How to throw words into the face of depression

I always wonder what people bustling around me think of the erratic snippets they catch of my daily phone conversations with my mother as I walk through Sproul Plaza. Did they happen to catch a line in Telugu, an aggressive Hindi phrase or just enough heavily-accented English words to guess the context of our lively conversation? 

Growing up in a trilingual household, I have long cherished my ability to communicate with my mother, or my Amma, in a way that surpasses the barriers of any one language. While this often means slyly gossiping about people around us in Telugu or Hindi, it also means codeswitching when words in English simply aren’t enough to capture the feeling or emotion of something. 

Yet despite having three languages to spare in my emotional toolkit, the first time Amma called me in the middle of a major depressive episode, I was absolutely speechless. I was reminded of a phrase from a filmy Bollywood song that says “Kisi zaban mein bhi vo lafz hai nahi.” Indeed, there were no words in any language that could capture how I was feeling at that moment.  

It’s no secret that mental health is a foreign topic for the South Asian community at large. Depression is a word only heard in hushed tones behind closed doors, often only after someone has lost the cruel battle with their mental health. Even to this day, I have only ever heard of my own grandmother’s lifelong battle with crippling, chronic depression in distant, vague terms despite my attempts to pry information out from family members two decades after her death.  

In a culture that emphasizes the value of self-sacrifice for the greater good of one’s family and community, there is often a sickening sense of guilt that emanates from the mere thought of having a mental health disorder. Women in particular are raised to be pillars of strength in the family unit, drawing power and creating beauty from their own struggles, much like the fierce goddess Kali Devi in the myths our parents read to us on festival days. 

As a child, I watched in awe as Amma lived her daily life like one of the goddesses whose statue she prayed to at the small shrine in our home. Like a lotus blooming in the middle of a drought, she emerged from a life of poverty in India and fought her way through a harrowing divorce to raise two young girls single-handedly in an unknown land with so much grace that I never once saw her crack. So why was I, the privileged product of this woman’s lifelong sacrifice, unable to rouse myself from the bathroom floor where I had been crying for hours on end? How did I become a lotus drowning in water? 

Here I was at UC Berkeley, the epitome of my Amma’s American dream, unable to get out of bed, force myself to eat or bear the pain of having my friends see my sunken face during the weeks when I was feeling particularly ill. I hated who I had become, the way my brain felt overstimulated and horribly exhausted at the same time, the way I slept all day and stayed awake all night riddled with anxiety, the way the handful of pills I swallowed every day made me feel constantly nauseous and gave me a tremor in my hands. 

All the while, I felt too guilty, too embarrassed to tell Amma exactly what had been happening in my life. As the weekends rolled around, I would make excuses as to why I couldn’t visit her. Our daily phone calls reduced to five-minute check-ins in which I mainly complained about stress when she asked me why I sounded so low. I had made the decision myself that Amma would never be able to understand how I was feeling. 

That was until an unexpected phone call in the middle of my day from Amma. “Manu,” she said in Telugu, a sadness in her voice. “I don’t know what’s going on but you don’t seem OK.” 

I was speechless again, except this time because I had never fathomed a reality in which my Amma would notice how far away from myself I had slipped while battling my mental health. I started and stopped several sentences in different languages as I felt my throat close up and the tears well in my eyes. “Amma, I don’t know what’s happening,” I finally spit out in Telugu. And then the floodgates opened, and everything spilled out without warning.   

The languages we had in our cultural toolkit were simply not enough to encapsulate my battle with depression and anxiety in a clean-cut way. But regardless, I tried. I pulled words and phrases and thoughts in different languages within my broken brain in a haphazard fashion, creating my own new language in order to convey exactly how I was feeling. There was silence on the other end as I finally finished speaking, waiting for Amma to be upset or confused or even angry about everything I had let my anxiety and depression become.

But instead, she said a simple phrase in Telugu that I’ll never forget: “Manu, you’re so strong. Just like Kali Devi.” It never actually mattered what I had said to my Amma to explain what was happening. All that really mattered was that I said something. 

Contact Manisha Ummadi at [email protected].