How Growing Up In Two Cultures Affected My Mental Health

23 years ago I was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania to two Filipino immigrants. I was their first born child in completely new territory. As a first generation Filipino-American, I grew up in two, conflicting cultures: Eastern culture and Western culture. As a young child, I begged for and used whitening soap because I absolutely despised how dark I was, especially in the summer. No one else in my school was tan like me. I got made fun of for bringing rice in for lunch and one time a kid even threw my tupperware of rice on the floor. I only wanted sandwiches, Lunchables, and anything “normal” really (normal was the actual word I used) for lunch after that, all the way through high school. All the other girls in my classes would go on sleepovers, but I was never allowed to. I didn’t learn how to use a tampon until I got to college.

Now, those scenarios weren’t meant to establish a pity party. I can only speak for myself, but they are scenarios that other first generation Asian-Americans similarly experience; possibly even other cultures as well. Point is…I grew up being in the middle of a never ending tug of war, where I was the rope and the cultures were the ones tugging at me from opposite ends. It was conflicting.

Mental health and suicide are taboo in the Philippines. My parents didn’t grow up talking about this stuff. You were “happy” because there were other people in the Philippines who were homeless and starving, and you had a roof over your head and food on the table. The simple things were enough, and if you were ever in any turmoil or upset in general, look to and pray to God. You were happy because you got to see another day and had the opportunity to go to school. You listened to your parents and never even thought about disobeying them.

My family was never one for intimate conversations about emotions or deep and serious topics. Conflict was uncomfortable and attempts to talk about some things were awkward. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were caring and nurturing and were never ill intentioned in how they raised my siblings and me. However I grew up in an environment where my feelings were constantly invalidated or ignored. As mentioned above, mental health was taboo and simply not talked about. Sometimes I tried bringing stuff up with my parents, even aunts and uncles, and I would literally be ignored right in front of my face and glanced over. For example, I would muster up the courage to ask my parents something, and they would pretend I never said anything and move on, or would get visually upset that I brought it up in the first place. Other times, I simply sometimes felt bad about how I was feeling. One time I came home crying from school, and my parents go: “What are you crying about this time?”

When I was officially diagnosed and seeking therapy in college, I was too ashamed to tell my family about it. I didn’t say anything about it for years even though I was advised many times to say something to them. Eventually I listened and decided to get it over with. I called my parents not really knowing what to expect; turns out, my mother had found an empty prescription bottle with the label “Prozac” on it a number of months before I called her. I was scared and I cried, and in turn my mother commended me for seeking out help and talking about it in the first place. She told me she experienced some similar symptoms as I when she was younger and in the Philippines, but never spoke up about it.

Like I said, my parents and family members never had ill intentioned motives. Growing up in two conflicting cultures is just challenging because the two sometimes don’t align in certain areas. And because of that, I don’t really align with one or the other and I’m still figuring it out as I go. That’s okay. Being a first generation Filipino-American isn’t supposed to be easy or make sense, and I’m deciding what that identity means to my mental health.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Therapy on Wednesday was intense, we talked about seeking attention and validation and being scared of vulnerability, and let’s just say I cried in the car ride back home soon right after.

Long story short, my therapist says, from what I’ve told her, that it sounds like I tend to numb my vulnerability in pretty extreme ways. That’s what I did with the cutting, and I’ve come to the realization that that’s what the attention and validation seeking thoughts and behaviors contribute to, too. I either try to feel absolutely nothing or conjure up/feel something more extreme in order to avoid dealing with what is actually there. Essentially, I’ve really come to be an expert in masking my stuff up over the years.

My first instinct was defensive thoughts– I mean, I share my story all the time and am way more open about talking to people about my problems more than ever before. Of course I’m comfortable with vulnerability. I feel what I feel and that’s that. However, as soon as my therapist asked the question, “Why are you so afraid of being vulnerable? What are you afraid is gonna happen?”, I started choking up.

Then and there, I did my best to stop myself from crying, and then and there was an example of why she asked me the question in the first place. I didn’t even want to cry in front of my therapist. I was afraid of allowing someone the space to have more power over me and to take advantage or manipulate all the broken little pieces of me that I’ve laid out on the table. I wanted control over what I allowed on the table, and that did not involve giving others the tools to hurt me. After all, that’s what happened with the guy I dated before.

