I was in graduate school before I acknowledged something was wrong.
The worries, the quirks, the little obsessive tendencies that I could previously ignore or just chalk up to my being “eccentric and arty” in undergrad and high school were no longer a kooky if not annoying aspect of who I was, they were taking over.
From the first moment I arrived in Los Angeles, I felt an overwhelming need to control everything. Perhaps it was because I’d left everything in my life that felt safe and supportive back in St. Louis. Perhaps it was because I’d recently changed other medications and was ignoring the potential side effects. Perhaps something chemical changed in my early-20s brain. Who knows what the recipe was for my mental health troubles?
All I know is that it slowly began to dawn on me that my personality was being cannibalized by fear, compulsion, and self-harm fantasies.
The first day I woke up in my new apartment in Los Angeles, my heart was racing. It was the first day of classes, I was still on St. Louis time, of course I was nervous. That was normal.
That first week I woke up with a jolt every morning. Heart racing, terror at the day being poured into my brain from seemingly everywhere, and before I could get out of bed I had to go through an elaborate process of timing when I’d get out of bed – the digital clock had to be on an odd number, but I also had to count the ticks on the wrist watch that I kept by my bed from the start of the new minute. Both had to be odd at the same time, the right odd number, before I could “safely” rise. All through this, I fought to keep my internal clock on St. Louis time; two hours ahead of LA.
I’d wash my face a certain number of times (3), I’d sip my coffee a certain number of times before I could walk out the door (10), I locked and unlocked my front door a certain number of times so as to guard my home against bad luck (3 times lock/unlock).
I counted all the cracks in my hallway as I left, I skipped the last stair-step because there were six. Even in this obsessive state, I once thought to myself, “Oh Louise, you’re such a cliche.”
If I didn’t complete these and other tasks, the day was jinxed. A couple times I was running behind and had to run out the door to catch the bus without doing all my business, and I would spend the day anxiously waiting for a beam to fall on my head or the big earthquake to finally hit and smoosh me.
While those things terrified me (not to mention impeded my graduate work), I also caught myself longing for harm. I’d daydream about “how bad it would really be to break my leg?” How far could I fall and probably survive? How badly would I be broken if a car hit me? It scared me but it also sounded like such freedom.
In class and rehearsals, my former enthusiasm for art and the creation of a performance waned. I’d sit in rehearsals (that I was supposed to be running) and count the tiles in the ceiling, the stains on the wall. I had to. When it was time for me to direct, and talk with people about the work we were doing, I found myself annoyed that the one thing that soothed me was interrupted.
Everything outside of that delicate balancing of numbers odd and even was anxiety and the gray reality that I had no choice but to live with myself. Live with the threat of failure at every turn.
When I think back to those first months of graduate school, I have very few memories of classes or work or even praise. All I remember are the numbers and the secret wish that somehow, through no fault of my own, it would be ended for me.
This was the normal I resigned to. I grimly believed that this was the life I’d chosen, and the good days were gone. I’d chosen this. I should be happy. I was at a top graduate school, I had a nice place to live, my privilege was apparent at every turn. I had no right to feel bad.
How dare I.
When I wept for reasons I’m not sure of beyond “I feel terrible,” the words said to me from a family member were “How dare you? You have everything, and you feel sad? I should be so lucky.”
I felt my privilege deeply. A child of immigrants, my family worked hard to give me opportunities, to groom me for academic and professional success. We talked about job offers and internships, glowing letters of recommendation and awards; we didn’t talk about feelings. Well, not sad feelings.
The crown of my “sad feelings” was guilt. How dare I? I was in an envious position and I had the audacity to botch it because I felt bad.
But it was more than bad. I had gone from walking around with a rain cloud over my head to avoiding walking around at all. If I could figure out a way to avoid the world, I would.
That is when I knew this wasn’t normal.
When I went to the university’s psychological services clinic, I sat in the waiting room filled with shame. I hadn’t told anyone I was going, but all I could think about was the embarrassment or anger my parents would experience if they knew I was there. I was 23 years old and I was terrified what my parents would think!
Once the therapist closed the door to her office, I just started crying. In the back of the mind I thought, “Oh boy, she wishes she hadn’t taken me on!”
I cried and cried and when she asked me what was going through my head I told her that there were two cracks in the wall over her door and that I just wanted to escape from my life; my fear of failure could only be remedied by complete failure.
In that session I admitted everything that was consuming my life – the counting, the wishes of harm, the guilt, the keeping myself on St. Louis time, the obsessive/compulsive behavior. As I let it pour out, I felt as I was betraying my family – that this was not what we do.
