On a beautiful spring day in 1989, the world was in chaos. Students in Beijing protested for democracy; they demonstrated against the corruption in their government; they demanded job opportunities. Citizens in Berlin protested the existence of the wall, and they wanted it to be torn down. Communist leaders of Eastern Europe struggled to retain their powers over the rising popular demand for prosperity and freedom in their countries. The people wanted freedom over serfdom. The people wanted prosperity over poverty. And here I was on a warm spring day, walking on the hill next to my house, feeling fortunate and grateful to be living in America – the land of freedom and opportunity. I had survived fifty years of suffering through the Japanese occupation in Korea and the Korean War, and years of struggle to establish myself in America. Now I had a wonderful family, great friends, a great place to live, and an opportunity to assist aspiring students to be the best they could be. What more could I want? I felt I was the luckiest man on the earth.
A few weeks had passed by. One morning I woke up and got a cup of freshly-brewed coffee that I had enjoyed over the years. Strangely, it did not have the same flavor. The coffee had no taste at all. Strange! I wondered. Did my sweetheart get a different brand? Soon afterwards, strange things happened at a rapid pace. During a lecture at school, as I was reaching up the board to write, I felt faint. My hand slid down powerless and wobbly. I tried again, and my hand slid down. Powerless and wobbly as before. The classroom turned silent. What’s going on? What am I going to do? I told myself to relax and breathe deeply. I turned around and saw all the eyes glued to me. I smiled and said, Sorry about that. I guess the fainting spell and the balding head come with aging. I’m OK now, and finished the lecture without the fainting spell.
In addition to the tasteless coffee and the fainting spell, my sexual urge diminished drastically. Women in miniskirts and tight bras didn’t look any different than nuns in long black gowns walking toward me; they looked all the same – just the opposite sex. Food had no taste; I ate as a matter of habit. When I woke up, I found my pillow soaked in sweat. Getting out of bed was torture. What’s going on? I wondered. What can it be? I didn’t know. I just hoped that these strange symptoms would soon pass away. But these symptoms continued day after day, week after week. There seemed to be no end in sight. In desperation I went to a doctor for a thorough physical examination. He put me through MRI, EEG, and other exotic tests, and told me all my test results came out negative – a good thing. I asked the doctor, What’s my problem, then? He didn’t know. But as I was leaving, he handed me a small pamphlet. On the way out of his office, I looked at the pamphlet. I saw the title: DEPRESSION.
Who? Me? Me get depressed? The man who endured the agony of losing his father, brothers, and his dog through the World War II and the Korean War? The man who came to America at the age of 16 and struggled to get an education without a penny from home? Me get depressed? Ridiculous! Insulting! I crumpled the pamphlet and threw it into a wastebasket and stumped out to my car.
Unfortunately, my condition worsened. In addition to physical symptoms, I felt terribly alone – lonelier than I’d ever felt in my life. Even in a crowd, I felt totally alone. I knew that the people were physically there, but I felt that they were far, far away. I felt that no one was really interested in my existence; I saw myself standing alone on a huge empty desert at night with the moon and stars looking down. The life was sheer emptiness.
In addition, I felt the pain which I could not point my finger at. I knew a headache was in my head; a stomachache in my stomach. But this numbing pain was all over my body — 24 hours a day — draining every ounce of my energy. I realized that I needed help to go back to my normal life. I guess the doctor’s right, I said to myself. I must be going through a depression.
Visit to Psychiatrist
The thought of seeking help for an emotional problem was humiliating to my ego, because I had been raised in a culture where the depressed person was considered a weakling associated with insanity. I asked myself, How can I, a grown man, an engineer, an inventor, a professor seek help from a shrink? How can I, who has never asked for help from anyone, crawl down to a bearded old man, and beg to save me? It was also tough for me to seek help for my emotional problem because I had lived all my life with my head – come rain or shine – and ignored the cries of my heart. I was tempted to ignore them again. On the other hand, I did not want to spend the rest of my life with this formless, unending pain pervading my entire being. I did not want to walk on life’s pathway, the air filled with a gray fog, a dark tunnel of despair, just passing the days until my heart beat would stop and my breathing would cease. Instead, I wanted to live with vigor. I wanted to march on a pathway listening to the joyful drum beat of life, feeling the sun’s gentle warmth through the clear blue sky.
