Notes on a long road back from loss.
Towards the end of Itaewon Class (Korean; Netflix), the protagonist Park Sae-Ro-Yi (Park Seo-joon) is hospitalised, critically injured after an accident. In his unconscious state, he sees his father, who died 14 years ago, and they walk through key moments from Sae-Ro-Yi’s challenging life.
Finally, Sae-Ro-Yi and his father reach a bridge. The other side is shrouded in mist, but Sae-Ro-Yi’s father promises him that if he walks over to it, he’ll never have a painful night again.
Sae-Ro-Yi hesitates, and thinks about his friends, who’re all the family he has left. Then he tells his father that even though he’s had many painful nights, there have also been some good ones. That while he misses his father terribly, he now wants to embrace that yearning in his heart, and keep living.
Sae-Ro-Yi’s father is proud of him; in that moment his son has realised what it’s all about: “You can overcome anything, as long as you are alive.”
I watched that scene a few weeks ago, after a year in which my depression and suicidal ideation had worsened significantly. I’d relapsed into self-harm, a behaviour I hadn’t engaged in for 16 years. Beginning in 2004, I’ve had major depressive episodes of varying severity and durations, off and on, but from 2017 onwards, these had escalated, as had the amount of time I spent in wanting to and planning how to end things. The pandemic and social isolation had no doubt exacerbated these thoughts.
A little before I watched that scene, my mum had insisted on having a talk with me. She told me that she worried every night until she fell asleep that that was the night I’d do something to myself. She held me, despite my initial dismissiveness and even though I was adamant that I wasn’t in need of comforting, until, after years, I wept in front of her. And as I wept, I could name what it was that I was feeling: it was heartbreak and grief; only, I didn’t know what I was heartbroken and grieving over.
Later, as I dwelt on what Sae-Ro-Yi’s father says, I wondered if it was true, even if simplistic: You can overcome anything, as long as you are alive. For so long, death had been my Plan A, but what if I took it off the table? What if I decided that no matter what, I would stick it out, because you can overcome anything — as long as you are alive?
Oddly enough, it was a version of a coping mechanism I’d had in my more well-adjusted phases: Whenever I was in the midst of an experience that sent my anxiety skyrocketing, I’d tell myself that it was fine, because it meant I was alive and that was something to be grateful for. My parents had had a son, an older brother I never knew; he died before he reached Class 1. I’d remind myself of him, of how he never went through rejection or a frustrating job hunt or even the petty apprehensions of a dentist’s appointment, which also meant he never got to fall in love, or have a drink with his friends, or see the world, or read/listen to/watch/encounter things that made his heart and mind soar.
My father had a talk with me when I turned 19. He’d been worried that I was wasting my life, frittering away opportunities and potential, slacking, never applying myself wholeheartedly to any pursuit, be it academics or music or writing. He wanted me to understand what I was doing before it was too late, he said. I had an hourglass in my room: He turned it over and asked me to look at the sand falling below. “Every grain of that sand is one that you can never have back,” he said. I didn’t see what the fuss was about; I turned the hourglass again, reversed the flow, flippantly replied, “Of course you can.”
Not much later, he left for work as usual one morning. That afternoon, we got a call from the office: he had collapsed. My mum and older sister rushed to the hospital, but he was dead by the time they got there.
I’ve written elsewhere of life’s “Thelma and Louise moments”. This was one of mine, and in some ways (and while I’ve had relatively stable periods too), I’ve been driving off a cliff ever since.
Death had touched our lives before: my older brother, my biological mother (of cancer, when she was 36). But I’d been too little to grasp what they meant, had felt these losses only as absences: a life that could have been mine, but wasn’t; people who should have been there, but weren’t; people I knew only through stories and a few still-preserved possessions. In my father’s case, however, death was a presence, rending me from within.
I slept, a lot. I started university, but cut most classes. When I was alone, I’d bawl and beg and bargain, make wild promises to God — “if only I could have my dad back”. I engaged in magical thinking: this was just a test, and if we proved how much we loved him, he’d be returned to us. When none of that worked, I scratched at my wrists with sharp objects. Stood in front of a truck barreling down a highway: it had nearly reached me, when a sense of its size finally punched through my daze and I stepped away to angry curses from the driver.
I did recover, eventually. I found work as a teacher and counsellor before switching to journalism. I remembered what my father had said about the hourglass. And I committed to not slacking off again.
Since I wasn’t as smart as my peers, and had so much lost time and ground to cover, I decided to make up for it by working twice as much. The field I’d chosen was a great enabler — there was always an urgent deadline that needed to be met, a shortage of hands that had to be compensated. And there was plenty of reinforcement too: the good days when you did something that mattered to you or that you enjoyed, and felt all the gratitude for that chance. I prioritised work over everything — time with family, friends, myself. I worked until I was uneasy when I wasn’t working. I worked until I never had to think about difficult things or of the future because my mind was so absorbed in whatever I had on my to-do list for that day. I worked until I was like an addict, resentful of the hold it had on me, but needing it too, like a crutch. I worked until it was the only thing I had left, and it was the sole source of my identity.
And over the next 11 years, as other, severe life crises came along and piled up — as life crises are wont to — I turned even more to work, until I felt like a husk, an empty shell programmed to go through the motions, who woke up every morning just because she had a list of things to do.
