I was 15 when I was told I had “mild depression”. It was a sunny day, and I was sitting outside on one of the wooden benches at school with the school counsellor at the time – a different counsellor to the one I had been seeing for the past year. One part of my brain was grateful, relieved for the diagnosis, the confirmation of something I had thought to be true for the past six or seven years. The other part of my brain wondered if it was really an accurate diagnosis. I wondered if I could really believe this person and her assessment of my mental state. In many ways, I needed this diagnosis so badly that when it eventually came, I was scared that I had been kidding myself all along – or that people were just entertaining me so they could get me to shut up.
I first thought I had depression when I was eight or nine. I was heavily bullied at school, and at some point, my normal routine of burying my head in a book or just focusing on my school work failed me. I didn’t really know what depression was at the time, but I had heard the term a little. There may have even been a mention or two of it in some of the Good Medicine magazines my mother had in her practice to entertain people in her waiting room.
I began to hate school. I didn’t want the holidays to end – a new, strange feeling, because I used to hate the holidays. I always wanted to go back to school.
I remember being sad, left out. My teachers called my parents in for a meeting and told them they thought I was socially inept, because I didn’t talk to the other kids a lot and preferred to talk to the teachers. I used to love school – I loved the thrill of learning something new every day, of challenging myself to do something better, or to be more innovative in my approaches. But this year, I began to hate school. I didn’t want the holidays to end – a new, strange feeling, because I used to hate the holidays. I always wanted to go back to school.
I remember lying in bed, crying, thinking I had depression because I wanted to die. I didn’t know the phrase “suicidal ideation”, or really anything else about depression. I thought that this ever-present feeling of wanting to die was its only symptom. My self-diagnosis coincided with an emotional split from my parents. I had previously been quite open with them about my life and my feelings, even telling them I was being bullied at school and that I had no friends.
Their main response was to tell me to pray – which obviously didn’t help – and after months of inaction from God, one night, Dad weaponised my friendlessness. “If you listened to us more you’d have more friends,” he said. I can’t remember what he was rebuking me for, but I remember the cold, white tiles under my feet, a feeling of shock, and my resolute vow to never trust my parents again with any of my feelings.
I started acting out at school. For the most part, I still had my head stuck in a book, but I also stole things from other children and lied about it. It was never anything major – a can of deodorant, an empty pencil case, a five dollar note – but it was enough for the school to send me to see a counsellor. She was nice enough, but she didn’t seem to understand the dynamics at play in a Chinese family, why I couldn’t say no to my parents, why I couldn’t just ask them nicely for the things I wanted. The last time I saw her, I told her about a comment one of my teachers had made – “some of the kids in the class think you’re arrogant, and I think you might be too” – and all she said was, “I think it might be true”.
I ran out of her room, crying.
In that moment, I had never felt more alone.
My counsellor was nice enough, but she didn’t seem to understand the dynamics at play in a Chinese family.
I told myself I’d never see a counsellor again, that I’d never be so vulnerable to a stranger ever again. And so in the following years, I huddled into myself. I compressed all of my emotions into a tiny ball and convinced myself that this way, I wouldn’t have to deal with them – and that this was the best way to live my life. But depression doesn’t go away, it can’t be cured, and it certainly isn’t managed by ignoring all of my negative emotions.
So when it reared its ugly head again when I was 14, I was not ready. But this time, thanks to my high school environment. I had a support network. I had teachers who genuinely cared about me, friends who wanted me to be all right, and a school counsellor who was happy to talk for the majority of our early sessions while I either nodded or shook my head according to her questions. The internet was more readily available, and I researched depression and its symptoms. I learned to identify my emotions again. With the help of the school counsellor, I developed strategies, like recognising when situations are out of my control, or identifying when I need to be around other people and when I need to be alone, and these helped to regulate my mood and my thoughts.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but I got through it – and I got through it without my parents. I only plucked up the courage to tell them after I’d left high school, and even then, I’m not sure they fully understood what I was trying to say. And because depression isn’t something that just goes away – I still have depressive episodes every so often that I need to manage – I’ve tried to tell them a couple more times after that, each time bumbling through my words and my tears.
Every time, they say they’ll pray for me. Every time, I want to be angry; I want to tell them that prayer didn’t work for me. But every time, I stay silent. I know now that it’s their way of telling me they love me.
Yen-Rong Wong is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @inexorablist.
If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 , Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.
A new SBS series 'How ‘Mad’ Are You?' takes a unique look at mental health. The two-part series premieres 11 October, 8.30pm on SBS.