[cw: mental illness, depression, suicidal ideation]
Note: Neither Zora nor I are mental health professionals or expert mental health advocates, and this post is not an endorsement of a certain kind of healing. What I’ve written is only a personal account. Please feel free to reach out to either of us; however, for health advice, we ask that you consult a local licensed professional and/or the list of resources at the bottom of this post.
Last winter, Zora had asked me to write about mental health. I couldn’t finish the post. I was scared and ashamed. For the most part, I’m an open book about our relationship. After all, the Spirit moves through our relationship, as it does in all, and sharing about our relationship shares about the Spirit. But this seemed too hard.
Now I’m bolstered by the courage and testimony of friends and strangers in the face of two highly visible celebrity deaths from suicide – bolstered and saddened. What I want to share today is less for individuals living with mental illness and more for the many of us who are friends, family, and neighbors to loved ones living with mental illness. What I want to say – what I hope serves as the handholds through this post – is this: we are each others’ keepers.
When You Have More Blind Spots Than Visibility
They say that women more frequently die from heart attacks because we tend to ignore the signs. We’re used to a certain threshold of pain. We’re used to second-guessing.
Mental illness works a little like that. Some of us have developed callouses in the tender places that should’ve helped us to see the signs. Some of us get told not to trust our experiences. Some of us get told we aren’t experts on ourselves – we aren’t authorities. And we miss the signs, and we walk into darkness.
I’m a queer Asian American Christian. These identities are life-giving, but each presents culturally standardized blind spots against mental well-being. Each has complicated my understanding of mental illness. And each has presented unique and enriching routes to well-being.
I want to say a few words about each strand of identity before I tell you my story.
Queerness x Mental Illness
Only 31 years ago, the American Psychological Association finally removed LGBTQ identity from its catalog of mental illnesses, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Even now that sexual orientation is more widely understood as an inherent part of one’s identity rather than a disorder, many still conflate correlation and causation. In other words, some see one’s queerness as the cause of one’s mental illness. In reality, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition due to prejudice, stigma, denial of civil and human rights, abuse, harassment, victimization, and family rejection.
But the LGBTQ community is extraordinary in its resilience. In the face of individual and collective trauma, it rises and celebrates. We are each others’ keepers.
Asian America x Mental Illness
Asian America underreports mental illness. For many, mental illness is read as personal weakness, selfishness, or an inability to participate in communal life.
In addition, Chinese folks like my family and I have a far higher propensity than others to express mental un-wellness as physical symptoms. For example, while I see symptoms of mental illness in my mother, her symptoms manifest as physical ailments like stomach-aches, headaches, and joint problems. This phenomenon is called somatization.
But I also come from a people who live life together and are born into a web of interdependence. We are each others’ keepers.
Christianity x Mental Illness
Evangelical Christianity has largely failed its adherents who live with mental illness. This particular strain of Christianity that I once called mine taught many of us that mental illness indicates distance from God. To some, it’s demonic possession. To others, it’s disobedience – an unwillingness to put one’s trust in a God that casts out all fear. It’s an S.O.S. from a backsliding Christian, spiritual warfare, or something like sin.
At the same time, various traditions of Christian faith have wisdom to offer on the road to healing. The Christian mystics, for example, have long noted that mystical experience produces states of mental and spiritual harmony that we now know are akin to those produced by psychedelic substances or prescription anti-depressants. And at its best, the Church serves as a network of sentries, each member of the body acutely attuned to the pain and illness of the others. We are each others’ keepers.
Now, let’s put it all together.
Since adolescence, I’ve experienced episodes of clinical depression that have each lasted up to a year each. Most are triggered by events. Here and there, a doctor will come along with another diagnosis, but nothing is as life-disrupting as a loss of will to live.
Growing up under the roof of Chinese immigrants, I had a vocabulary for what I was experiencing but neither a basis against which to check my intuition nor a sense of the advocates or resources I needed. I also knew that I was queer, and my mother attributed my mental illness to my sexual orientation with her own hypothesis that the two were linked. Should I choose heterosexuality, she believed, my mental well-being would stabilize.
Most recently, I experienced a severe episode of depression four years ago. This time, my family did not know. I couldn’t share my shame, and I couldn’t admit what I thought was my distance from God.
I spent that summer sharing a room with Zora. It was a hot summer in Western Massachusetts, and we passed many evenings going on silent drives, taking silent walks, eating silent dinners. Depression took the words out of my mouth and mind. For a writer, that’s an alien kind of loss.
She had wanted to be near me. I had wanted to be near no one – not her, not myself. Often, she cooked for us. Sometimes we ate boxed mac and cheese in the warm hallway accompanied by the white noise of an old tower fan. We didn’t see many other people. I hardly left the room except at Zora’s insistence. Depression truncated past and future, and the present seemed unbearably eternal.
Sometimes Zora would take a cold shower before she went to sleep. There was only a twin bed in the room, which she let me have, and she slept on a sleeping bag on the ground like a starfish. To this day, I don’t know how she spent so many joyless moments by my side. I wanted to push her away, but I didn’t know if that would hurt her more. I loved her, but I didn’t know how to express that. Depression took more than my joy; it stole the joy from those around me.
One night, we fought – about what, I don’t remember. But she asked me why I’d say that I wanted to die. Because it’s real, I told her. I did want to die. With each episode of depression came for me an inescapable need for isolation, self-harm, and suicidal ideation and planning. Depression wasn’t a deluge of sorrow; it was a vacuum of my humanity begging to be filled. But I was a sieve, not a cup, unaware of how to patch myself back up.
Then, a panic attack defibrillated my understanding of my own mental health.
The day that I woke up that summer with what I thought was a heart attack, I called the doctor. A week later, no one could identify cardiac or respiratory abnormalities. And yet, throughout that week – and for almost a year – I continued to experience persistent and severe chest pain. Eventually, a nurse prescribed me medication for both anxiety and depression. She believed that I was experiencing a somatic response to anxiety, and she recognized my depression. She named what felt to me like insanity, and its ordinariness surprised me like a cool wind. This was the beginning of getting better.
For the next few years, I continued in a non-linear fashion toward wellness through therapy and medication, but I also experienced healing love from those who dared to persist in loving me. My roommate in the desert – a mental health advocate and now a counselor – taught me the value of not only healing mental illness but in maintaining good mental health. Friends in the desert taught me new ways of understanding a God that is not only victorious but that also weeps, that also experiences death, and that promises resurrection. And Zora – audacious and relentless in her love – kept watch over me through my dark hours. I don’t know a better woman than her.
When I recall the events of that year, how I strove to push her away, how I asked for death while she challenged me to choose life, I feel overwhelmed with guilt. I had treated someone who loved me so unconditionally with such a lack of love. But Zora reminds me that she forgives me, that I was ill, that this is in the past now. This kind of forgiveness is of God and like God.
To these elements of therapy, medication, and daring love, I added time and rest. Now, I believe that sometimes the Spirit heals us by tipping us like vials into one another’s contents. I believe that we each carry a medicine uniquely brewed by the Spirit’s indwelling, our own wisdom, our experiences, and our circumstances. I was awakened by what may have been a divinely appointed panic attack, and I was healed by medicine, but I survived through loving and authentic relationships.
Depression thrives under the cover of darkness – of isolation and self-loathing. But my keepers stood watch. And I must in turn keep watch over my siblings – those with whom I have authentic relationships. If the darkness comes again, we will be ready.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project (an LGBTQ-centered suicide prevention hotline): 1-866-488-7386
NAMI HelpLine (National Alliance on Mental Illness, Monday-Friday, 10am–6pm ET): 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
Photograph from AnotherMag.com