Content Warning: Contains mentions of suicide.
The first psychologist I ever saw recognised my trauma, how racism and growing up a child of immigrants had corroded my mental health over the years. I know now how lucky I was to find her, someone who helped me articulate my parentification and dispel the immigrant-sacrifice complex that had paralysed me since childhood.
After a suicide attempt in 2014, my parents visited me in hospital for a family therapy session. This was the first time seeing my parents since my involuntary admission, and I requested a Mandarin-English translator. The hospital staff refused, repeatedly, because it was “unnecessary”, and we could “make do.” The staff did not understand, could not comprehend, how I’d been raised by my parents, lived with them all my life and yet, couldn’t speak to them.
Then, 10 minutes into the session, the psychologist called urgently for a translator. For the first time, I had a voice. I’d spent years telling school counsellors that my parents didn’t understand me, only to have my experience dismissed as normal teenage angst. “It may seem like your parents don’t understand you because you’re a teenager,” each of them said. But they also promised the feeling of being misunderstood would pass with puberty— it didn’t.
Back at the hospital, my case manager and the psychologist apologised after my parents left. They both failed to understand the reality of being a child of immigrants, of growing up too quickly and taking responsibility for your family.
The reality was that my English helped my parents survive but it also took away my childhood. My parents needed me to call Centrelink, book pap smears and colonoscopies, negotiate quotes with plumbers and electricians before I could read. When I was 11, I wrote my father’s resignation letter, detailing his depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation caused by an unrelenting workplace. I became a carer for my parents when I was just a child, when what I really needed was someone to look after me, proofread my spelling homework and attend my parent-teacher interviews without me there, translating dutifully.
The truth is, my English helped my parents survive but it also took away my childhood
Not everyone finds a therapist who understands all this. Four years after my hospitalisation, my friend Peter - a Chinese-Australian - took his life. At the funeral, there wasn’t enough room in the chapel to fit everyone who had known Peter, loved him and wished, in some way, we could have saved him.
Peter’s death hurt me. Enraged me. But I never expected the survivor’s guilt that came after.
For a year afterwards, I felt guilty for being alive, for surviving my own attempts. I felt guilty for having parents who supported my recovery and saved me in their own way. My parents who did not have the language or vocabulary to speak about mental illness in English or their native language but drove me to therapy for years, joined my sessions with a translator and continued to transfer money for therapy when I was broke and living out of home.
I grew up thinking my crippling guilt, academic stress and unrelenting standards were products of my parents’ expectations. But as I got older, I realised I had internalised all this shame and anxiety watching my parents work tirelessly in a foreign country, belittled by racism and a system that did not recognise their qualifications. As I watched my parents struggled, I felt like I needed to make something of myself, to know that my parents did not migrate here in vain.
I wondered if Peter felt the same; whether he was burdened by the same self-imposed expectations to overachieve, to feel worthy of our parents’ sacrifices.
My therapy has been ongoing despite the fact that my last depressive episode was four years ago. I see the same therapist as I did back in 2014, herself a child of immigrants and who has always acknowledged how my cultural identity augments my experience of anxiety and depression. I have needed to relearn and accept what scared and scarred me in my childhood and how those schemas have bled into adulthood – my intense fear of abandonment, of never realising my potential and this intrusive critical voice that still haunts me.
I have needed to relearn and accept what scared and scarred me in my childhood and how those schemas have bled into adulthood
In my years of therapy, one thing that helped ease the guilt is learning to recognise my parents’ own agency as migrants. My parents were adults who did what they had to do to survive: they found jobs, made friends, rented houses and established lives in Australia long before I was born.
When I was younger, I only saw desperation and inadequacy: my father going to night classes at the local TAFE despite his PhD, my mother who didn’t have the language to order a meal at a restaurant. But I’ve studied migrant oral histories, volunteered with migrant women and learnt enough of my family history to know my parents do not view their choices as sacrifices.
For so long, I projected a narrative of victimisation and helplessness on my parents and couldn’t separate this from what they actually want for me. Which is to keep living a life that brings me joy in whatever form it takes — and that is how I will honour my parents’ choices.
Caroline is a Chinese-Australian woman living and working as a Consultant in Naarm (Melbourne). She is studying psychology part-time with the hope of becoming a Clinical Psychologist with a specialist in immigrant and diasporic populations.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. For 24/7 crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or call 000 in an emergency.
Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 19 September on SBS and SBS On Demand, as part of the Australia Uncovered strand of documentaries. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September.