Isolated no more
Happiness was the same thing I wished for every year since I can remember, but it would be years before I was granted that wish. It was very difficult to understand or feel what the word even meant.
I battled major depression and anxiety since I was a child and through my teenage years. The revelation is almost always a surprise because I’m known to speak in front of college groups and because I talk to people all the time as a catering sales manager and as a journalist.
I grew up in Eastern Contra Costa County on the outskirts of the Bay Area. I lived in a community where the minorities are in the majority. My parents immigrated to the United States a little before we were born in the early 1980s. My father served in the United States Navy and brought my mother here from Cebu City. They lived in San Diego before they settled in the Bay Area where my father worked as a civilian at the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
Our life changed after he was laid off. During my childhood years, my mother would leave for work as me and my siblings, Christian and Michelle, were getting ready to go to school. By the time she got home, we were already asleep or getting ready for bed. So when we did see her, it wouldn’t be for very long. I remember running to the phone with my siblings when my mom would call during her lunch break because we missed her so much. She worked backbreaking hours to make sure her family had the best in life.
Because of how much the difficult situation was affecting me, I looked for ways to escape reality. Instead of really saying what I wanted to say or doing things I wanted to do, I only imagined it. Only in my head I’d tell my bullying classmates to leave me alone or tell the girl I had a crush on that she was pretty.
Music as companion
Music became my first therapist. I learned to play the piano, trumpet and the French horn in the 6th grade. I especially found playing and singing to jazz and the blues (to myself most of the time) as a way to release my stress and express feelings that I couldn’t find words for.
I took refuge in the band room. Often, I would skip eating lunch because I feared having to interact with other kids during lunch break. I would tinker with the piano or practice challenging classical or jazz pieces in the practice rooms to get my mind off the hunger. Of course, this made paying attention in real classes very difficult.
Whenever I got into an uncomfortable or stressful situation – such as when teachers pushed me to go play with the other kids — my hands, arms and legs trembled. I’ve had those symptoms since I was a child. I still remember my favorite wall at Los Medanos Elementary School in Pittsburg. It was on the corner of the 4th-grade playground where there was a bench for kids who were taking a break from playing basketball. I would sit on the bench close enough to other kids where it looked like I was involved in the game but far enough where the teachers would not pay attention to me.
But my teachers did notice. I remember overhearing a conversation between a teacher and her aide talking about how quiet I was. At first the teacher’s aide thought I couldn’t speak English but the teacher said she thought I had social anxiety. She was right. I didn’t want to deal with fear; I just wanted to take the easy way out and avoided facing them. But by avoiding my fears, I created barriers between me and the things that I really wanted to do.
Through the years I tried to find various ways to cope with fear and depression. I turned to alcohol. I felt numb and indifferent to anything around me when I was drunk, and I forgot about how sad I was. When mentally healthy people say they are depressed, they most likely mean that something made them sad, but they know they will get over it soon. When depressed people say they are depressed they have difficulty eating, sleeping, or focusing on being productive because of their condition. This is why I did not do well in school. I would hide my report card under the bed, and if my parents found out I would just promise to do better the next time. My mom would usually forget all about it because she worked 12 hours a day six days a week.
There were times when I felt like no one, not my family or even God, could help me. I contemplated suicide, but never had the guts to do it because deep down I was concerned for my family and didn’t want to cause them grief or embarrassment. But I made it a point to hold back tears until I got to a place where no one would see me.
Depression among young Asian Americans
In many Asian cultures, depression is not openly spoken of or acknowledged as an actual condition. My relatives would tell me that it was “only in your mind.” To this day, my parents didn’t know the severity of my condition then.
Prof Kenny Kwong of CUNY (City University of New York), who has done research on depression and suicide among young Asian Americans, said both conditions are not just problems for underachieving children but “also prominent among high achievers.”
“Extreme pressure from family to succeed and a resulting fear of failure can result in depression and even resentment on the part of the young person,” Kwong said in a research paper. “For many Asian families, the family is very central; an individual is not to bring shame to the family nor discuss personal problems outside of the family. As a result… these young people may have a narrow view of life and not develop good coping skills to deal with problematic, everyday situations.”
I kept my mental health issues a secret, as others continued to assume I was either lazy or didn’t have the brains. Some relatives and friends would call me useless, worthless and dumb. At some point, I began to believe it. I didn’t seek help initially because I feared the stigma associated with needing therapy. I could not bear the idea that relatives or friends may add “crazy” to the already extensive laundry list of demoralizing adjectives that were being hurled at me.
My condition took a toll on my family. Seeing how my parents were struggling with making ends meet and how I was becoming an additional problem, I decided to seek help.
When I moved to the campus at California State University, East Bay, I took advantage of the free services available to students. My roommates and my professors were instrumental in inspiring me to make the most of college life. That – and a conscious decision on my part to stop being afraid was the beginning for me.
I founded my own club, participated with the Filipino student organization and joined a local chapter of the Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity. I started to become a leader who was very active in school and had fun without neglecting my studies. I excelled in comparative politics, foreign policy analysis and international relations. For the first time in my life, I began to believe in myself. I had found my path.
Shortly after graduating – and mostly by accident – I was calling myself a journalist. Journalism has been the most exciting, fun, life-changing and difficult experience of my life so far. I am very fortunate to have met many wonderful people who helped me overcome my barriers. - Rappler.com
Republished from The FilAm. This piece won in the "Emerging Youth Voices" category of the New America Media Ethnic Media Awards for Southern California 2013. Ryan Gajudo Macasero received his award on March 7, 2013. He is an award-winning journalist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a freelance reporter for several FilAm and community publications including Philippine News and The Patch. He is now a social media producer for Rappler.