My all or nothing rationale…it’s been to avoid what’s in the middle. Why these are the maladaptive coping mechanisms younger me decided to pick up is beyond me.

Last night I tweeted, “Am I a basket case?” It’s the same question I asked myself throughout middle and high school. For years, it was the label I tried to avoid. Did I end up picking up the very label I tried to avoid? Is it because people didn’t take my emotions seriously? Is it because I wanted people to see me and to believe me? Is it because I was trying to rationalize everything? Is it because what I was going through, the mediocre middle stuff, wasn’t real until it was all or nothing? Was handing people my emotions, my vulnerable self, ignored and taken advantage of unless it was shrouded in all or nothing?

I still can’t wrap my mind around it all, and it’s all a lot more complex than I can handle. I apologize if none of this adds up or makes sense to you, because it definitely doesn’t for me. I’ve definitely been having feelings lately of, “Wow I’m mentally insane because of me; my entire mental health journey was a result of problems that were my fault” and “Now that I’m aware, let me get better” and “I just wanna run away and hide because I feel too much” and “This is a stepping stone and I’m glad I’ve gotten more insight on how to take care of myself.”

My therapist’s homework for me this week is to seek out vulnerable situations and learn to sit comfortably in them. Essentially, be as vulnerable as possible. I’m sitting here unsure of what inspirational and profound last sentence to write; I mean, what is one supposed to do when Pandora’s box is being open right in front of you, and all you feel like you’re capable of doing is sitting there and watching it?

How to Cope

Two weeks ago, I finally got up the courage to tell my parents that I’m moving in with my boyfriend halfway across the country. It’s been a conversation I’ve been mentally preparing for and anxious about for about a year now, and it’s even been brought up in therapy plenty of times.

We were having breakfast at a hotel in DC. My brother, sister, and cousin were upstairs so I finally had alone time talk to my parents alone. My heart was racing and my thoughts were running all over the place. Minutes went by until I looked down at my eggs and said, “So, after I graduate next year I’ve decided to move to Texas.”

I felt a huge weight lift off of my shoulders, and waited for their response. A minute went by and I continued to wait as they kept eating and staring at their plates and the news on the TV. Then several more minutes passed by before started talking about something on the news and moving on to a new conversation. And that’s how I told my parents. I said a sentence and then my parents moved on and pretended like I never said anything.

Just as it took me a lot to bring it up in the first place, it took me a lot to try not to cry. For the rest of the day, after my brother, sister, and cousin eventually came to join us, we all continued to pretend like I never brought up this…thing. Our family has never been confrontational, and I understand that their oldest daughter telling them that she’s leaving is the house is hard, but it took a significant amount of guts to bring that up. I would’ve preferred just about anything, taken anything.

Several days later my mom emailed me a long paragraph, and though there was slightly more closure in that email…why did my mom email me to discuss something so serious? I’m overall, I don’t know, I don’t know how to feel about the whole thing. I emailed her back to specify that my boyfriend and I are moving in together, and I haven’t heard from her since. This on top of the overwhelming emotions from sharing my mental health story at the Out of the Darkness Walk, getting rejected from 4 potential internship sites, and staying on top of grad school work, this past March has been really hard on me.

I’m treating myself to seeing my boyfriend for the first time since January this weekend. I need to get away for awhile. I need to breathe.

 

When Anxiety Follows Me

My anxiety levels have been through the roof lately. Sometimes I start to freak out and worry over unknown stuff that is supposed to unravel over the next couple of weeks. Sometimes I would just be sitting in a chair doing nothing, and I would start to feel anxiety out of no where for no reason. It’s paralyzing. 

For me, anxiety feels like drowning. I can’t stop thinking. I can’t breathe, my chest feels heavy, and I can’t seem to get any air. I can’t stop thinking. I feel nauseous and I don’t want to be wherever I happen to be in that moment in time. I can’t stop thinking. My thoughts race at 100 mph and they become too much all at once. I can’t stop thinking. My fingers sometimes get tingly and numb. I can’t stop thinking. My heart pounds so loud and so fast. I can’t stop thinking. Some days I can’t eat at all and some days I can’t stop eating.

