Essays, Journal, Photographs

Coming Home

It’s a testament to how much I love my new flat that I was actually excited to go home to it after my three weeks in Italy and Austria; my first trip to Europe since 2019. Usually I’d already be depressed on the plane ride home, and then I’d get even sadder upon settling back into my bedroom in my parents’ house. It used to take me a while to unpack my suitcase because a part of me still wanted to hold on to the idea of being away, and I’d always have this sense of ‘I wish I were anywhere else,’ which really meant ‘I wish I were back in Berlin instead.’

I think what I enjoyed most about my summers away from home was the freedom. Initially it was the freedom of anonymity, of being away from Manila in a place where no one knew who I was and no one cared. It was the most liberating feeling, especially for someone who grew up sheltered, from a family background that taught her early on to be hyper-aware of herself. In Manila, I had a curfew until I was 28. In Berlin, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and no one was ever watching.

Then I realised it was also the freedom of being alone in my own space. I’m an introvert and a homebody at heart; I loved having a place that was just mine, if only for a little while. I loved the ‘tedium’ of cooking and cleaning; I never actually thought it was particularly tedious. I still really enjoy going to the supermarket and doing the dishes. I loved knowing I could close the door behind me and just switch off.

For the first time in my life, I have that in Manila now, too.

I moved into my own flat — finally — at the end of February this year after a long and challenging renovation process, and it really is such a dream home. I always knew I wanted to write about the process upon its completion. It’s about 97% of the way, I figure that’s close enough.

If you’re reading this, then you probably already know I really enjoy telling an absurdly long-winded story, so you also already know what to expect, haha.

And I know a bunch of you have been waiting for the photos, so maybe scroll to the end for that.

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Essays, Journal

Bree Jonson and the outrageous pursuit of hope

Photo by Mark Nicdao

Sometimes I’m afraid that the sound of her laugh is beginning to fade from my memory as early as now, which is absurd because it was such a distinct, goofy laugh, and it came out of her mouth so often when we were together.

That’s one of the things that frustrates me most about the conversation surrounding my friend Bree — that so much of what heartbreakingly little noise there has been is coming from people who never had the privilege of knowing her, instead of the ones who loved her and actually knew her. That some of the loudest voices hazarding guesses at their version of her story have the audacity to make such damaging assumptions and insinuations about her character when she can no longer defend herself.

That the people whose responsibility it is to find the truth could so casually toss out words like suicide, justified by phrases like psychosocial disorder, or she was afraid he was going to leave her for Europe/another woman/flimsy excuse of the day, as if Bree didn’t have her condition fully managed through therapy and medication, as if Bree wasn’t a consummate survivor and so proud of the fact, as if Bree wasn’t one of the most fiercely independent and self-sufficient people I knew, as if Bree didn’t have so many plans that were about to come into fruition, as if Bree would ever do such a thing in the presence of her cat Atlas (let alone from a showerhead with either his chain or one of the scraps of sheer fabric she purported to call a bra, whatever the story is today), as if Bree wouldn’t first turn to the huge support system around her, as if Bree would give up her dreams over something as paltry as the affections of some guy she’d only been dating for two months and change — and what beautiful dreams they were, all within reach of her incredible talent and drive.

As if Bree weren’t excited about everything she had to live for.

Sometimes I look at my phone and still think that maybe she’s just about to text me. I don’t know why I still hope. But I do. “Hey babe!”

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Hello, again

I’d very much like to break out of the terrible habit of only writing here once a year (if at all). But the problem is that I never quite know how to do that these days. “Write anything,” one of my university writing professors told me recently. “Travelogues, flash fiction, a short story.” He even offered to edit my work — a great kindness and an even greater honour from a celebrated writer I have always loved and respected.

But my most important journeys have always been inward; my greatest stories so deeply personal that to put them to words in their rawest form would be ill advised. I’m afraid now, to take people to those places with me. I’m afraid that some will turn it into ammunition, because others have before. The most important stories I have to tell still live within me. I don’t know if I will ever allow myself to tell them. I’m a dreadful liar; I don’t have the imagination for fiction. I come from a family of journalists; my trade has always been truth.

When I was young and naïve, I poured all my truth out into the void. Every joy, every hurt, every emotion in between. No filter. There are still people who message me to tell me that they’ve been with me since then. For years, over a decade, perhaps more. “I’ve been following you since Ashtray Girl.” “I’ve been following you since you were on Tumblr.” “I was in high school when I started reading your writing; I’m working now and I still read your writing.” “I grew up reading you. You always seemed to put my feelings into words.” Vulnerability, I think, has always been my hallmark. And maybe that’s why those who read me in their youth and remained have been with me for so long — because they were vulnerable, too, and like me, they’ve stayed that way. We grew up together and we’re still here, fragile and finding our way.

But we no longer live in a world that makes it safe to be too vulnerable, too trusting, too open-hearted. We become a little too easy to break. “You have to temper your desire to believe in the goodness of mankind with a little caution, a sense of self-preservation,” my psychiatrist told me a few weeks ago, when I spent an hour with him processing the heartbreak, fallout, and psychological aftermath of what I felt was the end of a friendship. You have to look out for yourself was the message that came through. With the people you know, yes, but with virtual strangers, especially.

It’s something I’m still not very good at. But I think I’m learning it a little better. Age forces it upon you. Eventually you come to understand that people are capable of great kindness, and equally great unkindness. Even you. Even me.

We all want to be understood. It’s a basic need of humanity. But not everyone will understand us, no matter how hard we try. And that is okay. Some people will refuse to understand us so vehemently so as to hate us — or, not us, but who they believe us to be (which is almost never who we are) — and that is something we must learn to live with. (We are not the fictionalised versions of ourselves that live rent-free in their heads.)

What is it we are looking for, then, when we allow people glimpses into our inner worlds? I have been doing this for 20 years now. In the beginning, words were the space I carved out for myself when I felt I had none. Words are still where I go to feel safe. And at its heart, mine has always been a desire to be understood for who I am, not how I appear on the surface. That’s just a shiny facet. There is so much more.

It’s because I want you to know me. It’s because I want to know me, too.

My psychiatrist told me to start small. He’s always believed that writing is an intrinsic part of who I am; something inextricable, despite my many attempts to extricate myself from it. He once told me that he thought it was my calling, that when I give of myself through the written word, I give something to others. (I don’t know about that; I just really like to string words together and I’m halfway decent at it.) And so, every time I speak with him, he asks me if I’ve been writing. Sometimes I wonder if he uses it as a gauge of sorts, as yet another way of assessing the state of my mental health. When I spoke with him last, I told him I hadn’t written anything worth reading since before the pandemic, in early 2020. I didn’t know how.

I didn’t know how to write in a world that was so devastated so quickly and so unexpectedly. I didn’t know if I had the right to. I didn’t think I had any business exorcising my depression and anxiety through writing when in the grand scheme of things, I was so lucky to be so comfortable. Halfway through 2020, I fell in love. And yet I felt so guilty for being so happy. I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to wax poetic about my joy when everything around me was so desolate.

My editor asked me to start writing for my column again last year and I said no. “I have nothing of value to say on such a national platform at a time like this. Give the space to someone who will make more of it than I can.” I wouldn’t write for the newspaper. And I felt good about that decision. But I also couldn’t seem to write for me, and I never felt right about that.

I would like to work through that, though. He said to start small, so perhaps I will.

Hello, again.