Learning to Open Up

I’ve been told many times that I am a “people person” – that I come across as someone who really enjoys interacting with others. Although it may seem like I am a good communicator and get along well with individuals from all walks of life, in actual fact, I haven’t always been the best at opening up, especially regarding my own mental health.

I was 14 when I first experienced suicidal ideation. It started out as a “what-if” question in the back of my mind, and was a thought that usually left soon after it came, which was usually at night when I was alone in my bedroom. It was like a webpage that had frozen due to a slow computer – it resolved itself quickly and I soon forgot about it, as I had to move on with whatever tasks I was trying to complete that day. Because I thought it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t make much out of it and told no one. The day after my GCSE exams, I remember feeling exhausted from lack of sleep. A horrible feeling had been lingering over me for the past couple of weeks; each day I woke up with a sense of dread and hopelessness, trapped in a life I didn’t want to have. At that moment, I remember thinking that my only goal was to get good grades in my exams, and now that I had finished them and was satisfied with how they turned out, I felt like I didn’t feel like I had anything else to look forward to, or that I had any purpose in life. I took a pencil and wrote “I hate my life” on the wall of my bedroom, which my mum discovered.  

My family was very, very upset. But even after seeing their reactions, my immediate thought was not that they loved me and were therefore sad about this incident. Instead, I only felt guilt, self-hatred and remorse. I felt like a terrible person, unworthy of the family I had.

Their reaction made me even more secretive about my mental health. The more I succeeded in school, the worse my depression got because I felt like I had more to lose: more people to disappoint if things went downhill, more responsibilities that could be neglected, a longer streak of perfect scores that could be broken, a bigger reputation to uphold.

I felt like people either had to know every single little detail of my mental health journey, or nothing at all; the concept of an in-between was foreign to me. Because I was so scared of what people thought of me and of the questions they might ask, I ended up choosing the latter and hid all negative emotions behind a bubbly, cheerful personality. 

I thought that people would run away from me if they saw me as anything less than completely ecstatic, that my problems would be too much of a burden for other people to have to listen to and worry about too. My depression also twisted my thoughts; if someone said something nice to me, I thought they had to say that because they were my friend/parent/family member/teacher/or even stranger! I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it. Now I know that I was so wrong – none of these things are true – but I didn’t know any better then. 

Besides, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was feeling. Everyday words like “I’m stressed” or “I’m feeling sad” didn’t seem quite right. I didn’t know what people would be able to say in return, or how they’d possibly be able to help, because I didn’t know how to describe the problem to them (I didn’t even know what the problem was myself!). So I just didn’t bother at all, and gave up the idea of trying to talk to people.

Even though there is so much stigma in HK (“why you can’t handle this? What’s wrong with you?” or “it’s all in your head, you just need more discipline”) the biggest stigma actually came from myself. I didn’t feel like I had “real problems”, whatever that even means, and didn’t deserve to be helped. I felt like I was making it up, because on the surface there didn’t seem to be anything bad going on in my life. Even though I would always tell a friend to seek help, for some inexplicable reason, I thought I would be weak or a coward if I were to do so myself.

This only exacerbated my mental health issues. My fear of people not seeing a “happy” version of myself made me choose to reject invitations to hang out and stay at home, which in turn made me feel like I had zero friends and would be a loner forever (no thanks to social media, which played a big role in making me feel crappy!) I would make up excuses about why I looked so tired (“I was studying” or “the neighbour’s kid practiced piano all throughout the night”) or why I didn’t want to attend so-and-so’s party (“parents want me home, family dinner”).

One conversation was all it took for me to break out of my silence. One day in Year 13, out of the blue, I couldn’t contain it any longer and opened up to a classmate in the common room during lunchtime. I spoke of how miserable I was feeling and how I felt like I was a massive failure. To my complete surprise, she responded with compassion and I slowly grew more comfortable talking about it, disclosing more and more, until I eventually gathered up the courage to see our school counsellor. From then on, I gradually got better, regaining my confidence, self-esteem, joy, and finding hope in my future. 

What I’ve learned from this journey is that talking really does open doors. Without that first conversation, I would still be stuck in an awful, scary place. Without talking, I wouldn’t have realised how many of my friends were actually suffering too.

Being silent only ends up hurting yourself. You need to be shown the way out of that dark place in your mind you’ve lost yourself in, and the only way to do that is to ask someone for directions.

Editor’s note: If you would like more guidance on how to open up, click here.