I’ve always considered myself a mentally healthy person.
Being the first-born son in an Asian family certainly helped with that; revered by my parents as the golden child, I was “the” role model for my younger brother in all the expected ways – academically, athletically, behaviorally -, and had so much taken care of for me. In fact, I am still fortunate in a lot of ways, but this current quarantine has given me time to reflect on myself, and my mental health, which had never really been a consideration up until recently.
Growing up I had a lot of self-confidence – I always liked the way I looked, I performed excellently in class, and I made it a point to try and get along with everybody. To this day I am still very much a people-pleaser; life is best when I am interacting with others and making them laugh, or supporting them in their creative endeavors.
But when stay-at-home orders were put in place, so many engagements were taken away; for me, my daily face-to-face with my coworkers ceased, and all the conventions I was looking forward to throughout the year slowly dropped or ultimately canceled. I haven’t stepped outside in two months, and have had to look to other means for spending time with friends. Thankfully, my main hobby has translated easily to digital, and we are lucky enough to live in an age where social media can keep us more connected than any time before. But this isolation has forced me to look at myself the past couple years through a different lens.
All the way through university my schedule was so full I never took the time to reflect on how I was feeling; I spent a fifth year pursuing my degree because of an intercollege transfer, and tried to make up the lost time with odd jobs around campus upon graduation, picking up every shift I could. I loved spontaneous plans when everything was walkable within a few blocks and living in those moments, but I never really knew what a mental vacation was to really appreciate where I was as a whole: so much of my formative years in life had been pursuing “the next thing” that this quiet we are now in was uncomfortable at first.
The whole world was rocked when quarantine stripped away normalcy, and I was furloughed from my job as the situation escalated. Like many others who found themselves in a similar position I’m sure, I took advantage of my new availability to consume all the entertainment I couldn’t with a regular schedule. But eventually that grew stale. A couple weeks ago I was informed that my department was let go, and now I spend too much time feverishly checking apps to find some kind of conversation.
This probably stems from the biggest thing lacking at home: communication. My family never really took time to discuss or process emotions together – the only thing that came up at the dinner table was the news or neighborhood gossip between my parents. Then everyone would break apart to our own spaces for our own responsibilities/activities – homework, games, TV, etc. There was always a distance, or fear, that bringing up anything remotely more meaningful than trivialities would be received with disinterest, or that we would be dismissed for being too sensitive, even though statistically this deliberate time together should bring us closer.
I do not believe that any of this was intentional, and it is very possible I may have felt something that wasn’t entirely there. I could have tried to lead those conversations. But expression was not a familiar concept, I imagine because the households my parents grew up in were the same. Lack of understanding sometimes reared itself when cases of depression or transgenderism surfaced and they simply didn’t know how to process these things. To their credit, those topics were completely foreign to them and not anything they had ever had to navigate before, and they have gotten much better about everything in the last few years. But that is why I value friends, whom I can talk with about anything, and from them learn so much more about the world.
Getting through 2020 has been made so much easier for me because I have people I know I can relate to, and feel like I can be heard by. People I can share insights, exchange perspectives, and trade laughs with. I’ve learned through them that everyone has their lifetime of experiences before I was ever in the picture, and to accept that. That there is no need for special sensationalism and to simply treat everyone as a person. And that bonding over even the smallest things is a gateway to understanding them, and myself, better.
Having always considered myself an extrovert, this time of social distancing has shown me that I can get along on my own better than I thought. Though I miss congregating in the same place as my family and friends, I have realized how much more I have enjoyed physical and mental space to myself and doing things on my own time than before. Setting boundaries and registering that nobody owes me anything has been a tough lesson for me to learn, but ultimately one in the right direction.
This journey into mental health is ongoing – and not just my own but how to respect others’ as well. Empathy is without a doubt my biggest area to improve, because there are plenty I cannot relate to. But surrounding myself with people who have experiences different from mine, and being open to hearing and learning from them, has been instrumental in better grasping how I respond to the world and how I should best respond in turn. There is no playbook of easy answers for any given situation, no prescribed code of conduct, but I have learned best from example, by observing and internalizing the ways people I admire manage.
These are some things that have worked for me, and I don’t want to pretend that they are the only way to master mental health; far from it. In fact, after all these ramblings, I think it is obvious how new I am to it, but I am okay with that; there is plenty to discover, both about myself and others, and finding new ways for keeping myself well excites me. Perhaps the most hopeful part of all is that how we take care of ourselves, and communicate it to others, will grow and change with us; though the future may not always be kind to us, we certainly can be kind to each other.