“Depression Is Not A Personal Failure.” A Social Worker Reflects On Managing Depression

“Depression Is Not A Personal Failure.” A Social Worker Reflects On Managing Depression

TLDR: It is okay not to be okay. Being on the constant drive to be perfect can wear you down. Ching Wi recommends taking an incremental approach to generating kind thoughts to yourself and to see the little sparks in the darkest of caves.

Foggy spectacles from wearing masks. Forest fires. Social strife. Long socially-distanced queues for bubble tea. How can we keep calm & happy in a distressed world? A smiley social worker might have an answer. 

Ching Wi has been a social worker for years. She helps elderlies people in her day-to-day job. With her joyful ‘hello’ given when we met, it is hard to grasp that she has suffered from depression. For six years.  

Her journey into the darkest cave 

Perfection. Competition. Ching Wi’s life was previously characterised by these two things. This led to a life of anxiety and self-doubt. She found herself responding to everything with anger.  

Everything that she and others did previously needed to be up to her standard. She mentioned, her characteristic is like the boss that you don’t want to work with. It is fierce and scary.  

These loads of negative emotions eventually piled up inside her heart. The three factors of depression: biological, physical and social aspects are mixed up. Anxiety and depression hit hard.  

In a blink of an eye, she realised that everything becomes heavier, the negative thoughts towards herself and the world trapped her inside a dark cave. 

In such darkness, it felt impossible to see any light. 

Seeing the flicker of light 

Upon seeing the sparks, Ching Wi placed great effort in developing mindfulness, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, trying to change for the better from her old version. Buddha’s teaching mentioned that hatred can’t be overcome by anger. Hatred can only be overcome by love. This is an eternal rule.  

She recalled, ‘It is a very difficult process of healing. Changing from the 1.0 version to 2.0 is not easy. There are processes of 1.1, 1.2, 1.3,… etc. It is and will be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.’ However, having trusted friends, families and the courage to believe in the power of truth in the triple gem is really helpful for the recovery process. 

It can be very scary to experience depression and she found courage from “hiding” in the power Triple Gem’s truth. When she could not trust herself, she knew she could trust the Triple Gem, especially in stopping her suicidal thoughts. At moments when the suffering got really unbearable, she would imagine taking out all the negative emotions and believe in the Triple Gem, the teaching about the truth of life. 

In times where she lacked confidence, she sought comfort in the Buddha’s compassion and practiced the Buddha’s teaching of loving-kindness. Even if she could not generate loving-kindness for herself yet, she kept trying. She found it easier to wish others well and at peace so she kept doing it. Slowly, the spark of positivity helps to calm her mind and she begins to feel kindness for herself too.  

‘Take time to slow down every process. Be mindful of everything and start wishing others and yourself to have a blissful mind.‘ The advice she has taken to heart whenever she senses the darkness creeping in. Seeing how Ching Wi struggled and going through the hardest moment, was there any advice she had for others facing dark times? 

She smiled, ‘learn to be kind to yourself, you too can see light’.

Helping others see light 

“Learning to be kind and accept yourself, and being honest with yourself is very important to get out of suffering. Remind yourself that you too deserve a happier mental state, and depression is not a personal failure.” She advised.  

Also, it is always better than letting the negative thoughts repeat over and over again. As it could be destructive to your mind.” She continued.  

“But….what if you can’t do that?” I asked. 

“Keep trying different ways to solve problems’. Ching Wi reckoned that it is very hard to move through hard times if our mind is not open, stuck in cycles of suffering.  

Ask yourself: ‘Why am I so resistant to making myself peaceful and free from destructive thoughts?”  

She suggested being open with your trusted people around you. It can be friends or family, or someone that you are comfortable to talk with. ‘Sometimes, they see our blind spot and help us to find confidence in ourselves. And could also bring up a new perspective that offers courage too.’  

Even though it is not an easy journey to embark on with, it will be rewarding in the end.’ She grinned.  

Lighting a candle in the darkest cave 

“Lighting a candle in the darkest cave is not an easy task to do. However, it offers warmth to the cave. You may not still see the whole cave, but as the flame lights up, you will feel comforted and help to jumpstart your process of recovering.” She explained. 

“As the candle continues to glow, the surroundings (mind space) will affect how bright will the candle be. If we could slow down and calm our thoughts, the warmth will brighten up the cave. A cave with even walls will enhance and reflect more light. Conversely, if the surroundings are jagged and wavey (full of worries), the glow will be shaky and unfocused.  So pay attention too to the environment for the flame to continue shining.’ She cautioned. 

