Taylor Parker Chiu – Out of the Darkness
Taylor Parker Chiu was a key speaker at the recent Out of the Darkness walk benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Taylor gave a speech that so eloquently captured the struggles and emotions that haunt many individuals fighting depression, confusion and very real pain. Her personal and powerful story provides insight and hope for many others who may be walking a similar path.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Out of the Darkness Walk, San Jose,
September 20, 2015
by Taylor Chiu
I’ve heard depression described as a prison, a hole, a jacket, a weight. An entrapment that you fall into, a force that controls you. I have felt all of these things. As a young person with undiagnosed depression, I felt completely trapped by a life that I hadn’t chosen. I felt I had no control over my daily routine, schoolwork, extracurriculars, or social identity. I was drowning in the expectations that others held for me, and suffocating from the anxiety of being utterly dependent upon others’ approval. I was a hardworking student and I desperately sought praise from my parents and teachers. A fiercely competitive athlete who unfortunately didn’t perform well under pressure. A girl scout, a musician. An outgoing social butterfly, not because I enjoyed extraversion, but because I didn’t want to feel like a “loser”. My hard-driving, sleep-deprived daily routine exacerbated the pain and mood swings I was already experiencing as a hormonal teenager struggling to figure out who I was and where all this body hair came from.
Thus, when I was 15 and was hospitalized for what doctors called a “major depressive episode”, I couldn’t really see that my actions were “suicidal”. At the time, I didn’t think I was attempting suicide. I was in pain and I wanted a way out of my pain. I wanted a break from my relentless schedule. I wanted people to notice that I was suffering. I told the psychiatrists and therapists that I just wanted to take control, but not necessarily to take my life. I needed to find a pause button on this downward spiral of anxiety and despair — and bodily-harm was the only remote control I could get my hands on. It has taken me over 10 years to understand that my experience was one of the myriad ways in which someone can experience suicide.
Over four days in a psych ward and many months of counseling and medication, I began to regain a sense of control over my life. One of the first things my counselors helped me do was to realize how much choice I had in the parts of my life that I had formerly assumed were de facto requirements, like my academic coursework and extracurriculars. I decided to drop down a level in the class that interested me the least, and was amazed to discover that my world didn’t immediately cave in. I learned to say “no” to social invitations if my mind and body needed rest — and was shocked to see I didn’t lose all my friends. I realized that wanting to be athletic did not mean I was forced by some invisible hand to compete in varsity level sports. Making the choice to quit the swim team was one of the hardest I’d ever made. Sometimes, I even chose to go to sleep instead of finishing homework — that was a first!
These first few choices were like triage. They were the necessary choices that parents and counselors offered me in order to restore my life to something I wanted to live. These choices were relatively easy to make, propelled as I was from the trauma of a suicide attempt. I realize now that the real work I was doing was learning to choose life — deciding every single day, to wake up, get out of bed, put on real clothes, and engage with the world in a meaningful way, the way I wanted.
To some, “choosing life” might sound absurd. For a healthy person, life is not a choice — it is an assumption, or the status quo, the obvious, a given. For anyone with depression, though, choosing life can be the hardest choice you will ever have to make. For anyone who has spent time not wanting to be on this earth, not wanting their life, proactively choosing to get up and interact with the world every. single. morning is one of the biggest accomplishments she or he will ever do.
Once you engage this power to choose, you begin to see that the options to choose from are limitless. I began to find choices in life where before I thought I had none. I began to see opportunities to assert myself in everything from college decisions to career moves and love interests. For someone who had never stopped to think about the choices that life afforded her, the realization that I could choose what my own life looked like literally saved my life. Over time, the more choices I made, I began to feel less like I was drowning and more like I was captain of my own lifeboat.
And wow, what a feeling! Where the average person might feel pressure from their family, community, peers, or bosses, I’ve discovered options that others don’t even realize they have — like taking time off from school; taking classes in college that seemed completely random and for which I was theoretically unqualified; traveling and living abroad; changing my career from English teacher to Web Developer (that was unexpected!); saying “no” to social obligations and expectations that don’t fulfill me. This has allowed me to live the life that I want to lead, not the one that anyone expects of me.
While I would never wish depression on anyone, I can’t help but feel that I am stronger, and my life is richer, because of my experience of overcoming it. Thomas Merton has said, “We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.” To fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves. Doesn’t that sound satisfying? I have learned to listen to the deepest capacities of my real self. My independence, gut instinct, and trust in myself have become stronger than I ever imagined they could be.
I certainly don’t always make the right choices. I also learned along the way that every choice has consequences. I make mistakes, and I get overwhelmed. But you know what? I’m still getting up each morning, engaging with the world, and living my life on my own terms. Even if I do nothing else, I choose life every day — and for that, each day is a success.
If you’ve ever had to make a choice like this — you are to be applauded. Even if you struggle with it — it is the biggest choice you will ever have to make! You’ve taken the first step, and you are so much stronger for it.
So today, I ask you to choose life. Every morning when you wake up, feel the freedom that comes from being able to make choices, and mistakes, to choose your experiences and how you interact with the world. Choose to feel life, all the pain and joy that comes with it; don’t deny your humanity but embrace it.