Student Development

The Gifts of Struggle

Student Reporter – Kajal AIDASANI (GCOM/4)

Like any ordinary university students, Small c, a year 5 nursing major student from United College, joins student organisations, studies day and night, and goes travelling abroad. What sets her apart from others, is the fact that she is the founder of the Instagram (IG) page with over 5,000 followers @ShellandSpines, and she is also a bipolar disorder patient. Looking back, Small c feels thankful for having mental illness and has even learnt to love it. Without the struggles she faced, she would not possess the gifts she has now. Stepping out of her comfort zone, she set up an IG page aiming to raise public awareness on mental health issues, established her own sharing space, and got to meet those dearest strangers who she calls “Shellers”, meaning those who share their experiences and stories with her through her online platform.

The Weight of Sharing

On the Shell and Spines page, Dede the turtle and ManMan the hedgehog are the two ambassadors created by Small c. Shell represents Dede, symbolising those patients with bipolar disorder who will hide their emotions during their depressive episode; Spines represents Manman the hedgehog, symbolising those with bipolar disorder who will become sensitive and aggressive during their manic episode. The origin of the page can be traced back to the beginning of the pandemic. When Small c saw a friend who could spread positivity through writing food reviews on IG, she started thinking a day or two about the possibility of herself doing similar things. Feeling like the majority of people do not have much attention towards mental health, some do not dare to touch upon this topic while some are reluctant to seek help, the university student decided to share her own story with others, and hence gave birth to the page Shell and Spines. On the other hand, she wanted to utilise this platform to let those who are going through situations alike no longer feel alone, and share with the public what these emotionally troubled people need. “We are not trying to educate others like professionals. We definitely are not qualified to do so. All I want is to share my most down-to-earth experience,” she says.

From online to offline, Small c has worked on projects one after another, from working with The Chinese University of Hong Kong, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Red Cross, The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Lutheran Church of Hong King Synod, to Mind HK and other mental health related schemes. This fall, Small c’s studio, also known as a sharing space “Shelter” has finally been established. By means of reading, drawing and movie watching, she hopes to have in-depth discussion with Shellers on various life issues. Sometimes she or her volunteers are responsible for holding events. Sometimes she would hire instructors to do so. A unique theme will be set each month. They recently spoke of “Knowing Myself” and “Life-and-Death Education”. Whenever Small c speaks about her work, she always uses “we” instead of “I”. Without this group of Shellers, this IG page, these events or this shelter would not exist until this day.

Having her own life connected with others’ bears certain weight, but Small c does not plan to back down since she has started it. She still has an indescribable determination in carrying others’ lives. “The Shellers have all been so good to me. When I have not posted for a few days, they would ask me in private if I am alright or not; When I invite others to leave a comment and update me on their recent status, they would instead ask me “how are you keeping”; When I participated in the lunar new year fair, the shellers who I had never met before would start weeping the moment they saw me and gave their warm hug to me; When I took part in indoor markets, some of the shellers would come back and forth just to ensure that I got food to eat,” she said. It is this warmth and love from Shellers who she barely knows that motivates Small c to keep her connection with the shellers.

She used to hate the over-sentimental part of herself, but she sees differently today. It is her sensitivity to emotions and feelings that allows her to win people’s hearts easily. Some journeys can only be understood when one has been through. Deep down her heart, she hopes one day when everything runs smoothly, she could provide her shared space and let Shellers freely visit whenever they want to. Simple as it sounds, the reality is that Small c must work hard and earn money to support the studio’s expenses. Recently, she often goes to the hospital in the morning for internship and returns to the studio in the evening for events. She also has many other activities and joint programmes happening simultaneously. “‘To exhaust’ is my nature,” she said. Even though the influence of medication makes her drowsy all the time, she still wants to use her remaining strength to work on more mental health work. To be others’ companion means everything in Small c’s eyes.

Painfully but Happily Alive

At first, Small c thought having bipolar disorder was like catching a cold and could be cured after taking medicine for a short while. She has never imagined that this illness would haunt her up to three to four years. But as time goes by, she learnt to accept that this illness is part of her and she is required to live with. She is especially fond of the story of Sisyphus – the one who was punished by the gods in Greek mythology. Sisyphus received an eternal punishment to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top due to its own weight. Back and forth, this never-ending spiral of futility somehow seems to be a portrayal of the world today. Yet still, some believe Sisyphus is happy. Every time one chooses to accept, despise and embrace the absurdity of reality. It is at that moment, that one can win over the ridiculousness, and this faith would keep one living a day at a time. The world is absurd, but one can still be happy. “When I stop looking at my illness as a problem, stop viewing my own destiny as a tragedy, I am proud of who I am, and I can finally see what I have gained. All the past moments of myself made me who I am at this given moment,” she said.

“Only life can affect life” has always been Small c’s belief. Because Small c has joined uniformed group when she was young, she has a special ambition to serve others. No matter while working as a student nurse, or working on mental health initiatives, she always reminds herself to be cautious of her words and actions. Before each event, she would consult social workers. At her leisure time, she has the habit of reading different counselling books. Although she is neither a social work nor a counselling professional, she would sit in their lessons at the university. Small c is convinced that, words matter, and they could have lifelong influence on people. Therefore, she set a high standard for herself.

Sowing Seeds at CUHK

This year marks the 65th Anniversary of United College, Small c collaborated with the college and designed two double-walled glass cups, using Dede and Manman’s icons to promote mental health. As UCian, Small c hopes to share what she has learnt about emotional health over the past few years to her fellow schoolmates. With the financial aid received through the Creative Student Activity Award of United College, she held a series of me-time workshops. The idea of the workshops came from one of her juniors in secondary school – a girl,who had serious emotional illness, was often panicked. Only when playing with paper models, the girl would stay calm. However, her family discouraged her interest and requested her to concentrate solely on her studies. This made Small c realise that time and space alone is necessary to improve the quality of life.

“Physical rest does not equal to spiritual rest. Everyone needs “me-time” to do what they like and to recharge,” she said. Small c had similar experiences in her past. From kindergarten to her second year of university, she would draw at art studios every Sunday. But because of her busy and demanding life, she had to quit drawing eventually. After that, she realised how important those “me-time” was to her, and thus held those workshops for students to discover more about their interests. With funding from the college, participants could attend classes like calligraphy and pottery at a more favourable price. Small c was very pleased, seeing that most of the workshops were full and all the participants gave great feedbacks.

As graduation is just around the corner, Small c still has unrealised dreams in CUHK – to actualise dreams for others. Considering herself as one of the fortunate ones who have satisfying milestones in life, she wants to help those who have not tasted this kind of satisfaction and tailor-make a milestone for them. “If someone wants to hold a photo exhibition, I want to ensure him or her does so. I want to help organise a wedding-like grand event,” she said. She wishes every teenager who belittles themselves to start appreciating themselves more, to have more confidence and less regret.

Though Little but Fierce

Others may consider Small c’s life to be dramatic, but from her perspective, life is still okay. She has at least accomplished everything she wants to do at each point in life. She believes this is the law of attraction, “I believe, so I am able to do so,” she said.

When asked whether she is satisfied with herself or not, Small c laughed and said she thinks she is fat and ugly, and there are many other things worth criticising too. But at the same time, she has learnt to appreciate herself. Throughout this journey, she is most grateful to have her friends who always affirm her that she is worthy of being loved. It is the affirmation from her friends which has taught her to appreciate herself. Small c, a girl who had never loved herself in the past, is now contented with being “fat but kind”. In writer’s view, Small c, no matter in her days of being a hedgehog or a turtle, is little but fierce.