The past week, we celebrated Mental Health Week, and so here goes another confession in that regard. I’ve promised myself I’d become an advocate for this—to help curb the stigma around it.
You see, for most of the past three years or so, I have been dealing with many foundational things that required my attention, especially my mental health journey. And I had been grappling with that existential question of what I really wanted to do in my life. I was terribly burned out. There was this: the pandemic really made me want to stop teaching, and I wanted to see if I could find other avenues that had use for my talents and ambitions—perhaps in the new National Museum in Dumaguete, or perhaps with the Tourism Office, or perhaps even set-up an editorial consultancy. I was ready to retire from the vocation I’d known for most of my adult life, but I was persuaded by friends to defer that decision. They told me: “You are going through something right now. Go through it. But also know that Silliman needs you as a teacher.”
That gave me pause.
So I decided to go for an unpaid leave of absence instead, and wrote my superiors at Silliman on that note, who were thankfully accommodating of my needs. I told them to give me one more year to find out what I wanted to do with my life, and that August 2023 would be my deadline.
It just so happened that around that deadline time, in June and July 2023, several people came up to me to convince to come back to teaching. Dessa Quesada-Palm sought out a meeting with me, where she told me that her theatre students at COPVA needed me back as their playwriting teacher. [I am very proud of the fact that from my playwriting class, I was able to produce two Palanca winners—first prize for Beryl Delicana for the full-length play, and third prize for Mike Gomez in the one-act play. And many of the plays from my class also went on to be showcased in various national theatre festivals, including Tanghal and the Virgin Labfest.] Dessa wanted that kind of calibre back. I promised her I’d think about it.
Sometime later, Alana Narciso, who was serving as English Department Chair, also sought out a meeting with me. She convinced me to come back to teaching, but I told her I was scared of being burned out again. She promised me though that I would only get to teach Fiction and Playwriting Workshops, plus some other subjects, with a research load to fill out the rest. She promised me that I won’t be overloaded.
I finally agreed. Deep in my heart, I did miss teaching, and I know I am good at it. Which is why I came back to teach at Silliman in August 2023.
This is an essay about gratefulness then. Silliman to put me back to my teaching duties is an incredible leap of faith—and I am grateful for the university for having that faith entrusted on me, given everything.
In May 2021, I was in tatters. I had just come out of a terrible year , where I had suddenly quit teaching, suffered from COVID-19 even before vaccines were available, and was at my wit’s end with regards my mental health which saw me spiraling through depression, anxiety, and paralysis. It was also the pandemic that concentrated all the built-up stress of a burnout after ten straight years of teaching with constant overloads and peripheral duties and with no sabbatical—and with me even spending my personal hours to concentrate on work, particularly in writing workshops. [It got to a point in 2019 when I was begrudging my own writing students because I myself was no longer writing just to accommodate their own projects.] I was due for a burnout. The pandemic catalyzed that.
In May 2021, I was about to have my first therapy session with my psychiatrist—after months of goading by my partner Renz, who was worried at the physical toll of my psychological distress: my hair was falling down in clumps, and I was in constant panic mode that had disturbing physical manifestations. [Renz saw all that. Which is why he went out of his way to schedule a therapy session with my soon-to-be-psychiatrist — because he knew I would not do it myself.]
In May 2021, I was learning for the first time in my life that I had adult ADHD—my diagnosis—which made so much sense! I was suddenly introduced to its symptoms—which really defined what I had been, and which I thought were personal frailties I condemned myself over and over again. Things like:  constant forgetfulness,  losing track of time,  inability to focus on a task especially when there is no oversized motivation or validation, and  what experts call “overwhelm.” These were all of me! And I thought all these things were my own fault! I had no idea they were simply manifestations of the lack of dopamine in my brain. I was feeling guilty for things I had no control over—which contributes to the “overwhelm.” The “overwhelm” essentially happens when one is loaded with seemingly impossible tasks with no validation or motivation in tow, and people with ADHD respond to that by simply … disappearing. I disappear all of the time! When I do appear, I do incredible work. But when I disappear, I disappoint people who love me and who put their trust in me. When I think about it, I disappear not because the work is not something I could do, but because I feel that I have not been given sufficient support to do what I can. [Also, dopamine reasons!]
