5 Things I Didn't Know About Depression

Photographed by: Rockie Nolan.
I was just 16 years old when I was first diagnosed with depression. After months of feeling numb, sleeping and otherwise staying in bed for most hours of the day, and barely eating, I went to a community health center by myself.

I wasn't exactly surprised by the diagnosis. But I think, deep down, I was hoping it was something else — because I knew I wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I couldn’t afford — literally or figuratively — to seek treatment.

First of all, I didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t pay for the therapist to whom I was referred, nor could I afford any antidepressants that person might have prescribed. Plus, living in a small suburb without a car meant very limited access to free clinics or support groups. (And back then, there weren’t quite as many good online support groups as there are now.)

I also couldn’t afford the shame that came with having a mental illness. Depression wasn’t something that was understood in my small hometown of Milpitas, CA (or in the Asian-American community in general). I was familiar with the concept at the time, but only in the sense that depression was a “first-world problem,” that it wasn’t a "real issue," and that it was just a "pathetic excuse."

All of these misconceptions, coupled with a lack of access to proper care and the crushing guilt of possibly burdening my parents who, as refugees, have suffered enough, meant that I stayed silent — until I was 22 and staring suicide right in the face.

Sadly, my story isn’t uncommon: Although overall, Asian-Americans seem to be affected by depression at a lower rate than other groups, we are also less likely to seek treatment. This trend affects young Asian-American women in particular; we have the second-highest suicide rate among all ethnic groups. This may be due to a variety of reasons, including cultural stigma and a dearth of therapists and other health professionals who are sensitive to these issues.

For so many of us, and perhaps especially for Asian-Americans, acknowledging a mental illness can be hard enough. But then there’s also the recovery process, which everyone who has depression knows is difficult.

I’m lucky enough to have people in my life now who support me and have pushed me to prioritize my mental health, but it hasn’t been an easy road. As far as I’ve experienced, there’s no cinematic breakthrough moment in which you wake up and realize how great your life actually is and suddenly beat depression. More often than not, it’s a very unglamourous battle that you make a conscious decision to fight every day. It’s a process of starting, stalling, stopping, and starting all over again.

Recovery means feeling weak, then feeling strong, and sometimes feeling both things at the same time. It’s as much a learning process as it is a recuperation process. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel 100% recovered, but I wake up most days feeling content, present, and grateful for my life, and that’s enough for me for now.

Since I grew up hearing so many things about depression that just weren’t true, I’m taking the chance to tell my own story and make up for a lifetime of silence and shame. Because after all, if I want us all to do better for mentally ill people, I might as well as put my money where my mouth is and start speaking up.

Ahead are five things I've learned so far.

Refinery29 is teaming up with Black Girls Smile Inc. in honor of Minority Mental Health Month to encourage women everywhere to lead their most mentally healthy lives. Because there is no health without mental health. Prioritize yours.

If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
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Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar
Coming out of depression can mean becoming a whole new person.

Being in the thick of depression is like being at the point during a marathon where you can’t see the finish line or remember the beginning.

The hardest part is not remembering who you were before depression took over your life. Recovery can sometimes mean discovering a whole new identity.

For example, I’m now a morning person, which doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but it is when you consider that I spent months going to bed and praying that I would never have to wake up again. I’m not even religious; this was just desperation. I woke up every morning dreading getting out of bed for the day ahead.

Now, thanks to a lot of work in prioritizing my mental health and being able to seek help and talk things out when I need it, my head is clearer. I enjoy being up before the world and taking in a quiet moment to myself before starting my day. I get up early and look forward to the day, which is so much more than I can say for past-me.
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Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar
Sadly, you still have to be careful about whom you tell.

While working at an internship last year, I went through a depression spell so debilitating that I spent almost every train ride home crying behind a pair of sunglasses. After about three weeks of this, I considered asking for a mental health leave of absence. (Anyone who knows me knows that this is a Big Deal — I am essentially the poster child for the "Keep Calm and Carry On" slogan.) Doing so, however, meant opening up a deeply personal conversation in a professional capacity, and to say I was reluctant about this would be an understatement.

I weighed my options with a friend, who said, “I’m torn, because half of me is like YES, battle that mental health stigma, but the other half of me really wants you to protect yourself because not everyone will be understanding.”

She was right — not everyone is understanding about mental illness, and I didn’t want to risk a potential fallout so early in my career. When you’re vying for a job in a field as competitive as journalism, the term “better safe than sorry” is your cornerstone. I ended up toughing it out and continuing to work, and I’m personally glad that I did, because, by some miracle, I was still able to learn a lot and produce stories that I'm proud of to this day.

