During our Indochina tour, my friend was supposed to go join me in the Cambodia and Vietnam stretch. Due to unforeseen circumstances, she had to opt out, leaving me alone. I was confident about being able to pull it off;  besides it is going to be my first international solo travel, a thing I have been looking forward to since last year. Travelling solo internationally was part of my 2017 travel resolution.

On a gloomy July day (oh yeah, it was my birth month!) I found myself, alone, on a bus headed to Siem Reap, Cambodia. What I didn’t expect was the surge of emotions triggered by a Korean song that I decided not to listen to a couple of months ago because of the melancholy it aroused in me. But I couldn’t help it. The harmonies, the singer’s impassioned singing and the lyrics evoked too much emotions in me that I was reminded of the dark place I found myself a couple of months ago.

Take a deep breath
Until both sides of your heart get numb
Until it hurts a little
Let out your breath even more
Until you feel
Like there’s nothing left inside

The moment when it hit me is still vivid in my mind. I can still recall that very moment when everything I have built around me started crashing down, hard. It was just another normal day, me riding on the passenger side of my manager’s car heading home, then, poof, everything inside started going askew. Out of the blue, I was freefalling into the oblivion, into a place I am well too familiar with. But, why now? How come? What went wrong? And the biggest question of them all…

Why am I feeling empty?

It’s alright if you run out of breath
No one will blame you
It’s okay to make mistakes sometimes
Because anyone can do so
Although comforting by saying it’s alright
Are just words

I thought it would blow over, that it was temporary. I kept pushing the thoughts away but it was only bound to get worse, that the emptiness would linger.

The following days, and weeks, were marked by a total loss of enthusiasm, a general loss of interest, which begins the moment I wake up. Questions of motivation would spring up. “Should I go to work or should I not?” If I do choose to go, I’d play a masquerade where the real emotions are incognito. I would gather the energy to act normal. I would talk animatedly with everyone: laugh, smile, converse. I was just another accountant doing his work. But once the laptops are turned off, the corporate clothes are shed, and the mask taken off, the phantoms find their way again. The worst moments came when the only person I had to deal with is myself.

Someone’s breath. That heavy breath
How can I see through that?
Though I can’t understand your breath
It’s alright I’ll hold you

There was also an endless urge to bawl over which would catch me at the most inopportune time, when I am doing the most mundane of tasks. Crying fits would seize me when I am staring blankly at my work or when I am jogging. There were times when I was immersed in the sea of crowd that I wanted to cry badly not because I wanted attention but because I am cognizant that I am just but another face in a sea of faces, a mask, an illusion even. Who would see through the emptiness anyway?

It also took a toll on everything that I did, everything I was enthusiastic about. I didn’t have the energy to pull up and open a book. I could barely lift the pen and write. I didn’t have the appetite to eat or do anything worthwhile. I was in constant conflict with myself although I kept pushing myself to veer away from the darkest sides of my mind, to wrestle with my phantom. But it was a futile endeavor because I am only tiring myself out while not getting any positive result. I was on the verge not only of a mental breakdown but also on the edge of giving up, from everything.

It’s alright if you run out of breath
No one will blame you
It’s okay to make mistakes sometimes
Because anyone can do so
Although comforting by saying it’s alright
Are just words

On the bus to Siem Reap, I couldn’t help but ruminate and reflect. While the landscape outside the window slowly transformed, I tried foolhardily to put the puzzle pieces together. I looked back on where and how it started. Normally, before the phantoms attack, I could already feel the pangs, the symptoms but no, not this time. It came out of the blue, when I least expected it. But when I look back, I begin to understand.

The first three months of the year was smooth sailing, neither special nor untoward incidents happened. It was all going too smoothly, too smoothly in fact that I was suspicious. And I was right. Everything started going wrong in April. Things were supposed to slow down in April but the opposite happened.

Someone’s breath. That heavy breath
How can I see through that?
Though I can’t understand your breath
It’s alright I’ll hold you

In April, I fought tooth and nail to survive all kinds of pressure; the worst of which came from me because of my futile nature of having to perform. I could have eased that pressure through different outlets but I stupidly chose to gobble them all in. Deviating from what is typically me, I dealt with everything while maintaining a façade of calm and candidness. In the process, I forgot to fortify my mental faculties. Once the dusks of April have settled, I was already falling on the seams which inevitably led to my failure in May.

Even if others think your sigh
Takes out energy and strength
I already know
That you had a day that’s hard enough
To let out even a small sigh
Now don’t think of anything else
Let out a deep sigh
Just let it out like that

I wanted to talk to someone, especially at the most desperate times, the moments when it got really worse, really really worse. However, I didn’t want to disrupt the flow of things just because I couldn’t pick myself up in the worse of times. I kept it all in and for three weeks, I was playing a virtual and mental game of tug-of-war. What knocked me off me feet was its intensity. It was the worst I had and it got so bad that I  never thought I would be able to pull myself up from the quagmire. But somehow, I did.

Someone’s breath. That heavy breath
How can I see through that?
Though I can’t understand your breath
It’s alright I’ll hold you
You really did a good job

Tears nearly ran down my face while I was looking back; my embarrassment kept me from making a public spectacle of myself. On the background, I kept playing Han Dong Geun’s King of Masked Singer rendition of Lee Hi’s Breathe over and over again. He sang it with so much passion, soul and angst that the emotions and the lyrics seeped in to me. It reminded me things that I kept forsaking: taking deep breaths and slowing down, and it’s alright to commit mistakes. Until now, I am unsure of how I was able to pick up all the pieces and somehow survive.

The first time I heard Breathe was when Lee Hi sung it during the Golden Disk Award’s dedication to Shinee’s Jonghyun. Described to be a musical genius in Korea, he died of depression back in December 2017. After which, I kept myself from listening to the song because of the nostalgia and the melancholy it evokes. It proves the universal power of music.

My time alone in a foreign land gave me a chance to finally be at peace with myself after that turbulent May. Being immersed in a different environment kept me from trudging down that same dark alley I walked in. I never thought that it was the me-time I badly needed the same way that our Korean excursion was the break I needed in 2017. The healing tour I kept hearing about only in Korean shows is legit. However, this solo travel wasn’t all about the healing but rather about reflections and ruminations. It gave me the chance to look back and assess, then eventually heal.