By: Sully Nguyen
My relationship with depression stems back to middle school. I daresay relationship as a man in my late twenties who has been managing this mental illness for most of my life. To be frank, I do not believe I have overcome my depression since becoming afflicted; however, nearly two decades, help along the way, and my own daily efforts have made it easier to navigate and a topic to discuss openly. I hope this text provides some enlightenment and resonance, even if my conclusions do not help, but especially when reflecting on depression demands the point of view from the past and the present.
As a first generation southeastern asian in Houston, Texas, mental illness was never spoken of inside or outside my household in the mid 2000s. The idea of overwhelming sorrow with no root cause that strips all motivation to live sounded supernatural, but more so appropriated as a silly state of being which would resolve itself through sleeping or eating (coincidentally, struggling with those innate bodily functions are the first signs of depression). The language surrounding depression only began to form around that time with the rise of technology and the internet. To talk about depression today under any circumstances, through any format, contrasts against the isolating and uncharted conversations back then. To tackle what depression is requires one to accept it as a mysterious illness. It could derive from numerous sources of stress, may predicate from one’s direct environment, an imbalance or lack of chemicals within the body, or a combination of those symptoms. How depression impairs people is easier to discern; although, the list of ways in which this illness manifests, extensive and unique from person to person, proves troublesome to summarize. Hopeless, helpless, empty, and lonely are some key elements I often hear doctors ascribe it to. I like to highlight the unnerving body chills, ever present verge of tears, disinterest akin to apathy, memory loss, and disassociation when referencing my own experience.
Growing up in poverty, I never had a steadfast place to call home. Relationships of any manner were fleeting to the point of normalcy, a notion I could not grasp before access to a phone or desktop which nowadays is one portable device, and still very expensive. The family dynamic swung between problematic and imaginary because of language barriers, cultural customs, or ignorance. My negligent father eventually abandoned my overworked mother who would struggle with her own mental issues while raising two children. Both valued the American Dream as much as the next immigrant, and success equated with conformity. The priority of 2000s America valued appearance in contrast with today where behavior is more praiseworthy and scrutinized. We were already missing the most important factor, wealth, consequently leading us toward the pursuit of compensation through conformity. For my father, drugs and gambling exemplified masculinity, was indicatively American, and served as escapist tools for a marriage and children he never cared about beyond their exteriors to elicit approval or jealousy. For my mother, body image standardized by Hollywood entertainment, Christianity, and discrimination fortified her idealistic pillars of Americanism. These conclusions they drew were not uncommon in the Alief neighborhood, Southwest Harris County Houston. In fact, these dispositions seemed encouraged by other asian families within our community. Perhaps the promises of America drove them to immigrate over, but the fear of being unable to attain those promises coerced them into these perspectives. After all, the people my parents knew were not that much more affluent than them, were not raised Christian, and did not resemble anyone in magazines or on television at the time…not to diminish those films featuring Jackie Chan and John Cho, or Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy. It was the biggest game of Werewolf, but everyone was a werewolf pretending to be villagers. My younger brother, the most sound minded of the family, embraced these circumstances but remained distant throughout the years ahead. This foundation was the breeding ground for my mental illness.
My depression deconstructed can be simplified into body dysmorphia, existential crises,self denial, and suicidal ideation for the sake of clarity as these descriptions alone do not fully embody what my mental illness amalgamates to.
Body dysmorphia was frightening and prophetical in hindsight. My mother’s unapologetic disgust of obesity, Michelle Obama’s nationwide crusade against obesity, the stigma of being overweight in school, the jokes utilizing body weight—it was excessive. My distorted vision screened for these details in the mirror to avoid contempt among my peers, to show solidarity with my mother, but most importantly to conform. When my health teacher requested three nutrition labels from each student for an assignment, he would collectively advise us all to select heartier options, a request no child of poverty had control over. I did have control over what I chose to eat though. So I seldom ate, wore multiple layers through Houston heat to disguise my figure, and remained physically active throughout high school and college to combat this delusion. Blackouts occurred frequently, my disdain for Chewy bars a ramification from eating one a day as my sole meal, and the hunger felt more empowering than incapacitating at times through my twisted logic. I reevaluated my approach with food in my mid twenties when the body positivity movement was also becoming more prevalent.
What contributed to this change depended on which viewpoint to assess. Houston’s diverse population heavily influences the food industry, and I was not proselytizing my predicament considering it was more fear induced than inspiring, to which being around others eating was not unappealing. I am still a food industry worker today, having paid for college and my life so far through this discipline, and remember how weird and awkward it was to serve food
when I myself was not partaking as frequently. My professional relationship with food coincided with the development of capitalistic social media as users around the world flooded servers with recipes/meal prepping, dietary discussions, exercises/gym routines, and time lapsing videos; r.i.p. Myspace, Pinterest, and Tumblr. As a target audience for those platforms, I naturally encounter these video clips regardless of whether I was looking for that content or not. Moreover, my generation entering the workforce shifted the responsibility of procuring food onto ourselves, and I was finally able to eat exactly the way I wanted to even if it started as small rewards instead of scheduled meals. These examples illustrate how the complexity of my newfound outlook mirrors the illness at hand.
When referring to existential crises, the term ‘existential depression’ captures my condition more befittingly. An informal word to connect the state of an existential crisis with the debilitating effects of depression, this unsettling fixation on purpose and meaning is a deferred step toward self realization which prolongs into endless despair.
