on self-help

I am in no way an expert on mental health or a connoisseur on all the different colors and brands of pills. Tread carefully across this post.

counseling: I sought out a therapist at the beginning of this school year. Misconceptions definitely clouded my mind. Before my first session, there was a voice in my head saying “boy am I excited to start speaking to this therapist and fix all my problems. Let’s get going!” The problem is that I constructed this portrayal of therapy as a panacea that would be effective immediately. Maybe this notion came from all the people who asked if I was considering therapy earlier on. And who can blame them? What can you really say to someone who is mired in a situation you can’t even begin to comprehend? “See a therapist; pop a pill. Be happier.” Nothing really sensible or meaningful can be said as a solution.

My experience with my therapist has been…lukewarm. I’ve only ever seen a single counselor, but I have heard from many people that finding a compatible one usually takes a few tries (think dating). I basically sit in a dimly lit room once every week and blabber on about myself until the hour runs out. In my past experience, my therapist didn’t offer much profound advice or life-changing insights, which deep-down I know I wished for. For the sake of this narrative, let’s call her Sam–Sam sifted through and recapitulated all the nonsense coming out of my mouth at the end of the hour. She asked questions, which I also grew annoyed of at times. To be honest, I thought therapy was useless after my first few sessions. The concept of it also seemed pathetic to me: I was so lonely and messed up, with thoughts so unwholesome and indigestible to those around me, that I had to seek out a random stranger to listen to me! I kept going to my sessions though, I think just to go through the motions, and look at me now! I’m somehow a bit better now.

I still don’t think therapy is perfect. I don’t think it fixed all my problems. But Sam lent a space where I could speak openly and honestly for once. That was refreshing and over the long run, probably revitalizing.

In short, a therapist isn’t going to hold your hand and show you the light. 99% of the work is yours to trudge through. Therapy is just a form of thinking aloud which is more valuable than I had previously assumed. When you try to formulate your hazy thoughts into words, clouds sometimes part and you see things in a new light. And that is how therapy operates in a powerful way.

medication: I also only tried one type of medication (I’m a pretty inflexible, lazy person if you haven’t deduced this yet). Halfway through this past semester, I felt like I was moving in different directions, but things were staying the same. I was still stuck in my rabbit hole. I still turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms because I had no way of truly handling my emotions. So I spoke to a psychiatrist and after a lot of careful contemplation and bouts of neurotic anxiety, I started on a prescription of Wellbutrin XL.

The road to this consequential decision was fraught with indecision and apprehension. I was terrified antidepressants would change me in some fundamental, irreversible way. My brain felt poisoned enough at that point; I didn’t need other foreign chemicals polluting my mind in some unforeseeable way. The psychiatry practice was dubitable too. The whole gamut seemed like a game of darts, with a psychiatrist prescribing whatever “seems ok” and shooting in the dark for some sort of pill to stick. Sorry, I don’t mean to demean an entire field; this is just how my fears manifest themselves.

On a more philosophical sphere, I fundamentally didn’t believe in the healing ability of antidepressants either. On the off chance that I did end up feeling better due to ingesting a hodge podge of chemicals, the adjustment of my serotonin levels or realignment of neurotransmitters in my brain didn’t seem to equate with actual happiness. How could they? Is that all it takes to alter my psyche, the thing which I guard so carefully–a few chemicals, a rewiring or neurons, some tangible minutiae of the mechanisms of my brain? Is that really all I am?

Eventually, I swallowed all my fears because I was achingly desperate for change, anything really. So I started on Wellbutrin XL. The first few nights, I slept turbulently and woke up in a sweat every morning. I also lost my appetite. There were days when I subsisted fine off of a half salad and a Cliff bar. In terms of mental effect, I didn’t feel much. I wasn’t bouncing off the walls with jubilance. The most significant and powerful change was in my energy level. I was pulling 4am’s and 5am’s almost every day because I had to give a few hours to be in my state of existential panic before I could seriously begin to sift through my unforgiving workload from classes. Despite such prolonged sleep deprivation, I somehow managed to stay awake in my classes better than I ever had before, which was truly an unfathomable feat. I honestly felt somewhat like an Olympian god, transcendent even of the basic human need of sleep.

These initial side effects gradually wore off as my body adjusted. I began sleeping quite deeply, and I think all my sleep deprivation caught up to me eventually. For the last few weeks of school, I consistently slept past all my morning classes because I legitimately couldn’t hear my alarm clock. This deepness of sleep alarmed me. Who was I becoming?! A lethargic loch ness?!

All antidepressants do is give you the physical energy boost to actually wash your face, get out of bed, and go through daily motions. And that is enough. That is more than enough. Because I was able to stay afloat my schoolwork, that was one less thing I had to bash on myself for. I believe that made all the difference. I might not have made the finish line through second semester otherwise. And I can’t describe how good it feels to be on the other side because summer has been forgiving, rejuvenating, and healing. I have had time to really think clearheadedly.

These past few weeks, I’ve been feeling more like myself than I have for many months. I’m not entirely sure I can pinpoint a formula for the bettering of my mental health. I’m not religious, so I don’t attribute my wellbeing to some celestial force. Nor do I think antidepressants magically healed me, or my therapist guided me to see the light. Mostly, I just….grew up, I suppose. I sincerely believe life is a forgetting game. I always find myself wishing for some sort of amnesia. I wish I could forget what the past was like. I wish I could stop obsessing over how hurt others have made me feel. I haven’t exactly forsaken my past or this depression I’ve been struggling with. What I mean is eventually, time helps you forget these sort of things by laying new layers of meaning and experiences atop the pain…like a mille feuille. I admit, what happens isn’t really amnesia but rather an expansion of perspective, so that the past doesn’t have to occupy the forefront of your mind anymore. Eventually, life becomes somewhat bearable again. And if you’re lucky, you might even wake up and feel blessed to be alive someday.