Ching Wi calmly mentioned that even if you can’t see the full cave with your candle. Generate gratitude for that little flame, as it has at least helped you kickstart your process of recovery. To gain strength to face the world. To offer an opportunity to be happy again. 

May you be inspired by this writing to light your own candle in tough times and offer strength to others. 

Wise Steps:

  • Gratitude goes a long way. To both ourselves and others, it is a great daily practice!
  • Seeking help never hurts! From professionals to friends to family, finding that support helps guides you through the storms of life.

Need help? It is one call away 

SOS 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444 

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 

Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours) 

Tinkle Friend:1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children) 

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 

Resources for applying Buddhism to depressive mental states

How does a meditator deal with episodes of major depression?

The Dalai Lama’s Advice on Depression

Popping Pills for Depression: A Buddhist View – Inquiring Mind

The triple gem

The Journey In Supporting Our LGBTQIA+ Friends #mindfulchats with Kyle #pride

The Journey In Supporting Our LGBTQIA+ Friends #mindfulchats with Kyle #pride

Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia and bullying that might be disturbing to some readers.

Since young, Kyle is always confused with how people look at him and why people like to call him names that are demeaning and hurtful. The term “gay” was not common during the ‘80s in Singapore.

A boy behaving femininely did not fit into how society thought a boy should behave Boys in this group are labelled “Ah Kua”. Ah Kua is a derogatory Hokkien term for a transsexual or transvestite. “Maybe something is not right, I have to be more like a boy,” Kyle recollected on his thoughts as a child.

Today, Kyle is a jovial, energetic, creative designer and Buddhist guide who volunteers at a soup kitchen and Buddhist organisations. Though he has gone through a hurtful past, he now recollects his experience with zen and ease.

He hopes that his sharing will spark a conversation about how it is okay to be different and how we can support our LGBTQIA+ friends within the Buddhist communities.

The Challenges of Being Different

Kyle was easily a bully’s target in school as the only boy in the choir. He joined the choir because he loved to sing but yet he was often called a “Sissy” for choosing to do what he loves.  

“Every day I am thinking…am I going to be called something else?” Kyle shared. He would find longer routes to his destination to avoid a group of boys who would bully him.

Secondary school was where things escalated.

“If you like boys, then there is something wrong with you,” Kyle recalled. Boys would shame him in public by shouting derogatory names at him or throwing garbage into his bag.

Thankfully, he had four female friends who always defended him from the bullies. They made the pain of insults easier to bear. He recalled taking part in the school’s talentime competition, with the song ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey. The lyrics inspired him to go up on the stage to express himself and the audience was stunned at his performance.  Kyle could reach all the high notes in the song. His performance led to less bullying as people saw his talent in singing. 

Kyle felt lucky as the derogatory remarks were instead replaced with the nickname “Mariah”. 

Mariah Carey’s “Hero” gave him the courage to be stronger during those tough times. The lyrics and tune provided a space of calm and refuge. “Mariah Carey and Whitney Huston are where my pillars of strength and inspiration came from. “That’s before I came into contact with the Buddha of course!” Kyle chuckled.

The Buddha as his inspiration

“I am not special, if I suffer I am not the only one,” Kyle realised as he found out about the four noble truths.

Learning the noble truths that life is subjected to unsatisfactoriness and there is a way out of it resonated deeply with Kyle. It gave him the empathy that he was not alone.

Bullying followed Kyle even when he was pursuing a diploma at NAFA. He really wanted the bullies to suffer badly. He was thinking about how to seek revenge all the time. However, he realised all the unhappiness and burdens within caused by hatred arose from being attached to his ego. 

“At a later stage, I learnt more compassion.” Kyle shared. He drew his source of compassion from a Dhammapada verse on hatred.

 “Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”

Responding to hate with hate only tortures oneself with anger, Kyle reasoned.

“Being kind to oneself is not just shopping or buying things for yourself. We always say be kind to yourself. When you are not angry towards others, that is when you are really being kind to yourself”

Kyle’s sharing struck a deep chord within me. In a society that starts talking about self-care, we often talk about the material. Kyle’s sharing nailed it that the emotional aspect is hardly looked at.

