It is July 2015.
I am in Berlin for my 28th birthday, crashing on a friend’s couch for the next 12 days. I’m on my own across the world from my parents, something I’ve never been allowed to do before now, but I’ve never really been allowed to do a good number of things by Millennial standards anyway, so it’s a gift I appreciate all the more. (I suppose getting your heart broken and your pride wrecked by someone who gave you the idea that he wanted to be more than a summer fling does have its perks.)
The feeling is like being underage and getting drunk for the first time: like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to, and it’s the best thing ever. Except this time, I’m doing it with a lot less guilt and no fear, because there will be no repercussions — no one is watching; I don’t know anyone here. I can do whatever I want, and there is no place for doing that quite like this city.
No one watches in Berlin. No, that is wrong. They glance, and then look away politely; they do not document, and they do not judge. There’s a respect for privacy and individuality here that I never thought possible, which is unsurprising because Manila is the polar opposite, and Manila is the only place I’ve ever truly known. In Manila, there are no strangers. There are whispers, and whispers spread like wildfire, so you tread carefully.
In Manila, you either disappear or do your best to fit in, which is essentially the same thing. There’s this homogeneity to it. Ironically, despite the need to blend into the wallpaper, there is also a need to be seen, but not necessarily for who you are, unless who you are fits into the preferred social mold. If it doesn’t, you trim bits of yourself off until you do. So many give up personalities to become Personalities. Go where everyone goes. Wear what everyone wears. Do what everyone does. So pretty, so clean, so #GOALS. But it is all surface, surface, surface.
I came from a time less policed, when people felt more comfortable baring their souls to strangers who would eventually become real friends, which is probably why I still sometimes do, although things have changed considerably since then. But I have no right to judge if those who came after that era choose not to make themselves vulnerable; that is their prerogative, as this is mine. And perhaps theirs is the better choice in the end; there is less of them available for scrutiny, for judgment, for the condemnation of strangers who will most certainly not be your friends. But almost everything is so thoroughly sanitized. We present only the best of ourselves, the idealized and aspirational, and it turns into a never-ending cycle of everyone else trying to do the same thing: bury our grit in the dirt and pretend at perfection. It’s safer that way.
Berlin is gritty, and it is dirty, and it is all the more breathtaking for it, and within 12 hours of landing exhausted at Berlin Tegel, taking a quick nap, grabbing a bite, and being dragged out by friends to two clubs thinking that not wearing a bra under my backless tank top might be the most scandalous thing I have ever publicly done — my God, it’s nothing here — I already know I will leave this place irrevocably changed, because for the first time in my life, I am going to be allowed to learn — or decide, or discover — who I am, what I really want, and what kind of person I am capable of becoming outside of Manila’s gilded limits, in a place where everyone is free. The cage is open; I am about to fly.
No, that is the wrong metaphor. The abyss is before me; I am about to jump.
It is Sunday on my first weekend, and I have accomplished that which anyone who has ever loved proper electronic music dreams of doing: I’ve made it into Berghain, the church of techno, arguably the greatest club in the world. I have an almost Fight Club-level reverence for this place. The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. You do not write (extensively, if at all) about Berghain, although others have, and you can find their articles on the Internet, but they will not do it justice. Suffice it to say that when I was allowed entry through the hardest door in the world to get into and had stickers placed over my phone’s cameras in accordance with their strict no photos policy, I knew I would respect the spirit of this place, in the same way it respected me by trusting me to enter it at all.
It is early afternoon. I am a dark Alice, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by this brutal Wonderland. This place is both heaven and hell, and I am being guided through it all by a friend from home — a mentor of sorts — who I sometimes fondly refer to as Satan. It is 37 degrees Centigrade outside, and equally sweltering within. It all feels so appropriate.
His friends and I have been dancing for hours, and this place makes me feel younger and more innocent than ever before. I have seen things I will never write about, things I could never have imagined; things I know I will never see in Manila. We take a breather from the floor, refilling our bottles with water from the tap, cold and clean, and find seats upon which to rest — old, battered cinema chairs along the side of a wall, close to both bathroom and bar. Panes of tinted windows filter the summer sunlight and paint us red. ‘Our spot.’ Should any of us go missing in this cavernous labyrinth, this is the first place we will look, although I get the feeling that looking will be futile. This is a place for getting lost. You come here to disappear, to forget yourself for a while, and perhaps in the forgetting, find. Which is perfect because I have always wanted to do all of those things.
