Depression, our dirty little secret

Depression…sounds like a scary word doesn’t it? It makes you think of lonely people, dark rooms and black and white images of sad families. Fifteen years ago, that is exactly the way that I used to see depression. A ‘condition’ that might affect other people, in other families, far away from my picture perfect home. At that time I had no idea was I was in for.

My experience with depression is a very different one; because it wasn’t me that was suffering with this disease…it was my mother. Being of South Asian background, where depression is often stigmatized and rarely taken seriously, this was a scary little secret that my mother and I kept deep in our hearts. It started off with something that I can only describe as small bouts of sadness, and eventually grew into something much bigger and harder for a 15 year old girl to understand. It was always worst during the night when my dad was at work and the world around us seemed to have disappeared. I would try to comfort her, talk to her about why she felt the way she did, if there was anything that I could do to help…but the answer was always the same, ‘ I don’t know’.

 I tried so hard to convince my mom to talk to somebody, my dad, my brother, a doctor, a friend…anybody that may be able to help. But the answer was always the same. She was absolutely terrified of anybody finding out about her depression. She thought that people would judge her, think that she was weak, or worse, not understand or care at all. I remember us at family get togethers where she would be trying so hard to act happy, smile and laugh like everything was just fine…those nights were the hardest…for both of us.  This lasted for quite some time, and there were days where I thought that she was actually getting better, but she wasn’t. It wasn’t until I walked in on her one night, sitting in a corner with tear swollen eyes that I decided…we decided, something needed to be done. It was her own decision to finally start seeing a therapist (secretly of course), and after many failed attempts, finally found a medication that really seemed to work. Over a period of a few months I started to see a strong improvement in my mother’s mental health, and I was slowly starting to get my mother back.

At this point you may be wondering why I decided to share this part of my life…other than totally outing my mother’s personal experience. That time in my life was very difficult, seeing my mother suffering and not being able to do anything about it was really hard…but what made it so much harder was the fact that we had to hide her illness like a dirty little secret. There is so much strength and resilience in the South Asian community, but if one is unable to talk openly about issues as important as mental health, without fear of being stigmatized, then there is still a lot of work to be done. It is said that 20% of Canadians will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime…this disease is no longer affecting other people, in other families…it is affecting friends and family members all around us. I am always encouraging my mom to talk to others about her experience…and share with them that although depression may never really disappear completely, there is help…nobody should have to go through this alone.

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The unobtainable ‘beauty’

Let me start off with a little bit of a history lesson for you: The British invaded India in the 17th century, they came-they saw- they conquered… and eventually, they left…leaving behind many legacies, some good and some not so much. The one that has plagued my life for as early as I can remember is an incredibly unrealistic (and quite westernized) view of beauty. I know you’re probably thinking, ‘what a vain thing to obsess about’, so please, allow me to explain. Growing up in the South Asian community can be very difficult for girls. From a very early age you are surrounded by unreasonable expectations of what a ‘pretty Pakistani girl’ should look like. You must be thin, but not too thin (so that child bearing doesn’t become a problem), tall, but not too tall (otherwise how will you ever find a husband), fair skinned (really fair), have thick hair, perfect white teeth, dainty hands, a thin nose…and the list continues.

I remember early on, I didn’t really pay much attention to the comments, I felt pretty confident…that didn’t last long. Once I became a teenager, everything changed. I started to avoid mirrors, I hated what I saw staring back and popular opinion agreed with me. I started starving myself, bleaching my skin on a daily basis (thanks to the creators of the fair and lovely products), applying make up to thin out my features and so much more. I was completely obsessed with reaching that unrealistic idea of beauty. It worked for the most part, I was thin, fair, make up perfected and even started to look a bit taller…my exterior started to match others expectations, but what about all the stuff on the inside. I was always unhappy with the way I looked, something could always be better…I could never reach my goals, because they never existed. My goal was always to be better than where I was. I was never able to walk into a room late, out of fear that I would draw attention to myself, hated taking pictures and couldn’t even sit without wrapping a shawl around my waist. I felt alone…but I wasn’t…low self esteem was something that was prevalent in South Asian females across the community; my friends, my cousins and even my aunts. Everyone was going through the same obsession of reaching that unrealistic beauty.  

As I grew older, got married and had kids, those unrealistic expectations started to fade slightly, but never really disappeared. To this day I can’t walk confidently through a crowd, I still find myself shying away from the sun, and am always draping myself in a shawled distraction of some sort. I try really hard not to let my insecurities shadow over my daughter…but while I may have grown somewhat, societies expectations of beauty have not changed. When working with young girls in the community (including my daughter and nieces) I am always trying to push positive self image, and why it’s important to ignore societies expectations of us…but it’s hard at times, because deep down inside, I know that I am still avoiding that person looking back at me in the mirror.