In mid 2000s Southwest Houston, to question purpose and meaning was to directly challenge Christianity, the normative American identity. For a child, it was merely dismissed as disobedience at home or foolish banter at school, but mostly verbal warnings about protecting the sanctity of one’s soul at church. Imagine, parents who valued integration at a nationalistic level dealing with their child constantly interrogating conventional structures. The promise of heaven was too good to reject, churches lined the streets rivaling gas stations, and every adult within my vicinity or proximity appeared to share the same sentiments back then; yet, I insisted there was more truth beyond the Bible. In another way, existential depression was the incessant
reminder of mortality, a concept no adolescent boy should be contemplating about every day, or any person for that matter. However, when my single mother struggled to care for all three of us, these thoughts held significance when encountering homelessness. I became privy to our overarching financial situation, and knew my mother would either ask me to shoulder some responsibility or perform questionable actions that were more difficult to explain. These hardships will preferably remain undisclosed.
Presently, the COVID-19 pandemic, meta modernism media, and artificial intelligence confronts us to ask ourselves who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing [fill in the blank] more than ever before. The purpose of life, distinctive and eccentric to the individual, continues to shift away or compliment the default bastion of theist beliefs. Capitalists, selfless hedonists, and philomaths represent a handful of alternative ideological persuasions I have observed. Twenty years ago though, the importance of individualism was not the response; it was the antithesis to America, especially for immigrants. As an adult, existential depression compels me to measure happiness against time rather than time against happiness. Our sociological
accomplishments prevent meaningless death, but when these goals are either unreachable or unobtainable the creeping doubts of who, what, and why renders again vindictively. This topic intertwines with self denial, a sensitive matter considering my embarrassment surrounding it. Discrimination remains a timeless and contentious subject across all cultures. To identify with a minority group or question one’s assigned label promotes consternation. In
modern society, the most correct answers are black and white, one or two. This primal reasoning extends across all borders, not just Houston, America, or an asian family. Male or female, conservative or liberal, for or against, right or wrong, good or bad; binary thinking champions the echo chambers of tribalism. Needless to say, this method will only further divide people. When I struggle to identify with the structures of society, it is mostly because I have found my own answers outside the binary or subsist within the spectrum between black and white, like many others. I am a man, with genitalia and non traditional masculinity. I research how geopolitical views impact communities and will not side with one political party. I understand the truths of Christianity yet also subscribe to Buddhist and Islamic teachings while refraining from indoctrinating into any belief system. I am not sexually attracted to women, but they are so beautiful regardless.
My shame then lies in my inability to defend myself when met with confrontation. My shame comprehends that the world I live in was not designed to accommodate who I am. My shame scares me because despite all the knowledge, all the people I can seek out for advice, and all the evidence of a shifting social landscape, it is ingrained cowardice, a self preservation reflex, and displaced in time when children and young adults nowadays are much more willing to raise their own voices in my stead. It is when I ask myself why I can not be everything my mother and brother needed me to be back then and these past two decades. The denial is pain in its most hostile form.
Suicide fulfills the act of self annihilation when pain corners the mind to react instead of process. Suicidal thoughts were breaths of relief when compensation and coping were not enough. Perhaps the entanglement of mortality and the fantasy of forsaking life fractured how I should perceive the possibility of joy and the gratitude of day to day living. Thankfully, where I offer guidance for these symptoms can be easily summarized. I once heard in my college creative writing class that the best authors are compassionate people. To paraphrase from a notebook, ‘the act of writing from the viewpoint of characters who suffer in their own dilemmas is the opposite act of firing a gun to claim a life. Our weapon is the pen but our bullets are the words we use everyday. They are just as powerful when we have written them down, and they too have moved nations.’ Compassion, for me, means to suffer
together. To read and write, and I love reading and writing, is to suffer alongside these fictitious characters in the hopes that we learn something from them to apply in our own lives, and to help others around us like them. I curate joy here. Joy is oil to the waters of depression, and though they do not mix, the oil always rises over the water. If joy was anything but writing, I would behoove you to seek out those activities, even when apathy gets in the way. Most therapists actually recommend journaling as the first step to exploring their patient’s depression, a form of meditation. If the obsessive focus on flaws, the restrictions of life, or the pain of severe individuation plagues the mind, their parts can be analyzed when written out. It is always an interesting adventure to reread those journal entries. Hindsight becomes your ultimate instrument of mental warfare here. In practicing meditation, mindfulness and gratitude follows, other well being exercises that broaden perspective.
Although compassion and meditation does not need to be a writing process, I find it helpful. Casual strolls and slow breathing have also worked favorably.
Community also counteracts depression. Funny enough, I found it at boarding school all the way out in Baytown, with the same handful of high school teachers, the same twenty classmates, and nowhere to go. Some of those people I still keep in touch with, who watched me suffer through those formative years, some who were also struggling with depression I would learn much later on. We were all poor too (look up Chinquapin Preparatory for more
information). To gather intelligent kids with broken families and low income backgrounds from all over the Greater Houston area in one place was an open invitation for the most intricate circumstances with anyone involved. Intersectionality was actually a study a good friend of mine from this graduating class decided to write about for her dissertation at Harvard. The term encapsulates how a person’s identities together form avenues of discrimination and privilege unique or undiscovered. Despite the lack of research backing it, the word alone advocates for change and balance without prejudice or biases, which that school attempted to do for us applying into colleges; and, which I must attempt to do for myself moving forward. I often must be reminded of how precious my own wild existence is in the face of adversity, the world, and my depression.
Given that I studied and enjoy writing, this whole process has been invigorating and such a treat. As a reminder, I still have not truly overcome my depression, even if my writing seemingly conveys otherwise; but, it does get easier with the work you put in to fight back. So fight the good fight, fight for your life. Despite the fact that I have not beaten my illness, as healing arrives at its own pace, I stand firm in knowing that someday I will.