Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Social Anxiety: The Learning Stage

The past couple of years of my life have been some of the most rewarding and exciting yet some of the most stressful. Towards the end of last year especially, I’d been noticing a decline in the normal capabilities of my brain, or as I realised, my mental health. I resolved to work out what was wrong with my ailing brain, and set off on a journey of careful research and introspection. Long story short – and I say that with no exaggeration – I discovered what it was: social anxiety disorder.

It’s important to note that I didn’t pick a disorder out of a hat. This was a thorough, objective mission to find out what was making normal daily functioning difficult for me. I was reluctant to admit even to myself that I had an anxiety disorder – not because of any associated stigma, but because of the ignorant people who trivialise mental health issues by bragging about having them (example: “I like even numbers! I’m sooooo OCD!”). If you don’t know much about social anxiety disorder, check out this fact sheet here.

So anyway, there I was, having finally found the answer. It was profoundly relieving, and also daunting. A brand new mission began: conquer this social anxiety!

One time I was talking to someone about my plans for world domination. “How are you going to conquer the world?” they asked.
I thought for a moment. “First by understanding it,” I replied.

I was joking about dominating the world, mostly obviously but that conversation came to mind when I thought about this new challenge. The first key step to conquering something is in understanding how it works. And not just a surface knowledge, but a deep and detailed understanding of it. The next step to conquering, after understanding, is to take action.

At the moment I’m in the learning and understanding stage. My social anxiety is much more complex and deep-rooted than I perhaps at first anticipated, but I’ve found that challenges can be enjoyable if I view them as opportunities to work on building positivity and resourcefulness. I also love learning new stuff about pretty much anything, so for me the learning stage is the fun stage.

And I have learned a lot, a ridiculous amount in fact, in the relatively short space of time that I’ve been aware of the anxiety. Things make so much more sense to me now. I now know why I feel so inexplicably nervous, awkward, scrutinised, ashamed, self-conscious, tongue-tied, or just plain uncomfortable in so many normal social situations. I now know why I find socialising and meeting new people so difficult and stressful, even though I love people and really want to connect with them. I now know why I get so panicky before I go anywhere or approach someone or initiate a conversation or make a phone call. I now know why I overanalyse all my interactions and agonise over the mistakes I assume I’ve made and get frustrated with myself for how socially inept I feel.

But most importantly, I also now realise how irrational and unhelpful all of that negative thinking is. It’s like I’ve had a monster lurking in my bedroom, but then I’ve switched the light on and discovered that the monster’s bark is worse than its bite, and that it’s really not that big, powerful, or scary after all. Switching the light on my thoughts and exposing them for how irrational they really are has helped put everything in perspective, and has even added a good dose of humour to the learning process.

I try to verbalise my thoughts more often these days, which shines the light on them even more clearly. For example, one time I went shopping with my mum, and as we pulled up in a busy carpark I said uneasily, “Everyone stares at me when I go out in public.” But no sooner had the words left my mouth than it hit me how unrealistic that statement was, and how funny it was that I actually believed it. A lot of my anxieties really are paper tigers, and it’s often surprising how not taking myself too seriously can work so well.

I have a long way to go and I know the process of conquering my social anxiety will be difficult and uncomfortable. But living a life that’s largely governed by irrational fear and regret is something worth fighting to escape from.

ENDNOTE: I’ve written solely about my experience with social anxiety, so someone else with this same disorder might have a completely different experience. Everyone is different so this post isn’t meant to describe social anxiety in general. It’s just my story so far. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Purpose of Gum

A series: Life’s Big Questions with Maddy – What’s the Point of Gum? [Instalment 1 of 1.]

At the top of a carpark on a sunny day last December, I was offered chewing gum for the first time I can remember. Having never tried gum before and having a strained relationship with food in general, I refused. However, I asked my friends a question that, fundamentally, they weren’t able to answer: What’s the point of gum?

A few weeks later I tried some gum for myself, to see if I could figure out its purpose firsthand.

Again, I was offered gum. This time, feeling braver, I accepted. I was handed a small, white, pillow-shaped object. “What does it taste like? Why is it hard? Does it go soft when you chew it? What happens if I swallow it?” I asked apprehensively. After some reassuring, I put it in my mouth and bit down. A strangely sharp cinnamon flavour exploded in my mouth, and as I chewed it got stronger. “It’s not too bad,” I told myself. “It kinda tastes like donuts. I can probably chew it for a while.”

