Four years ago, I was suicidal.
Depression and PTSD is not one size fits all. The long journey to mental health.
Depression and PTSD is not one size fits all, despite how the societal narrative makes it sound. You may feel some of the symptoms or all of the symptoms but rarely are there two identical cases. For me, at the height of my depression, I felt utter hopelessness. I was drowning and even though my brain told me to fight, my heart — my will — just couldn’t. It was a battle against myself as well as against others.
Every morning, I’d wake up and my brain would say, “Come on, Yia, just get out of bed. Swing your legs over and stand up. You can do this.” I’d tell myself, “Today, I’m going to work on my resume. Today, I’m going to look for work. Today, I’m going to be productive.” Every morning started with a pep talk, but my environment would still pull me back under. I needed real change.
In my heart, all I could feel was pain. So much crippling pain. All the horrible things that had happened to me would come rushing in, pulling me under in a tide of grief and panic. I was grieving for me, for a young girl who’d lived her entire life in toxic environments and seemingly couldn’t escape. I couldn’t breathe. At times, drowning felt far easier.
My depression was situational. I had no safe space, no reprieve, no way to freely breathe. Society — and yes, even family and friends — can be toxic, especially when they don’t or can’t understand; or when they are part of the cause. Even when we talk recovery, most people I’d encountered felt that pulling myself out of depression should take a few months tops.
“Ugh, just get over it, Yia. You are always being such a victim.”
In the years where I’d finally begun to understand and accept my depression, it was difficult to talk to those around me about it. I was met with a lot of discomfort and a lot of dismissal. I could literally feel their eye-rolls and I’d wish that I could “just get over it.”
I think I’ve been depressed most of my life. The environment I grew up in wasn’t easy. My parents carried a lot of PTSD from fighting in and surviving the Secret War, and that in turn meant that as their eldest daughter, I bore the brunt of a lot of their unresolved anger and trauma. Then there was my Hmong community, which was largely patriarchal and collectively unhealed from their war wounds. Under normal circumstances, a daughter already had very little value, but in the aftermath of genocide and slaughter and resettlement, being a first generation American daughter in a traditional Hmong home became even more suffocating.
At 17, I went to the furthest college that accepted me. I wanted no surprise visits. Education was the only avenue of escape that was viable. It was either that or follow the footsteps of my cousins and marry young, hoping it would be safer with a husband and in-laws than living under a parent’s roof. At least, that’s what many of my peers had hoped; but most found that it was not true. It was simply jumping from a frying pan into a fire. In-laws and husbands were often harsher realities than abusive parents. So I chose school. I chose to live and die by my own wit and grit.
During my senior year of high school, the pressure and abuse manifested itself into a near nervous breakdown. The physical abuse, the oppressive responsibilities of raising my siblings and taking care of all of the domestic chores, the strain of unending and overbearing lectures from both parents, and the constant criticism and name calling from my mother, my brain started to break. At night, as I’d lay in my sparse room, I’d hear my mother’s voice echo in my head.
You’re worthless and ugly. Why can’t you be like your cousin?
Fat lady. Fat girl. You would be prettier if you weren’t fat.
You’re so lazy. I’ll cut your heart out, you evil, black-hearted child.
Do you know how much I suffered because of you? Everyone wanted you dead when you were a baby and I was the only one who cared.
And so on. Round and round in my head, like a raining chorus of her voice in endless rhythms of censure, always in the moments between wakefulness and full sleep. At night, I’d fear falling asleep because I couldn’t escape her voice. I’d lay there on my twin bed, my pillow pressed over my head to stop her voice, tears leaking from my tightly closed eyes. I suppose I was always a survivor, because there was a small piece of me that would plan and would keep my logic and sanity in check. Time and time again, it would rescue me.
