This essay has been previously published on Plural Prose Journal. Photo by Rissa Coronel
This essay contains themes on self-harm and suicidal ideation.
My neighbors have a white guard dog tied outside their house. She never goes inside. Drizzle, storm, heat, the dog stands dutifully outside its master’s house to warn them of intruders. Sometimes, the owners forget and the other neighbors gather leftovers in a plastic container to feed her. She is kind, nuzzles up to anyone who touches her, almost pleading. She is never taken for walks. She whimpers at night, howls with the other dogs on our street at 11 PM. She’s thin, the arch of her bones visible against her skin. When I’m smoking, I sometimes see her running towards the wall and jumping at it, skin and bones colliding against concrete. She does this, again and again, trying to break through to somewhere else. Or just bored. Trying to entertain herself. Run. Jump. Wall. Start over. She collapses into an exhausted heap on the floor. I watch.
One feels a certain affinity with the poor thing. The past eight months or so have left me feeling like I’m running in a loop. Since I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression (the D as my friends and I like to call it), my mother has been trying to get me to pray. Every time a wave of crippling sadness hits, she asks if I’d like to go to church, even though we haven’t stepped inside a church together in over two years. She argues that it wouldn’t hurt anyway to try. Always stubborn, I refuse, too busy running into walls.
I know she means well and that fills me with tenderness. She must be nostalgic for my six-year-old self who always felt lighter after attending Mass. For every dilemma, the solution was simple: We would go to the chapel and listen to my favorite priest, Father Ads, as he enlightened my mind, reaffirmed my faith. Perhaps it was his lightheartedness that made me love him. Some people were just like that; their faith made them seem like they were glowing, like they hovered above the ground, divine. Father Ads could make long homilies interesting and inspire so much love for God in me. I remember the feeling, that happiness that made me weightless. If someone had cut me open, I would have poured out light. To follow God was no yolk at all. All I felt was grace.
I thought I had put this to rest long ago. It begins with a mathematical problem: A sheep is tied to a post in a field. The length of the rope is 30 feet. Moving in a circle, with the post at its center, what is the area of the field in which the sheep can graze? At a grazing speed of two square feet per day, how many days until the sheep runs out of grass?
Proclaiming myself an atheist, I fancied myself as better than the herds of religious sheep that surrounded me. They moved in circles, content only with the narrow reach of their minds. I thought that by renouncing God, I was somehow more enlightened, smarter, more rational. I thought myself kinder, because I made good choices out of my own free will rather than acting out of hypocrisy, religious duty, bound by the moral code of Catholicism or the fear of eternal damnation.
My mother isn’t religious but she believes it necessary to trust and submit to a higher power. When I started skipping mass, she worried. When I told her that I had stopped believing in God, she asked then what do I believe in. I answered people. I believe in people.
I thought it was a pretty smart answer. The flaw realized belatedly: People are terrible. It’s something A— mentioned often, how his own faith is rendered incoherent by what he experiences with his father; his religious father who goes to church every week and is friends with the Christians in their community, who smiles at these people, invites them to dine in his home, yet reserves little love for his own son.
I can understand A—‘s disappointment, the disillusionment with the flock of God and all He promises. For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has served as a speaker at the chapel on the street of my childhood. He dresses nice every Sunday, guides the people in prayer, and helps organize processions for religious feasts. I remember when we still lived at his house, he reprimanded my mother for hanging a framed painting of a Chinese woman in the living room (idolatry I believe he called it), as if it was a graver sin than the affair that he had in the past, or how he used to hit my uncles when they were younger. How difficult it is for him to forgive minor transgressions, his anger often getting the better of him (the shelf that collapsed in his room when I was in it, the swift kick that followed).
There was little to sustain my faith by way of the people around me. All I could see was their hypocrisy and so I doubted my own sincerity. Except perhaps for my mother, the only person who seemed to take the question of faith seriously. She’s always believed—hoped—that I’ll eventually find my way back to God, not because it matters to her that I be a good Christian, only that I learn what it means to surrender.
