It was a growing exasperation, one that I did not notice at first, chipping at me little by little, until a moment comes when I suddenly realized how big the dark cloud has been, and how much it has taken over me. I am of course, talking about none other than my mental health in the time of this pandemic.
When the panic first began and everyone was instructed to stay inside our homes and not go out unless absolutely necessary, I took it in positive strides, mostly because I assumed it was going to be absolutely temporary. A few weeks, or a couple of months, was as long as I thought it could ever go. I could finally finish reading all my books, I could finally try to nurture my balcony plants, and I now have a completely legitimate reason to pass on all unwanted social events and weddings. No traffic to face when commuting to work. Fabulous!
But a couple of months passed and my plants have withered and I read all my books, yet nothing appeared to have changed. In fact, it seemed like things have taken on for the worst. My brother lost his job, as did a few other people in my life, the number of pandemic deaths were so many I could no longer keep track, I could not travel to see my family, and I missed my friends, my yoga classes, the park, my evening walks, and of course, travelling, which had been a constant norm in my life. Days began to feel lonelier, and I would sometimes go on for weeks without physically talking to another human being.
There began a strange streak of things I never thought I’d do - I made friends with my neighbour’s cats (because what other choice do I have), I started talking to myself when I was cooking as though I was in a cooking show (this really freaked me out when I caught myself doing it), and I had some insane mood swings where everything made me sad. I was even sad about being single, imagining myself living the rest of my days exactly like this, devoid of companionship, something I’ve never really focused on before but was now allowed to over-think due to the endless idle hours I now have at my expense.
Being confined during the pandemic had also created another issue I did not see coming - the inability to separate work hours and life hours. I was so used to the mentality of ‘leave everything about work the minute you step out of the office’, that I could no longer mentally do that when my home became my office. More often that not, I found myself buried in work from the minute I got up until it was dark outside, realising that another day had gone by just like that, like a prisoner labourer who had nothing else in her life except for the work she was given. I missed sunshine. I began to feel dejected.
The truth was I also felt like I did not deserve to be upset. This was due to the fact that a lot of others around me seemed to be even more impacted than I was by this new norm. How dare I complain about my work-life balance when there are people out there literally scraping to make ends meet, losing jobs and closing businesses due to this economy downturn? How could I talk about being upset when all I had to do was stay inside my comfortable home, when people are getting evicted, or stuck in a small space with a large family? How could I not be happy with all the extra time I get, when my girlfriends are managing work, house chores, kids, home schooling with no breaks in between?
Around November I began to realize that I had no choice but to wipe the table clean and figure out the healthiest way to overcome this ‘funk’. There is no end in sight to this, and therefore there is no point of living everyday waiting around for something to change. Life goes on. Another year is passing. Time doesn’t care about pandemics. And the only way to turn things around, the only option, was for me to change my mindset about it. The mindset I have to go for is this - gratitude.
I started really small. Whenever I begin to sense that I was falling into that ‘funk’, I quickly make a list of all the things I’m grateful for presently. I say them out loud, like I’m some kind of deranged prosecutor making a case. Sometimes I tell them to my close friends and family. They’re simple things in life that most of us possess, but have always overlooked. Like being thankful for being healthy. And still getting to wake up every morning. Sunshine outside the window. A job. Warm dinner. Rainy evenings to read books in. Family that is safe from COVID today. A home.
Some days these affirmations work like magic, but some days I’ll need a little extra work. That’s okay. It’s a human thing to do. Forgive yourself if you can’t find it in you to be as perky as usual, as productive as usual, or as positive as usual. Everything in life is unravelling the way it is meant to be. Even this. You’re never tested beyond what you can’t overcome. I certainly believe that, and I hope you do, too.
When I think about how my life has progressed from exactly one year ago today, I am immediately in awe of how a year can change so much and put you in an entirely different lithosphere. On this very date last year, or to be exact, on the 12th October 2016, I found myself in the middle of a Malaysian jungle doing one of the things I love most – geology outdoors under the sunshine surrounded by beautiful, virgin greens. When I was a child I would watch National Geographic and daydream about becoming a research scientist (or a bug scientist, to be exact. What a nerd.) exploring the wild. Now, in a way, I was doing exactly that.
But the thing that you couldn’t see through all my exciting pictures in four-wheel drives and adventurous mud-scraped knees was that about a few days before that, on the 3rd October 2016, somebody that was extremely dear to me, and I, had decided to part ways. And so it was a strange paradox, as I found myself standing in a elephant's footprint in the middle of nowhere with the sounds of the wild wailing through the forest, literally living a childhood fantasy, while also experiencing what was easily my saddest point that year.
Today, on the 12th October 2017.
I had finally had some time to process the whirlwind of the past month. Last week, today, one of the most important events in my life (only second after discovering the banana-peanut butter combo) happened. I had a book published. I had always loved writing. I wrote when I was a child because it allowed me to live a bigger life in my own mind. I was just a normal kampung girl from the North, but when I wrote I was the girl who joined the circus or did magic or travelled while eating cheese (cheese seems to be a lifelong obsession as you can see). I wrote as an adult because it helped me cope with my anxiety – when I struggled with some things in life or felt overwhelmed by my own mind, writing is one of the only few things that can calm me down.
Today I saw my book on a bookshelf near Aziz Ansari's book (that hilarious guy from Parks and Recreation).
Again, it was a strange paradox. Aside from the fact that the past month had been supremely stressful both personally and professionally, I was also experiencing one of my most intense bout of anxiety. You see, the book I wrote wasn’t just a book for me. It was two years of literary therapy, and like any therapy it was also excruciating as it is a relief. The idea of sharing a story I am so emotionally attached to, free for anyone to consume and judge, was terrifying. I had trouble sleeping just thinking about if it was all a big mistake or the work was even good enough, or if it was going to be misinterpreted into something it's not, etc etc.
But when we launched the book I was surrounded by family and friends, those who had seen me through awful moments and good ones such as this. It reminded me how lucky I am to have them. I have had them all my life but sometimes, when things get hard, I forget how lucky I am to have an amazing support system.
The book launch wasn’t amazing to me because I published a book. The book launch was amazing to me because it woke me up to realise that all my life, I had never been alone and I was always loved and supported.
Notice that there is a pattern to both of the stories from today, and that story from exactly a year ago.
Sometimes, when life throws its occasional curve ball and cause us hardships, it is easy to be consumed by it. It’s human nature after all. Sadness or negativity is always a lot more intense and stubborn compared to happiness. But if you scrutinise your situation of upset closely, you will realise that there is always, always, always something to still be grateful for. There is rarely a time when there is absolutely nothing to be thankful of.
It’s one of those things that make life such an amazing experience. In every kind of hardship there is always some kind of ease attached if you find it. I think it is deliberately designed that way so that we will always have a choice on how we view things, whether to be absorbed by the challenges or to find something positive in all of them.
Life. It’s a rather well thought out little mystery, isn’t it?
PS: And not to forget some avid readers I met at the launch. So nice to meet interesting people!
A deer's footprint inside an elephant's footprint, probably during their joint feeding frenzy. Picture taken this time last year.