But mostly, I can’t stop thinking and I can’t make it stop. I literally feel crazy.

Therapy has helped me manage my anxiety over the years. I could definitely still use some work, but I need to remind myself time and time again that the world isn’t going to end and that I can cope and I’ll be okay. For those who deal with anxiety, I wish I could take what you’re feeling away. I wish I could snap my fingers and make things okay.

In the meantime, for now, the least I can do is tell you how I personally deal with anxiety. Lots of people have lots of different ways they deal with anxiety, and some of the things I list may not work for you. It could be worth a try, though.

  1. Mindfulness and Meditation. Yeah yeah that hippy dippy doo da craze. It’s a craze for a reason, though. Mindfulness over the years has helped me separate myself from my thoughts, viewing them from an objective perspective. I am not my thoughts, and neither are you. Some of the things I use to help me with mindfulness and meditation are:
    • Calm App (iOS & Google Play Store)
    • Stop, Breathe, and Be App (iOS & Google Play Store)
    • Mindful Yoga
  2. Deep Breathing. “How are you gonna tell me to breathe deeply when I’m having trouble general breathing in the first place?!” This kinda ties into mindfulness– be aware of your breath. Notice air coming in and out of your mouth, and for me, I then start to notice my heart rate slow down. I really try to exaggerate my breath here, and I mean ridiculously exaggerate.
    • Relax App on my Fitbit Versa
    • Above mindfulness and meditation apps
  3. Grounding. Name 5 things that you see. Name 4 things you can feel/touch. Name 3 things you can hear. Name 2 things you can smell. Name 1 thing you can taste. I usually tend to notice that I’m no longer in my head and “ground” myself to the here and now. I’m a visual person, so I really like to describe what I see. Currently, I see my black hair brush. It’s got a gold accent around the handle. The individual bristles are black and thin. There’s lots of hair in the bristles. Gross.
  4. Cuddle with my cat. Self-explanatory. I guess it’s mostly on his terms, though.
  5. Radical Acceptance. This is something I’ve been learning in DBT. I still haven’t fully grasped it. But it’s again the same idea of acknowledging your thoughts. I wish I could explain it better but, it’s 2019 and I’m sure you can Google it.
  6. Reality Testing. For me this mostly applies to my social anxiety disorder. If you look it up in the DSM-5, I’m literally textbook social anxiety. I can make another post detailing my experience with social anxiety another day. Essentially, one of the symptoms I experience is that I believe everyone (even strangers) is thinking the worst of me all the time and that I’m constantly being judged. My therapist tells me to reality test those thoughts.
    • Do I have evidence that people are thinking these things about me? Because they’re probably not. And if they are, which again they probably aren’t, then that doesn’t say anything about me– it says something about them.

These are all pretty cliche, but this is what I have learned to be what helps me the most. Someone asked me how I deal with anxiety on an average day, and the list above pretty much describes how I deal when I start to feel anxiety rising within me. One thing that’s important to note is that I try to do these things not only when I’m anxious to combat it, but also when I’m feeling just fine. I practice and practice and make sure I’m prepared for those times when I’m not feeling so fine.

 

 

When Mental Illness Third Wheels Your Relationship

Truthfully, being in a relationship while simultaneously working on your own demons is incredibly challenging.

I’ve been dating my current boyfriend for four and a half years now (FYI, we are also long distance, I get to see him 3-4 times a year). I didn’t really know or think anything serious was going on with me in a mental health aspect before we got together. I got lucky, though. My boyfriend is the most patient and most supportive person I have ever known. Historically, I sort of conditioned myself to bottle everything up because my thought was otherwise I would drive people away. He welcomed me, all parts of me, with open arms. He is a big reason why I had the guts to finally go to therapy, to tell my parents what is going on (I’m gonna have to dedicate a whole ‘nother blog post to this), and to allow myself to be vulnerable. That was because I wasn’t scared to be vulnerable around him. I felt safe.