She is Catholic by virtue of having been baptized, but she practices Zen Buddhism which believes the path to enlightenment is through the mundane daily life, to experience the world as it is, and in doing so arrive at a profound moment of clarity. I often scoff at her when she talks about karmic retribution and reincarnation, feel myself get a migraine from trying not to roll my eyes, otherwise simply drift from conversation.
“You need to quiet your mind,” she would often tell me, and then invite me to meditate with her. I tried a couple of times but it never worked, I get too distracted. “It just needs practice,” she said. It was time I could not give.
What exactly am I so proud about? What am I so determined to prove? If I am looking for faith devoid of false virtue, I need not look further than my mother. And still, I refuse. Always the obstinate refusal, always the knee-jerk reaction of contradicting her even when I don’t always believe what I am saying, the refusal to cage myself to a single mode of understanding. She tells me about emptying yourself and realizing the world for the illusion that it is. She wants so much for me to yield, to see the world for how she sees it. But all I know of letting go is giving up.
To believe in God is a mark of weakness. To capitulate is a convenient excuse for the failures, the lonely, the lazy, those who can’t bear the consequences of their actions, people who refuse to fight. It’s okay, it’s okay because God has a plan. Believing in a higher power becomes an excuse not to act. Like how my mother says pray as we sit down to discuss what to do about the dog we rescued from my cousins.
The dog is named Ceejay, a two-year-old beagle who was, before we adopted her, had been tied to the spot under the stairs. Unwashed, underfed, ignored. A couple of months after we got her, we found out she had a venereal tumor that she contracted after having sex with a stray dog who was also sick. The tumor had been steadily growing for the past few months. Now it is large enough to press against her bladder, unsettling her into peeing inappropriately. Aside from the TVT, she has a malignant mammary tumor, and an enlarged heart. Her heart condition makes surgery risky because we have no idea how her body will react to the anaesthesia.
My mother says pray and I can think of at least five different ways to handle this better. Putting the dog to sleep, no matter how painful, seems like a better idea than pray. My mother says it’s not in our hands to decide that. And because she can’t distinguish faith from immobility, the tumor grows larger in our dog’s belly, the cancer spreads. I mop up her blood every 30 minutes. On mornings we wake up with the living room floor looking like a crime scene. And all my mother wants to do is pray.
For a long time, I ricocheted between belief and unbelief, devotion and skepticism. Less to do with pride, perhaps it was because of my own inadequacies I struggled with religion. Sex, for example. Who’s strong enough to say no to that. Youthful curiosity played a large part in the desire for the experience. Despite studying in a secular high school with a special science curriculum, we were taught little about the body, about sex, relationships. We’d hold mass on special occasions and set aside an hour every week for lecturers outside of school to come and teach us about God and proper values.
The Christian orientation of my high school, however, never stopped us from making dirty jokes. It didn’t stop us from crowding around someone’s phone on long breaks to watch porn. It didn’t stop me when a boy taught me how to touch myself as we hid under an oversized sweater in an audio-visual room full of people.
Trying it at home was an experiment, exploring different ways to produce the optimal pleasure: what to watch, what to touch, how hard, how fast. After the first time I made myself come, the object became how to recreate the first experience of pleasure. I’d spend hours trying to figure out my body, what it liked, how to navigate it. My then boyfriend surely didn’t know how. Masturbation, though not considered a sin, is frowned upon because it might lead to a person’s isolation. Man was created in the likeness of God and is necessarily relational, hence why Adam and Eve were sexed. Indulging in a singular, personal pleasure, at the cost of human intimacy, is a sin. With this logic in mind, better to indulge in a shared passion, the lesser of two evils.
