Girl Talk: On The Stigma Of Mental Illness In The Asian Community

It was a workday of minor annoyances. Everything at my temp job had gone normally, except for a snippy email from IT and a laminator malfunction that forced me to dig out a half-laminated page with a fork.

So why was I crouched in a bathroom stall, hyperventilating, sobbing, and trying not to scream?

A coworker insisted I see a doctor, who said my meltdown was probably due to anxiety and depression. I was shaken – but not entirely surprised.

I was born and raised in a majority-Asian community in Hawaii, where mental health issues are not discussed. Granted, since most of the people in that community are second- to fourth-generation Asians, there are some exceptions, although these exceptions are determined by an unspoken code. (It has to be an unspoken code. If you can’t discuss mental health, you can’t discuss discussing mental health, either.) As far as I can figure, you get a pass if you’ve tried to kill yourself or at least been hospitalized. Anything else is something that you just get over eventually. Don’t dwell on your emotions all the time. We must endure. That was the message.

Unfortunately, by this point in time I had accrued years of undiscussable stuff.

Most of my elementary school memories are a continual stream of unhappiness and ostracism. I’m not sure if that was depression or just being a very weird kid. I remember coming up with baroque suicide methods like standing on a melting block of ice with a noose around my neck, although I might have stolen that one from a book of brain teasers. I wasn’t necessarily planning to die, but anything was better than having to face those overwhelming feelings head-on.

Depression kicked back in when I went to college in St. Louis, although at least I was somewhat able to predict when it would strike – because I suspected I had Seasonal Affective Disorder. Growing up in a tropical climate meant my serotonin levels were not prepared for Midwestern winters. My year abroad at Oxford was also emotionally nightmarish, partially because SAD can get a major hold in a country where the skies are almost always gray, and partially because I faced unprecedented levels of academic and social stress. I spent a lot of the first term crying in the fetal position and a lot of the next two terms drinking: first trying to purge the pain, then trying to drown it in whiskey and Pimm’s (hey, it was Oxford).

The next bout of depression came a few years after grad school. I was settling down in England and working a series of temp jobs; they were all I could get on my two-year residency visa. And this time it was bad.

I thought I’d left my ruminations on suicide in elementary school along with stirrup pants and POGs, but I was wrong. Like my elementary school days, I wasn’t actually planning to kill myself; I was thinking about how much easier things would be if I just so happened to die. Unlike my school days, however, I was Googling sleeping pills and trying to convince my fiancé that he would be better off if I died (although he didn’t believe me). Besides, nothing made me happy anymore. At one point I described the feeling as “a hole inside me where everything good used to be.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I was constantly depressed. Often I was just operating at below-average happiness levels and telling myself everything was fine in order to get things done. That terrible, black void would disappear or at least seem distant enough for me to pretend it wasn’t a problem, until it was a problem again.

Besides, in between the bouts of depression, I was operating at maximum stress levels. I could pretend everything was fine until a setback occurred:  an irate caller at work, for instance, or a rejection letter for a job application. Then suddenly nothing was fine and the worst-case scenario was the only scenario I could imagine. That irate caller? He personally hated me. That rejection letter? I was completely incompetent and would never get a job. Naturally, there’d be tears. Sometimes screaming, if I was at home. I had to turn on the radio every night to fall asleep, otherwise my fears and worries would crowd out my ability to sleep.

And while all this was going on, I couldn’t talk to anybody.

I tried talking to a doctor in England about the depression, but I downplayed how awful it felt. I didn’t want to come off as self-centered or to reveal that I wasn’t strong enough to handle my own emotions. So no progress was made there. (I also think this was due to a lack of diversity training about Asians and mental health, but maybe that’s just England for you.)

If I couldn’t tell a trained medical professional, how could I tell my friends or family? I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, and if I told my friends they might think I was over-dramatic or weak or crazy. At least, that was my reasoning. So I wrote deliberately cheery emails to my parents, just frequently enough so they wouldn’t worry, and stopped going out with friends. I felt increasingly trapped inside my own head. The silent endurance approach wasn’t doing me any good, but it was the only one I knew.

In the days after the bathroom stall incident, I wondered if I’d just snapped. I asked my fiancé on several occasions to promise that I wasn’t going crazy, because it felt like the pieces of my brain had all become unglued and now had to be reassembled almost from scratch.

Or maybe it was my brain trying to tell me that something had to change. I was sick of crying every night and having to pretend everything was fine the next morning. Maybe I’d built up so much undiscussed stuff over the years that it was not only unhealthy but impossible to repress it anymore. Clearly I wasn’t doing so well at being strong; maybe it was time to try something different.

So I went to a stress management class. The fear of being spotted there – what if someone I knew saw me? What if they found out something was wrong with my mind? – was slightly crippling at times, but I knew I couldn’t go back to how things were before.

Besides, it felt good to admit that I needed help. Saying out loud that I had some emotional problems and didn’t always know how to cope lifted a weight from me that I hadn’t even known was there.

I’m glad to say I’m going through the stages of recovery now. That means breaking down stressful situations into lots of tiny manageable situations and, when anxiety or depression starts to creep up, reminding myself that I don’t have to take on more than I can handle just to “be strong”. That also means being honest – which isn’t easy, but does feel immensely freeing. I’m getting to know myself again, and for the first time I actually like what I see.