photography by Cici Zhang ( @cicispics )
This year I experienced what it was like to lose myself. I experienced myself rapidly treading between who I had become and who I wanted to be. I would emerge for periods of time into a place where I could recognize myself but then just as quickly, be pulled down under and emerge as an unrecognizable being. Making my way through the murkiness of learning how to deal with grief; grief over the unexpected and unexplainable loss of my health, grief over my friends, and most importantly grief over the loss of my identity.
I was struggling to breathe both literally and metaphorically because everything came crumbling down last year. I began to live my worst nightmares. The things I feared the most became a reality. I feared losing my friends, having people judge me as incompetent or as a failure, and feeling incapable. I lost my autonomy, having to ask for help every single day for an entire year on things I knew I was capable of doing but was medically advised not to do. I lost my friends who I had thought would be there through thick and thin. I reached out to people who I had thought at the time were my lifeline only to find that I was soon drowning because no help came. Ultimately, I lost myself. Everything I valued myself for such as being hard working and independent were taken away from me. Learning and going to class at university was something I enjoyed because I felt so empowered to be a better global citizen, to make a difference with the work I was doing. When I physically could no longer go to school and had to take sick leave, I felt a big part of me crumble. When I lost my national scholarship at U of T because I was cancelled out of my courses, I began to question who I was. I was being irrational because mentally I was unstable. After having countless number of hospital visits, lung surgeries, and ER scares, and getting up within a week…my fifth spontaneous lung collapse was the last straw. I gave into the agony and that was when everything spiraled. I felt as if the pain would be permanent and that no matter what I did, I would never recover because there was no point in recovering if I was to just have life knock me down in a year or so. I felt as there was no point in reclaiming who I was because there was no light at the end of the tunnel anymore.
And as I continued to spiral, people continued to walk out of my life. I wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. Unfortunately, in the times when I needed people around me the most, I was surrounded by the least amount of people and that’s when my sense of isolation increased until the point it got to be unbearable. Somehow in the year, while I was in the hospital and at home recovering, my friends forgot who I was. I watched them fearlessly pursue their dreams while my unexplainable medical experiences curtailed my courage and unrelenting drive for my dreams. The anxiety of experiencing near death and unbearable pain again rendered me exhausted. I was tired of recovering. It got to the point where I didn’t understand the purpose of my existence. And for me that is a terrifying place to be in. Not having the ability to do the things I loved because I was restricted to my bed resulted in my loss of purpose. I had no will to live and I woke up for many days of that year when I was recovering, hopeless and struggling to just get through the day of both excruciating physical and mental pain. I really didn’t have the ability to consolidate the change of what had happened with my life. So I didn’t have the strength to get up and reclaim my life and identity again.
I became a different person because of that experience and I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t like the person I had become and the harder I tried to be the bubbly and idealistic person I was before, the more angry and unforgiving I became towards myself and those around me. I would cry endlessly and then just as quickly reduce myself to quaking anger. From extreme emptiness to full on maniac laughter. I lost control of my emotions but luckily no one had to see it. My family members needed to get back to their lives and so it was from 24/7 being surrounded by people on a college residence to complete physical isolation. Outwardly I was able to control my outbursts most of the time but on the inside, I was going insane. How was I to lose all my closest friends and the best university experience within the span of seconds? How was I to lose all the things I had worked so hard for, disappear within my very eyes? How could I pursue my dreams if this medical experience kept happening? How am I on this earth if I was condemned to failing?
I began to hate the unexpectedness of life and then hating myself. I felt worthless and ashamed. I began to think that it was something I did that caused the amount of suffering I was going through. In some twisted state of mind, I started to believe that I deserved the pain because I wasn’t a good person even though I had tried to be. What prolonged my suffering was that I couldn’t forgive myself. My lack of forgiveness caused me to fight to get through every day. I couldn’t forgive myself because I was in fear of being perceived as a failure.
I think the hardest thing I learned from this previous year of recovery is that life sucks. Heck sometimes people can suck too. But once I realized that nothing else going to change, I needed to change. My situation wasn’t going to change anytime soon and getting so emotionally exhausted in the pain was just that, too exhausting. If I was too busy curling my fingers with anger, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to open my hands up to beauty and to other wonderful opportunities. I had to open my heart again to possibilities and to hope of the beauty life has to offer. I needed to let go and move on. It took a long time but the thing that eventually got to me was that life is really too short. If I was too busy moping, I would lose time to truly enjoy and experience other aspects of life. I tell myself now that there are beautiful fragments within every stage of our life: no matter how difficult that stage might be. It’s just up to us whether or not we want to believe it.
When I had really stable and good health I could do a lot of physical exercise and recover super quickly. Now, I can’t do much exercise without experiencing pain. I also need to constantly ask others for help. In this stage of my life, I’m learning how to find the courage to ask for help in fighting my battles. I’m getting better in understanding that it’s not fighting all battles, it’s about choosing my battles and my allies who will help me through it. It’s about relying on those allies when we are rendered incapable to fight anymore. It’s about believing and learning something new. Going beyond my comfort zone. I’ve developed in ways I previously never imagined with people I had never imagined. People who became my support and got me through some of my hardest times. I can now relate to people with illness, people going through recovery, or those who are grieving in a different way. And for me that is beautiful because life’s meaning stems from the connections we make with one another. It took me a painful experience and a long duration of time but there is always beauty for those who want to see it.
It’s just up to us whether or not we want to believe it.