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.

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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.

memorial day weekend

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Photo May 27, 9 32 10 AM
local market in Baltimore
Photo May 27, 11 30 24 AM
Rauschenberg at the Baltimore Museum of Art
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Kelley’s cozy apartment with maps hung up on the walls, books strewn across the rooms, an abundance of natural light, and overgrown kitchen plants
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curry poutine (curry-tine)
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eastern market aka land of heavenly blueberry buckwheat pancakes and syrup

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I bus’ed to Baltimore, Maryland to hang out with my sister and her friends this Memorial Day weekend. Trekking up there was harder than I had anticipated. I guess the long weekend travel rush never registered in my mind, but my Megabus was late by almost four hours…oi

Man oh man. Baltimore reminds me a lot of Philly–the place possesses a certain kind of old city charm. The streets are dotted with local eateries and shops and small apartment complexes, juxtaposed hugely against the ornate, almost anachronistic cathedrals. The weather was cloudy but pleasant, so we walked around a good amount. Thanks to my sister’s friend’s friend, who guided us throughout the city, we got to contentedly relish in a lot of the Baltimorian (is that a word?) experience. We woke up at 8am (!) and proceeded to do the following:

  • wander around a local market and sample weirdly-seasoned fruit, coffee whiskey, fresh produce, and kombucha. My sister and I split a fresh biscuit, which I still think about sometimes to this day…
  • walk through the Baltimore Museum of Art. There was a really neat exhibit on artists’ books called ‘Off the Shelf’ that had some beautiful prints and books. Also, I’m absolutely floored by the fact that admission is FREE.
  • attend a yoga class! Being healthy ‘n all
  • visit a few quaint coffee shops, a vintage clothes store, and the cutest French bakery
  • eat dinner at Jack’s Bistro. The owner travels frequently and brings back tastes and bits of the cuisine to his own restaurant, so the place has the strangest, most eclectic menu. My sister and I loved the laksa so much that we drank every drop of the broth.

The world is astonishingly young and seemingly boundless when you wake up a few hours earlier in the morning. Also (and most importantly) the warm, fresh biscuits don’t run out when you’re early to the market because everyone else is still asleep!

Then we rode a train back to D.C. and played there for half the day (Eastern Market –> Phillips Collection) before I headed back to Philly. Alert! My sister’s roommate has these two fuzzy, endearing cats named Liszt and Mozart. Can you tell she plays piano? I miss petting and having stare-off contests with those cats already…

This trip was refreshing and revitalizing. It reminded me how big and exciting the world is and how much I have left to see, experience, and taste. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? –that there’s so much more out there than you can even fathom.

I’m glad I came up to visit my sister. I really look up to her, even though my outer facade is one of constant annoyance at her kleptomaniac tendencies when it comes to my clothes (I miss my Boy London backpack). Man when did she become so mature, self-aware, and cool? I hope she doesn’t read this, or I’d never hear the end of it…

freshman year…

warning: long (and probably boring) post ahead in which I mostly talk to myself in a self-effacing, amused manner. Also this is quite personal. I don’t intend to filter my thoughts.

First year of college. It’s over. Thank god.

I was never entirely looking forward to coming to college. To be frank, I thought I had committed to the wrong school and proceeded to spend the summer fretting over my decision. I know–I was supposed to approach college with an open mind; it’s the law of attraction; blah blah. And I didn’t outright reject Penn at the beginning of the year. In fact, I found myself in a group of affable, fun people, but I missed the familiarity and routine of my past life. In the first few months, I really tried to be something I’m not. I forsook all my introversion and sought friendship and genuine connection so longingly. Surely if I smiled and seemed eager to listen and befriend others, I would find the right people. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that. It follows its own clock, and hearts aren’t poured open in the span of a day.

I worked really hard my freshman semester. I enrolled in an introductory computer programming course and wanted to rise up to the challenge. My laptop illuminated the dorm room until 3 or 4am on so many nights (apologies to my roommate, Olivia), as I frantically typed up last-minute essays for Spanish or tried to keep my eyes open to digest the monotonous readings I had for my EU class. By the way, I’ve devolved into That Student who never completes all the readings. I tried to exercise regularly (and failed), I partied a small amount, and I tried to immerse myself in the full college experience.

But I questioned everything I did. I realized November how pointless my classes seemed, how inadequate and lost I felt, and how discontent I was with the trajectory of my life. My outlook changed, and some shit ensued. My self-hatred swallowed me. I derailed. I lashed out at those around me. Returning to school after winter break felt equivalent to marching slowly towards my death. It’s similar to the feeling of not wanting to wake up in the morning, but x1000.

