I was in denial for the longest time about my mental health. I suppose this is part of my overall personality of second-guessing myself, fearing I may be a hypochondriac and that I was unable to think about things objectively.

Every time someone asks me “Did you have a specific event or did something happen in your life that triggered your onset of symptoms?” It hurts a little because I felt like it was wrong of me to not really tie the change to anything in particular. There was no death, no specific traumatic event, no sudden change in circumstances. Life was pretty normal, I thought.

There were signs though. I would say the first signs for me were loss. Was it a part of growing up? Learning more everyday and being uncomfortable with the changes? I don’t know. I was 13 and had a philosophical interest in death. I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t want to die. I was just interested in how peaceful death would be. The real markers for me were loss. I wasn’t as interested in religion as I was. I was a voracious reader as a child. Suddenly, I couldn’t focus anymore and wouldn’t make it past the first sentence of a book, re-reading it over and over and over. There was no information retention. This is still something really distressing to me. Suddenly I couldn’t understand the world and suddenly I couldn’t understand myself. I was a smart, motivated and extremely hard-working child and defined myself by my own academic achievements (quite independent from my parents) and it felt like I woke up one day and looked back and realised that time had passed and all these changes somehow happened without me noticing and out of my control. It seems so silly and far away now but my proudest moment was passing the entrance exam into my dream school at age 11. It messes me up every. Single. Day that I can’t focus and can’t pick up a book to read casually, that doing university readings was an absolute nightmare because I didn’t understand ANYTHING when it came so easily to me as a child, despite telling myself I should stop comparing myself.

My fascination with death at 13 turned into a vast, desolate hopelessness and emptiness. Everything felt so muffled and muted. I couldn’t connect with my own emotions and couldn’t register whether I was happy or sad or anything in between. I remember at the time, I described it as an empty, snowy landscape with a thick wool blanket draped over the top. By this time, I was 16, had absolutely no idea what I was doing, understanding nothing and oversleeping A LOT. I went to an academically elite school and bounced up and down the rankings. In one term I’d be in the top 20 students across both maths and humanities, the next I’d be in the bottom 20. In class I’d eloquently discuss the topics, when handed an assignment I could make neither head nor tails of the assignment question.

I remember the first time I broke down in front of my mum and pleaded that I wanted to die. I wasn’t suicidal, I just had no desire to exist any longer. There was no joy, no feelings, absolutely nothing. I lost any sense of time or organisation that I had. I went from disciplined and motivated to asleep and lethargic when I was awake.

Was I depressed? Yep. Did I admit I was depressed? No. I went straight to uni after graduating from high school. I didn’t even make it to census date before deferring. I felt so alone and silenced and unheard. I screamed and pulled heavy furniture on myself, not in an attempt to hurt myself or anyone else but because I was so scared that no one understood what I was saying or doing or feeling.

I made one cursory attempt to see a therapist. After 3 sessions they expressed their frustration with how I wasn’t trying hard enough. We never made a follow up appointment.

Because I wasn’t studying, I started working in the gap year. Then my year was up, and I was back at uni and still working. My focus and ability to digest information was still severely compromised but still I did not seek help until I noticed tremors in my hands. That was kind of scary, so I started seeking mental health support, first from uni, then from outside therapists.

I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. I don’t feel I benefited much from going to therapy, and a lot of therapists focus on CBT and mindfulness tools, which don’t seem a good fit for me, but I showed up to every appointment. They trialed me on different medications. At one point even an anti-narcoleptic medication when they realised how lifeless and lethargic I was all the time. At some points I was on the highest dose of medications and then would feel too down to refill my prescriptions… I went from max dose to stopping meds cold turkey and… nothing happened. I lost what little hope I had of ever getting better. The medical centre had to cancel my appointment one time and I didn’t rebook for almost a year, until they sent me a discharge follow up survey and I pushed myself to try again.

I made it halfway through my degree before I reached a point where I simply could not take it anymore and dropped out. It felt like I was being torn to shreds from the inside and I hated myself for not being able to even make it through to the end. I laughed at myself since I had really high aims for myself as a child, determined to get a degree from a top university, and learn everything there was to learn in the world, yet there I was unable to even complete my entire degree.

I started a new job, ended toxic friendships and life went on with no improvement.

At some point, due to my therapist being sick one week, the centre had to cancel my appointment and I just never rebooked again.

I made a point to “live harder” to prove that I didn’t need therapy. I went on my first solo trip (only interstate, nothing dramatic, and I was about 20), took my mum overseas for a trip, moved departments at work. My eating and sleeping habits stabilised out of sheer necessity and I was a healthy weight and reasonable sleeping patterns given my circumstances.

My new department was really, really racist, transphobic, xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted, you name it. They really loved me and never directed their nastiness towards me but as I grew older, my politics has become a lot more left-leaning and it was getting pretty unbearable hearing my colleagues espouse the virtues of a politician whose claim to infamy was utter disgust of boat people. My dad was “boat people”. My family weren’t wealthy, we were surviving. All my clothes and belongings even now are from second hand stores. It wasn’t even about me. Their constant, daily discussions in the staff room of how dreadful so and so minority were just got to me for being so blatantly prejudiced and wrong. Every time I gently questioned them, I’d be dismissed for being young and foolish. I moved departments again last year after spending a year there.

In the meantime, another problem began to present itself. This may be extremely political, and just due to varied experiences, I know the issue is hugely divisive in the Vietnamese community. Our parents fled a war, and that’s the hardest thing anyone would have to do. There is no replacing the anguish and trauma of living in a war, escaping from a war and setting up a life for yourself away from all that you care about. And actually, my parents immigrated to a country other than the United States, so we’re not even connected in a physical sense to the majority of both sides of the family who are either residing in Vietnam or the States. Full disclosure: I don’t support the brand of communism we have in the homeland, and I’m not here to discuss that or to tell you to feel the same way. Further disclosure: I also do not support the Trump administration. To me, in my personal opinion, both options represent a history of bloody colonisation and have dramatically changed the experience of being Vietnamese in both mainland and diaspora communities. Vietnamese politics has been heavily influenced by a thousand year history of attempted Chinese colonisation and I’m not about to claim western saviour from wealthy western countries looking to capitalise on less powerful countries either. Everyone I’ve met in the community is strongly in one camp or another, and unfortunately, my family have fallen into the spiral of unhealthy conspiracies in a camp I have strong moral and ethical objections to, denying facts and performing quite impressive mental gymnastics to justify the harmful trail of destruction such politics leave. My own parents have accused me of being “brainwashed” by the disgusting other side of politics, which hurts me deeply considering I have an equal amount of anger towards the “other side”. Perhaps I am not objective enough. Perhaps I am not educated enough. Perhaps I can’t begin to fathom the trauma of being alive in a war. I am not a victim here, but it is heartbreaking to see people I cared about so radicalised and unable to accept reality. The gaslighting has gotten worse and honestly, I’m at a loss. Most of all, throughout all my mental health struggles, I just feel deeply alone, having no one who is even remotely like me to not even share stories, just be comforted in the knowledge that I’m not alone and I’m not out of place.
I understand if my story can’t be posted or needs to be heavily edited due to sensitive topics, thanks for letting me get some of this word vomit off my chest! I’m not explaining myself very well either so there’s a lot up for misinterpretation, but I hope someone, somewhere will understand my despair.

My dream isn’t to be happy. My dream is to find a passion for living, and having my internal compass reset, so regardless of results, I can at least be confident and sure that I am making decisive decisions, whether correct or incorrect, to be sure the decisions are mine.

Asian Mental Health Collective