But for every story like mine, there is one about how "toughing it out" can lead to a mental health crisis. In retrospect, I know I was flirting with disaster.

In an ideal world, we would never have to question whether taking care of mental illness would impact career success. Even though we’re getting a lot better at shining light on mental illnesses, we’ve still got a ways to go.

Even now, during recovery, deciding whom to open up to still feels like a game of Russian Roulette. Many people still think of depression as a personal weakness instead of a biological issue, and you just never know who "gets it" and who doesn't. And frankly, it's exhausting to feel like you need to educate people all the time.
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Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar
One of the worst parts of depression is the guilt.

I am constantly trying to make my mental illness more palatable for other people. Depression can come with its own type of guilt. For me, that stems from hearing that it’s so “selfish” to be suicidal, as well as the unique guilt that comes with being the child of immigrant parents. In a recent interview, actress Diane Guerrero wrote to me that through her own depression, she remembers thinking that nothing she went through could be as painful as what her parents went through. While I can’t speak for every child of immigrant parents who fled war-torn countries, this point really resonated with me. Though her parents and my own had wildly different experiences, I’ve constantly thought, how could I be in any distress when my immigrant parents have literally fled from war and are still surviving?

That guilt has informed a lot of why I kept silent for a long time, and though I’m now beginning to be more open about my depression in order to bring awareness to mental health, it’s still difficult. I find myself constantly apologizing for my depression, and trying to talk about it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone. In fact, while pitching this piece, I opted for a slideshow format because I felt like it would be easier to swallow for readers, and that I’d be better able attempt to inject some self-deprecation into it and make it easier for people to understand. This is just something that you do, because mental illness still isn’t widely discussed.
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Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar
There are people who won’t understand — and that’s okay.

On that note, there are going to be people — people you really care about — who will just never get what you’re going through. Accepting this so you can take care of yourself is key, no matter how badly you want to fight the stigma and educate others.

Feeling at odds with someone you love over an illness you can’t control can be frustrating and dismaying. When I was younger, I thought that if someone I loved didn’t understand what I was going through, that person just didn’t care enough about me. Now, however, I know things are a little less black-and-white.

My parents, for instance, have always maintained that depression isn’t real and is only “an American thing” — because they didn’t see it growing up in their native Vietnam. I was always a little heartbroken at what I perceived as my parents being dismissive of me and my experiences, and over the years, they’ve said a few things that have been unintentionally hurtful.

While I wish there were things they understood better, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my parents (and some friends), despite caring about me a lot, might not ever truly understand or be completely supportive. It doesn’t mean that they love me any less. And I don’t blame any friends who might have been wary to get close for fear of not knowing how to deal with me being depressed — we all do what we need to in order to get by.

Mental illness is hard enough to understand if you haven’t gone through it, and it’s twice as hard if you grew up in a society that didn’t prioritize emotional well-being. It’s not my parents' fault. It just means that we all have to do better in terms of mental health education and awareness for the next generation.

Also: For every person who’s told me to “snap out of it,” there have been so many more who have been come through in a time of need. Like one of my best friends, who drove from the north Bronx to downtown Manhattan at 3 a.m. to pick me up from the hospital. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a support system of friends, both with firsthand experience with mental illness and without.

When the topic of my depression came up in a conversation a few months ago, a friend of mine who hasn’t experienced mental illness herself admitted to frantically googling depression care tips early in our friendship and trying to understand what I was going through.
However, she summed it up best when she told me, “I realized I didn’t have to exactly understand, because if I don’t have depression, I just won’t get it. I just had to be supportive in any way that I could.”

To this day, I still can’t fully articulate how good it felt to realize that I had someone in my corner who got exactly what I and so many others need.
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Illustrated by: Elliot Salazar
Recovery is not linear.

Most days are good. Excellent, even. Most days, I feel grateful for the life that I have, and on the whole, I’m happy to say that I now feel at peace.

But some days aren’t so great. Some days, something will trigger me and make me feel like I'm back at square one. After the Orlando shooting, I didn’t eat for three days, until my concerned roommate force-fed me mac and cheese, which I then proceeded to vomit into our new apartment’s toilet (love you, Lauren).

There are always going to be setbacks. But no matter how defeated you feel, they do not cancel out the progress you’ve made. As the amazing Tracee Ellis Ross once said, “I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me.”