I realized–college is lonely.

I didn’t understand the full force of this alienating feeling until after my breakup because I had always had someone to confide in and share daily happenings with. That’s a beautiful, rare alignment of the universe I never want to take for granted. But I digress.

I fell down a rabbit hole my second semester and enshrouded myself in a cloud of negativity. I felt so excruciatingly lonely that I googled things like “can loneliness kill you”, “why do I feel so alone”, to name a few of my desperate internet queries. I can’t count how many nights (and days) I broke down, alarming a good number of my professors and TA’s. The thing is, everyone and everything at Penn flies at 1000 miles per hour. It’s so easy to feel invisible against this backdrop. A part of me expected someone to slow down and notice my pain, my loneliness, but that’s silly. People don’t notice jack shit because life throws obstacle after obstacle in all of their faces. If we’re barely managing to stay afloat, how much of ourselves really can we give to others? I mistook this for self-absorption and blinded myself with my bitterness. I think when we’re suffering, we desire human connection the most. That makes sense; we seek outlets for our pain and hope that there’s someone out there who’ll just get it and validate all the pain we’ve felt, but I keenly lacked that. I noticed second semester how much I drifted apart from most of my high school friends. Es la vida. But I kept half of myself in the past and never fully let go. I had such unrealistic expectations, hoping my friends from back home would sense through their magical ESPN how shitty I’ve been feeling this whole time. A lot of bridges crumbled that way.

I was depressed my second semester in college. And no, it wasn’t a meaningful existentialist crisis or anything like that. I didn’t discover any crazy truth about life or any of that romanticized shit. My days sucked. ass. I often slept through classes, ate meals sporadically, and broke down quite frequently. I hated the cold student body and how lonely that made me feel; I hated the suffocating, spirit-crushing homework load (thank you CIS 160) that relentlessly slapped me in the face; I probably hated myself most of all. God. I really lost myself. That doesn’t imply that I completely knew myself prior to college either because I was a lost, wide-eyed lamb then too. But the vortex of pre-professionalism and appearance of perfection and put-togetherness of everyone around me made me depersonalize. My life felt directionless. I was so worried I wouldn’t blossom into someone I’d be proud of. I was terrified of being exposed for the failure and fraud I inherently was. I felt too stupid for my computer science courses. How did people fly around getting dual degrees across Wharton and SEAS while performing in a dance group, an a capella group, and an entire theatre production, all while maintaining meaningful friendships and blasting out on the Internet what a grand old time they’re having? Every step I took was crippled with self-doubt and lack of self-compassion, and I grew to despise my surroundings too to the point where the fibers of my being outright rejected Penn and the people in it.

Eventually, I gave up on all interpersonal relationships. I fell into a routine of eating lunch in my room while watching an episode of Friends. Sometimes, I worked out. After dinner (which I usually ate by myself too), I sat in my CIS class office hour space for hours. Finally, I’d plunk my head down onto my pillow and scroll mindlessly through some mind-numbing feed like Reddit until I could fall asleep.

I only started healing towards the end of the semester (the last two weeks, to be exact). I started taking my mental health more seriously and stopped deprecating myself on an hourly basis. A lot of pieces fell in place too. Countless Piazza questions, Latex hours, and sleepy-eyed attempts at staying awake during lectures later, I’m going to be a TA! I met some kind people and opened up more to the friends from my dorm building (I have realized these human beings are all pretty weird and lovable). I grew up a bit and stopped caring so much about what other people thought of me and if they even thought of me and whether our friendship stood the test of time. I have a theory that all that obsessive rumination over the people in my life was an elaborate ruse my subconscious plotted to distract me from thinking about myself because I had a nonexistent notion of my self-worth. I don’t seek perfection from this world anymore, and I certainly don’t seek it in my relationships with other people. I’ve learned to worry less about the future, too, so I dropped some of my apprehension about finding a passion, developing an arsenal of marketable skills, and outright failing. I’m still working and growing though, but I’ve come to accept who I am a bit more. Sometimes, my head is in the clouds, and I’m completely ungrounded from reality. I’m kind of kooky and neurotic. Also, I am the world’s slowest learner. But I’m trying to not worry so much about who I am anymore and to just leave myself alone, so I can actually live.