The end of summer that year couldn’t come fast enough. My parents dropped me off at my college campus ten hours away with zero dollars in my pockets; and I, in turn, didn’t look back as they left. They’d lectured me the entire trip there, not knowing that it was because of this behavior that I couldn’t speak as I sat in the back of the car, hands over my ears and leaning against the cold window pane. Even if they were well-meaning, I couldn’t take it. Not another word. My whole life had been a shifting between lectures, beatings, pressure, and responsibilities. They saw my silence as being hard-headed and ungrateful. They left me with no money as a punishment for my impudence, but I only felt relief as they drove away. Finally, I was free.
Or so I thought.
Physically, I was finally on my own, but mentally, I was a zombie. I was in shell shock, living in a fog and in constant fear of school breaks. Where would I go? Dorms would be closed. I couldn’t go home. I did poorly my freshman year, most of it spent in a suspended daze. There physically, but so emotionally delayed. My short term memory had suffered from years of abuse and I was in need of intensive therapy to be able to start feeling safe.
I found myself cornered again, a poor kid with no money, barely able to pay for my dorm room and tuition, living off of grants and work study, and feeling desperate whenever holidays or breaks rolled around. I’d managed to maintain a 3.8 GPA in high school with all honors classes despite the abuses at home; but in college, the struggle to stay free, to survive on my own, and to deal with my trauma had my grades slipping. And to be honest, I wasn’t dealing with my trauma well. I didn’t understand it. I only knew that I had crippling anxiety and that I felt numb and in a haze all the time. My emotions would occasionally burst through like water in a crack in the dam; then I’d seal it back up and keep it tucked inside.
Back then, there weren’t many Hmong kids going to college. It was difficult to find peers who could relate. Now, there are clubs and associations to help, but in the 90s, I was part of the first wave of Hmong kids to make it to college and it was a lonely experience. My non-Hmong peers couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go home; and I suppose I’ve been lucky in that there was always one friend — whether they understood or not — who opened their home to me.
In college, that friend was Andrew Collins. He was black and an outsider too. His family didn’t understand why I couldn’t go home, but they also didn’t ask. They just opened their couch to me to weather out the holidays until dorms opened up again.
I didn’t know how to socialize and survive in the world because I’d lived in a Cinderella-like state my whole life up to that point. Except in my story, there was no fairy-tale ending. There was no prince, no fairy godmother, no one to save me but me.
Raised to be an obedient and “good” girl and as the eldest daughter, I was conditioned not to think of myself. My purpose was to serve and to ask for nothing in return. I never even asked for new clothes all through my teen years. Instead, I wore my mother’s hand-me-downs. I carried this sense with me into my relationships and into my career, which in turn were also toxic. I found myself in a corporate culture of 12 to 14 hour days and thankless work. It wasn’t uncommon to find myself leaving the office at one in the morning several times a month. There was also the running joke of leaving the office at six. People would say, “Oh, leaving early today?”
In addition to the grueling hours, to get ahead, you had to mingle. That meant happy hours with co-workers and bosses after working fourteen hours. The Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations worlds are known for closet alcoholics, where bottles of Jack and Grey Goose were stashed away in desks drawers and some companies even hosted 3 PM Beer Fridays as a perk. For fifteen years, I worked every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holiday. Every vacation started with toast in the morning, checking my work email, and feeling anxiety-ridden that I shouldn’t be on vacation.
I also found myself in a relationship with a man who in some ways were better than my father; and in other ways, far worse than my father. You never intentionally look to be in relationships with partners who reflect your parents, but you invariably find yourself there if you are not conscious of it. Selfish, self-centered, broken, and just good-looking enough to keep a young girl hanging on, he played the gaslighting song and dance like a pro. And I, raised up to take care of everyone and everything and too young and stupid to process my trauma and to know myself, I was the perfect partner…until I wasn’t.
He wasn’t Asian, but he loved me for my Asian-ness, until I started maturing into myself and proved to not fit the mold. I wasn’t the obedient, quiet Asian girl he’d thought Asian women to be; and other parts of Asian stereotypes made him increasingly uncomfortable and insecure. The more I succeeded or excelled, or if I contradicted him or showed my intelligence, the more intimidated he’d be and the more neglectful and emotionally abusive the relationship would become.
