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Strength

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month and Mother’s Day, I am featuring a guest blogger, my youngest brother Romeo Barongan. He has been featured in several posts, including Hard Core Fan, The Best Valentine’s Day Gift, and Let it Go. This post is an example of how good things can come from depression–like wisdom, gratitude, love, and strength.
 
Strength is not about how I look on the outside; but about what I’m made of on the inside. It’s not about how much weight I can lift; but about the burdens I’m able to bear….what I’m willing to endure when the cause is just. After a life of trying to keep up with the Big Boys in the gym, I’ve learned that strength isn’t about the body but the soul. In honor of Mother’s Day, I wish to acknowledge my own Mom for helping me realize the definition of true strength. While I have been striving to acquire strength of body, my Mom has consistently demonstrated strength of character.
I feel the need to create some context for the journey about which I will relay shortly. My parents are both successful professionals. They reared three over-achieving children. And then I came along to round our family of six. I’m not selling myself short or looking for pity; I’m no failure. But growing up as the youngest child in a household so rift with talent created a seemingly impossible path to follow. To worsen matters, people outside the family often chided me for my privileged upbringing. They would disregard my success with statements like, “Anyone could do that if their parents had the money yours do.” They disparaged me for my work ethic in the classroom & relative inexperience in blue collar affairs. “Spoiled rich boy should learn to do real man’s work & get his hands dirty every once in a while.” I wanted to prove that I was a “real man.” I had to show the world that I wasn’t the sheltered doctor’s son that they accused me of being. I would force the world to see that I was indeed strong.
I hit the gym hard. I tried to be more “blue collar” without the benefit of knowing exactly what being blue collar actually meant. It was an unusually painful separation when I finally moved out of my parent’s house to strike it out on my own. We’re such a close family with traditional Eastern culture values; I think my parent’s perceived it as a mild insult when their then 25-yr-old youngest son decided to leave their house. But I was driven by the need to establish the obligatory self-sufficiency that comes with adulthood. I had to prove not only to the world but to myself that I wasn’t the helpless youngest son of a privileged family. I had to prove I was normal; that I was “strong.”
The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate how amazing my parents are. Dealing with the often overwhelming constant bombardment or adult responsibilities is enough to suffocate me on most days. My career barely involves a fraction of the level of pressure & high stakes that characterized my parent’s careers—and yet, they were able to succeed & still have the time to make me feel like I was the center of their universe. All this year, I’ve been struggling with a life crisis that I tried to keep to myself & resolve on my own. I didn’t want to worry my poor Mother who has more than enough on her plate. I just had to “cowboy-up” & go it alone. But I recently broke down & shared my struggle with her. It’s ironic: I spent most of my 20’s trying to establish my independence in an effort to uphold my obligations as an adult. Now in my late 30’s, I realize that no matter how much I “grow up”, I’ll never outgrow a parent’s love. And I’ll never be too old to realize how much I love & need my parent’s in my life.
I used to think that I was strong after a good workout in the gym or after standing up to a bully twice my size. But then I see my Mom at 70-yrs-old adapt to the computerized healthcare industry to order to extend her 40-year career as a doctor. I see her remain active in the Church & community on her off days. I see her remain the dutiful wife to my Father. And I benefit from her seemingly never-ending support in my own life. I was looking at myself in the mirror after a solid workout this morning when I began to think that strength is too great a quality to be measured in a single act; & certainly too immense to assess through anything we can see in a mirror. With my reflection staring back at me, I realized that I had been strong on this day; but there were far more days when I hadn’t been. With Mom, there’s never an off day. Her love knows no limits. Her commitment to those she loves never wavers. Today, I want to thank her for helping me realize where true strength lies—otherwise, I could have spent my whole life looking strength in all the wrong places instead of summoning it from my own heart.  Even on my best day, I’m not half as strong as my Mom is every day. But I am making progress. For example, I used to be afraid of telling the people in my life how important they were to me—-afraid of sounding sappy or weak. But now, all I’m afraid of is failing to be sincere. I love you, Mom. Thanks for everything. And Happy Mother’s Day to you & all the Mothers out there. Oh, & if you haven’t already done so; please don’t be afraid to let your own mom what she means to you. Thanks for reading.
 

 

2014 Blog for Mental Health Project

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  
A Canvas of the Minds

Sometimes we make the most important decisions in our lives without consciously knowing why we made them at the time.I knew that I wanted to become a psychologist since I was in high school. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of being depressed in the clinical sense. Being anxious was so much a part of my personality that I didn’t think I had an anxiety disorder. And I definitely wasn’t aware of any mental illness in my family. I had no idea at the time that depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety would impact every aspect of my life–in both positive and negative ways.

It’s probably not surprising that I have been negatively affected by mental illness. But as I write this post, I realize that there have been positive things about it, too. I have learned the most important lessons in life through suffering and loss.

Even as a therapist, when I heard clients make comments about how they had a bad week, it didn’t fully register how horrible that week was for them. In part because clients don’t elaborate unless you ask them to. Unless they are certain that you really want to know. And because they are embarrassed about it. Ashamed, even. But after going through my worst depression 5 years ago, I have much more compassion when clients make these offhanded comments.

I admit, during that period there were times when suicide would cross my mind. But there were two things that kept me from seriously entertaining it. One is that my dad would be devastated, and I feared he would never recover if I went through with it.

The other reason is that if I took my own life, it would undermine everything I ever said to my clients about how pain passes. That one day when they look back they will realize how strong they were at the time. That they will learn lessons from their suffering that it takes some people a lifetime to learn. How can you believe anything your therapist said if she committed suicide? That would be the ultimate betrayal.

So I spent months willing myself to get better. I went back to therapy, started meds again, meditated and prayed, and forced myself to play tennis and spend time with friends. And I did get better. And everything I said about realizing my strength, becoming more compassionate, and acquiring wisdom were all true. I would have never chosen depression, but we usually don’t choose the experiences that teach us the most about life.

People often ask me how I can listen to client’s problems all day long. In all honesty, I can’t imagine what else I would do for a living. It feels more like psychology chose me. And when I hear a client’s story, I always have hope that together we can change the plot for the better. After all, I always root for the underdog. I am the eternal optimist. And I never back down from a challenge.

There was a time when I would never have told this story about my struggles with depression and anxiety to my students or clients. Or even friends and family. But now I want to share it with the world, because every act of courage benefits someone else. My blog is proof of that.