Warning: This article contains frank discussion of suicide and mental illness which some readers may find disturbing.
Name: Hellen (we have changed the interviewee’s name for anonymity)
Country of Origin: Australia
Time in Beijing: 2016-now (2019)
When were you first diagnosed with depression and how did it impact your early life?
Mental health issues of some form or another have run in my family for several generations. My parents, grandparents and 11 out of my 12 uncles and aunts have all struggled with some kind of mental health problem.
My first experience with depression started when I was 12. At the time, I didn’t know I was suffering from depression, but that is when I noticed the shaking, twitching and the suicidal thoughts that emerged. I used to see myself as a “broken tool”. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 19. Throughout my life, having depression has had a marked effect on many aspects of my life, including my ability to form healthy relationships. All of the relationships I built with partners as an adult were quite toxic. I tried to maintain healthy relationships with my parents, especially with my mom, but it hasn’t been easy. My mother is a pathological liar – I have now cut myself off from my family entirely and don’t plan on going back to Australia before they pass away.
How does depression look like or feel like?
Some people describe it as a black dog, but it isn’t like that for me. It’s more a feeling of nothingness around me. I sometimes have this feeling of “dissociation” – it feels as if everything around me is very far away. It is a very strong feeling of disconnect from the world. You see everything and you are constantly evaluating what the “correct” response should be, but at the same time, you don’t really care. It’s like watching a movie of your own life. Sometimes, I would also lose physical sensations or pass out when I am suffering from depression. It’s like my brain is trying to disconnect from the emotion. This disconnected state could last 24 hours but it could last weeks before it gradually comes back.
How did you arrive in China?
I needed some practical experience for a teaching degree. I decided to take a year off to figure things out. I arrived in China in 2003 in Harbin, just six weeks after making my decision to move to China and despite the fact that I had never really traveled before. I kept coming back and forth between China and Australia until I finally arrived in Beijing in 2016.
How has being in China impacted your mental health?
For me, moving to China definitely wasn’t a positive experience at first. It was when I first arrived that the eating disorder started to develop, as well as a drinking problem. The working conditions in Harbin were extremely tough. So tough in fact that at times I would pass out.
I tried to seek help when I first arrived in China in the Chinese medical system, but I found it very difficult to get the help I need. The medication seemed too expensive, and doctors were rude, aggressive or didn’t seem to take my problems seriously – one suggesting that I just do something I enjoy, like watching a movie, as I was being discharged from hospital during my second suicide attempt.
Living as a foreigner in China doesn’t help. Foreigners don’t often settle down long-term in China, which means there is often some sort of deadline in relationships that I have built. Having said that, going back home isn’t easy either because it is much harder to integrate back into a community where close bonds are already formed, feeling that much further away from people who might not understand the expat lifestyle.
If it was so tough, why stay?
I was looking for chaos when I came to China – and chaos I certainly got. The chaos in China is attractive. At the same time, my brother was dropping out of school so I negotiated with my school in Harbin that I could teach extra hours for free in exchange for them taking him on as a pupil.
When did you first attempt suicide?
I have attempted suicide five times in total. The last attempt was three years ago. The first one occurred in 2003, during my first year in China. They happen on a regular basis every two to three years and I am now worried that I’ll feel like doing it again.
The feeling comes from being sick of pretending that I am alright and losing hope that life will ever feel good.
People who are ready to commit suicide are not necessarily people with zero interest in life and have this passive attitude. It is people who want to live, go through the struggle of living but finally have lost any hope that things will feel any better.
What are the triggers?
It’s actually a constant drain. There are issues stemming from my childhood – I was raised to think that I myself was inherently evil, that there was something wrong with me and I constantly needed to make up for my existence. The feeling of wanting to commit suicide is this feeling of wanting to ruin everything – to be able to be in control and have the power to destroy it all. In some ways, it is like an itch that you need to scratch. And if you want to not act on this “itching”, you need to be very proactive about it. For instance, I signed up to “Better Help”, an online counseling service, assuming I would be able to access high-quality counseling, but it didn’t work very well for me – the counselors I was matched with didn’t know anything about living in China, they assumed all my problems came from living in China. You have to try many solutions before you can find one that works.