In order to lead a life of joy, I needed to stop the pain; I needed to be free from despair; and I needed to clear up the gray fog within. After much hesitation I decided to find a therapist who could help me in this healing process. First thing I did was to consult Yellow Pages and found a doctor nearby and called on him. He was a young man of early thirtieth wearing heavy-set glasses. For half an hour or so, he questioned me one after another. Where were you born? What did your Father do? How many brothers and sisters do you have. What is your religion? When did you come to America?… I felt I was in a court room answering questions by a lawyer, not in a therapist office sharing my feelings to a doctor. After the session, I told him this would be my last visit. He looked dumbfounded and asked me why? I told him why. He suggested that I come one more time – free of charge. I said OK. The second time was no different.
I concluded that Yellow Pages was not a good place to find a compatible doctor. But I was still hesitant to confess to my wife that I had been depressed. After some soul-searching, swallowing my pride, I told her what I had been going through. She was in shock listening to my story. After calling her friends left and right all afternoon, she found a doctor for me.
Dr. K. was about my age in his fiftieth. He listened to my story without much interruption. Then he said, “You are suffering from a major depression, mainly caused by denying your negative feelings, such as guilt and worthlessness. Instead of sharing them with someone, you shoved them into the dark pit of the unconscious.”
He said, “When garbage piles up in a can and stays there, gas builds up and pops open the cover, spreading its foul odors all over. Likewise, when the unconscious mind gets filled with negative feelings, it’s lid pops open resulting in depression. If you want be free from depression, you must clean up the emotional garbage within you.”
Unlike the young doctor, Dr. K made sense. Negative feelings in my heart are like garbage in a garbage can.
“How do I go about helping my patients?” He continued. “When a person visits a physician with a headache, the doctor gives the patient aspirin pills for a temporary relief, and then performs an exam to find the cause of the headache. The same is true with psychotherapy. I give my patient antidepressant pills. At the same time, I carry on talk therapy.”
His approach made sense, and I decided to follow his regimen. The pills immediately reduced the pain that I had been feeling for months and helped me carry on with my daily tasks with more energy.
In our second session, I shared with him my regimented childhood as a preacher’s son who was told that God loved me but… God loves you; but if you lie, you go to Hell. God loves you; but if you don’t go to church on Sunday, you go to Hell. God loves you; but if you do not follow Ten Commandments, you go to Hell. Always that scary But. So, I did not lie; I went to church every Sunday; I obeyed my mom and dad; I smiled even when I was angry; I did not play with neighborhood bullies; I did not swear; I brought home A’s and B’s; I did not worry about fornication because Mother said I was too young to worry about it. In sum, I was a model boy – an envy of my neighbors –not because I appreciated God’s love for me but because I did not want to go to Hell. I also shared with him the loss of my loved ones in the World War II and the Korean War – Father, Brother Hi-Seung, Brother Hi-Bum, and my dog, Bardook. I shared with him my struggle to get an education in America without receiving a penny from home. Through all these struggles, I kept moving forward ignoring the pain and anguish swirling around inside me.
He listened without interruption in his fur-lined chair. “From early childhood,” he finally commented. “You were programmed by your parents and the church to deny your feelings, not to complain, not to show your sadness and anger. You were programmed to be a model boy: be nice to people, excel in school work, go to church every Sunday, carry a big smile on your face, and always act happy. So, for all these fifty years, you have lived like a robot. You did not get to experience the joy of innocent childhood, the excitement of youth, and the adventure of adulthood. Now your inner child is screaming out to be free from the programmed life. Your inner child is screaming out to be himself. Your inner child wants to feel both the good and the bad, wants to shout for joy, yell when angry, and shed tears when sad. Your inner child wants to experience life as is.”
“In order for you to be healed from the depression,” the doctor continued, “the first thing you have to do is to welcome your feelings because Feeling is Healing.”
The doctor was right. All my life I had denied my feelings through rain or shine, and I had led a robot-like existence. I realized that to be whole, I had to learn to feel my feelings because Feeling is healing. A new insight that I needed to learn to be free from my depression.
In my first several sessions, I must admit my response to his questions was rather superficial. No feeling at all. I responded with my head, not with my heart. I was reluctant to share my innermost feelings. As the weeks passed by, however, I opened up more and more.
