The Aerogram shares this essay to recognize National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week, May 5-11, 2013.
I was once a straight-A high school student aspiring to attend a top college. A few months later, I was a high school dropout unable to leave her bed.
It’s not an exaggeration to say major depression nearly destroyed my life.
It started innocently enough. I’d come home from school feeling exhaustion not even coffee could beat. My passion turned to apathy. I couldn’t even focus in class. In response to the inner turmoil, I turned to food and gained a lot of weight.
For a straight-A student, this was humiliating. All my life, I worked toward becoming the “perfect Indian girl.” I aspired to earn good grades, be the best daughter, and look pretty and skinny. I wanted to be the kind of daughter my Mom could boast about at those dreaded Indian gatherings where parents competed over whose kids had the more promising futures.
At night, I’d cry over what a failure I felt I was, but abiding by cultural norms that dictate keeping silent about emotional issues, I kept it all in. I’d compare myself to all the other South Asian kids I knew. One was a sophomore already acing calculus. Another was a popular and beautiful girl who created a non-profit organization to help poor Indian kids. The third got a full-ride to an Ivy League school, and her fair skin and thin figure won her a modeling contract as well.
Beauty and brains: the unspoken necessary attributes to qualify as perfect, taught to Indian girls in the West since birth. Beauty, of course, was defined in my world as a stick-thin figure, straightened dark hair maybe with some highlights, colored contact lenses and fair skin. (Because to look like a beautiful Indian woman, you can’t look like your stereotypical Indian woman.) At the same time, it must look effortless. If you’re wearing makeup, it better look natural.
Meanwhile, I was overweight because I escaped to food for comfort, and I had unruly, thick, wavy hair that refused to be tamed by a straightener. My grades were slipping, and I barely stayed awake during Indian functions.
Advice I’d receive from well-intentioned Indian elders added more pressure:
“But there are poor kids in India who have it worse!”
“Everybody’s struggling. Depression’s just a silly Western concoction. If you keep yourself busy and think positive thoughts, you’ll be fine.”
“Make sure you don’t tell anybody how you’re feeling. They will gossip. Just grin and bear it.”“Make sure you don’t tell anybody how you’re feeling.”I started to avoid South Asians. Many accused me of being ashamed of my culture, but I just couldn’t cope with their pressure. I needed compassion, but the message I received was to shut up and work harder. There was a rat race to win! Fake a smile, and conquer it.
But I didn’t want the rat race anymore. I just wanted to live my own life.
Tears became a daily occurrence. I’d run to my room, throw the boulder that was my backpack onto my bed, and collapse on top of it. One day, I couldn’t get up anymore, not even to go to school. Thoughts of self-harm tortured my mind.
Everything, combined with my Dad’s death at a young age among other factors, had gotten to be too much.
Eventually, I had to leave high school and took a test to gain the diploma’s equivalent. I’d missed far too many classes and needed to receive more intensive care. To South Asian passerby who didn’t know what I was going through, I was judged harshly and gossiped about. I never attended my high school homecoming, prom, or graduation. I watched as the South Asian kids I compared myself to left to college, while I struggled to re-gain the will to live.
Somehow, my story had a happy “ending.” It took time, and I definitely got “behind,” but I healed. I started to learn who I really was. I realized I have an intrinsic passion for learning, so I enrolled in a community college, did well, and graduated from a top college.Treating my depression taught me I’m far more than any accomplishment, big or small.The difference is now in conversations with South Asians that’s not the first thing I talk about, if I mention it at all. Treating my depression taught me I’m far more than any accomplishment, big or small. While I still struggle from time to time, I have a strong sense of self no amount of external pressure could break.
Many of my family and friends initially struggled to cope with my depression because of our culture’s tendency to avoid mental health issues, but they eventually softened when they saw how life-threatening my illness became. They learned about mental health, took it seriously, and became great allies.
Interestingly, some even sought help after recognizing themselves in the symptoms. Some were people who even gave me the advice to “grin and bear it.” I realized those who say things like that struggle the most. They cannot imagine anything more than a stressful, joyless life. It’s all they know. Their advice is harsh because they speak harshly to themselves.
I wanted to share my experience with depression because I’ve met many South Asians — from boys and girls, to elderly women and men — who suffer from it. They just keep quiet, fearing what others would think.
In college, I’d often see many high-achieving South Asian students — undergraduates to Ph.D.s — visiting therapists at our medical center. Many were far ahead in the rat race than most, but had little self-esteem.
On the flip side, I’ve met South Asians who totally rebelled against their parents and cultural expectations. They sadly avoid South Asians much like I initially did when I was depressed. Many do because of our cultural lack of understanding and empathy for emotional issues, never mind actual mental illnesses.We have to stop obsessing over crafting the perfect fronts.It doesn’t have to be this way. We have to stop obsessing over crafting the perfect fronts, and spend more time developing our inner selves. Our culture’s propensity for hiding things under the rug only hurts.
Depression is a very treatable illness, but a sickness can’t be cured if it’s not diagnosed.
Cultural norms dictate we keep silent, but they do so at a tremendous cost: a lifetime’s worth of unhappiness, if not our own lives. We can turn the tide around. Just break the silence.
If you think you or a loved one is struggling with depression, you’re not alone. Check your symptoms here to see if they match, and get help now.