By John Ridlehoover
It’s strange. I’ve been writing for 20 years, and writing professionally for 10, and I have never written about my mental health. I’ve even written about other people’s mental health journeys, but I have so much trouble finding the words to describe my own.
I’m pretty sure I barely said more than a few words the first time I saw a therapist. But I’ve always been that way. I’m half Filipino and grew up in a small Southern town. Needless to say, I stuck out. In fact, I was the only Asian kid in every school I went to before high school. I didn’t notice until another kid pointed it out to me. Then it was all I could see.
The bullying was about what you’d expect: Kids asking me if I ate cats or dogs or made fun of the way my food smelled. I’d like to say I didn’t let this kind of stuff get to me, but I was young, so of course it did. And instead of fighting back, I decided to isolate myself. If no one noticed me, I figured, they wouldn’t make fun of me.
I became an expert at blending into the background — only speaking when spoken to and ignoring anyone saying something offensive. I would go straight home after school and retreat to my room instead of joining after-school clubs or sports teams.
I don’t know if this was where the depression found its opportunity to latch onto me, but I do remember being withdrawn, especially when it came to crowded social situations.
The first time I remember feeling depressed was sometime in middle school. Everything I used to love seemed less interesting. It was like the world had lost all its color, and I was the only one who’d noticed.
At the time, I thought this must be something everyone goes through. If not, I reasoned, that means I’m “crazy.” And I didn’t need something else making me stick out, so I kept these thoughts and feelings to myself.
I’d have these feelings off and on, but mostly, my school life was normal. I managed to make a few friends despite my isolation tactics, and I’d have my good days and bad days. That was until I finished high school and found out there were ways to make those bad feelings go away.
I started to use drugs and alcohol to numb my feelings. This self-medicating worked until the drugs triggered my anxiety. During my worst trip, I had a bad panic attack. I was so convinced that I was going to die that I called my girlfriend to hear her voice one last time. Thankfully, I was able to make it through the panic attack with her help, and afterwards, doctors prescribed me anti-anxiety medications. I figured that this medication would end the struggles I was facing.
It wasn’t long after that I experienced the worst depressive episode of my life. Simply “getting through” every day felt like a challenge. Nothing I used to love made me feel better, and I felt like I was becoming a burden to my friends and family. One night, I considered ending my life. I considered it for a long time. In a moment of clarity, I called my girlfriend (now wife), and she convinced me to go to the emergency room.
I was always adamant about checking myself into a hospital for mental health issues. The same thoughts kept running through my head: What if someone finds out? What will my parents think? Will I be able to go back to school after this? But I just couldn’t take it anymore. If the doctors couldn’t help me, then I had nothing to look forward to. I already felt dead.
I ended up spending a week in the hospital’s mental health ward, where I saw my first therapist and met others experiencing the same illness. Granted, everyone had their own stories and reasons for being there, but we found common ground. Though I was scared, I ended up learning a lot about myself during that hospital stay. And I still had a lot more to learn.
Over the years since my hospital visit, I’ve continued seeing a therapist, who has helped me realize that no one can “fix me.” I’m the only one that can find the right coping mechanisms. And every day I’m working to be a better, happier version of myself. I still have bad days. I have days where everything seems grey, and nothing makes me happy. However, I can see myself through those days now. I feel as though I’m still stuck in the middle of a forest, but at least this time, I know the way out. Even if it is a long, dark walk.
Anyone who lives with depression knows that finding emotional well-being is less of an uphill battle and more of an up-and-down roller coaster. It is a journey that requires vulnerability, patience and resilience.
I’ve learned that when it comes to the Asian-American experience with mental illness, our stories our similar, but never exactly the same. I’ve met members of our community who said their family told them to hide their mental illness as it could keep them from getting a good job. My family may not have understood what I was going though at first, but they’ve always been supportive of me seeking out help.
What we all seem to share is a shame that goes along with having a mental illness. And that shame can come from many places; be it the pressure of trying to fit into a place when you feel like it doesn’t want you, or the pressure of trying to meet high expectations. Either way, a lot of us don’t like talking about our mental health.
I’m not sure there’s a way to get rid of the shame, especially since a lot of us have dealt with it from a young age. But I can feel myself getting better. And I can only hope others with mental illness can also find healthy ways to deal with it.
To those struggling with depression (particularly young people) who haven’t told anyone about it, I urge you to share. I know that disclosing this information can be difficult, especially in a community that, traditionally, hasn’t been as open to discussing mental illness as it should.
But there is help available.
John Ridlehoover lives with his wife and two dogs in South Carolina. He’s currently working on a novel and book of short stories.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Issue of the Advocate.
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