“Mental Illness is an Excuse for Failure”

This article was originally written for and published by Um Magazine.

Have you ever been degraded, doubted, or discounted for a disease you did not ask for?

Your initial reaction is most likely a sense of disbelief at the fact that anybody, let alone your loved ones, would dismiss your well-being. However, not all illnesses are explicitly manifested, and those that are internally present are often masked by the stigmatization of society and culture. When faced with disappointment and humiliation for a reason that you cannot prevent, it often swallows your sense of self and leaves you in an empty, isolated hole. This is exactly what it felt like growing up with chronic depression as a first generation Chinese-American.

The Silicon Valley in Northern California is notorious for its increasingly advanced technology companies, such as Apple, Facebook, and Google. It is recognized as one of the most innovative regions of this state and–as impressing as that may sound–it also contains some of the most competitive and pressured academia. To many this meant prestige, but to me it meant torture. When I started going to school there, I did not realize that my life would begin revolving around the letters on my transcript and the recreational activities on my resume. However, my worries did not originate from the incapacity to sustain a high GPA and achieve honorable awards, but rather it rooted from my self-proclaimed pressure to be enough for my family, to be the one who would shed a successful light on their stereotyped identity as poor and uneducated immigrants.

My mother immigrated to the United States in her late 30’s, meaning that her education in China meant nothing here. With little to no knowledge of American values, she lacked the privileges of obtaining a degree and pursuing her dreams. For years, she devoted sweat and tears into working over 50 hours a week in multiple part-time jobs just to maintain an affordable life for me and my brother. In today’s prestigious society, this is looked down upon on–especially when we are constantly surrounded by high class families born into wealth and fortune. Despite our lack of famed reputation, I reminded myself that I was awarded with the privilege of growing up here for one reason: my family’s sacrifices. This in itself was enough for me to push myself to an extent of workload that I thought I could handle — emphasis on the “thought.”

Being the youngest in the family and the only one who possesses citizenship is another way of saying that I have always been expected to bring honor and success. This put me on a predestined pedestal to be exceptionally independent and confident as I was never hand held through any of my endeavors. What this meant for me was to invest all my time and energy into as many college-application building activities as possible. As a 15 year old, I was already packing my schedule with 7 to 4 school days, followed by an after school sport, and ending with back-to-back part time jobs at a local restaurant and a kid’s party venue. At first, I was confident in my ability to flourish and make my loved ones proud, but these decisions slowly took a turn for the worst.

I was sixteen when I was found unconscious in the bathtub with a bottle of pills and a bloody blade by my side; this was my first attempt at suicide.

I remember how much it stung to feel my stomach cave in. I remember the instantaneous drift of regret that engrossed me. Most of all, I remember the disappointment in my mother’s eyes. When I was hospitalized, I was encapsulated by the fear of facing my mother and explaining to her the reasoning behind my decision. Not to my surprise, her reaction was as dreadful as I had expected it to be. The first things she said to me were, “Why would you be so foolish? Who forced you into this? Are you stupid?” At the time, I was in a mental state of utter distress and hearing her scream at me for a disease I did not ask for demonized my outlook on life and myself. To her, clinical depression was not an acceptable reason as she was raised in a culture that devalued vulnerability and the public manifestation of emotions. Because of our cultural and language barriers, it was never simple for me to communicate the darkness that hovered in my mind and being in that situation only worsened that lack of connection. For a while, I began to convince myself that my mental illness was a fraudulent excuse for my failures and that I had no right to complain because my mother had always been expected to conceal her pain. This only made it harder for me to get better, but that does not necessarily mean that I never did.

Despite the temporary fallout I had with my mother, I am grateful that it happened. What I believed to be a devastating end to our relationship turned out to be the beginnings of a compassionate sense of trust. Although it took months, my mother eventually offered me her hand in acceptance, one of authentic empathy and love. I came to the realization that her initial retaliation was never either of our faults; she merely could not fathom why I hoped to end my life. The barricade that had once separated us became a stairway that connected us. We started to openly communicate with each other about our feelings and as a result, the illusionary pressure of being “good enough” for her diminished.

My morals no longer revolved around bringing artificial honor to my family’s name, but rather, acknowledging my own passions and working for those instead.

During my battle against depression, I lived years in and out of mental facilities, switching between therapists, and ingesting prescribed antidepressants that have chemically altered my brain to behave a certain way. Even with support, there were times when I believed that there was no escape from the downward spiral of depression, but I always wound up reaching the light. Whether in my own will to live or my purpose to fulfill, this light became the reason for my existence today. Each battle has given me irreplaceable connections with others who have pushed me to learn the significance of loving myself for my refined traits, for there is no other me in this universe. I no longer regret the pain I put myself through at my lowest points because without it, I would have never grown to become the conquering warrior that I am today nor would I have shaped the strong relationship I now have with my mother. I have fought my whole life to live on with an unidentified aspiration but now, I can solemnly say that I have discovered what it is: I will fight to conquer depression because it will never define me- it is only a part of me. I will live to grow into the beautiful person I know I will become, and make not only myself, but also my family proud. I will breathe to achieve the degree that will allow me to share my empathy with others who endure the same pain- the same way the therapists in my life have done for me. I will embrace this until I can love myself enough to love others. This is my purpose, and it can be yours too.

To the people who are reading this: I want this to be a reminder that you are worth loving and accepting.

Whether or not you have faced mental wars, there is no denying the fact that we are all living with dreams and passions, ones that often require precursors of failure after failure. This does not mean that you are unworthy of success, nor does it mean that you will never get to that peak of happiness. Despite the standards that you or your peers set yourself up with, you are and always will be enough. It may appear that everybody is out to get you, but in reality you are the one who makes the call on how you perceive both the world and–most importantly–yourself. Your feelings do not deserve to be invalidated and ignored; they deserve to be heard and cherished. I am here to promise you that expressing your deepest emotions does not translate to weakness or vulnerability — it is a sign of strength, bravery, and perseverance. Reaching out to a professional was one of the best decisions I have ever made, even if it meant that I had to nearly die to get there. Since then, I have blossomed into a person that I can confidently say I am proud of, not because I have met the standards of a perfectionist society, but because I have learned to accept and love myself. It may not be possible to fix anybody, but it is more than possible to support somebody. For me, this support became the driving force that led me to this point of genuine happiness and that could be the case for you, too. If you are suffering through any suicidal or depressive thoughts, please reach out to your loved ones or local services, such as C.A.P.S., Acacia Counseling & Wellness, Student Health, etc. You are not alone in this battle; we can and will conquer it together.

— Maggie Yao, Acacia Intern

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