Earlier this summer, I was invited to be part of the Mind and Body cast for Emerson College’s Orientation Intro Show. Mind and Body is a series of written monologues detailing mental health issues that students often encounter during their first year of college and/or their lives. It is a show that has truly changed my life, and I was blessed to be part of it. My experiences with Mind and Body have aided me in telling my story to you today.
Prior this show, I had never spoken so publicly about my own mental health issues, let alone to 800+ incoming students. So to say the least, I was very anxious about this whole gig. An hour before the show, I was nervously pacing around and couldn’t eat in fear I would vomit my food due to insurmountable nerves. At least my throat didn’t feel like it was closing, the way it sometimes does when I’m under high levels of anxiety, and this time it didn’t feel like invisible hands were choking me. In my head, I feared that I would miss pauses in my monologue, misread a word from my chicken scratch handwriting, or be too close to the microphone. These worries didn’t start an hour before the Emerson intro show—rather, these small worries were things I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. These tiny worries are all part of what makes up Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
When I was around twelve, I recall my dad handing me a tiny self help book called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff one day after school. But even since then, I continued to sweat the small stuff whether it was grades (honestly even something as small as ten points), tests, boys, how I looked (does this haircut make me look good?) or people’s thoughts about me in general. Grades especially have been a pressure point for me as I never felt like I fit the model minority myth.
The model minority myth is the stereotype that all Asian Americans are high-achieving, hard-working academics who excel at maths and sciences. Personally, my interests have always been outside of maths and sciences. My grades for the most part have been okay, but I wouldn’t say I’m the best in the sense of making cum laude in high school. I prefer to create stories rather than compute numbers into equations. I am quite the opposite of what people might expect me to be as the supposed “model minority.”
In eleventh grade, my life got a little more (a lot more) stressful. My anxiety peaked to an all-time high. The pressure to fulfill what I thought I should be turned into a downward spiral of confidence, a lack of passion in acting, and a lack of confidence in my art. I tried to be someone else rather than just building upon myself and being unapologetic.
That year, the advisor for film club saw my talent in filmmaking and suggested I consider it as a career option. I began writing, directing, and producing a short film with a storyline was personal to me. Writing that screenplay became a way for me to cope with the constant pressure of college this and college that. The arts have always given me a method to cope, an escape from my reality.
At the same time, there was intense pressure to perfect my score on the SAT. I remember quite vividly staying up till the wee hours of the morning practicing math problems in the dining room. Math has never been my strong suit...I would hear comparisons from my own mother about the amount of study hours someone else’s kid put into the SAT. The pressure of being an Asian American student trying to live up to some age-old stereotype is absolutely maddening. There is an assumption from many non-Asians that Asian Americans don’t have mental health issues. Some non-Asians assume that Asian Americans are genetically inclined to be great at academia, even if it’s not true for all of us. Grades still cause me an immense amount of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
My mom always told me to stop worrying, but that’s easier said than done for people like myself who deal with GAD. I didn’t come to terms with this, let alone find a label that suited what I go through, until earlier this year. I had an utter lack of confidence in myself until I went to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference during my senior year of high school. During that trip, I had a breakdown, but also discovered that I truly needed to work on some things.
For a long time, I felt needing therapy made me weak. But it wasn’t until I found myself crying in an Indiana hotel room with two chaperones on that late Friday night that I realized maybe therapy isn’t such a bad idea. But the cultural stigma around therapy in my Chinese American community has always deterred me from receiving it. This is partially due to the result of the model minority myth, as many Chinese Americans want to fit into the mold created by a culture that isn’t our own. At the same time, the model minority myth creates erasure of Asian Americans with mental illnesses. In combination, this creates shame around the topic of mental health for many Asian American households. Some folks see therapy as a waste of money. If you do have a mental illness, then it’s treated as a hushed issue that no one is supposed to talk about. Some of us who deal with mental illnesses suffer in silence as our families want us to save face. In particular, Asian American women are at high risk for depression. Mental illnesses aren’t given the same treatment as physical illnesses in the Asian American community even though for some, mental illnesses can manifest themselves in physical ways.
There shouldn’t be shame in seeing a therapist or psychologist. Sometimes, you just need that unbiased voice in your life. And yes, there’s a lot of self-discovery in therapy. Therapy was the catalyst that helped me find self-love. Therapy is just like going to any other doctor, except you talk about your life for an hour or two. It’s not for people who are messed up; it’s for people who feel that they need to learn new coping methods. When I started therapy in May of my senior year of high school, I was a slightly different person than the one I am now. I never lost my personality, but I’ve gained a lot from seeing a therapist. In a sense, I’ve put the pieces of this puzzle called my life together during the months I’ve seen a therapist.
Now I’m sitting here writing this piece the week of Emerson College’s Orientation as an Orientation Leader. It’s wild to reflect upon my freshman year of college here as a rising sophomore...Anxiety can sometimes get the best of me, like when I had three breakdowns within a month during my first semester of college. I tried to ignore my mental health issues and convince myself that I was doing just fine. I was far from fine though. It took a couple true friends to convince me that I again needed to seek help. With the help of my sisters in Flawless Brown, I came to realize that self-care is absolutely necessary, and sometimes you just need to relax by coloring or walking in green spaces.
For those who don’t deal with GAD or any mental illnesses, first you should rethink when you say things like, “It’s all in your head,” “You’re crazy,” and “What are you worrying about?”. It’s dismissive of what those who have mental illnesses go through on a daily basis. Hearing those phrases, especially from the people who care about you, are honestly damaging and extremely hurtful. Everyone’s experience with mental illness is different and can manifest in different ways. Second, start discussing mental illness in your own households as the stigma lessens if more people start talking. Finally, if someone you know opens up about their own journey with mental illness, listen to them and meet them with compassion.