For me, it feels like there are two different types of depression. One is “biological”, you are born with it. For example, in May and November, I know that I am affected seasonally by depression and that medication can help me weather these periods. But some of my mental health issues stem not from biology but from the things that have been said to me and done to me – the “trauma”. I have got to a stage where I am pretty aware of my trauma and aware of the negative thought and behavior patterns that I fall into – but I still struggle to get past them. I haven’t yet found a therapist who can understand me better than I can understand myself.
What do you do for self-care?
When I am feeling depressed, any sort of self-care is hard – even getting out of bed is hard! I can get motivated to take care of myself if I am held accountable by others; so I will make commitments for dinner with friends. I usually don’t really enjoy the process, but will be able to enjoy being with friends.
I have to remove all obstacles to leaving the house or even my room – if I leave myself any options, I will ultimately talk myself out of it. I feel that it is a constant fight. Sometimes I even ask my friends to send a car round for me so that I will be motivated to leave.
How do people respond to your mental health issues?
I do now have very close friends, especially since the last suicide attempt because I needed people in order to cope. There is no toxicity in these relationships. I have got into the habit of sharing my struggles with my mental health early on in any relationship, in order for people to get an understanding of what they are dealing with.
Society is now more open to talking about mental health. It used to be more complicated to open up to new friends or acquaintances about my mental state but now, people are actually drawn to each other because having someone with a personal complicated story means that talking to them could be a space to share your own. What you realize when you start disclosing your own struggle, is that everybody then opens up as well. Many people are now also very aware of their own boundaries and can express what they are and aren’t comfortable hearing when they are talking to someone who is struggling.
I am lucky enough to have made amazing friends who can enforce healthy boundaries – we can help each other and monitor each other’s moods. It is a two-way relationship: I take care of them as much as they take care of me.
How has learning to support your friends and yourself helped you professionally?
As a teacher, I often come across teachers who are overwhelmed and under pressure. I noticed that this skill also helped me at work as a teacher: I am more capable now of handling overwhelmed parents with their kids. Right now in Beijing, there is no support that is accessible and the pressure to be a perfect parent with a perfect child is growing, which makes it hard to combine western parenting methods with this intense pressure. Parents are left alone and there is no possibility for them to admit “I am not ok”. I have been able to use my experience struggling with mental health to support some of the parents of the kids I teach, and that has been rewarding.
How is attending a support group been helping you?
When I first heard about the support group, I didn’t dare to go for several weeks – there was a requirement to be currently not having a severe depressive or suicidal episode before you could attend. I was worried I wouldn’t be healthy enough to attend or I wouldn’t fit in – but when I did, it was very helpful. People living with depression are often narcissistic – everything revolved around their need to be heard. But at the support group, finally, I felt not only heard but understood. As the others spoke, I thought, “Yes! I have felt it too!” The stories I heard resonated strongly with each other.
Note of correction: the CandleX support group is open to people with severe depression at suicidal stage
What should people expect from a support group?
A support group is very different than the support you might get in a group of friends. There is less pressure to say the right thing, because the other people there aren’t friends and won’t be around after the hour is up.
You don’t have to say anything you aren’t comfortable with – but it does help to be as open as you can, otherwise, you do risk just absorbing the energy of those around you.
Interviewed by Helena from BARE
We would like to invite you to read these articles from our community, and watch these videos CandleX has produced recently to bring awareness to suicide prevention:
If you know anyone that is struggling with depression or severe stress or are otherwise affected by the issues mentioned in this article, please direct them to the Crisis Support pages by clicking on ‘Read more…’. CandleX Mental Health Peer Support Group meets weekly and is a key resource for English speakers in need in Beijing. To learn more about the support group, you can take a look at our peer support review reports from the past few years.