I disappeared from everything in my life in September 2021. I was simply overwhelmed by my circumstances. Around that time, I was already on meds, I was taking Ritalin daily, and the first few months [May, June, July…] were glorious. For the first time in my life, my head was clear! There was no foggy buzzing and no distractability which I always thought was normal for a brain. I could finally concentrate! And I was doing splendid work, and making inroads to projects assigned to me. I worked. I was also extremely productive, writing-wise, for the first time in years. [This was the time I wrote the short story that eventually won me First Prize at the Palanca in 2022.] I was busy planning things and writing stories, even though sometimes I felt adrift.
But something terrible was also happening: I felt that Ritalin was slowly becoming ineffective in the ensuing months. The same dose I took in at the beginning was no longer enough to produce the same mental capacity I was enjoying. I also slowly felt myself becoming addicted to it. It was difficult sometimes to get a refill of my prescription, and there were days in-between months when I’d run out of Ritalin, and I’d go into withdrawal mode. And it was not pretty. By August 2021, I was so bothered with it that I resolved to stop taking meds and go cold turkey. The withdrawal was immense. The day I received the KSSLAP Award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines at the Luce Auditorium, which honored me for my writing and my cultural work, was the day I was at the most frazzled when I stopped taking my meds for good. I still continued to go to my office, but I was no longer really functioning. I became afraid of disappointing everyone around me. So I simply … disappeared.
It took many months [perhaps until February 2022?] for me to withdraw completely from Ritalin. At that time, I felt my life was in ruins. But I had a project with the Cultural Center of the Philippines during the pandemic that somehow sustained me, and also my freelance work for the Dumaguete City Tourism Office. But I laid low, delved more into psychotherapy [without meds!], and genuinely resolved to find a path out of my neurodivergent difficulties. I wrote, I undertook some cultural projects, I made books, I won some literary awards, and I struggled to define my life with ADHD in it.
But I never found the courage to talk about all these to anyone else, especially people who cared for me. I promised myself I would, some day, when the right time comes. [This is the time.]
As I posted on my Facebook a few days ago, in hindsight, I will be forever grateful for the strange and often vexing past four years, which was full of rewards but also full of doubts and really subterranean lows. Those years clarified what I wanted, they made me go out and seek help to become a better human being, they made me a believer in gratefulness … and they removed people from my life who were never really my friends. That’s my silver lining. And now for the first time in many years, I’m actually happy.
I’m happy because I’m back teaching. I’m happy because I am churning out books. I’m happy because I’m doing cultural projects that I love. And I’m happy because I finally know what ails me—ADHD—and knowing my diagnosis has helped me devise creative ways to go around its manifestations. I have found new resolve to ask for help, for example. [And people are genuinely helpful pala when you ask for it! This surprised me.] I have found new resolve to voice out my frustrations, and my circumstancial difficulties, and not simply disappear. [There are certain moments now when I’d find myself unable to do my deliverables—because of sickness or some other reasons, but instead of disappearing, I make myself be transparent and tell people my difficulties. And they have been incredibly understanding! Being transparent with my difficulties is so new to me.]
Part of ADHD is also the extreme paralysis from doing ordinary communication, like email or text messaging. So I’ve asked people close to me, particularly Renz, to handle some of my correspondence, especially letters of requests to do this or that. They also help me manage my calendar. With regards “overwhelm,” I have learned to take breaks, but also the new ability to ask for help and to be transparent have immensely helped in reducing all that. I have also learned to say no. I have also learned to put value to things that I do, so I have learned to charge people for my writing, for my design, etc. The best thing of all is that I have learned not to be afraid of communication.
All these are things still in practice, and I continue to struggle with them, but I’m grateful that I no longer feel like a prisoner to traits I thought were indicative that I was a terrible human being. My neurodivergent symptoms are not me!
Author’s email: [email protected]