“There will be plenty of bad, but what you need right now is distance”.
That’s what my therapist said, four days before I left for Canberra for the first time. She and my psychologist had just agreed to take me off antidepressants for a trial run. I laughed a bit, but my knees were shaking.
Coming to Australia was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I had not expected the ANU to accept my haphazard application, much less for a course as niche as ‘Digital Humanities and Public Culture’. I had not expected my parents to agree to the exorbitant costs of an international education. Most of all, I had not expected that a humanities course would sate people’s expectations of an honours graduate in communications, who could have gone to law school, or to work in some multinational.
It was Canberra – an unexpected fringe-like city in the middle of nowhere, that allowed me to breath. Touching ground, it was like nowhere I had ever seen – there was the suggestion of metropolis, and yet the sparsity was deafening.
It was that exact emptiness that called to me. Here, in the middle of nowhere, I was not a high-performing former student leader who dropped off the face of the earth because she became depressed “for no reason”. I was not one of many siblings who each possessed accolades in academics and sports and were the children of two extremely successful lawyers whose footsteps seemed impossible to follow. I was not someone who had to be extremely successful and whose every action had to bring some kind of honour to the places I graduated from and the country I lived in.
Distance, it turned out, was not just a function of space. It did not just mean being an ocean away from my family, friends, and the Philippines. Where there was overwhelming expectation and the busyness of everyday life and the impulse to overinvest in the political environment in the former, there was now just the wide streets of Canberra. Zero night life and too much room to breathe here, some would argue. But being so desperate to end my life for so long, I had forgotten just how nice air could taste. It was not about being away from home – my friends and family were always just a skype call away. It was about being the farthest as I had ever been from my past self as I or anyone else had ever known her.
There were still bad times – the undignified desperation of hunting down part-times to feel self-sufficient, eating less to save more, losing sleep over ghosts of past conflicts and relationships, pushing myself to the physical brink to succeed academically even though every phone call with my mother ended with “…and stop worrying about your grades.” Let’s not forget all those classic depressive haunts that I had borne for years and years: “Is it worth it? Am I worth it?” Sometimes, the cold embrace of self-harm and suicidal thoughts made violent comebacks I couldn’t suppress.
But that distance saved me time and time again. Questions of worth withered under the unexpectedly bright potential of everyday. In a ‘boring’ city that had ‘nothing’, I could start from nothing and knew no one. I could be anything. I fell into dance-classes, even if no one had ever told me in my life that I danced well. I willingly assumed being the baby of my friend group of fellow Filipinos, even if I had always played the leader or the big sister in any clique I’d ever been in. I jogged weekly along Lake Ginninderra, even though I used to hate the very thought of cardio. I would sleep in every day for a week and abuse the privilege of being new, small, and anonymous in the massive ANU, even if my past student-leader self tsk-tsked at this behaviour.
My therapist had once said, “we aren’t trying to turn you into the person you were. We’re trying to make you understand that it is okay to be the person that you are now.” I am now reminded of this every time I pick up my phone to the screeching of magpies outside my window. Opening my Facebook messages or emails used to be a difficult, anxiety-inducing task, because it was always either demands for work I did not want to do, or socialising with people who liked versions of me I hated being. Four semesters later at ANU, I can tell you proudly that I can open all my notifications and not even think about it.
I am glad that 25 weird years and infinite nights of suffering from an overwhelming of self-hatred wondering “what the hell is the point?” has led me to this oft-joked about spit of land in the middle of the bush. ANU and Canberra allowed me to reinvent myself – academically, socially, personally. I know a lot of people dislike or even outright hate Canberra, and I don’t blame them. But I love this place. It is cheesy, but it is only cheesy because it is true: it helped me to love myself.
If you need support, here are some support services that can help:
(02) 6125 2442
This is the phone number to book an appointment with ANU Counselling. You can book a standard appointment (50 mins) anytime. To book an on the day appointment for urgent help (25 mins) call at 9am or go into the Counselling Centre just before 9am, as these appointments are first in best dressed. You can receive 6 free sessions per semester.
13 11 14
Lifeline is a crisis support service available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, for over-the-phone support. They also have an online chat service that is available 7pm till midnight, seven days a week.
1800 737 732
This is over the phone counselling and it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can also refer you to local services. It is free of charge. 1800 RESPECT has a triage system, so the first person you speak to is not a counsellor. We recommend that you request to be put through to a counsellor straight away.
1300 22 4636
Beyondblue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live. It has an over-the-phone service, and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call, chat online, or email.
1800 184 527
QLife is a nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for queer* identifying students, and is available for over-the-phone support from 3pm till midnight seven days a week.