Can you just hold me?

Things I Didn't Say

Photo of Elise Kim

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A slamming door. A shout. A muffled cry. Snippets of sound still exist in my memory from junior year of high school. What dominates, though — the thing I remember most — was the silence.

In a world where stimulation clashes in a constant rhythm — where phone notifications ding and cars roar and people scream “HELL YEAH” in the streets — mine existed within the four walls of my bedroom, where not even the tick of a clock could be heard. I used to dream of running away from that world. A bus ride adventure to an obscure countryside sounded like the perfect escape from my sadness.

My frolicking fantasy was interrupted by a knock on my door. My dad appeared and, upon seeing my deflated composure, let out a sigh. 

“Get up for school, Elise. You can’t keep doing this.”

Maybe if I pretended to have fainted, he would let me off the hook. 

“Don’t be a baby, you need to learn how to develop grit.”

It was a familiar scene, only this instance escalated into me running out of the house in pajamas as my mom yelled threats to call the police.

A few minutes later I sat on a bench, shivering in the morning cold. My dad’s footsteps approached and stopped behind me. He asked me what I wanted and how I thought I could fix how I felt.

Can you just hold me?

He walked away and I remained, my gaze locked forward. I didn’t know what I wanted, nor how to fix myself. I wanted so badly to feel better so I could stop being a burden to everyone, especially my parents. I knew they loved me and were just as confused as I was about how to navigate my struggle with mental health. They didn’t call it what it was, though. They questioned whether it was depression or a bad attitude, anxiety or poor study habits.

And I get it. Just as it was my first time being a 16-year-old, it was their first time being parents to one. All things considered, they were amazing at it — they provided for me and were generous with their time. Why, then, did I have the audacity to be sad? It was a question I constantly asked myself and was pressed about by my parents. My answering silence could only be interpreted as ungratefulness toward everything they had done for me. 

I began going to therapy in secret. The school counselor was a young woman with long blonde hair and big, listening eyes. She would encourage me to sit down with my parents and air out everything I told her. I could not explain why that never felt like an option. She didn’t understand why they would be angry that I had been seeing her. I didn’t know how to break down to her the complex difference between our races in their approaches to mental health. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the handout she gave me titled, “Guiding Questions about Depression!” Imagining a conversation with my parents that started with “rate your mood on a scale of 1 to 10” was almost comical.

A more common question was the pleading, “What’s wrong?” I wished I could tell them that I didn’t know. I didn’t know why I was sad and that made me angry. I hated that I was not able to express what was going on in my head. I didn’t know how to fight my pain.

Can you just hold me?

Instead, I would stare at the wall until I was told to leave the room. The emotions that surrounded that time were heavy — they weighed my family down. But when I was given the opportunity to lessen that weight through honesty, I shrunk. In my self-imposed isolation, it felt inappropriate to ask for a hand to hold. 

Growing up in a culture where conversation about emotions was rare, opening that door felt close to impossible. It didn’t feel like my place to argue the extent of my feelings when they told me that they had experienced the same things in high school and were able to “suck it up.” Sometimes I wished they would simply open their arms. Sometimes I wanted permission to cry. 

I’m still learning how to navigate that relationship. I’m lucky to say that my parents are open to learning, too. In the end, they supported me in going to counseling and even participated in family therapy. I used to think that a solution should be found in a single conversation — one that felt too intimidating to hold because of the expectation I had about its power. But I now see that it’s a process, which is the core of lasting change. 

Growth is in the fact that I can now call my mom when life feels overwhelming and she listens. My dad lets me know that he wants to make space for us to talk. I have that time in high school to look back upon as an example of what not to do, which is to stay quiet. Relationships can’t grow without communication. The words might not be perfect, but that’s OK. 

It’s the words themselves that hold me.

Elise Kim writes the Wednesday column exploring the power in things unsaid. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.