Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sometimes We Get the Chance to Say Goodbye

When we left to come back to the US this year, our friends kept asking, “Are you coming back? How sure our you that you will be back?” They weren’t asking because they found us to be naturally untrustworthy people but because they recognize the reality of our transient community. I would usually answer, “Yes, we are definitely coming back as far as we can foresee. As far as it depends on us. As long as nothing big happens. We are leaving all our possessions here and saying, “See you next year,” not “I may not see you again ever.”

We feel a fear whenever someone leaves, or even talks about leaving, because we know none of this is forever. Not in a “the earth is temporal and not our home” kind of philosophic way but in a very practical sense, we are continually reminded of the tentative nature of our lives.

When we left China, another family from our city left at the same time, knowing that they probably would not be back. They were our friends, former classmates, our playgroup buddies. Our two oldest were international school classmates. Our two middles were best friends. Our two youngest were preschool classmates. But we were able to say goodbye and send them off to their home country, even though we would probably never see them again.

After we were back in the US, we heard that another family unexpectedly left our city to return to their home country where we will probably never see them again. Juliana’s teacher that she loved left our city and will not be back. Another family, in a nearby city, told us this summer they would not be back. Just now we learned from another family in our city, our good friends, that they will be leaving in a few months, before we get back. These times, we do not get to say goodbye.

Sometimes we, and they, can plan ahead. We knew that several friends would be leaving before we returned (in addition to the aforementioned ones). Some other friends, who have lived in China for over 25 years, have already been making plans to return to the US next summer. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, the move is sudden. We don’t have the chance for goodbyes. And so we hold a certain fear. Will they return? Will they stay? Will I see them again?

In the US we like to believe we control our own destinies, if we believe it we can achieve it, we can set goals and make them come true, we can do anything, nothing can stop us. We choose our jobs and our homes and our cars, maybe our children’s schools and our city or neighborhood. We have so many options that we can believe we are in control of everything – until a terrible diagnosis, or a tragic loss, or a sudden layoff.

In our lives overseas, most of those illusions are stripped away and we wonder what in the world we are left to control. We may lose our friends and our children’s friends. We may lose our most of what we own. We may have to leave because of our health or parent’s health or children’s well-being or because we are no longer welcome. We may lose our jobs and our schools and our homes and our way of life all in one blow. We carry this possibility with us each day, not because we are doomsday thinkers or extreme pessimists but because know these are realistic possibilities.

Lately I have been feeling this grief. Loss of friends. Loss of control. Loss of security. The uncertainty of the future. And the continual goodbyes. How many goodbyes, most likely permanent goodbyes, have I said in these years? Another year, another dozen goodbyes. I am tired of saying goodbyes, but I am grateful for each time I get to say them. I know that sometimes we won’t have that chance.

We tend to run in one of two directions. Sometimes we close ourselves off to friendships because who knows how long they will be here anyway. We don’t fix up the apartment because what if we have to move again next year? Sometimes we cling to things tightly in the hopes they won’t slip through our fingers. But we can never cling tightly enough to keep change at bay, and the loss tears us apart.

The only way I see through it is by holding our hearts out, and holding them loosely. We have to keep investing in people and a country, loving others, settling in however temporarily. We have to accept that change and loss are inevitable, that however hard we try we are not in control. Then when change and loss happens, we grieve in whatever ways we do it best. We allow our hearts to break and then be remade.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What does a depressed person look like?

“Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if you’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring you to your knees.” - Brene Brown

You may look around and think, “I don’t know anyone who is depressed.” Probably most people you know look normal. Functional. Together.

We all want to look like we have it together. It might be okay to struggle because of some obvious and outward and universally understood circumstance, but not too deeply or too long. We should be able to get over it and move on. If everything is going okay in our lives, we should be okay.

Except that the outside doesn't always mirror the inside. Even when we are barely functioning, we seem to cling to this social code. We smile and keep it together because that is the appropriate way to behave around others.  And when we can't manage to keep it together, we hide away so nobody knows we are falling apart.

So what does a depressed person look like?


They may look successful.  Maybe they have awards and scholarships and smiles.  They may wonder what is wrong with them, what is this fatal flaw that makes them so desperately miserable.


They may be surrounded by friends, such good friends they even wear matching clothes!  They may socialize in the dorm and go out with friends on Friday nights.  In between they may lie on the floor crying alone, wanting to live but not sure if they can survive.


They may look adventurous and daring, striking out on their own in the world.  They may love their job, feeling a sense of calling and purpose.  They may wonder if they are worthy of taking up space in the world.


They may have the life and the family they wanted.  They may feed and clothe and bathe their children, and even smile at their antics.  They may be crushed by the weight of trying to get through another day.

Each one of these pictures represents a time when I was severely depressed. In only one of these times did someone else know that I was depressed.  How is that, when I had friends and family - close friends even, and family who cared about me?  It is because you can't always see depression from the outside.

When I look back on these pictures I feel the disconnect.  I do have good memories.  I did smile and laugh and do things with friends.  I got good grades, taught well, was a pretty decent mom.  And yet I also remember what I felt like inside. I remember the palatable darkness that threatened to swallow me, the gaping emptiness, the deep exhaustion from acting like I was okay.  I remember questioning the will - or desire, or ability - to live.

How can this paradox exist?  And how can we ever see what someone is feeling on the inside when we are so good at hiding it?

Maybe we can't see it.  Maybe we have to hear it.  We hear it because we are listening.  We enable them to be open and honest because we have been open and honest.  We fight down the urge to give advice or judge or swoop in and rescue; instead we just listen. We don't even encourage or offer solution or try to drag them out of the pit - not yet.  First we step into their pain and sit with them.  We say, "I'm here," and then we stay.


"In the deepest, night-blind fathoms you're certain that you're alone. You aren't. I'm there with you. And I'm not alone. Some of the best people are here too...feeling blindly. Waiting. Crying. Surviving. Painfully stretching their souls so that they can learn to breathe underwater...So that they can live."
- Jenny Lawson