People would say, “If it was so bad, why’d you stay so long? You’re so smart, how could you be so dumb?”
There are a lot of reasons why people stay in bad relationships, even smart people. For myself, it became a norm and, in some ways, the feelings were familiar to when I was a child. It’s all I knew. I found myself in this abusive cycle that I couldn’t break myself out of. He’d become my world and I thought I needed him to survive. After a few years, it wasn’t about financial support because I eventually made more money than him, but it was a co-dependency nonetheless. I was in NYC with no real friends or family except for his. No real support system. I was afraid of being alone (but being alone would become the best thing that ever happened to me).
Also, I thought I loved him. He was the first everything and there was nothing to compare him to, no experience to say “you shouldn’t feel this way or accept this treatment.” He was an expert at subtle slights so that he could dismiss me later for feeling hurt. His actions would stab into the heart of me, like the way he sneered at my new dress that I felt beautiful in. Or he’d purposefully give another woman lavish praise and attention while he ignored me altogether. Or how he’d do nothing for my birthdays, graduations, or promotions because he “didn’t want you to get a big head.” He’d regularly tell every woman we knew how beautiful they were, but he’d snicker at me instead and withhold affection. I used to think of him as a camel in a desert while I was dying of thirst.
Then, there was the constant lying and cheating and avoiding and hanging onto memories of ex-girlfriends. We were never alone in that relationship. Ghosts of girlfriends past were everywhere.
Additionally, traditional Hmong women are raised to tough it out no matter how horrible your partner is. It’s not to say that all men are abusive, because they’re not; but when our spouses are abusive, we’re told to have patience, to go back and think about how we can change ourselves so that our men would stop being so horrible to us. That’s how many traditional marriages lasted as long as they did. That was some ingraining that I had to unlearn so that I could finally stand up for myself.
The best thing my ex ever did for me was leave.
My entire life, I was conditioned to carry a heavy load and to never stop. I never rested, which became an echo in each phase of my life. I never had time to really think about myself, where I was, what I wanted, or how to be happy. Truly happy. My life had been about meeting others’ needs and expectations and ensuring their happiness — that is until the day everything came to a screeching halt. I was physically injured and required surgery; and in the downtime for healing, there was no way to keep away the dark. All of the loneliness, the fears, the abuse, the anxieties, the neglect, they all came calling. I began to sink and I sank fast.
Thirty-eight years of abuse and neglect from those who were supposed to love me, the stress and hollow dissatisfaction from my fifteen year career, the constant feeling of failure and not belonging anywhere in conjunction with the inability to walk and care for myself, I started drowning in the darkness of my living room. I needed real help and real compassion.
It’s been four years now since I was suicidal. At first, it was difficult to find the right help; and it took a lot of adjustment to slow down and take time. I committed myself to me, to really finally get to know myself and to figure me out. I decided to pick up a pen and to write about things that mattered, instead of things that made corporations a lot of money. It took exhaustive searching to find the right therapist and to commit to returning every week whether I felt like there was anything new to talk about or not. It took taking a stand and drawing lines against the toxicities in my life and working past the feelings of guilt for cutting certain people out. It took maturing to also come to accept that there are some things I will never be able to change or that I will never receive from those who wronged me and to be able to walk away.
Four long years of growth to feel okay again. What I’d like people to understand about depression is that it isn’t an easy fix nor is it something that most can simply “get over” in a couple of months. For me, I believe it’ll be a struggle for the rest of my life. There will come good days and bad; days where I’m triggered and days where I’ll be completely fine. Dealing with trauma and PTSD isn’t so simple as “being cured.” Instead, you learn to work through the moment and find a center to the here and now instead of being pulled back into the then. And for those in recovery or are seeking help, I want you to know that it is okay to walk away from family and old friends, anyone who is toxic to your mental health journey, because your survival matters more than their understanding or acceptance.
In the end, it’s said the journey to transformation starts with forgiveness, but the only person you truly need to forgive is yourself. If you can find the strength to do that, then you’re well on your way to being stronger. To come out of the dark, you must believe that you are worth saving and you are.