He wanted to be there for me in anyway he could, so I sent him some articles along the lines of “how to be there for someone with depression” or “dating someone with depression and anxiety” or whatever. This helped bridge the gap between us, which was great because he didn’t know much at first and was open and willing to learn. It also helps when I do my best to describe what I’m going through in a way that he’ll understand. I am constantly updating him on my therapy sessions (when I feel comfortable) and my psychiatric medication. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better of just straight up letting him know when I wasn’t feeling okay instead of trying to get him figure it out on his own or trying to hide it. Literally, I text him and say “Hey, I don’t feel like myself” or “Hey, I don’t think I feel okay” or “Hey, I’m sad.” He’s gotten really good at his replies, too; he usually says “I’m here for you. Let me know how I can support you,” and it’s genuine. Overall, communication is key.

This doesn’t make the difficulty of having mental illness third wheel our relationship any easier. I’m constantly scared that I’m going to drag my boyfriend, or anyone for that matter, down me with me; I’m scared that he’s going to get caught in the collateral damage of the ticking time bomb that is…me. I’m scared that it’ll ultimately drive him away one day, or that it’ll destroy our relationship. I love him very much, but my mental illness is so severe that there are a lot of random sporadic days where I am most definitely not myself and I feel like I have to distance myself. There are a lot of days where I feel like I’m this crazy monster he never signed up for. There are a lot of days where my mental illness perpetuates petty arguments or hurts his feelings. And there are a lot of days where my patience is tested and I so get mad that he just doesn’t get it or that he’s going about it in the wrong way.

If you’ve been reading this post trying to find the answer to whatever question you have about having mental illness while dating someone or dating someone who has mental illness, then this is where I apologize. I don’t have the answer. It’s really hard. I also know that there are a lot of significant others out there who really aren’t supportive, maybe because of lack of education surrounding the topic or maybe because of plain toxicity. I know that there are people out there who’s primary focus is taking care of themselves first and there are others going through a tough time because mental health is starting to take a toll on their relationship. I think we’re still constantly trying to figure it out. No one has the answer.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to have a relationship. I, personally, try to not let it third wheel us. I acknowledge that it’s there, that everyone has their baggage and problems, and I try my best to push it to the background of our relationship. He acknowledges that it’s a part of me and that it in no way defines my identity, but it is something I deal with. We both acknowledge that it’s hard– if it was easy, then we wouldn’t have pushed to become better people or grow and learn from each other. We both try to have patience, and we both maintain transparency by communicating. He loves me and reminds me that this is us and whatever hardships I’m going through, he’s there, too.

C, thank you for your never ending love and patience.

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Call It What It is

I don’t like talking about this. I don’t think my brain can completely wrap its mind about what happened. There are a ton of holes and uncertainty.

I can’t even look at pictures of him or even see his name without getting anxiety. Honestly, even as I’m writing this, I feel so uneasy. I hate that even though he’s not in my life anymore, he somehow still has a hold on me. Back in high school, when we were together, I felt so in love. Things were great. We were inseparable and my heart was constantly on cloud 9.

I don’t know when it started. But after I had just gotten off of a cruise ship that my family and I were on for a week with no wifi or service, he broke up with me after almost a year of dating. I was devastated and completely blindsided.

That last sentence pretty much embodies the next 2 years after that.

We took time off from each other after the break up, but eventually went back to being good friends. However we weren’t over one another, and things started to become… “casual.” But it was a type of casual that ruined me forever, because I got pulled into a cycle I didn’t know would be detrimental. He was very unpredictable. One week would be all lovey dovey with texts and phone calls at night, as if we were dating; the next week, he could completely drop me out of no where. Just like that, it was as if I didn’t exist to him. Then he’d come back to me and start being lovey dovey and casual with me. Next second, he would drop me, and again I didn’t exist.

I tried to make the periods where we were “together” last as long as they could. Every time I was dropped, I blamed myself. Every time he left I thought I had done something wrong, and every time he suddenly popped back into my life again I would find myself walking on eggshells, trying to be perfect for him so that he wouldn’t drop me again. I did a lot of things to try and desperately hold that last thread together. I lied to my parents about where I was so that I could go to his place. I started smoking because it was an activity I knew he liked to do. I started hanging out with friends less, because I would wait for him in those times where I suddenly wasn’t a person to him.