Looking back, it’s strange to me how acutely in pain I was. So much stress and self-doubt and depersonalization culminated in an inner crisis. The result was that all these fragments I so carefully pieced together fell apart. But I’ve rebuilt myself a bit and gained some perspective–or at least I stepped out of my own microcosm that deviated so much from reality. Why did I religiously worship such perfectionist ideals like the immaculate kindred spirit or the most fulfilling college experience? Why did I hold on so dearly for things in my past that had decisively ended already? Why was I searching so hard for things in the world that simply didn’t and won’t ever exist? This sounds obvious, but only now do I fully acknowledge and surrender to the fact that the world isn’t perfect. I’m never going to 100% connect with anyone, I’m never going to fully know myself, and I’m never going to be content if I don’t supplant my expectations with more realistic ones.

Without these hardships, I wouldn’t have grown as much. I guess I have that to be grateful for.

In fact, there are a good number of things I’m thankful for. Besides, this blog post would be a dismal diatribe if I didn’t incorporate at least a few positive notes…to challenge all the negative thoughts floating through my mind, I started compiling a list mid-semester of things that made me happy/that I cherish:

  • Arizona tea
  • Very cold water
  • Post-cold shower feeling
  • Wawa quesadillas
  • Post-workout sense of accomplishment
  • Friends (TV show)
  • Being productive and not floundering in CIS 160 hw
  • Beefsteak workers making me an eden bowl five minutes before close (even after they packed everything up)
  • Open-hearted convo with ciara
  • My makeup looking good
  • Cherry blossom trees in full bloom
  • Olivia’s granola bars
  • Beefsteak
  • Jenny’s letter
  • Productive sunday’s at 160 office hours and helpful TA’s
  • Creative nonfiction (Jackie Gu’s digital portrait)
  • Chocolate
  • Oatmeal streusel cookie
  • Talking with Mary
  • 🙌🙌✨🙌✨✨✨✨🙌🙌✨🙌✨🙌🙌✨🙌✨🙌✨✨✨✨🙌
  • beautiful, sunny weather followed by a golden hour that bathes the world in warmth and vibrance
  • being able to hear. being able to hear music and escape elsewhere by simply pressing “play” and tuning myself in
  • the fact that my parents are healthy and alive and doing well. As much as I like to think I’m an independent grown-up (which I’m not), I certainly didn’t start that way.
  • Having the capacity to feel viscerally. The lows feel excruciating and eternal, but brief moments of respite are beautiful. I’m more poised to appreciate them.
  • Muji 0.38 pens
  • Talking to my mom over the phone
  • Sweetgreen kale Caesar salad oh. My. God.
  • The “swoosh” sound of cars zooming by on pavement that’s still wet from rain (heard from my dorm)
  • Red velvet biscotti a la megan

I feel at least five years older now from the me that entered college wide-eyed and scared. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve gleaned is the importance of resilience. I know these words have been reiterated to the point of meaninglessness, but I understand them wholeheartedly now: the world is going to fling a lot of shit at you. Unfortunately, that’s out of your power, but how you react and grow from that is up to you. I saw a Youtube video from The School of Life that conveyed this accurately: to grow up is to “recognize the hard edges of reality without being destroyed by them.”

There is a lot more to my freshman year than what this short post has detailed (actually, this wall of text is pretty massive). But I think some thoughts are best left alone. Sometimes, no matter how achingly you want to be honest, you ruin the candor once your thoughts leave the safe realm of your mind space.

(that was a cop-out because I have no beautiful, magnificent way to end this post)

figure drawing

FNAR 280: Figure Drawing 1 also known as The Only Class That Kept Me Sane. The human body is really beautifully intricate and strange…thank you Doug for being the most eccentric, avuncular professor and creating a space where all your students feel free to question, create, and observe with open minds and open hearts. I’ll miss all your strange, random musings and the donut runs and of course, the black charcoal dust that manages to coat itself over my hands, clothes, belongings, soul, etc….

“I think art is really important to you.” As stupid and self-oblivious as this sounds, I didn’t realize what an irrevocable part of my life art inhabits until Doug said this to me during crit on the last day of class. I’m so thankful that I took this class–it nurtured a love in me for the human body and all its strange intricacies. Most of all, I know myself approximately 2.5% better. I know that creating art is meaningful and worthwhile to me and that I never want to stop doing that.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten the cliché post-class feelings out of the way, here are some drawings that turned out not terrible (nudity warning).

figure_drawings