In one session I talked about my dog, Bardook, my best friend. She had been my loyal companion for eight years. Then during the Korean War, my father had been taken away by the communists. We didn’t have money to buy enough rice. For each meal Mother served several spoonful of rice in my bowel. Not only for a day, but for weeks. I was always hungry. I was sure Mother was hungrier because she always gave me more than herself. In addition we had to feed Bardook. One morning, Mother came to me and said – her head down – that we had only few days of rice left even for us. She said we had to let Bardook go. I could not imagine such a thing, but how could I say, No?
Next morning, a dog warden in a white and a torn straw hat came, and knock at our door. Minutes later, Mother and I stood, and watched the warden fastening a muzzle over Bardook’s mouth and taking him away. I watched her go in helpless silence. As she turned the corner, Bardook stopped and looked at me, as if to say, “Good bye”. Instinctively my feet moved forward to rush down, grab my best friend and run away. Then I pictured Mother standing behind me with the aching heart. I brought my feet to an abrupt stop and watched Bardook go away in helpless silence. That night in bed, I pictured Bardook being chopped up by the warden’s wife, thrown into boiling water, ending up on their dinner table. I could not sleep. Tears rolled down my eyes. Living was so painful.
In another session, Doctor K. asked me to talk about my brother Hi-Seung. He was one brother who loved me dearly and who toughened me, a tender fearful child – not to be afraid of the dark, not to be mushy like tofu, and not to be afraid of neighborhood bullies. When the Japanese police took Father to prison because he, a Christian minister, refused to bow down to the picture of their emperor, Hi-Seung volunteered to join the Japanese military in the hope of getting Father released. He left home as a vibrant fifteen year old boy in 1943 and returned home as a worn-out, injured eighteen year old man in 1945. Soon after his return, he was admitted to a hospital for the operation to his injury. The operation was not successful, and he died in the hospital bed.
As was the custom, our whole family accompanied Brother to the crematory. I watched workers carrying Brother’s wooden casket to the furnace. Mother asked me, a ten year old boy, to stay behind the door. But I found a small crack in the door through which I could watch. A worker opened the furnace, the smoke floated out and the flaming fire lit the grieving faces. The terrifying and nauseating odor of burning flesh pervaded through the building. A worker pushed my brother’s casket into the fiery furnace. My body shook uncontrollably. I ran away from the horrific scene shaking. I couldn’t cry. It was so scary.
After Hi-Seung’s death, Mother changed forever. Sometimes she suddenly stopped sewing, blankly stared at the wall with big round eyes and screamed. At night she jumped out of bed, rushed to the door, and shouted words that did not make any sense. It was bad enough to live without my brother. Now Mother’s strange behavior really scared me. Is she going insane? I shuddered.
A few weeks after his death, I came home. The house was quiet. Where was everybody? I went upstairs and found the door to Hi-Seung’s room open. Through the open door, I saw two people who were dearest to me. The cremated remains of my brother in a plain wooden box and Mother holding tightly onto her son in the box. Her eyes were closed. No tears flowed down her cheeks. But her face crumpled in deep anguish, pain and helplessness. My heart felt numb. I tiptoed downstairs to my room and laid down on my bed blankly staring at the ceiling. Not knowing what to do.
Dr. K. listened as I relived all those events, my heart fully open, my despairing voice shaking up the room, and my face soaked in tears. After that day I felt less depressed. I could carry out my daily routine with more energy.
I also shared with Dr. K my inner-most feelings that I had been hiding for years. The worthlessness and the shame. The negative emotions that I shouldn’t reveal as a good Christian boy – the anger toward my childhood God who kept me in fear of eternal damnation and also my childhood God who did not keep His promise: Those who follow me will prosper while those who go against me will perish. What I had witnessed was the opposite: the Korean Christians suffered while the non-Christian Japanese prospered. I shared with him an uneasy guilt without apparent cause that had troubled me for years, the insecurity, and the feeling of failure for not attaining my childhood dream – the dream of becoming Thomas Edison of Korea.
In the sixth months of therapy, Doctor K. noted that I seemed hesitant when I was asked to talk about Father. He said, “Just say whatever comes to your mind. It doesn’t have to make any sense. Just say it.”
