Nicolas Wongsosaputro

I grew up in an honest family; where they put in the work and sacrificed themselves to provide a better future for their kids and family. My great grandfather was a school teacher and died at a young age, so his son (my grandfather) lived in poverty and was a shoe-shiner for a living. They packed their lives from China and moved to Indonesia on a boat for a better life. As they stepped their foot in Indonesia, they were welcomed with racism, suffering, and violence. The Chinese had been discriminated for over 200 years, from 1740–1998.

My parents worked day and night to be able to change their kids’ future. I would only see them for a couple hours at bedtime, working 12 hour days, as I saw their tired faces before I went to bed. At age 9, our family packed our bags from Jakarta to Coquitlam (a small rural town in Vancouver). Once again, with the intention to provide a better life for the kids, just like what their parents did. However, once again my family was faced with racism. I struggled to make friends and find my circle as I was a minority struggling and in conflict of my three identities of “Indonesian”, “Chinese”, and “Canadian”. But really who was I? I never quite fit in the mold or circle. I never founded my tribe. I was bullied at school for my poor English and did not have that many friends for a while.

At age 12, my mom had decided to go back to Jakarta since she had a hard time adjusting to her new life in Canada, but can you really blame her for being 40+ years old and trying to rebuild everything all over again? Both my parents struggled to find work because they were “Indonesian” and their work experience was not in Canada, so apparently employers disregarded their decades of work experience because it wasn’t “Canadian”.

This put a financial burden on us and I had learn the importance of a rainy day fund at a young age. My dad struggled to find work for years and the money was slowly running out. It was tough and you can feel it weigh him down and the entire family. I was a sensitive kid and I started worrying, little did I know I was developing anxiety and depression at a very young age. Due to this, I did poorly in school and wasn’t able to focus in academics.

At age 14, I was finally finding my circle of friends and had quite a lot of them actually. I’ve been the happiest I ever had been, but it quickly changed. My mom did not want me to be on my own without a mother figure, so I had to go back to Jakarta once more and leave all my friends and leave my happiness behind. Little did I know, I had depression once again and this time, it was stronger.

We fly to Jakarta, I was able to make friends and I made a lot of friends. But by the end of the year, I had to say goodbye to them again at the age of 15 because I couldn’t stand living in Jakarta and adapting to a brand new culture for the second time. I had already adapted and identified myself as Canadian. So, I fly back to Canada. Doing it all over again for the third time now. By this point, I had very little interest in life and had no motivation.

The only thing that interested me was Art. It made me feel alive. It gave me a medium to escape all the negativity in my life and to turn it into something beautiful. In high school, I remember failing Math and Science several times, to the point where my teachers recommended me to stop taking the courses. The only thing I was passionate about and did well on was this course named Digital Media, with one of the kindest teacher I ever encountered — which is how I got to do what I do today.

At age 16, my dad too decided to go back to Indonesia to be with my mom to support her, so I was on my own. My two siblings had moved out of the province as well to pursue their career. This made me live with 3 different families as a minor at the age of 16 until 21. I skipped high school graduation because I didn’t feel the need to go if my family wasn’t going to be there to witness it. Every other kid was celebrating their high school graduation at prom, while I was at home focusing on what I should do next in my career to help my family.

After high school, I got into a 1 year program at a trade school because my grades weren’t good enough to go to SFU or UBC. As an Asian I saw myself as a failure. Every Asian parent and their kids were all going to SFU or UBC, and in the Asian community if you didn’t attend those schools, you were considered less. Despite that, I worked my ass off at this trade school plus working part-time at a food court that served Japanese food on a large open flat grill that was always above 35°C, making minimum wage ($8.25) and a maximum of $2.00 tip on a good day. I learned how to push myself and work hard in this environment. The kitchen was tough, it felt like a war zone. This job required me to do it all; cook, serve, clean and work the register; all with a smile. A 4 man job into 1. But looking back, I probably needed this experience to give me the drive of what I have now today to go through past all my negativity and depression.

After graduating my program and once again skipping the ceremony, I continued to put in the work ethic in every opportunity. I met some really amazing and supportive people throughout the way from age 19 and onward which is how I got to work with such big brands to get to where I am today. I’m forever thankful to my circle of rock and those individuals who got me as far as to where I am today (I wouldn’t be here without you guys).

At age 22 I finally was able to have a place to call my own and was finally ready to live on my own. Things were good for a couple years. But at age 24 a series of stressful events just hit me. We’re talking financially, mentally, my career, and some pretty significant people in my life that had been absent during this dark time.

My past trauma of “having a rainy day fund”, “abandonment”, and to “never go back to Jakarta” got my anxiety running through the roof. Little did I know all these stressors that I’ve learned to respond by “toughing it out” on and to “never talk about my problems”, rooted within my Asian roots all came down crashing and hit me like a truck.

I remember the stress had caught up to me. I was hyperventilating in my bed for hours and I had felt this burning sensation in my brain. That night, everything changed. Little by little I lost the ability to sleep within less than week. I woke up with my teeth clenched every night and cold sweat. Shortly, I lost the ability to sleep.

So now what? Well, I wanted to get my sleep back. I tried everything! All various methods in how to beat this thing. Everything under the sun from drugs, naturals, exercise, meditation, and acupuncture. I’ve reached out to doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, a life coach, and finally a sleep specialist who finally uncovered my condition. At first, doctors thought I was bipolar due to my complaints of lack of sleep. I always felt like I was conscious the whole time laying there and had such poor sleep. I would be on the edge and always looked at my phone and felt I had never slept, counting the hours until I hear the birds chirp away at dawn. I was prescribed 3 different anti-psychotics, and I can truly sympathize to those with how hard of a drug it is. I went through 3 different antidepressants as well. All these drugs just did not make my sleep better, and the side of effects of these drugs just made my depression even more intense. It wasn’t until my sleep specialist who discovered I had develop a sleeping disorder named Paradoxical Insomnia, it’s still fairly new, discovered in 2008 with little information and poorly understood.

After reducing all my main stressors and seeking some spiritual, mental, and physical healing, I finally was able to get most of my sleep back after 14 months. You might think, 14 months? How did you do it? To be honest — I attempted suicide in the middle of it right before my 25th birthday because I couldn’t handle it. Every single day was a nightmare filled with sleep deprivation, high anxiety, and debilitating depression. During this time, I was also in a ton of physical pain. I always felt so heavy and sluggish, I had body aches, painful and tender jaw from all the clenching at night, non-stop migraines, tense eyes and neck, irritable bowel syndrome, and constant palpitations. Thankfully, I was stopped midway, seconds before jumping a 50 story building. Now my whole perspective on birthdays mean something entirely different, and I make sure to treat myself especially well every time they come around!

Had I not gone through clinical depression, anxiety, and insomnia — I would have no idea how much of an impact it can change one’s life. This is the story of why I’m here today and why I want to make a change. I want to change the narrative and the definition of “masculinity”; being able to express that it’s okay for men to be emotional and to express their problems with no stigma attached. Also I want to break the stigma around mental health in the Asian community to acknowledge and realize that mental health is seriously real and need to be talked about. Because quite frankly, you are considered a defect and socially outcast if you’re facing mental health issues within the Asian community. I want people like me who’s gone through hell, adversity, and self doubt; to become triumphant and not victims.

Because we’re not weak, we’re the strong ones.

This post was shared with permission from Nicolas Wongsosaputro from his website

Asian Mental Health Collective