“Life without Dharma will be tougher to live on. The loss of my loved ones, the physical suffering from illness, the mental tortures of guilt and hatred. My suffering only I can relate to. No matter how happy one can be, the drum always sounds better when it’s far away.” 

Kyle is thankful to be alive in this time where the Dharma still exists. He is constantly inspired by the teachings of Ajahn Buddhadasa, Ajahn Chan, Venerable Hsing Yun, and Thich Nhat Han., Without the Buddha’s Dharma, these masters wouldn’t exist. 

Kyle has enormous gratitude for how the Dharma has transformed him.

I wondered to myself, “With so many challenges at school, was his experience in the Buddhist community any different?”

Gay + Buddhist?

Although Kyle never had negative experiences from the Buddhist community regarding his sexual orientation, challenges remain. Occasionally, when doing Dhamma volunteer work, he was apprehensive about sharing his sexuality as he was unsure how people would react.

He felt compelled to ‘tone down’ his behaviour when he entered the Buddhist setting.

“Why?”, I wondered.

Kyle shared that it remains a cultural taboo to say, “It is okay to be Buddhist and to be gay”. Something that is not discussed, creates uncertainty. There is a dearth of centres that have Dhamma talks and resources tailored to LGBTQIA+. Hence, there is uncertainty whether LGBTQIA+ members are welcomed. 

Kyle noted with gratitude that Buddhist Fellowship and the Handful of leaves were the few Buddhist platforms that are most supportive.

The compulsion to tone down on his femininity eventually faded as Kyle developed his Dhamma knowledge. 

He concluded that being LGBTQIA+ is not a sin. Rather, it is the way that we treat others and ourselves that matters more than our sexuality. Our thoughts, speech, and actions of kindness and wisdom are of utmost importance.

That made me wonder how we can better support our LGBTQIA+ friends.

Community Support

“Be sensitive to what you say as it may make them feel uncomfortable. You may be close but do not take liberty in sharing with others about the person’s sexual orientation.” Kyle advised.  

He recalled that some straight friends might accidentally ‘out’ their LGBTQIA+ friends, leaving them in an awkward situation.

“If we are standing up for them, just defend them because everyone deserves kindness and no one wants to be treated harshly,” Kyle advised. He mentioned that is better to avoid ‘out-ing’ LGBTQIA+ friends if they aren’t prepared to share their sexual orientation.

As friends, we also can express skilful speech by not stereotyping a person immediately. Don’t call out someone for ‘straight acting’ if they are gay and expect gay people to have to act a certain way.  

In addition, if you suspect that a friend is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, don’t ask them. They might not be ready to share and feel even more stressed.

One Buddhist community that helped Kyle was “RainBodhi” (HYPERLINK), which combined two words “rainbow” and “Bodhi”. It is a LGBTQIA+ friendly community that conducts talks and provides resources to help one another. 

Books such as this on Buddhism and homosexuality was particularly helpful to Kyle.

Finding Compassion for Yourself

How can members of the LGBTQIA+ community develop more compassion towards themselves against a conservative society which may not always be understanding?

“Take your time and explore what is happening. It is always through initial confusion that we gain clarity and wisdom eventually. Once you understand your emotions, you know better about this “Me” and “I”. Pick up a Dhamma book to ground yourself.” Kyle shared.

Kyle added, “If you aren’t religious, then pick up philosophy or inspirational books.” 

Remind yourself “There is nothing wrong with you”.

Looking Back

With Kyle developing so much wisdom over time, I wondered what Kyle would tell his younger self.

“Trust your instinct. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way you are. One day you will know a group of people who truly love who you are. You will meet an amazing teacher, the Buddha. You will come across the Buddha’s teaching and it will transform you. Be kind to people as much as possible. I promise you, that’s the only way that will help you through all the struggles. ” Kyle encouraged.

“Stop obsessing with losing weight and lose the ego instead!” Kyle added in jest.

In the spirit of pride – acceptance and care- Kyle summarised his thoughts by sharing, “Keep giving joy and love to people around you, even when you can’t find it yourself. Because whatever hardship you are going through, all the joy and love you have given would come back to you eventually” 

Resources to help the LGBTQIA+ & Allies:

  1. Rainbodhi Buddhist Community: https://rainbodhi.org/ 
  2. Bhante Dhammika Book: http://budblooms.org/2020/05/21/buddhism-and-lgbt-issues/
  3. Ways to be a better ally: https://engage.youth.gov/resources/being-ally-lgbt-people