitly amoral and non-cathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release’.

Strong emotions – anger, rage – have highs and lows and a built-in drum roll: they are therefore difficult to sustain indefinitely. Weak and ugly emotions such as ‘envy and paranoia have a remarkable capacity for duration’, says Ngai – and are flat, with a niggling staying power that makes me feel ashamed, which is probably why I find talking about my frustrations taboo. And that’s the other thing about ‘ugly feelings’: they feed back on themselves so that envy can make you feel guilt, or prolonged irritation can lead to paranoia. Despite this, I find Ngai’s idea of ‘ugly feelings’ rather attractive exactly because there’s no ‘therapeutic or purifying release’. I have little choice but to live with them and hang on to my ugly feelings.

 

WHEN I VISUALISE what my mental illness might look like, I see depression as a dark cavern situated at the centre of a cluster of such ugly feelings. It’s a black hole that doesn’t suck me in but makes me feel paralysed. In the harrowing, short memoir Darkness Visible, author William Styron writes that depression feels like an ‘excruciating near paralysis’. The illness is ‘so mysteriously painful and elusive’, he says, ‘as to verge close to being beyond description’. If the erudite Styron struggles to describe his illness, I see no reason why I should even bother trying to describe mine.

Darkness Visible is my go-to book whenever melancholy comes knocking on my door. My yellowed, first-edition paperback is covered with Post-it notes, and I always find myself coming back to the same underlined passage: ‘I shall never learn what “caused” my depression, as no one will ever learn about their own. To be able to do so will likely forever prove to be an impossibility, so complex are the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behaviour and genetics.’

I guess that lets my mother off the hook. And if a cause is impossible to pin down, it confirms my belief that recovery from mental illness is overrated. In fact, ‘recovery’ has been replaced by words such as ‘resilience’ in today’s less stigmatising vernacular. But resilience seems a tad try-hard to me. I prefer ‘holding’, by which I mean holding on to – maybe even embracing – all the ugly feelings that surround my depression.

By Ngai’s definition, ‘ugly feelings’ are non-cathartic, so they ‘do not facilitate action’ or ‘culminate in a kind of purgation’. So they have no arc, no direction, no potential for resolution. Paradoxically, that opens up a space for hope – just staying with my ugly feelings seems like a radical rejection of society’s constant demand on me to feel better, get better. It’s an alternative form of ‘therapy’ that’s static. There will always be new psychological interventions, new therapists, drugs, herbs for me to try, but I don’t feel lazy or intransigent if I don’t partake for now. I guess the question then is, am I capable of holding all the darkness that I have inside? Well, that I don’t know.

 

THERE WAS A time in my thirties when I read many first-person accounts of mental illness. But most of them had an improbable narrative arc of overcoming illness, what sociologist Arthur W Frank in The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics calls the ‘restitution’ story. The other feel-good arc is the ‘quest’ – when the illness becomes a conduit for personal transformation. I read these accounts looking for clues on how to behave as a depressed person because I had no cultural cues, no mentors.

Just recently, I finished two engaging books. One was The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang; the other was a memoir by fiction writer Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Wang has a schizoaffective disorder, which means ‘a lifetime of illness, and not an episode of illness’. The disorder is now stitched into her life, and she’s clearly troubled by the boundary between her self and her illness.

Li shares the same concern. She writes about her depression in prose that’s both intellectually detached and esoteric. ‘There is this emptiness in me. All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing,’ she writes. But in the same breath, ‘what if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?’

Two women with brilliant minds concerned that they might lose their subjectivity – at first glance, this might seem tragic, but to me this feels like a more authentic story of mental illness than the ‘quest’ or the ‘restitution’ narratives. Li and Wang leave so many questions unanswered; their self-scrutiny is full of contradictions. And that to me feels brave, worthy even, because they’re holding onto their darkness, embracing it. ‘What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?’ I totally get that.

My depression brings up contradictions constantly. Some mornings I wake up and feel as if I won’t make it through the day. And yet that morning could turn into the most joyful day. Was I being overly pessimistic? Possibly. Was I out of touch with my own moods? Probably. Will I have more days like this? Without a doubt.

 

I READ ANOTHER book not so long ago by medical anthropologist Junko Kitanaka, Depression in Japan: Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress. While I found no discussion of soap enemas, I did discover that depression, or utsubyo, was rarely spoken about in Japan until the 1990s. This explains why my parents flatly ignored the neon-bright warning signs that preceded my first scary descent into depressive illness in the late 1970s. I was perilously prone to toying with the cleansing appeal of self-inflicted pain during my teens. These days, there’s less stigma associated with mental illness, and depression is widely discussed in Japan, though sometimes euphemistically referred to as the wistful kokoro no kaze or a ‘cold of the soul’.

My mother never asks me about my cold of the soul. I suspect she just doesn’t know how. I never talk to her about it either, certainly not in the way I just told you, the reader. I can tell you what I can’t tell her because there’s little chance you’ll demand I get better. And in case you’re wondering if she really fucked me up, I suspect she did, because that’s what they do, right, mums and dads? I took poet Philip Larkin’s suggestion and never had kids.

 

MY MOTHER ISN’T a tyrant. Far from it, in fact. Like all complex, strong-willed women who grew up in a conservative if not blatantly misogynistic society, she’s shamelessly overbearing because she’s a naturally generous human. She wants everyone to be well fed, healthy, happy. She has an enviable capacity for love. Our fraught relationship aside (and what self-respecting feminist hasn’t battled wits with an opinionated parent?), I love her too. And this is possibly the hardest contradiction I have to live with every moment of my life.

There’s this mistaken idea that love will make the experience of mental illness better, but love makes the pain worse. And the more love, the worse it feels because there’s more love to disappoint and betray. Love is not an ugly feeling but an expansive, bold, splendiferous one. Which is why I experience love as crushingly difficult because it’s so, so demanding. The thing is though, I reckon I’m doing a pretty good job holding on for now, don’t you think? I hope I am. Yes, I think I am. I really am.

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