I didn’t know why, but I felt always uneasy when Dr. K asked me to talk about Father. My answers to him were always brief. But this time I decided to try harder. First I talked about his selflessness, his total dedication to serve his parishioners and God, and his love for me. Father whipped my brothers a lot for their bad behaviors, but he didn’t whip me even when I cut open two of his favorite Koi fish swimming happily in the aquarium in our living room. I wanted to find out what made them swim. He didn’t whip me when I tore apart his grandfather clock to see what made the nice tic-tac sounds. The only time that he whipped me was when he caught me playing with the electric fuse box, that could have killed me.
Father was always in smile when he saw me. He was proud of me for being a class monitor in my elementary school years. I remembered him saying with pride to someone, “When Hi-Dong grows up, he’s going to be the president of Korea.” I loved him also even though I was scared of him because he moved and talked with authority.
I spent several sessions talking about Father, but I did not find anything that would make me feel uneasy. But the uneasy feeling was somewhere deep inside me, and I did not know why. Then in one session, a scene flashed in my mind, and my heart tightened.
“What’s happening?” Dr. K asked.
“O it’s something that happened during the Korean War when the North Korean communists occupied Seoul, where we lived.”
“One morning Father and I went to our community garden to tender the vegetables.”
“When we returned, I saw two men talking to Mother at the gate.”
“When the men saw Father, they introduced themselves as officers working for religious matters. They asked Father to attend a meeting that morning.”
“Father said, ‘I haven’t had breakfast.’ They said that the meeting would be a short one. Father said, ‘Let me go in, wash, and get dressed.’ They said that it wouldn’t be necessary.”
“Father looked at Mother and then me without words, and walked down the road between them.”
“I… I… I…just watched… him…go away…”
“I… I… just watched… him… go away…”
My heart pounded. My breathing turned heavy. The tears started to stream down my cheeks. My stuttering voice turned into groan.
“I just watched him go away…”
“I just watched him… I didn’t do anything to save him… I stood and just watched…”
Dr. K walked over with a box of Kleenex, and handed me tissue after tissue, while I groaned and moaned, my face drenched in tears.
“What a worthless son I am… What a worthless son I am…”
“My brother, Hi-Seung, gave his life to save his father…”
“But I – instead of saving Father from those kidnappers – just watched him walking away… What a worthless son I am…”
Twenty minutes into the groaning and moaning, the awareness surfaced. I realized that I had carried a deep-seated guilt and worthlessness for not giving my life to save Father as my brother had done. What a worthless son I was. What a coward I was. When this awareness surfaced, I cried with all my heart, soaking up dozens of tissues and asking Father for forgiveness.
When I emptied the tears of guilt and worthlessness, I felt the calmness within. The uneasy feeling that had dwelt in my heart for forty some years had disappeared. In its place, I found the inner peace and freedom that I had never thought possible to experience in this world.
For me it was God’s grace that touched my heart and transformed my life. Like that of St. Paul, once a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. Like that of John Newton, a trader of slaves. Like some at revival meetings. God’s amazing grace saved me. Now I can sing, with all sincerity, the hymn:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
Tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
I experienced this transformation in 1990. Today – 2014 – the inner freedom and peace still dwell within me. This depression was the worst experience in my life and, at the same time, the best thing that had happened, because it gave me the opportunity to get rid of the pile of negative emotions that had dwelt within me. Now I feel clean and free. It is like the feeling after taking a cool soothing shower after a cross country run in a hot humid day. Hell no longer keeps me awake at night. I try to find the god of my childhood who kept me in the bondage of fear of the eternal damnation, but I cannot find him. He is gone away. Hugging and being hugged that I dreaded from childhood is no longer a problem. Now I can hug the young and the old, men and women, the big and the small, without feeling uneasy. I can feel the warmth behind a mother’s smile watching her baby crawling toward her. I can feel the tenderness in my wife’s hand. Without holding back, I can shout for joy, shed tears for sorrow, and share with others what dwells in my inner world.
Now the outer world appears so much clearer and brighter. I go out to the garden in the morning and gaze at the beautiful tulips opening their petals to the rising sun. Before my cleansing, I had walked by them without seeing, without feeling. Now I gaze at the night sky and marvel at the stars twinkling billion miles away in the billion year old universe.
Thanks be to God for this new life: the life of freedom and peace within.