I graduated early from UC Davis with two bachelors in Psychology and Human Development with ambitions of pursuing a PhD in developmental psychology. I was volunteering in student research labs and about to apply to doctoral programs when everything, including my health, came to a halt. I found myself unable to get out of bed or function during basic daily tasks.
At first, I thought this was just a temporary problem, brought on by the difficult transition out of college, compounded with expectations of being a good Asian daughter. I felt the pressure to get into a graduate program right away or get a job, otherwise I would be causing my family to lose face. But as months started to stretch into years, I started to feel deeply ingrained shame and hopelessness. I felt like a disappointment, someone who was unworthy of love and support from other people because I had failed to produce anything with my life. I shut myself in and closed myself off from people, afraid of rejection and the shame of not meeting the performance expectations of my own culture, and being afraid of being labeled as lazy and worthless.
The Taiwanese side of my cultural upbringing was skeptical of Western medicine and taught me to avoid doctors. It taught me that emotions were bad — one must be stoic and not let their emotions bother others. I questioned my right to healthcare and my right to advocate for my well being. It took a very long time to convince myself that my symptoms and conditions were worth seeking out the care of a doctor because of the culture of stoicism I had been raised in. I had this mindset instilled in me from a young age that unless I was actively dying, it was best to just suck it up and not say anything so I wouldn’t cause a ruckus or inconvenience others.
I became what my doctors call ”a poor perceiver.” Due to constantly feeling ill, I became completely incapable of gauging when something was going horribly wrong with my body because I generally felt terrible. I also felt trapped, with internalized conflicts. Am I just making this up? Is seeking treatment just me trying to ask for attention?
The stigma around mental illness runs deep. Your mental illness can mean you’re a failure, which is seen as a failure of your parents in raising you well. When I was struggling with severe depression and PTSD during high school and early undergraduate years, I needed my family to support me, especially through educating themselves on mental health. But I found they were unwilling or unable to accept me, let alone accommodate me.
There is also shame around mental health in Western culture. Growing up in America, I learned that while expressiveness is important, I wasn’t supposed to show sadness. I was supposed to stay positive and pull myself up by my bootstraps. I was told that the problem with my mental health was me not trying hard enough to get better.
Learning about these cultural influences helped me understand the immense amount of shame and lack of acceptance of my own mental illness. I had to unlearn these things explicitly to accept myself and show myself compassion in my journey to improve my own mental health. I had to learn to understand how I had come to develop these negative beliefs and ideas about myself and then actively choose to love myself in spite of them. There is power in holding a nonjudgmental space with cultural competence that can help an individual take their first step towards healing and growing. I think it’s important to learn about one’s own cultural identity, because it shapes your cognition and behaviors which influence your symptoms.
I am so thankful for the privilege of having affordable healthcare and insurance, as well as a diagnosis and treatment plans now. I have accepted that my conditions are incurable and a part of my daily life. They affect how I sleep, eat, move, perceive, and remember things. They affect my appearance, mood, cognition, and personality.
I think the hardest part of my journey right now is to accept myself in context of my cultural upbringing. I am that disabled individual who isn’t capable of working full time right now. I am literally what the Asian American community labeled as lazy and useless growing up. When I am in my wheelchair, people treat me like furniture or simply ignore me.
At the same time, I am still capable of achieving what I was planning to. I was accepted into a competitive graduate program (albeit in a different field). My personal experience has kindled a desire to ensure that others struggling in their mental health receive the support and accommodations that they need. I care about my friends and want to empower them to achieve their goals. How do I reconcile my internalized shame and past experiences with this belief that I am loved and inherently worthy of love as a child of God? I don’t have a perfect answer to this question, but I definitely don’t intend to give up on finding out different aspect of answers to this question as I continue to live.
As the daughter of Asian American immigrants, I have lived with and between two different cultures that are sometimes clashing, sometimes cooperating, and sometimes existing on their own apart from each other. I gained two sets of different and often dialectical values, perspectives, wisdoms, and opinions. The differences in language, mannerisms, composure, and interactions have influenced my medical and mental health journey. This dichotomous identity, while messy and confusing at times, ultimately is a giant toolbox that allows me to pull out and create skills that are needed in different situations and contexts, and that is something I would never change about myself.