Editor’s Note: As in other immigrant communities, open discussion of mental health issues is taboo for many Indian American families, despite the fact that incidences of depression and similar disorders are on the rise. For one young woman, that stigma led to years of hidden suffering and missed opportunities at treatment, all in the name of maintaining her family’s “model minority” image. Leela (not her real name) spoke to NAM Health Editor Viji Sundaram about her experience.
It started in middle school, when I was around 11 years old. I started feeling weak, had memory lapses and had no motivation to do anything. I felt sad most of the time. I thought the sadness was a normal part of pre-teen angst. I often starved myself for attention from my parents and friends. Most days, I cried myself to sleep.
Often, I didn’t finish my homework or turn it in. How could I? My thought processes were so chaotic. My grades slipped, and I felt guilty about it. I knew I was letting down my parents. My dad had done well in Silicon Valley. How I wish they understood what was going on inside of me. Whenever they asked me why I looked so exhausted, I just told them I was fine. And they didn’t press me further.
I tried to pull myself together, to work through my issues. I hid my pain, plunging myself into Indian classical music and South Indian classical dancing. Many people told me I was a good singer, but I didn’t recognize it as a skill I possessed and I had no confidence to sing before a gathering.
At school, my teachers didn’t understand me, either, but that may have been because I couldn’t articulate what I was going through. But even so my counselor sensed something was not well with me. My classmates began kind of bullying me, telling me I was dumb. It made me feel awful because I had always been a high achiever. My self-esteem hit rock bottom. My social life all but disappeared.
When I was in middle school, the principal told my parents to have me checked. They took me to an occupational therapist/educational strategist, who diagnosed me with Attention Deficit Disorder. While she treated my depression as a mere footnote, I was relieved to know that whatever it was that had been troubling me had a name.
But it was a tough pill for my parents to swallow. We South Asians are a model minority community and children are not supposed to have mental health issues. Sympathetic as my mom was toward me, she told me I wasn’t to tell my relatives or people in the community about my problem.
I was trapped inside a ball of depression and heartache. I felt so alone. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let that come in the way of my academics. At my parents’ insistence, I enrolled in some advanced placement courses like math, even though I wasn’t good at it.
Then my grades began to slip again. In my second year of high school, I grew anorexic. I dropped from 110 pounds to 84 pounds. For months, I kept slipping between binging and starving. I frequently flirted with the thought of committing suicide.
When I got accepted to the UC system, my parents were thrilled. With continued medication and therapy, I did well in school, although I didn’t have many friends. This was the first time I was living away from home and away from the networks I had built growing up.
One day, while in my freshman year, someone whom I knew sexually assaulted me. I was traumatized and I went into deep depression. I shut down completely and barricaded myself in my room. I stopped going to class. When my parents found out, they were angry.
I continued having panic attacks into the next year because the guy who raped me was still around. I kept retracting into myself and binging. I put on almost 50 pounds. My attendance was so poor that at the end of my sophomore year, I got kicked out of school and went back home.
I confided in my mom and told her about the rape. She was sympathetic. I enrolled in a nearby community college and isolated myself from my community because I didn’t want to be judged. I developed social anxiety.
More recently, I have been opening up to my mom and my dad, especially to my mom. They are doing their best to help me cope with what I am going through. But my mom still can’t read me because I still hide things from her.
Until recently, I didn’t know depression was treatable. I wish my teachers had recognized what was happening to me, and had not treated it as a passing phase.
I also wish Indian American parents realize how prevalent mental depression is and recognize it in their children so we won’t have to suffer in silence. I know other kids in my community who have mental health issues. Recognition is the first step in the healing process.
Accepting as my parents have been of late of what I’m going through, they have still not told anyone outside the family. That’s why as I share my story, I have to hide under the pseudonym, Leela.
This story was produced as part of New America Media’s #FeelBetter project, a storytelling campaign about depression in young people of diverse backgrounds. To explore the story collection, visit the #FeelBetter page and follow the campaign on Facebook.
Viji Sundaram is New America Media’s Health Editor/Writer. (Originally Published November 15, 2014)