Not long after this initial phase of confidence, though, the gum contorted into a new shape, and the unfamiliar flavour began to slip down my throat. “This isn’t swallowable, so it’s not edible, so why do I have this in my mouth? If it’s not food, what am I ingesting? What will it taste like when it loses its flavour? Will I swallow it by accident? Would it sit in my stomach indefinitely? Why does it stay as one squishy yet cohesive object? How is that physically possible?” Doubts swarmed through my head, until finally I panicked and spat it out into my hand unceremoniously.

So began my quest for the truth. What really is the purpose of gum? Is that a question I could answer? Or am I the wrong kind of being to even understand it?

Thursday, 26 November 2015


I’m sitting at my tidy, newly decorated desk. I have a string of twinkle lights around my monitor, and colourful postcards are on the window frame next to me. I have to put things up on the window frames, because my studio has no walls – it’s just an armchair with a small table, and a small desk with a computer chair. It’s in my living room, right next to the bay windows. It’s dark and raining outside, and I can hear the faint sound of car tyres rushing over the wet road outside.

It’s been a stressful week, a stressful month, and a stressful year. But all that is about to come to an end. The last official day of my graphic design diploma is tomorrow.

I’ve finished all my assignments and projects. Everything is handed in. That’s a colossal announcement from my perspective. It’s taken so much time and effort, that now that the whole thing is almost finished, it’s a very strange, peaceful feeling.

A pivotal stage in my life is ending, and a new one is about to begin. I’m so happy that I’ve gotten this far. There have been big challenges, countless late nights, frustrations, tears, triumphs, friendships and a whole lot of laughs. Through the challenges I’ve always kept in mind the motto, “You can do anything.” At times I’ve had doubts about that, but every time I conquer the challenges, my confidence in that statement grows. I can do anything.

But I don’t have to try and do everything on my own. I’ve learnt that it’s good to ask for help sometimes, or to accept help when it’s offered. My family and fellow classmates have been especially helpful. In fact I couldn’t have asked for a better class. It’s a small group of friendly, collaborative, super talented people that are so fun to be around and work with. I’ll certainly miss all the jokes and camaraderie.

I’ve learnt so much and grown so much and worked so hard these past two years, and I’m just so stoked that I made it. I MADE IT!

[I feel like this post wasn’t the most eloquent I’ve ever written, but I really wanted to mark this very special night by writing in this special place of mine, my good old blog. Now it’s time for some sleep.]

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Alone Time

I sit in an apartment on Hong Kong Island, 26 floors up, listening to the heavy raindrops shower outside the windows. There are rooftop gardens, luxuriant trees, and a towering mountain behind the tightly packed high-rises. The air is warm and humid. I’m still and quiet, so even without the cool canned air pumping into the room I’m content with the temperature. I’ve been on boats and planes, busses and trains and escalators, up tall buildings and down subway routes. The city is in constant motion. Everyone is hurrying, and I can hurry for a time too but after a while I need to come back to this temporary home and just be by myself, to feel the air and hear the sounds.

Writing always feels therapeutic and calming, at least when I don’t try to force it. I become overwhelmed by the environment around me a lot of the time, but I often don’t let myself take the time to sit and muse. I write in my head all the time, usually in very inconvenient places (often in the shower), and then don’t get the chance to record the words physically. The outlets I used to have – storytelling and woolgathering – have been pushed aside by my productivity-centric schedule. But all those things that make my mind slow down to take in the moment, like rain, trees, light, soft music, and changing skies, remind me to take some alone time now and then. And that’s real alone time, not time spent prioritising to-do lists and working on projects with impending deadlines, but time in which I can retreat inward and be myself.

The rain has stopped now, and a rectangular shaft of yellowish sunlight has fallen on my door. Birds are singing as they shake the raindrops from their wings. A shy patch of blue sky has appeared above the mountain, soon to make way for the fading, apricot light of the sunset. The windows of the high-rises will glow golden, and the light shows on the skyscrapers will begin once the dusk swallows the nearby harbour. And I’ll sit here peacefully on the 26th floor and take it in from the windows.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Revelations from a Sleepless Night

This post was written late last night, after which I finally found sleep. It’s rough, frustrated, and full of loose ends, but it actually has something of an ending, so I thought it deserved to be posted.


I can’t sleep right now. I’ve had a day that’s been very nostalgic, and nostalgia always keeps me awake. I spend so much of each day focusing on the future: what’s going to happen an hour from now, what’s going to happen a few hours from now, what’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week or month or year (especially next year). So when I’m suddenly grabbed and pulled back into the past, the future seems somehow distant and unattainable, like I’ve been chasing a car down a road, and suddenly I trip and lose it.

