By CJ Tulong
Content warnings: depression, anxiety, stigma against mental illness.
“Why is your luggage so heavy? What’s in it?”
I wish I was joking when I said it. Unfortunately, depression has been a part of my “Things I can’t Leave ANY Country without” list in the past three years. How come I was unaware of this immense baggage? Why didn’t I leave it before any of my trips?
The virtual schoolbag. A concept illustrating how students bring their prior knowledge and values that were instilled prior to their school years. I always viewed myself as hauling a virtual luggage as opposed to a schoolbag. Can there be a case where a student would need extra help in unpacking their own baggage? Yes, and mine was one of them, except I was conditioned to only take help from family members, good friends and God. Therapists and psychiatrists? I didn’t know them. However, my trip to the new mental health centre was a wakeup call to the fact that I required additional assistance to unload this baggage of depression and cultural stigma. When I was introduced to the new psychiatrist and a case manager, it was a daunting experience.
I was able to travel with a slightly lighter load after being in the mental health centre for a year, because I exchanged a part of my depression with new things in my virtual luggage: mindfulness and coping mechanisms. Upon my return to Sydney, I was faced with an option to incorporate a new addition to my “Depression Repellent Travel Kit” – antidepressants. Sadly, I despised it with a burning passion. I pushed away the idea of going on medication for months, up to a point where my psychiatrists were asking, “Why are you hesitant about antidepressants?”. They were certain that there had to be other reasons apart from physical side effects. As a result, my case manager and I were on a quest to solve the mystery behind my fear.
It was in one of my sessions where we discussed pros and cons of not going on antidepressants. I began rattling off several pros that popped in my mind:
No drama with airport security? Absolutely!
No fear of taking medication behind my family’s back? Definitely!
“Okay, what would be the con of not being on medication?” my case manager asked.
“I can’t afford to relapse again.”
It may seem there are more pros than cons in theory, but “relapse” was a magic word that triumphs. I finally came clean about my internal guilt. In addition, I was guilty of adding more baggage in the form of anger that stemmed from frustration on why antidepressants are looked down upon in my community. As someone who grew up in a conservative Indonesian Christian background, mental illness was treated as an untouchable subject. I had to hide my journey with depression because mental illness wasn’t taken seriously. It was seen as a person’s lack of faith or a failure to live up to the expectation of being a ‘good Christian’. This was the internalised guilt that I carried.
Therapy was my solace and a safe space to unload the guilt. My session was a stepping stone into renewing my understanding of mental health. Before I could do that, I had to discard my internalised shame and guilt. This included reframing my perspective on antidepressants. I began to wonder why antidepressants were antagonised in my background. If an optometrist gave me a prescription for glasses, no one would bat an eye. Sadly, I would receive backlash if I was on antidepressants. For my scenario, I need both antidepressants and glasses to help me function in daily life. Could I function without glasses? I would be able to see things in general, but I would have to force myself by squinting if I wanted to enjoy scenery or read distant objects. Similarly, I could function without antidepressants, however, it comes at a cost of extra effort to do activities that I would normally enjoy or even doing crucial tasks. Why would society frown upon one scenario but not the other?
I was discharged from my mental health centre in December 2019, a few days shy of my return to Jakarta. I was scared when I carried antidepressants to Indonesia since a part of me still felt like I was concealing contraband, despite the fact my psychiatrist already gave me a statement letter in case I got pulled over by customs. Technically speaking… it should be fine if my medication comes with its original prescription, right? But my trip back home was riddled with ‘what if’s and scenarios to avoid conflict if a family member saw my antidepressants. In that moment, my psychiatrist’s words came to mind:
“You have the right to choose between disclosing or hiding your mental health journey from your family members. If you choose the latter, please remember that ‘no’ is still an answer. You have the right to seek help when needed. It’s part of learning how to be an independent adult.”
This April marks two mental health milestones: two years of being treated in my mental health centre and a year of having Lexapro as my travel companion. If it wasn’t for these two events, I couldn’t imagine carrying the tremendous weight of depression during any of my trips. But it’s still lighter than when I was admitted almost two years ago. What’s in my bag this time? It’s significantly lighter thanks to a year and a half of unloading and discarding cultural stigma of mental illness. I now have heaps of space to pack new things for my postgraduate journey: courage, resilience, self-compassion, boundaries, advocacy skills, and loving and supportive relationships.
For the first time in three years, I am able to travel lightly.