He only wanted me when it was convenient for him. However, I kept thinking it was because I was constantly doing something wrong, and that I needed to make more of an effort to get him to stay. I had put him on a pedestal and never pointed fingers.

We eventually got back together again, and I was ecstatic because I thought everything was solidified again. That’s far from wrong. I still walked on eggshells, and my body was constantly on high alert. I would try to tell him something that was bothering me or something that I wanted us to work on as a couple. He would hear me out, but nothing would ever change and I felt like he kept getting annoyed every time I tried bring it back up again. One day when he was giving me a ride back home from school (which btw, my parents didn’t know about either), I brought another thing up again. Then he told me we should break up. Another blindside.

That car ride home, I became hysterical. I remember that day because it was coincidentally raining really hard outside. I cried like I had never cried before while we yelled at each other back and forth; me trying to reason with him to not do this, and him saying we don’t work. When we got back to my house, for the first and only time in my life, I saw him cry too. It was done.

At that point I moved on. I didn’t let him get to me, and I hung out with my friends more. I became invested in school and applying for college. I never spoke to him again and we kept our distance. I eventually became at peace and cut the thread.

That’s what should have happened. This is the part out all of this that I’m ashamed of the most, and one of the reasons I’m not a fan of retelling this story. I let him, again, a couple of months after our break up, do the same exact thing again. For another year, I let the cycle keep happening; walking on eggshells, suddenly being dropped and coming back to me at his convenience, acting desperate. This time was harder because I could tell he was becoming interested in other people throughout this, but I thought I was special because I was still the one he would come back to anyway. Whether he was ever with anyone or did anything with anyone while we’re together, I still have no idea to this day.

My self-worth became nonexistent. I felt like recyclable trash constantly being thrown away; sure you could use it again, but it won’t be the same every time. It starts to lose what made it what it is, and goes down in value. I blame myself though, because I kept going back and I kept letting the cycle continue. There were plenty of opportunities to cut the thread and stop being in his life at his convenience, but I never took any of them. I felt so stupid for having full awareness that this was toxic and not good for me yet continuing to let it happen. It got so bad, that I got called to the counselor’s office in school; someone had apparently talked to her about me and was worried.

I stopped eventually. He was never threatening about that, but would get confused as to why I kept ignoring him in school as well as his texts. I started seeing the guy I’m still dating now, who is wonderful and sweet and respectful and is someone I’m genuinely in love with. I always feel like our relationship is so unfair to him, though, because of the immense amount of baggage I carry and the trauma my brain experienced from being dropped over and over and over and over again. I carried the anxiety and the coping mechanisms from my last relationship into this one.

I’ve been better about it now through lots of therapy, but I still feel the effects of it. For some reason, he’s a common character in my dreams. Whenever I wake up from these dreams, I wake up with lots of anxiety and intense emotions. I’ve deleted his number from my phone and unfriended him on all social media because, as mentioned above, it gave me anxiety seeing his name or face. However even when I still talk about this, I can’t seem to point fingers. It’s been ingrained in my brain that he’s in the clear because I’m the one who enabled it in the first place. I’m the one who kept opening up the door whenever he knocked. I’m the one who kept letting my emotions and self-worth worse. I’m the one who deserves this because what happened is all my fault. That’s why I was hesitant when I retold this to my therapist and she replied with, “Gabby he was manipulative. He knew what he was doing.”

Did he?

Was it emotional abuse if I let it happen in the first place?

I’m still working on drilling into my brain that it’s not all my fault, and that my therapist is right. I’m still working on not going into full blown panic mode whenever my current boyfriend and I have an argument, for fear that he would all of a sudden leave me. I’m still working on saying sorry all the time for things I didn’t do. I’m still working on realizing I don’t need to constantly put efforts towards being perfect and changing for my boyfriend 24/7 (bless his soul, he still thinks I’m perfect anyway). For the first time in awhile, I’m at peace feeling secure and comfort with my boyfriend.

C, if you end up reading this. I love you, and you have the most patience out of any person I know. Thanks for sticking with me and loving me back.