This article is part of a series of articles commemorating Mental Health Awareness Month. We recognize that the stigma around mental health care — in Asian American communities, in particular — often keeps people from seeking help or having transparent conversations about the importance of mental health care. Mochi believes that caring for our mental health is an essential piece of caring for our overall health and well-being. We hope this series will shed light on how mental health care positively impacted these writers.
I had never realized how loud hospitals actually are. The first thing I remember hearing when I woke up was the incessant beeping of my heart monitor and the sound of infants crying. Their rage and agony rattled the glass boxes that defined their whole worlds, and their wordless cries seemed to protest along with mine: “Why am I here?”
While the IV drip set my veins on fire, shame itched underneath my skin. It’s one thing to suffer a mental breakdown at 18 years old; it’s another thing to survive and have to put the pieces back together again in a pediatric unit surrounded by young children with conditions that further break your heart. The mental health stigma didn’t help. Apathetic clowns shrugged as they handed me balloon animals, and art therapists quickly dropped their kindergarten teacher voices. Nurses came to my room solely to gossip with whomever was assigned to suicide watch that hour.
Although I was legally an adult, the hospital I’d been admitted to sent all incoming patients under 21 years old to pediatric. This meant the doctors only attempted to communicate with my parents, whose limited English could only carry them so far. My mother’s response was to call every Korean doctor she knew in the tri-state area to try to get me discharged early. “She doesn’t belong here,” my mother insisted. “There’s nothing wrong with her.”
The thing about involuntary check-ins though is that you need to actually prove that there’s nothing wrong with you, or you have to acknowledge that there is something wrong with you, and prove that you’re willing to get better — and I couldn’t seem to do either. After they flushed the overdose out of my system, it was only a matter of time before they moved me out of pediatric and into adult psychiatric.
For the next two months, I was shuffled in and out of our broken mental health care system and asked to relive my sexual abuse history and racial traumas over and over again to a revolving door of nameless white doctors. One insisted he had plenty of Asian patients, all honors students, who had simply buckled under academic pressure from their tiger parents. Another made me sit in his office and translate my own diagnosis to my parents. In the same breath that the psychiatrists told me I had Major Depressive Disorder with Borderline Personality traits, they said I simply needed to take my pills and rest.
Still, despite my diagnosis, I believed my story wasn’t worth listening to or treating, and that I didn’t belong here. After all, I was surrounded by fellow in-patients with far more severe cases than myself, “real” illnesses compared to mine. One guy my age, who believed he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ whenever he had manic episodes, would ask, “Why are we here? Are we in purgatory?”
It did feel like a cruel joke by the god I no longer believed existed. Like most children of self-employed immigrants, I didn’t have health insurance, so I was amassing a massive debt in hospital bills and medication. The rest of the world seemed to be moving on so rapidly outside, and nothing on the inside was helping. No one seemed to be truly listening, just switching my medication and raising the dosage. I lost faith again, this time in psychiatry. I convinced my doctors to discharge me on the empty promise that I would take my antidepressants diligently. I decided to deal with my mental health like I always had: ignoring it.
Except, of course, it would take time before I could even face the prospect of returning to college. One missed semester turned into two, and eventually four. While I worked in retail, my parents, eager to save face in the Korean American community, constructed another lie that I participated in. “She’s just resting,” they would tell family members and nosy clients. At home, my mother insisted my traumas should have made me stronger, not weaker, that my generation was fortunate to not have experienced things like war and poverty and “real” illnesses that my grandparents had, that I had absolutely nothing to be sad about. Their shame and my rage boiled over.
But even after leaving home, even when I was barely speaking to my parents, I couldn’t help but internalize all of the things they had said. I dragged myself through my 20s still trying to meet their expectations: getting my full scholarship back, graduating, traveling the world, working full-time, and priding myself on the presentation of a calm and free-spirited persona. Although my laughter rang hollow in my ears, outwardly, to everyone else, I seemed “fine.” Reckless maybe, but surely, there was nothing wrong with me.
During that time, my untreated, high-functioning depression and anxiety slowly manifested physically: rashes on my upper thighs every night, teeth grinding, nightmares and weirdly the constant need to pee. I engaged in every self-destructive, self-medicating behavior in the book and cried in bathrooms, closets and train rides home. My dentist, dermatologist and primary care doctor all told me to reduce the stress in my life. But I constantly felt like I was drowning, barely managing to paddle my feet to keep my head above water. Still, I thought it was only reflective of my weakness, that this weakness was something I shouldn’t show others.
My partner, who had been holding me up as best as he could, suggested we leave New York City for a little bit and move to Puerto Rico, to his grandmother’s home town. To write. To heal. To actually rest. Here, the salinity of the sea could support the ever-growing burden that was my body. Instead of paddling frantically, I turned onto my back and began to float.
I’m fine now, I thought. It’s New York City that was toxic. Not me. At the time, I thought I had somehow cured myself through my own sheer efforts.
And then the pandemic hit. I stopped having to present a facade and having to meet everyone else’s expectations, but this only made my anxiety snowball further. I couldn’t figure out why I was still here. After the Atlanta massacre, I spiralled again. The teeth grinding and nightmares came bubbling back to the surface, along with all the traumas I had tried to bury. I deleted my social media apps. I took weeks to reply to text messages and emails. And finally, realizing this couldn’t continue, that I couldn’t ignore it any further, I sat down and researched Asian American therapists.
To be honest, it will take me some time to trust mental health professionals again. Most of them are out of network, out of budget, and out of touch, and the idea of going back on medication fills me with dread. But I can’t stress enough how freeing it is to have found an Asian American therapist who just gets it. My current therapist does not make assumptions about me based on my race; she knows exactly what I mean when I talk about the effects of colonialism and intergenerational trauma, not to mention racial hypersexualization, on my body. She understands the complexities and the weight of filial piety. And she’s teaching me to set my own expectations.
After hiding my figurative and literal scars for so long, it’s terrifying to open up and be honest about my mental health struggles. I’m only just beginning to stop saying “I’m fine” to my loved ones and to talk openly with my parents about my therapy sessions. I am still floating. Sometimes, I get tired and the water reaches my nose again. Some nights, my stars fade, and I am left in utter darkness with nothing but the sound of my own jagged breathing against the waves.
But I’m willing to get better, and there are so many lifeboats guiding my way. People teaching me how to breathe, people pointing me in the right direction, people holding my hand so I don’t drift too far, people holding me so I can rest.
I still haven’t found land, but that’s okay. It’s been ten years since the start of this journey, and I am realizing I am exactly where I need to be.
I am here because I want to be.
Photo credit: Jernej Graj//Unsplash