At least this is how I reason with myself. On an intellectual level, I can understand why the Catholic Church frowns upon pre-marital sex. But I am only human, plagued by deficiencies, driven by desires more often than not difficult—or in the immediacy of the moment, even impossible—to refuse. And anyway, it wasn’t bad at all. On the days leading up to the first night, A— asked repeatedly if I had changed my mind, hoping I would, to remove himself of the responsibility. During, he’d stop when I was in pain, would oblige to continue only when I asked. Afterwards, he apologized for not making me come, apologized each time thereafter for never being able to make me. I never minded, not the first night, not the next. I’m convinced if you love someone, you would never mind. Pleasure becomes derivative, giving way to something more sincere, closer to holy. Sleeping with him was the nearest thing to grace, the most approximate feeling of spilling light from my body.
A—’s skin is marked by lines of poetry, except for the compass on his foot and the asterisk behind his ear. His tattoos were the first things I noticed about him and I liked him instantly. Everyone did. He was the kind of person that invited interest, fascination, a character that pulled you in and grew on you until he eventually rubbed you off the wrong way. He had history with one of our co-fellows from the workshop and, months later, rather belatedly, she would warn me to be careful of him.
But at the time I met him, A— was nothing but charming. I loved his poems, and he sounded smart during the workshops even though he had the tendency to ramble, trail off, a quirk I found endearing. There was much to learn from him, his interesting takes on poetry, the beauty of his own writing. A few months later, he will ask me out, and I will agree, with all the enthusiasm of a seventeen-year-old girl hardly believing that such an amazing man could like her.
We often met at night, when work allowed him, when I managed to sneak out of the house. I was promptly returned before sunrise. Sometimes I’d come up with excuses—an all-nighter I need to pull for a group project, a party at someone’s place—to get away, to steal the few hours that I could on those rare nights that I got to see him.
One night in October, he asked me to take his picture. He had cut two holes along with a ragged smile on a white sheet. He handed me his father’s camera, and, standing in the middle of the road, I took a picture of him, wearing that sheet of white with a cutout face, riding his skateboard down the road of UP Diliman. Later, in costume, he skates beside a passing car. Later, he pulls the sheet over our heads and gives me a kiss. There were moments when I thought I would die of happiness. Being pulled out of the mundane, ordinary life I’ve always lived, the romance of it all. The sweep-me-off-my-feet and this-is-going-to-be-forever feeling of an earth-shattering true first love. And not just with anyone, but with someone who appeared to me as larger than life itself, more than I could ever imagine I deserved to have, to keep, as if some generous deity had settled its eyes on me and deemed me worthy.
But novelty eventually wears and makes way for maturity, perhaps a dim understanding. These days, when I think of A— I think often of his remoteness, how I could never read his face, his unreasonable moods. “It could be a gradual disappearance,” he had said at the beginning of our relationship, from the onset the promise of desertion. Still, I persisted. Wanting to understand him, I spent hours scouring poetry collections, novels written by authors he loves, an exegesis to decipher his obscure revelations. I took up a Literature degree in an attempt to expand my reach, hungry for the knowledge that will allow me to divine the meaning behind the ink on his skin, his quiet, his untouchable sadness.
“I never know what to do with my hands,” I told him once, to mean my body has no reason to be beside his, no apparent purpose. He replied, something about a poem that says something similar about hands, my possibility of admission then dropped. I have no reason to be beside you. I have nothing to offer that you could want, that could make you happy. I bring my hands together in prayer, having no other recourse than surrender. The first votive candle I ever lit was in St. Joseph’s Parish when I prayed for his mother’s safety on the day of her surgery. Every time I prayed thereafter, I prayed for his happiness, knowing it was something I could never provide.
Somewhere someone had written that faith reveals itself at every moment as a crisis. Living faith is a constant struggle between belief and unbelief. This push and pull is what separates sincerity from certainty. To believe, despite the overwhelming temptation not to.
This is a game I used to play: Waiting at the corner of the street for A—’s car at night, I’d guess the number of vehicles that would pass before his arrived. The anxiety that my mother would wake up and find me gone or the worry that he will cancel last minute that happens all too often, increasing with each passing minute. I often guessed wrong, but it didn’t matter, the joy of the long-awaited arrival eclipses the doubts that come before. I’d stay up late every night, hoping he would ask for me, too shy to ask him myself. Always the wait, always the quiet hope that if not this night then the next. The gambit to believe they’ll come through every time regardless. Until they don’t.
For years, I had been nagging my mother to get a dog but she didn’t want the trouble of caring for one. The only reason she offered that we adopt Ceejay was because she thought it would help with the depression. It could be a source of joy, she thought, something to cheer me up when the sadness got overwhelming. It has been helping: Most mornings when I can’t muster the energy to get up, the only thing that gets me out of bed is having to walk the dog. She likes to nuzzle against my neck at night, to settle in for sleep. When I get home, she stands on her two legs and throws her paws on my thighs, howls with happiness. Some days it can be enough.
When we found out about her tumors and her heart, I offered that we have her put down. The resources we would need to spend for her chemotherapy and maintenance food just didn’t seem worth it. When it gets difficult, I always opt for the easy way out. In the end, my mother said we should wait and pray on it, as if by virtue of time lapsing, circumstances will change for the better, the future (or God) opening itself up to reveal the proper (divine) answer, without resistance, which we will accept without question.
A symptom of depression is indecisiveness. Even the simple task of picking what shoes to wear becomes a herculean feat. The smallest problem becomes insurmountable, turns into a reason to keel over and break down. I missed class because I woke up late: cry. My friend is five minutes late to our lunch: cry. My eyes hurt from crying all afternoon: cry some more.
My studies have taught me that the only way people can exist coherently despite overwhelming uncertainty is our capacity to mentally place ourselves in the past, present, and project ourselves into a conceivable future. After a movie, my mother had asked what I want to be. I could barely get out of bed in the morning and she wanted me to think about my future. I didn’t know. Not because of indecision, not because I didn’t have choices; the future had simply ceased to exist for me. The present barely did. The world was water, I was a sieve, everything just passed through me.
They say you can imagine your depression either as a black dog or a black mist. A black dog you can avoid. A black mist is inescapable. Green sneakers or red flats? Wait or leave? Seek help or work through it myself? It hardly mattered what I chose, in the end, all options were the same. When your choices cease to matter, you could just as well not exist.
Upon listing the things I wanted to give away, I realized there was little I owned that was of any value. My laptop would go to my brother along with my tablet. My books will go to G— and E— because they were the two most prodigious readers among my friends, my clothes to K— because we had almost the same size. The instructions would be written on a paper that I would tape to the wall. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of a funeral but these rituals are for the living, too, so I guess whatever wake they wanted would do. I wanted to be cremated with my ashes spread wherever they wanted. As long as I wasn’t stuck in an urn, I would be fine.
Preparations would take a day. This included buying a scalpel: light, accessible, but sharp. Delete all my blogs, files, social media accounts, burn all the notebooks I had written on, return everything I had borrowed from friends.
Before Christmas, when no one’s home. My brother leaves for work at 9 AM, comes home around 10 PM, my mother around 7 AM, comes home around 6 PM, leaving me with a nine hour window of time.
You draw a warm bath to dilate the veins, make blood flow easier, the process quicker. I’d leave a note, write it on the wall with a black marker. Nothing will hurt anymore. I’d step into the bath. Text the important people in my life thank you and it’s not your fault. My mother always finds a way to blame herself. I’d turn off my phone and remove the battery. You cut the wrist vertically, to really open the vein. Begin with your dominant arm so that you won’t mess up cutting the other arm. Wait.
Old habits remain: I still mouth the words to prayers that have lost all meaning. I still make the sign of the cross before a meal, almost like reflex. Still feel inclined to thank God when something good happens. Sometimes I need to deliberately stop myself. I want to be consistent. I want to take a stand instead of allow myself to be buffeted here and there. Catholic or atheist, faith or unfaith?
