The dreaded call came Jan. 27, confirming my fears. I had COVID-19.
In the minutes following the call from University Health Services, or UHS, I sat, shaken that something once seeming so far removed from my life could now consume the entirety of it. As I sat there, I also played out multiple scenarios in my head, considering how I’d tell my parents, or if I should tell them at all.
When I ultimately decided to tell them, they reacted exactly the way I’d expected — panicked (“We’re going to come pick you up right now!”), confused (“How did this happen?”), worried (“Are your symptoms bad? How will you keep up with school?”). Although I knew they were scared, by the end of my call with them, I had become snippy and frustrated with their endless questions and lack of reason. Their borderline hysteria, which they made little attempt to suppress, had raised my panic as well.
When I called my friends in Berkeley to urge them to get tested as well afterward, I was already mentally exhausted and weary from the next barrage of questions I would likely have to answer. To my surprise, however, each of my friends reacted with almost the same few questions: “How do you feel?” “Do you want to talk?” “Is there anything I can do?”
I left those calls feeling calmer, pacified, relatively safe. I wondered, then, how the call with my parents, who always quietly offer more support than I could ask for, caused more stress than the calls from UHS and all of my friends combined.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I had a lot of time to be alone with my thoughts. And I came to a realization.
My friends and I have had the fortune of growing up in the United States, where our schools drilled the importance of mental health from as young as middle school. My parents, however, grew up across the world, where the topic of mental health is about as taboo as sex and drugs.
In many Asian communities, common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are often ignored or even denounced. Except in the most severe cases in which the disorder has caused evident physical repercussions, most people choose to reject the concept of an illness they can’t see. People who claim to struggle with such issues are met with scorn for being “weak” or “unable to pull their weight.”
So while UHS and my friends made it a point to emphasize that they would be available to help me both physically and mentally, I suspect the latter didn’t even cross my parents’ minds. Although I can now understand my parents’ oblivion toward the issues, growing up, this cultural dissonance often caused confusion and social anxiety.
One of the most recent instances happened around college app season, when I had just recovered from my worst bout of depression, something that I don’t think my parents understand the extent of, even now. I decided that my mental health journey was one of the most impactful experiences of my life and something I wanted to write about in my applications.
But when I told my mother this, she looked at me with concern and slight panic.
“Oh no, you can’t let colleges know about mental health struggles! You don’t want them to see you as a liability!”
I know it isn’t that my parents don’t care or worry. I know both of them have lain awake until the early hours of dawn blaming themselves for how I feel, trying to figure out how they can be better. This just isn’t a topic they know how to approach.
Regardless, I often felt so conflicted it was overwhelming. In high school, I spent nearly 50% of my time at school, where it was almost taboo to not have mental health issues or talk about them. On the other hand, the other 50% of my life was spent at home, where we tiptoed around the word “depression,” where the day after my breakdowns, we all acted like they were fever dreams.
Even now at Berkeley, I’ll sometimes be in conversation with my white friends who talk about their struggles candidly, confidently. They don’t seem to have as much hesitation describing their vulnerabilities, and while I desperately want to contribute my thoughts — to feel understood and relatable as well — something within often prevents me from sharing. Perhaps it’s because I once accepted being anxious or depressed makes you weak. Perhaps that’s made me habitually wary of judgment and pity, even today.
I’m still working on unapologetically acknowledging my experience with mental health. But here in Berkeley, where my school and home life have become solely dictated by me, I can now spend 100% of my time embracing that struggle — anxiety, depression, and all.
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]