To be honest, I’m a little suspicious. I don’t believe good things last, which sounds awfully pessimistic, but on the flip side of the coin, the bad shouldn’t last for too long either. “So dawn turns down to day / Nothing gold can stay.”


attention span of an overripe mango

I’m writing this at my work office.

I am the world’s worst employee. Attention span of an overripe mango. Motivation of a fried egg.

I never realized how hard writing is until I tried to sit down yesterday and write something that has a mere semblance of coherence.

I guess I’ll talk about work.

This summer I’m working at UPenn’s Computational Neuroscience Initiative as a research assistant. My project is related to visual processing in the brain and involves examining the relationship between textures and the scene “gist” of an image. My PI came up with this question which is based on the premise that humans are pretty talented in identifying the gist of a scene from just a cursory glance. In this context, “gist” is a spatial representation of the outside world that is rich enough to grasp the meaning of the scene, and textures are measured as probabilities of specific orientations determined by spatial correlations of pixel intensities in an image.

Computational neuroscience..visual processing…what eye-catching buzz words. When people comment on how “cool” my research seems, I muster a half-hearted smile. What I do is basically perform a bunch of magic voodoo linear algebra and run statistics and Fourier transforms through the powerful language that is Matlab. Disclaimer: I believe that this research could be insightful in quantifying early visual processing in some way. Maybe such clearer understanding will eventually contribute to advancements in computer vision or optics. Those seem like pretty noble ends. But I can’t help but feel sometimes that the work I’m doing is so niche and zoomed-in to the extent of pointlessness.

Running these statistics and trying to identify meaningful results repeatedly has made me gracefully realize how incompetent I am in data analysis and creative problem-solving. My brain flounders with this type of never-ending uncertainty, and I just don’t think I’m apt for the research life. It’s slooowwww and challenging and fraught with roadblocks. Yup, I’m definitely not cut out for the research life.

About an hour ago, instead of actually working, I was leeching off the top-grade wi-fi at my office and reading articles from The Sign.al, which is a website created by a Penn student with the aim of exposing students to unorthodox career paths and imbuing the message that we should seek out career journeys that are personally meaningful to us (an aside: an essay I really enjoyed related to The Sign.al’s mission is called Even Artichokes Have Doubts, written by Marina Keegan. This Yale graduate thoughtfully notes and wonders at the ubiquity of the consulting career path so many of her peers have taken). The people at Sign.al interviewed upperclassmen at Penn about their summer plans and compiled the stats to show that the freshmen summer really isn’t a big deal, contrary to all the frantic job and internship searches. In fact, 40% of people who took classes or conducted over their freshmen summers said they would’ve redone their summers to have more fun, spend time with friends and family, and take advantage of the fleeting freedom that freshmen summer affords. Basically, the article is a huge “calm down” message directed at all the stressed-out little Quakers and more broadly, all the stressed-out little college underclassmen.

When I read that article, I immediately (mentally) exclaimed, “Take that, you career-lusting, ladder-climbing resume builders! Calm the fuck down!” Ok, I kid. That was a highly caricatured version of what was running through my head (what I was thinking was more along the lines of *amen hallelujah snaps-fingers-emphatically-in-agreement*), but I am so tired of this rat race so many people at this school are competing in. We’re all frantic to sell our souls off and become world-changing, business-starting adults. When can we find the time to grow, not as members of the task force (as noble as some career pursuits may be), but as young souls who don’t even fully know who we are or what we want yet, if we’re not apportioning this valuable time for ourselves? I have always recognized myself as someone who keenly lacks ambitions, passions, strong opinions, and convictions. These are traits I bashed on myself for for so long. Maybe my head really is up in the clouds, and I’m so far removed from reality that I can’t stomach the prospect of this “job” thing and the scene of my peers all scrambling to partake in the working world. I still am struggling to reconcile my ungroundedness with real-life practicalities because at the end of the day, making a living and surviving is the bottom line. But I really don’t think we have to follow the anxious flock to the job world if we’re not ready yet. It’s more worthwhile and ultimately time-saving if we could could slow down for a summer, a semester, or a year to really think about what we want to do in this world.

To all the clear-headed, driven, and talented people in the world, I really do salute you. I don’t mean to deride those with full-hearted intentions and dreams in life. I admire the place you’re in right now and wonder the path you took to get there. But I recognize that your path is unique to you.

So maybe that’s it. My own annie clock is set to a different pace than others’. I need to keep reminding myself that my own rate of growth != anyone else’s.

photos by bryan liang

Last March (more than a year ago!), my friend Bryan and I decided to have a “photoshoot” which really was just an excuse to drive to downtown Atlanta, trespass into private property, and devour cheap tacos. As young, ambitious high school dreamers, we were enticed by the idea of blogging. These photos were meant to go on the blog, but I hadn’t gotten around to sorting through them until now.

And yes, that’s a banana phone. I think I’m hilarious.

I can’t believe how much free time I had during my high school senior year second semester (for context, these photos were taken during that time). If I dig through my old notebooks, I’m sure I’ll be able to find disorganized lists of places I wanted to visit and things I wanted to experience my senior year. But I underestimated my ability to fritter away time…

I’ve realized after all my discarded lists of goals and resolutions that if I don’t prioritize and start out realistically, I’ll never act on anything at all. So this summer, I’m a bit more simple which just means that I can actually count all my goals on one hand.

  • sleep earlier. stop staring at the phone in the dark. do you want to go blind?!
  • read with more mindfulness and absorption. be a sponge
  • exercise more / eat better
  • be a nicer person
  • leave a smaller environmental footprint

Also! I’m attempting to post something every week on this strange potpourri of a website.