I am reminded of how much A— loves scapulars every time I pass by St. Joseph’s Parish on the way home from school. Vendors crowd outside it, selling all sorts of items: flowers, rosaries, pictures, calendars, statuettes. Every time his sister travelled, he would ask her to bring him home a new scapular, never mind that he had a dozen decorating his room. He isn’t particularly religious, but he claims to be a practical man: Whosoever dies clothed in this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire. Some things become elegant in their apparent simplicity. Here is your one-way ticket to heaven, for the low price of 15 pesos.
If it could only be so simple. To boil everything down to a question of yes or no, to render my life into the causal logic of a story or people into flat images to carry around my neck. When I wrote my plans, it felt, for the first time in months, like purpose, a direction, a prospect to work towards. All that peace that settled after finally making a decision to let go, all that peace I imagined I would have afterwards. The candidness of such a life, deprived of any kind of future. My thoughts will finally quiet. A true moment of surrender.
Beside my grandmother’s grave used to stand a massive tree, conveniently located as to provide shade when the family visits on All Saints’ and death anniversaries. It was growing large enough to block the rest of the way, shade slowly turning to nuisance. People talked of cutting it down or at least trimming the branches, but, out of superstition, no one ever did.
Roots only grow deeper. Tendrils cling to flesh being eaten away. This way, the roots of the tree had cocooned the body and as it grew, it carried the remains with it. During a storm two years ago, the tree was uprooted, destroying the grave beside my grandmother’s and exposing the bodies it encased. They salvaged what they could of the bones, gathered them into a pile, lit candles and arranged flowers beside it. I could see pieces of broken bones woven between tendrils of roots, thick mesh, brown dirt.
Reluctance stems from the simple question of inevitability. How do you remove something so deeply entrenched within? Tear yourself away from it? In the aftermath of the fall, where do I begin.
A— often prayed when he was sad. On sleepless nights, he would drive his Vespa around Manila, visiting select churches and smoking cigarettes as substitute for votive candles. The typical choices: Quiapo, St. Jude, Manila Cathedral. In the Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes that in medieval times, the cathedral was God’s house on earth. Within its walls was resurrected the original, perfect beauty of Eden, inviting visitors to fall to their knees in humble devotion. With the intent of making man surrender his self-sufficiency, architects designed elaborate edifices. These cathedrals stood not merely as humble offerings to God the King, but also as fortresses meant to defend and distract the believer from all that is corrupt without and within. Despite A—’s shortcomings, they invited him to hope for a vision of the future, pure and true.
The only place I can remember with the same sway for me was the hospital chapel of my childhood. It was neither grand nor magnificent, it was a small, modest chapel by all accounts. But Mass every Sunday at 5:15 PM was special because Father Ads would be presiding over the Eucharist. I looked forward to his homilies and having him pat my head at the end of mass as he exited the chapel. I wrote him letters on special occasions, in fancy stationeries, enveloped and handed at the end of the mass. One letter was an apology for missing the Eucharist, throwing the blame to my mother who would sometimes be too lazy to go. Another was a request for him to forgo the mission he was about to be sent on, knowing he would be leaving this church for good.
The medieval man relied on architecture to house him away from sin, I relied on the competence of my shepherds. The priest who replaced Father Ads during the 5:15 PM Mass was not any good. His homilies were dull and he lacked the charisma of his predecessor. My mother and I tried different schedules, even different parishes, but they fell short of that prized one. Perhaps this was when I stopped coming to church, deciding I had better things to do.
If anything, A— brought me closer to God. With him, I learned to exercise patience, kindness. When we were together, I prayed often, visited churches to light votive candles. I always wept when I prayed, that swell of emotion each time. For all my cynicism, the Catholic girl in me was alive. Of course when A— left, the prayers also stopped.
My faith is too shallow, too weak, dependent on the fallible, temporary factors of people and books. My faith is too small and so I sink. Or at least this is what my therapist meant when she said, “If you don’t believe in God, how will you ever get better?” as I sat across from her in the veranda-turned-office of her house.
