Most of us are born into our Asian American identities with great expectations strung neatly along our shoulders. If our parents are immigrants, those expectations weigh heavier as we carry the unrealized dreams of those who came before us. We are asked to repay our family’s sacrifices and hardships with perfect test scores, Ivy-league educations, six-figure salaries from careers limited to medicine or law, a marriage to someone with an equally impressive resume and timely production of two offspring (preferably a boy and a girl).
We are prodded, squeezed and molded to be a shining example of the ideal Asian American progeny: a solid gold piece of the “Asian American Dream.” The ultimate prize for everything they fought for—for everything they left behind.
But what happens when things don’t go according to plan? After all, trauma casts a deep and heavy shadow. Our immigrant families are often ingrained with bitter, recent memories of war, famine, poverty and suffering. These weights of trauma are sewn into our lives, alongside those bright dreams and polished expectations. These weights are ours to bear and to unpack.
To loosen their grip on our health and happiness, we must sometimes ignite our own revolutions to break cycles of domestic abuse, hoarding and paranoia—whatever form the remnants of the harsh past-lives have taken. We were raised in the shadows of these remnants, these traumas. It can take great strength to reclaim our mental health, to suppress the conditioned and heightened instinct to fight or flight. Unpacking pain and these deep scars so many of us have been taught to bury deep within is not a sign of weakness nor is it shameful. It is healthy and makes us stronger.
I immigrated to the states from Korea with my family at a young age. My parents gave up their well-connected support system and white-collar jobs to work in the isolating restaurant business in a predominantly white suburb. It was a shock to the system for all of us, and it did not result in the most nurturing environment for my brother and me. My parents were struggling to keep their heads above water in a foreign land, friendless and unable to communicate in English. With everything they gave up to bring us here, failure was not an option. I developed crippling anxiety, depression and insomnia by sixth grade.
When I asked for help, I faced an all-powerful stigma. This stigma prevented my parents from taking their very troubled daughter for appropriate medical help because, with the best of intentions, they feared for my future. In their eyes, we lived in a world where seeing a “mental” doctor would extinguish all hopes of getting into a good college, where all potential marriage matches would disappear if word got out. But mental health conditions do not go away on their own when we bury our heads in the sand. Instead they can fester, snowball into bigger issues and spread.
At age 20, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My parents were there to nurse me back to my normal over-achieving self. As soon as I regained a resemblance of normalcy, my parents began pressuring me to stop taking my medications. Stigma again reared its ugly head.
Breaking the Cycle of Stigma
Not surprisingly, Asian Americans are nearly three times less likely than white Americans to seek mental health services. At the same time, Asian American college students are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than white Americans.
However misguided, my parents love me deeply and only want what they believe is best for me. Ultimately, despite my parents’ influence to the contrary, there was no question in my mind about what I had to do for my well-being and survival. The medication and regular therapy appointments saved my life.
Now years later, I have been able to meet most of my life goals: an excellent education, a fulfilling career, a loving life partner, a thriving child, and perhaps most important, being content, grateful and at peace.
I am providing my child a stable, nurturing family life with unconditional love, without the shadow of my past traumas. All of this was possible, despite my mental health condition, because of regular treatment and a dedication to wellness. A mental health diagnosis is not a death sentence no matter how daunting it seems at the outset. My parents’ fears and stigma around mental illness were entirely untrue.
I chose to define my own path, which has included unique life choices not in my parents’ plans. For those currently struggling and needing to help parents understand, it might be helpful to explain that working on one’s mental health goes hand-in-hand with working toward life goals, whatever those might be. And accomplishments won’t mean much if we destroy ourselves in the process. Without unpacking past pain, it is hard, if not impossible, to bask in that bright future. So, let’s step out of the shadows and talk about our problems. They won’t seem so bad in the light of day.
Michelle Yang was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I at age 20. She refused to let her mental health condition define her or stop her from pursuing her dreams. Michelle is writing a book to share her story to help remove stigma and discrimination around mental illness. Read more at livingwellhappily.com
Note: This piece was originally published in Mochi Magazine.
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