He is trying to explain me to them; he has only ever brought one person from the Philippines here before: his best friend. I am strangely honored to be the only other to date. He is selective, and this place, this city, they belong to him, in a sense. I feel as though I passed a test. The thought amuses me; he is a professor by profession. I am the only one in this small international group without a PhD.
“Reggie lives a double life. She was the beauty editor of Cosmo in the Philippines, and now she’s the editor of a fashion and beauty section in one of our newspapers,” he says. “She does tutorial videos on YouTube for Pantene. Can you imagine that? That’s her other life. Look, look at her Instagram. She has, like, thousands of followers on her account; it’s crazy. Reg, show them your Instagram!” My unintentional thousands are nothing compared to so many others back home who make the Internet their bread and butter, but I laugh, pull out my phone, and do as he says (like I always do), scrolling through glamour selfies, posts about work, pictures of products and events, and I suddenly realize that he’s right. I do live a double life. I have been living one without noticing.
There is the sanitized, safe for work — safe, period — careful life that I maintain in Manila, where, for all my disdain for inauthenticity, I still mostly do as I am expected and as I am told, and I document it as proof that, although I’ve always been considered one of the weirder, more unpredictable, more volatile elements, I’m still just like everyone else. Far less filtered, yes, if you don’t count VSCO. Perhaps too unfiltered for my own good sometimes. ‘Edgier,’ because I actually let wisps of my darkness show. But still curating, still clearly trying to project that I am mostly normal, off the radar, not someone to talk about. My voice, but faded. My voice, but watered down, diluted. I feel like this self-preservative mindset makes me a hypocrite, but Manila makes hypocrites of anyone who wants to survive in it, and I need to survive.
And then there is this new, other life that I am only just beginning to discover, where I am allowed the freedom to become more than that. To try. To make mistakes and learn from them. To dare and be daring. To be as gritty and as dirty as I will allow myself to be, as only I can dictate. To venture past the edges of my comfort zone and test myself. To live, not just exist and tolerate that empty existence and pretend that it is living, as I have for so long. To do more than just survive. And to have the freedom to choose to be as honest about it as I wish, and to have none of it documented unless I decide to do so myself. To scream it loudly from rooftops if I want to. I have been treating this other life with the same reverence that I treat this place; something I only share with a precious few, or no one at all. When it comes to my darkness, the door policy is strict — limited only to those who I know will truly understand it, who are capable of entering it and respecting it for what it is. This other life has a 90 percent rejection rate, too.
Which one is real, though? They both are. Tricky as it is to reconcile, both of these lives are real, both of these lives are mine, and they co-exist: light and dark. I am both of these things, but we have been taught for so long to only let the light show that I have forgotten that it is not a contradiction at all to possess both. It is balance.
It is so strange, to be coming to such existential realizations in a club, of all places, with hard techno booming from the best sound system on the planet and into my bones. (I think it is Boris on the decks at this moment.) But epiphanies can happen anywhere, and this one is mine: I have been ashamed of my darkness for too long, thinking it unnatural, wrong, a flaw. I have been so afraid of judgment that I have been hiding. I have been silencing myself. I want to live my other life as well. The one I live without filters. The one I live with the people I trust, where the only whispers spoken are sacred truths freely given, not things to be afraid of. Not all that is best of you is bright, and that is all right.
There are people here who are dancing and walking around naked, proud, without a care in the world. I want to strip off every layer of defense that I have added on over the years to see what I really am underneath. I want to be naked, too. I want to be myself. I don’t quite know who that is, but I want to find out. Desperately.
I know one thing for certain. This place, it is starting to teach me some of the most important lessons I need to learn: To embrace my darkness instead of denying its existence. To live my every last truth without shame. To respect other people’s truths. (An intimidating-looking leather-clad woman taps me on the shoulder and asks me in hand-gestures for the time — I show her the screen of my phone, and she smiles broadly at me and gives me a quick kiss on the lips in thanks. Kindness knows no language or nationality.) To not give a fuck. No one else here does, and I have never seen anything more beautiful.
We leave the club on Monday at around five in the morning, exhausted. The sun is only just rising over the city. It was the best 15 hours of my life.
I return to Manila after a month away. I go back to my old life, but not to my old self. I try to be what I was before, and discover just how impossible it is. Once you go black, you never go back. I bring smidgens of Berlin home with me; the safe ones — I dress more casually and start to wear things here that I never would have before. I dance harder than ever. I am less concerned about how I am perceived, which garners whispers that I become good at pretending not to care about, although I cannot help but care. I am Manileña, born and bred. I have even less patience for the standard pretenses, and I had barely any patience before.
Over the course of the next few months, a confluence of circumstances will trigger the massive depressive episode that will finally land me in a psychiatrist’s office and garner the diagnosis I had been trying to avoid for over a decade — clinical depression. I will leave the job I never really loved without an exit strategy. I will cobble together a backup plan of sorts that will take me away from Manila, even if only for a little while, for the sake of my own sanity.
I will see only the people I want to see, do only the things I want to do, go only to places I want to go, and it will make me feel real. However, unaccustomed to having nothing to do after half a decade of ‘being useful’ and working, working, working, I will grow anxious about doing nothing, being nothing. All those years, for what? Constant reassurance from my doctor, my parents, and my friends will help only a little — I lose even my ability to write, and it will be seven months before I write another word for myself again, although I do not know this at the time and I am terrified. It is a lifetime in the perspective of one who has made words her life.
I will cut most of the strings that I am tied to, and it will feel liberating, but I will also worry that I may have cut too many strings, and with them, my ability to manipulate my public persona. I am no longer my own puppeteer; I have relinquished that control. I have left a void for others to fill with their own inaccuracies and misinterpretations of who I have become. I will let others define me for a while; I’ve always thought that the concept of branding was stupid, anyway. I’m a person, not a product.
Limbo, this is limbo. And they will tell me that it is okay, it’s normal, that the wait is part of the process. But to me, this is purgatory.
It is nearing the end of January 2016, and I am seated across my psychiatrist, getting him up to speed on my progress, or lack thereof; unburdening myself upon him with all the things that have been troubling my mind. It has been a difficult month, a harbinger of too many simultaneous changes, both expected and otherwise. (It is the ‘otherwise’ that has made it such an exceptional struggle.) ‘2015 S Plus,’ I joke; not the new year, the bright and shiny 2016 that I was quite hoping for.
“It’s understandable to be overwhelmed by your current circumstances. You’re moving your whole life. Your best friend is leaving the country forever, and you just found out that your other best friend may be doing the same, and even though you’re also leaving, the thought of losing your support systems scares you,” he says, nailing it. My pillars, they seem to be falling away from me one by one, and I do not know how this edifice that is my sanity will stand without them.
For all my books, I do not read. I barely listen to music. I have not packed my library for the move. I have not written a word. I have not written a word.
It is the loss of the words that troubles me most, because I have always been words. “What am I without them? I’m a writer who hasn’t written anything in half a year. I can’t find the words and I don’t know why,” I tell him, almost pleading. Of all the things I am missing, it is the words I miss most.
“When you go,” he says as we end our session, “I want you to think really hard and try to figure out why you aren’t writing.”
Four days later, I catch up with a friend, a former co-worker who I feel like I have known all my life. (We call ourselves the Band of Outsiders; we have never really belonged in the cliquish industry we both work in, so we hold on to each other.) It is meant to be an afternoon coffee date, during which we intend to talk about fun things, and we do. But it extends to four hours, and we talk about the real things, too.
“You know why you’re not writing?” she begins. I give her a look that says, I’m listening. “It’s because you’re forcing yourself to be vivatregina, but she doesn’t exist anymore. That girl is dead. You are a different Regina now,” she tells me.
I am coming into my own, she stresses; something long overdue. I have passively allowed others to define me for so long, but the time has come for me to take the reins back, take my name, and define it for myself. “You have a voice that you have not been using, and you need to use it,” she demands, and it suddenly reminds me of another friend’s question from months and months before this conversation, something I had forgotten until now: “Parts of you are emerging, and you’re either scared to accept who you are or you’re in denial. You have a voice. Are you scared of it?”
It is as though a light goes on in my head; they are completely right about me. I had been clinging desperately to a person I no longer was: the safe version of myself, someone who no longer existed. Unwilling to incorporate the new, darker parts that were growing in me, afraid that these new aspects of myself would be unwelcome, unpalatable, I tried to live two lives instead, and it tore me apart.
I have always been able to feel them, the words. It is something I cannot fully explain. I do not know how it is for other writers, but this is how it is for me, when I’m called to write: I feel a stirring within my chest; a whirling of something and an itch in my hands to put fingers to keys and let them fly. I often don’t know what will be there when I finish. I have no drafts. (I imagine what my writing might be like if I did.)
I sit down at my desk. I open a blank document. And finally, I hear myself speak.
So this is what my voice sounds like. So this is who I am.
(Photograph: Joseph Pascual)