On a day that Sae-Ro-Yi’s expelled from school (for refusing to apologise over punching a bully), his father, proud of his son for sticking to his principles, gives him his first drink of soju. After he swallows the shot, Sae-Ro-Yi’s father asks him how it tastes. “Sweet,” Sae-Ro-Yi replies. “That’s because you had an impressive day,” his father tells him.
When his father dies in a hit-and-run that’s covered up, Sae-Ro-Yi is sentenced to three years in prison for attacking the person responsible. He develops a plan for bringing his father’s killers to book. For the next 11 years, he works towards his vengeance with a single-minded focus.
Through those 11 years, each time Sae-Ro-Yi accomplishes a milestone from his plan, he tries a shot of soju. It’s invariably bitter. No matter how much hurt he causes his enemies, the taste never improves.
But at the conclusion of Itaewon Class, after the dream about his father and the bridge, Sae-Ro-Yi is enjoying an evening out with his friends, his hand clasped around the woman he’s allowed himself to love. They raise a toast; he drains his glass of soju, and smiles. It is finally sweet again.
Sae-Ro-Yi learns what his father wishes for him to: to live well, is the best revenge.
Watching Sae-Ro-Yi, I could see that maybe, living well was the best kind of tribute too. That maybe what my father had meant with the hourglass was not for me to literally work to the exclusion of all else, but to live a life without regrets.
Instead, I had amassed a world of those. I was determined to punish myself — with the words I used for myself in my head; with believing that I didn’t deserve anything; thinking that even the good things that happened to me were a fluke and could be taken away at any moment, so I shouldn’t get attached to them — even though no one had asked for me to be punished. I hobbled myself with guilt, even though I couldn’t really answer what it was that I was supposed to be guilty for. I strove constantly for an elusive perfection, beating myself up for never achieving it, instead of feeling that what I had done, or how I may have been, was good enough.
I fixated on the idea of redemption: A line from The Kite Runner came into my mind often — “There is a way to be good again” — and I’d feel despair because it was too late for me; I had come too far, there was no way for me to be good again.
When death and ageing are the only certainties, why must we struggle through life? Sae-Ro-Yi is asked this question by his friend and the manager of his pub, Jo Yi-Seo (Kim Da-mi). Yi-Seo has the IQ of a genius and the moral compass of a sociopath, but her defining attribute is how exhausted she is with the world and all that’s required of one to be in it. Life, she tells Sae-Ro-Yi, feels so predictable, and like such a chore that she wishes she’d never been born. Sae-Ro-Yi wonders why Yi-Seo is talking like a god, with perfect prescience about the future. He tells her that every night, he goes for a run through the neighbourhood. And every morning, he opens up their pub and spends the day working there. It’s repetitive. Some days are tough, and some days are sad. But every once in a while, something fun comes along. So why not wait, and see what life might have to offer?
Depression does quite a job of wiping way your good memories, leaving only the bad. On finishing Itaewon Class though, I began to make a list of everything good that had happened post-2004 that I could remember and feel thankful about. At first, it was difficult, but over a few hours the list grew:
Travelling solo through Scotland and Austria. Watching the lights of the boats anchored overnight in Halong Bay. The dazzling cobalt blue of the water when you land at Hong Kong airport. Hours browsing at my favourite secondhand bookshop. Laughing at my friends’ jokes. Long conversations where you feel the full thrill of having another person know, despite your lack of articulation, exactly what you mean. Beer binges. Lord of the Rings rewatches. Pride and Prejudice re-readings. Having the person you love rest their head in your lap. Workdays made fun because of the camaraderie of colleagues. Seeing my younger sister graduate at the top of her class while I half-jumped, half-cried, in my seat in the auditorium. Seeing both my sisters find love, and work they excel at. Walking into one of the worst nights of my life, and looking back to find my family ranged around me, ready to offer unquestioning support. Etc.
The day after I made the list, and that conversation with my mum, I felt emptied out, but also lighter in some way. I didn’t know if it would last, but I felt something I hadn’t in years: a possibility that things could be different.
For all the finality of death, you can lose a person more than once. In the years after he died, I dreamt of my father often. The dreams were of two kinds: Ones in which he’d be perfectly okay until the very end, only to keel over, clutching at his chest, and I’d feel all the horror of it; or ones in which he was just around the house, doing the things he used to do, being the way he used to be. Those were worse, because I’d wake up from them in the mornings with a rare sense of well-being, until a few moments later, I’d remember.
Some days before I watched the scene on the bridge between Sae-Ro-Yi and his dad in Itaewon Class, I had dreamt of my father. This was a new sort of dream: I didn’t see him in it, only knew that he had died, and that I had to inform the people we cared about. The grief felt raw all over again, and as I thought about him making his final journey alone, I wished so much that I could have accompanied him, knowing that I would have done it without a second thought had I been given the chance.
Now I acknowledge that that is not what he would have wanted for me. He would want me to be happy, to live, because you can overcome anything, as long as you are alive.
I want to work towards living. I want to stop being an automaton, stop carrying this guilt and regret around. I don’t want to believe anymore that I know just how my future will pan out, and that the hermetically sealed and sterile dead-end I’m in now is all there is to it. I want to have hope that there is something beyond this hurt. I want to believe in serendipity and good fortune and in the idea that I might have the kind of life my dad would have wanted for me.
I want not to die, but to live well.