She was the second therapist in four weeks. I decided to seek help when I started fantasizing of suicide on the daily: stab my chest, hang myself, jump off a building, walk into a river? Sometimes it would take a morbid, fantastical turn: imagine myself falling from the sky and being impaled on the metal rods of a construction site. When a cat scratched my arm I only felt relief in seeing three streaks of red on my skin.
I’m a Psychology major. I knew the signs. I knew what was happening. Still, it calmed me down when I wrote my plans to kill myself, down to the detail, even what I would wear. When I told my mother I wanted to see a doctor, she had asked, “Can you just get over this?” The compromise was for me to see a psychotherapist, a friend of hers. On our first and last session, she had broken a lot of rules I’ve learned in class: She couldn’t adapt to my unreceptiveness, she held my hands, she was too confrontational. I was more comfortable with the second one, until she said what she did. If you don’t believe in God, how can you get better? She didn’t bother hiding the accusation. You’ve dug this hole for yourself because you are unfaithful.
How do I argue with her? In class, we’ve learned that religion is important to give people a sense of personal control over their lives. It lends their experiences coherence, thereby reducing anxiety and disappointment. The belief that God controls their lives becomes interchangeable with personal control. In fact, most 12-step programs for various dependencies are spiritual in nature. When we interviewed a recovering drug addict working as a counselor at a rehabilitation center, he told us that it was impossible to recover without believing in a God.
Religion helps coordinate groups and foster cooperation, as well as establish social norms, rules, and consequent punishment. According to Sigmund Freud, religion is a neurosis, an illusion we cast onto the sensory world as way to control the violent impulses of our id. Hence, God is based on the necessity of a father. Without a Father to enforce the Law, civilization will not be possible. Isn’t this how it goes, If God did not exist, he would have to be invented.
The therapist tells me that she’ll help me, that it’s a process. I don’t have the energy to argue. When desperate, we clutch at what we can. If not God, then a lover. If not God, then this woman. I’d like to think that I’m more enlightened than my religious peers, but always there is a stab of envy. No matter how bad their lives get, they have an absolute stronghold, a bottomless well of strength. I want to say my miracle is to swim but all I want to hear is Rise. Your faith has healed you.
My dilemma presents itself as a simple mathematical problem. Tied to a post with a leash of twenty years of knowledge, school, study, books, moving in a circle, how much of God can I know until I am unable to sustain myself? Even if I extend my arm to lengthen the reach of my knowledge, will I be able to rise to the fullness of life that I desire?
I keep running into a dead end. I keep going in circles. If I believed in God, everything would be so much simpler.
I have since stopped seeing her. Despite such a compelling case, I’m too stubborn to let myself be converted back. After weeks lost in a daze of sadness, a trip to the mountains with my mother, and upon our return weeping in front of her saying I wanted the future back, she finally agreed to let me see a psychiatrist. The doctor was recommended by a friend who had her as a professor. She prescribed two pills: first, an antidepressant, second, an antipsychotic which acts also as a mild sedative. I have been strictly taking them, I keep track of my mood, reach out to friends when things get overwhelming, even try out the occasional exercise.
I walk Ceejay in the morning when I wake up. Feed her. Eat breakfast or have coffee, smoke a cigarette, shower, prepare for school. I attend my classes, stay at a café near school during long breaks. I have dinner with old friends, go home and walk the dog then feed her. I study. I take my pills at 10 PM, at least eight hours before the time I’ve set my alarm to go off. If I don’t get at least eight hours of sleep, the sedative I take will make me pass out when I try to get up in the morning. On weekends I can sleep in, my meds making me go for twelve hours of uninterrupted shut-eye.
The neighbor’s white dog still hurls herself against the wall. Instead of planning my suicide, I plot ways to rescue her. Perhaps one night, I will walk over there and cut her leash, drive her to a nearby beach, maybe somewhere in Batangas. She’ll be alone and lost but she’ll be free, perhaps she’ll even be grateful. It’s illegal to steal someone else’s pet, but I’m sure I’ll be forgiven.
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