The nostalgia is almost always about people, the people who’ve made the biggest impact on my life. I feel like I’m always the one who remembers people the longest. I don’t think there’s a single friendship that I haven’t thought about years after it ended. And yet I’ve realised that I’m quite practiced in the art of letting go of people – once I know a friendship is over, I’m able to move on with surprisingly minimal distress. However, this poignant feeling of missing people from previous years does rear its head now and then. Now is one of those times.

Lately I’ve been trying to take more notice of and attempt to read my own feelings. Sounds pretty wacky, I know, because if you’ve read this blog in the past you’d know how introspective I am. But feelings are actually something that I have a very strange relationship with – I don’t notice they’re there until they come up and bite me, and I get confused about what they mean. I have to write extensively to sort out my feelings. And I don’t even specifically know what I’m feeling most of the time. The more I think back on my writing, the more I wonder if I never write about feelings at all. I write about thoughts. But the thoughts must have underlying or overlaid feelings, I’m sure. I just don’t know how that all works, which is REALLY bugging me right now.

The only time I can get slightly in touch with my feelings is when I have mental dialogues that turn thoughts over and over until I finally come to the conclusion: “Hmm. I’m unhappy.” That’s how basic my grasp of this is. It’s really quite ludicrous.

A funny thing that’s changed in me is that I find myself increasingly less inclined to want much of a social life. There are a few people that I love to spend time with, but apart from that, I’m developing the habit of seeing social interaction in itself as unnecessary. I see value in getting to know people, but I don’t see value in chatting just for the sake of chatting. I’m worried that I’m turning into a workaholic because I feel like every moment of the day that I’m not doing something productive is a waste of time. And at the moment I don’t see the point in small-talking to people that I can’t relate to and that can’t relate to me.

For a while now I’ve been very nostalgic about my blog, about how active it used to be – me posting several times a month, people reading and commenting, me discussing my posts with readers. I sometimes read past posts of mine, and marvel at how I managed to actually write posts mostly on the one topic, finish them, name them, and publish them. I haven’t been able to do that for months, despite many attempts. It will be a miracle if this post gets published, because it already looks jumbled enough to understandably be abandoned. If you happen to be someone who used to read this blog, please know that even though I sound confused, confusing, and maybe somewhat different, I’m still the same old me, just a different age and overtired. I’ve also been very overwhelmed with all the things my brain has to process (the mental clutter I described in Helices was only the beginning) and I’m having a hard time finding the right perspective among the piles of them I have in front of me.

One positive from this nostalgia though, is that no matter how sad I may have been to lose some people through the natural progression of life, I’ve realised that even though they might not be in my life now, they enriched my life in the past and I have fond memories of those times to keep. And often, those significant friendships I’ve had influence me even now, in positive ways.

I sorry I’ve been away from here so long. Please know that I’ve been dying to write here for the whole duration of my absence, but just haven’t been able to. I can’t promise I’ll be back again soon, but as always, I hope to be. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Southern Glow

A narrow shaft of the road ahead was lit with headlights, bluntly piercing the darkness. Tree trunks speeding past the windows looked white against rustling black leaves, and the road noise rang out into the thick silence. Undeterred by twists and turns, we sped on through the night.

On the top of the mountain, the trees gradually dispersed and the land flattened out. Rocks were covered in white lichen and the road got wider. The sky was visible, and we were gliding far above the sparkling city lights. Those lights were spread out like a map of gold, with the hills and the river blacker than the sky. The moon was so bright I almost had to squint, sending a blue glow into the air and shining like a spotlight onto the rocky landscape below. We parked beside a path and stepped out into the bracing wind.

The window panes cast grids of shadows onto the concrete floor of the observatory. The heavy door was locked since it was nighttime, but there was an alcove at the entrance that gave shelter from the wind that howled over the jagged rocks. Damp wooden rungs creaked beneath me as I walked out to the lookout, breathing in the moonlit surroundings.

I skidded down a grassy bank onto to the beach through the narrow beam of a phone flashlight. The sand was damp and squeaked under my sneakers as I took a few cautious steps out onto the beach. The water from the channel washed in slowly, gently, and the air was still and quiet.

Peering into the southern skies, I was gradually able to make out a faint glow in an arc on the horizon. I thought I might be mistaking the glow, but eventually faint curtains of light began to move a little. Contorting into new shapes as I watched, they danced slowly to the sound of clanging iron, coming from the moored boats. Their masts pierced the sky, swaying ever so slightly in the ghostly light of the Southern Glow.

Aurora Australis, 7-8 January 2015. Check out another picture I took of it here on Island Chain Photography.