We are immigrants. We are Chinese-Americans. We are held to higher standard. And here I was crying to a white lady in a pleasingly dim office about my FEELINGS.
In the weeks and months after that first visit, I saw a therapist two or three times a week, then eventually once a week. I started medication for my depression and anxiety – a diagnosis that was both a relief and a burden – and within about a month I actually felt a difference.
I started to recognize myself again. While the urges were still there, the anxiety and despair still nipping at my consciousness, I felt like the volume had been turned down on them. The person I remembered I was was coming in louder and clearer.
My parents started noticing too. In the past, when I’d go home for breaks I was withdrawn and ill-tempered.
But with therapy and medication, I was calmer, kinder to my parents. And it didn’t feel false or put on. I could talk with them again. They noticed, they commented.
“School is finally getting better huh?” Mom asked.
I hesitated. “No. It’s because I got help. I was very depressed and suffering from wild anxiety, and I hated myself. So I see a therapist now and I am on medication.”
I thought she might understand, surprise me with her open-mindedness like she sometimes does. Not quite this time.
“Are you hooked on drugs now? You just pop a pill whenever you want to feel happy? Are you on drugs right now? Do your professors know? Your friends?”
I tried to explain to her that I wasn’t “hooked on drugs” and that medication wasn’t just popping a “happy pill”, that it was a process. But it was hard for her to hear. When my dad got wind, he had the same reaction.
“Why do you have to take drugs to get happy? I don’t understand what you have to be sad about? Sometimes I feel nervous, and I just exercise. Do you exercise?”
This went on for some time. While caring for my mental health drove a temporary wedge between my parents and I, I knew it was important that I didn’t lie to them. They had to know that their high-achieving daughter could still be their high-achieving daughter and also suffer from mental health issues. I wanted them to know that, while I didn’t broadcast my depression and anxiety, I also wasn’t going to be ashamed of it.
As Chinese-Americans – Asian-Americans – that stigma is all too damaging.
A lot of it has to do with the model minority myth that was both imposed upon and embraced by us as means to survive in the United States. We are supposed to be the “good” ones, the ones that don’t make waves, that put our noses down and work quietly and reliably. Mental illness doesn’t figure into that equation.
For many immigrant and AAPI families, we stake our value on that myth. I understood that when my parents were so worried that my professors would find out that I “had mental problems” it was because they didn’t want me to stand out in one more way – I’d be the only woman in an all-male department, the only Asian person, and the mentally ill one. A big part of their concern was that I would be giving myself yet another mountain to climb that my peers didn’t have to.
Why add a “frivolous” concern like “feeling sad” (which, by the way, is not what depression is at all) to the trials you already face as a minority? It’s best to stay silent and work through it on your own.
And while my parents weren’t so worried about my bringing shame upon our family, for many AAPIs that is a real concern. Such is a reason people in the AAPI community are three times less likely to seek mental health treatment. Especially in the volatile times we live in, mental health issues are higher than ever yet go untreated.
A 2014 report indicated that 18.9 percent of high school aged Asian-Americans had considered suicide, whereas 15.5 percent of white students had. For Asian-American women, mental health issues are even more concerning. High school aged Asian-American women are twice as likely to have attempted suicide than their male counterparts, and death by suicide rates for Asian-American women ages 15-24 are 30 percent higher than they are for white women.
There are a myriad of reasons why people in the AAPI community do not seek treatment for mental illness – family or friends disapprove, cultural biases, fear of prejudice in America, lack of availability in a person’s fluent language, inability to locate services inside an ethnic enclave, inability to pay for services. Because the community has so long ignored or shut down talk of mental health, the community is lacking in support and services.
But one of the ways the we within the AAPI community can help is to simply speak up, attempt to make mental healthcare less of a dirty secret. The more successful AAPI people who come forward with their mental health struggles, the more people like my parents might see that pain or trauma is not something you have to endure alone.
To put it plainly, lives will be saved.
Eventually my parents came around – somewhat. They understand that my mental healthcare is an ongoing process and that I’m not a “drug addict”. Talking about it is still difficult for them, and the veneer of Everything is Fine is still their default. But we’ve come to an understanding. I understand that while they can open their minds, they cannot undo generations of thinking in a few years. And they understand that in order for me to be the daughter they believe I can be, I have to care for my mind beyond professional success.
I don’t hold my family and myself up as examples, rather as one story that could have gone many different ways. It’s my hope that by sharing this difficult experience, that other AAPI people can see themselves in it, and find a way to seek help or support the people they want to see succeed.
If you need help:
If you are having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self harm: