On Dec 31, 2016 I was ready to end my life.
It was three months after I’d launched Very Good Light and a voice inside my head told me that my time had finally come.
It had been a rough couple of months. I’d just quit my job and moved out of my apartment to build on the little savings I had and found myself back at home in Colorado with my parents, who viewed me as a complete and utter failure.
I was running out of money and in my mind, running out of time. I had been at the pinnacle of my New York City fashion career: nominated for a GLAAD award, a Webby, working on compelling stories and interviewing powerful people. But suddenly, after leaving to launch my own thing, it all disappeared. My status. My supposed friends. My reputation.
At the same time, launching something new (and a bit radical) was exciting. When Very Good Light debuted, there was undeniable buzz. People wondered why I’d leave a cushy job and the editorial world altogether to push through my own endeavor. But, from the beginning, it was clear that VGL had tapped into something special.
We made it into the New York Times. Fashionista wrote an incredible piece, too. CNN and Forbes came later. People were talking about how this site was revolutionary and how it was the perfect timing for a site exploring young men and identity. Because it was. For so many years, it even surprised me that there wasn’t a dedicated hub for men to explore beauty that was more than beard balms and deodorants.
Those last days in New York in October 2016 became a blur. I was so busy trying to survive – while taking appointments and publicizing the birth of my new site – that I remember little to nothing. All I recall was the weekly couch surfing and wondering if I’d have a place to stay. I was in Harlem one week with my friend Sarah; Williamsburg with Ann the next. Then, there were a couple of days in between when I rented out hotels on a budget.
But through it all on my social feed, to my parents in another world, and my acquaintances, everything seemed to fall in place. My life – and my Dior Homme shoes, my market appointments, the many parties – were all glamorous.
It’s remarkable to think, in retrospect, how resilient I was. How much grit I had. How much I believed in this vision, my life entirely stuffed into two mangled suitcases that I’d haul up eight-story walk-ups, take to and from appointments in an Uber and drag along the city streets.
Because in reality, I was trying to keep it all together.
While I believed in our mission of redefining masculinity and promoting men’s beauty, my immigrant parents did not. For a family that touted the benefits skincare, diving into the world of beauty and cosmetics professionally was a different story. Beauty was for women. Makeup was for girls. Anything deemed feminine for a man was unacceptable.
“That’s not what a man should be doing,” my mother told me after I’d moved back home in November of that year.
“What will church people think?” she asked.
“A man putting on makeup? Have you lost your mind?” she admonished.
Maybe I had.
Those first weeks back home were brutal for my mental health. My mother became unbearable. Intentional or not – her abrupt prayers and deep sighs, her comments to my sister that God was closing off my path because I wasn’t a strong enough believer – cut me to my core. My identity and the toxicity my Korean parents were at war. It was a battle – and I was losing. It started to eat away at my soul.
When my sister finally came home for Thanksgiving, I broke down as we sat in the car. My flood of emotions was as surprising to her as it was to me. After all, I’d been so stoic since our childhood. I was never moved by something as simple as a sappy movie so seeing me shed tears was a complete shock.
“I feel like such a loser,” I finally let out, bursting into brackish, hot tears that stung my cheeks and seeped into my mouth. In reality, I felt like more than a loser. I felt like a failure.
I wasn’t making any revenue from Very Good Light, there was barely anything in my bank account and I had nothing to show but a few articles on a site my parents couldn’t even comprehend. I’d totally thought that by now I’d have advertising deals, investors and collaborators hitting up my phone.
Fast-forward a month later and there I was in another car – but this time with my mother. It was New Year’s Day and we were headed back home as snow fell on I-25, sticking to the black pavement. Though we sat just a foot apart physically, emotionally, it felt more like an ocean. Breaking the silence, she turned to me, wincing, as she admitted to being disappointed in me. She wished beauty wasn’t my business. She wished I’d go to grad school and “be a professional.” Something. Anything. Just not me.
Her words pierced. They cut deeply. There, on a Colorado highway, on that cold winter night, my heart was left out in the frigid cold where it laid there and slowly died.
My mother completely broke me.
After all, she and my father were everything to me. They still are. I’d lived my many years with the hope of paying them back for all of the sacrifices they’d made for me. No, it wasn’t easy emigrating from a war torn, impoverished country like South Korea. Yes, they’d left it all behind to work hard for a new life, not just for themselves, but their children.
So it was one thing to fail on my own, but to bring shame and embarrassment to my parents was unacceptable. I felt deeply empathetic towards them while also feeling deep pain for myself. I wished that they could achieve their American Dream: an obedient son who fit their criteria; one who made them proud. My parents deserved the best and deserved a son who could make their immigrant sacrifices seem well worth it. To think they’d never get that because of me broke my heart.
The guilt became suffocating and anxiety took root, sprouting throughout my body. I could feel its branches growing painfully, bearing poisoned fruit. And that’s when it all got too heavy and said tree began toppling over.
And that was when I concluded that I didn’t deserve to live.
When daylight hit the next day, I took my belongings to a cafe. I wrote what I’d planned to be my final VGL article and hit publish.
It had been a beautiful few months of empowering, inspiring storytelling. There were stories about coming out. Features about what it meant to be an Arab American teen during the Trump era. We published a moving piece on the plight of Sikh American men who are feared for the turbans that are so holy to them. It’s funny because just as my readers wrote to me saying how much Very Good Light meant to them, secretly – and selfishly – I needed it just as much as they did. I needed Very Good Light‘s empowerment, its community and this small movement of men who believed their differences made them beautiful.
Why was it that I couldn’t see that in myself?
I drove up a mountain that afternoon and decided it would be my last ride. On my way up, I stopped my car and remained still, contemplating my next move.
It was then, under a veil of grey clouds, that a light beam shone through. I saw the vast, beautiful valley below and the tundra that grounded my feet. The sun suddenly hit my eyes, blinding me. Finally, my frigid heart was warmed back to feeling. At that moment, it was as if the universe – God – was speaking to me. I experienced an intense spiritual awakening.
And it became so clear: I hadn’t achieved my life’s purpose. I still had so much to do. And in the vastness of my goals, pleasing my parents was never on my path. Never was it in my purpose to become someone else.
I was more than enough.
In that moment, under that shining light and standing on frozen earth, I felt a warmth light up within me like I had never experienced. It was clear that my gift was Very Good Light and it was my duty to continue. Very Good Light was my second chance at life. It was up to me to continue empowering and uplifting communities who are hurt, who feel worthless, who are disenfranchised. And it became apparent that Very Good Light was not my own, rather, a vessel for others to also find empowerment.
Suicidal thoughts are most troubling in the fact that many times, they’re simply voices that feed you lies about yourself. They’re also thoughts that are completely intoxicating, ones that seduce you into believing in untruths.
But what I’ve concluded is when you find your higher calling, forgetting your ego and following your soul – everything seems to become clear. You find your inner joy. You find your self-worth. You find a reason to live.
That small spark becomes an ever-burning fire that sustains you, that warms you, hugs you in a gentle embrace. And when you can spark that inspiration in others, you create a movement – a conflagration – and the world becomes a less dark place. We need that.
About two years later, on Very Good Light’s birthday week, I realize just how far I’ve come along. Though I am filled with so many faults and weak in many moments, I think about you, readers. For you are precious. You are worthy. You are beautifully broken. You are loved. And yes, you, too, have very good light. Let’s keep shining.
Love and light,
If you or a loved on is experiencing suicide ideation, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, a 24/7 call center. The free and confidential support line helps people in distress and crisis. Call them here: 1-800-273-8255