One of the things my mother has always emphasized is the importance of privacy, of keeping things within the family. In her eyes, there is no greater humiliation than the public shame brought by another’s perception of our family as unstable and unhappy. She always said that my behavior was a reflection of her parenting and that I couldn’t be seen as any less than perfect. It didn’t matter what the situation or reason; tears were always to be shed alone.
So began my journey of grieving alone. I was afraid of telling anyone, especially those closest to me, what I was feeling as I didn’t want to become “that girl”- the one who had train wreck emotional disasters that would keep people talking for weeks, or so my mind often reminded me.
The initial root of my anxiety was a desire for acceptance within my traditional Indian family and society. Growing up, life for me often felt like a game of masks. There was the one I’d wear to school painted with Western morality, a yearning for romantic love and a desperation to fit into the standards of beauty. Then there was the one I wore at home that turned away from love and was silent even when her mind was racing with objection. The one I wore alone felt cracked, split between two cultural worlds.
At school I found myself facing questions like: It’s okay to marry your brother in your culture, isn’t it? Don’t you get three hours of sleep because you only care about school? Why does the bindi on your forehead look like a mole? Some of my classmates had taken to calling me a lesbian because of the way I dressed. It didn’t bother me all too much until junior year of high school. Up until that point, I had always liked and gossiped about boys. Never had a girl taken my breath away the way that she did. I found myself glancing at her throughout history class. When she spoke to me, I seemed to forget what words were. Never mind that she was a popular cheerleader dating a football jock; she was kind, beautiful, and had a smile that made me confused.
Meanwhile, at home, I found myself at odds with my dad. My dad has always been ashamed of how “American” I am and tried to stamp as much out of me as he could when I was in middle school and high school. On the occasions in which I rebelled, he would sneer at my clothes and ask me if I really thought I looked beautiful. On prom, homecoming, or any sort of formal nights, my dad would always lock himself in his room, unwilling to look at me. Every time, I’d hope that he’d come down, look at me with a smile on his face, and tell me how beautiful I was. His absence always stung and made me feel as if something was wrong with me, as if I wasn’t good enough. However, he disagreed and felt that what he was doing was a favor in itself; it was better to avoid me than hurt me with the disgust in his eyes. Eventually, that became his go-to coping strategy with everything he disapproved of. If he didn’t see it or hear it, he could imagine me how he wanted me to be. We didn’t speak much during my first two years of college; he saw my defiance as a sign that I didn’t want a relationship with him in spite of my efforts to connect with him.
During my third year of college. I had an incident with my dad in which he broke down and said, over and over, “I’ve failed as a dad. I have failed,” as he cried for what felt like hours. I felt his failure as it had been mine. I had disappointed him beyond repair. I knew, in the back of my head, that it was his fault; he had moved his family to America and expected his children to follow traditional Indian culture. However, I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t good enough and that I’d never be. Around the same time, I was taking 5 engineering classes and preparing for an MCAT in a few months. The pain from my relationship with my dad, confusion regarding my sexuality, stress of maintaining facades in different situations, self-hatred of my body, and fear of ruining my future by not doing well in school, all of it was building up within me as I did what I had always been taught to do: stay silent.
I had my first panic attack the night before a class final. I stood outside of a college dormitory shaking and trembling, my mind spinning. I wanted to walk away, walk away somewhere far away where no one knew me and no one cared about me, walk away from the chains of studying, expectations, self-inflicted pressure, leave it all behind and become no one. I wanted to dig my nails into my wrist and feel the pain because it would offer some distraction from the mayhem in my mind. I wanted to be punished and hurt for not being good enough to handle the life I was given. So, I stood there, shaking, waiting for it to pass, alone.
My second happened a short while later when I made the decision to tell a boy I liked that I was unsure about my sexuality but thought that I was bisexual. He told me that he needed time to think and backed off. If this boy couldn’t accept me, how could my family if they ever found out? Was I stupid for believing that one day, my dad would come accept me? For two weeks, I couldn’t sleep, terrified of my sexuality and how it would change the relationships with my family and friends. I confided in a close friend who immediately tried to convince me that I couldn’t be attracted to girls and that I couldn’t go around putting false labels on myself. Seeing my inability to sleep, my mother took me to our family doctor. Although I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the cause of my pain, she nevertheless recognized my pain and placed me on anxiety medication.
A week after I visited the doctor, my dad and I had a big fight. He was angry at me because I had come home at 11 PM; in our household, it is unacceptable to come home after 9 PM. He scolded me for staying out late, and I pushed back in defiance, telling him that he had no way of controlling me. He took a step forward with his hand raised and yelled at me, “I’ll kill you if you think you can defy me.” In that moment, my brother stepped in between my dad and me, grasping my dad’s hands in a strong hold and screaming at him to calm down. I saw the rest of my life before me, tied up in emotional chains and blackmail and felt like I didn’t want to live anymore.
During my senior year, my anxiety was always in phases. I’d have periods of highs interspersed with periods of low. In my periods of highs, I swore that I had put the anxiety behind me and had moved on. In my periods of low, I found myself alone in my apartment, clutching my anxiety medication and wondering if taking all of the pills would let me find peace. One time, my roommate found me in the midst of a panic attack. She urged me to make an appointment with a therapist, something I had been afraid to do as I was nervous that the therapist would confirm that there was something wrong with me. I will always be grateful to her for pushing me to do so, because what I learned in those sessions helped me in making peace with my dad and sexuality.
One of the things that sticks with me today is something that my therapist said about neurophysiology. When we feel a certain emotion over and over again in stress-inducing situations, our mind forms stronger pathways with that emotion. It becomes more likely that we will feel a certain way even if it is not true. Because of my experiences with my dad and bullying, and fear of my sexuality, I had, in a sense, trained my brain to think that I wasn’t good enough. Nowadays, when I feel like criticizing myself, I visualize the little pathway in my brain that must be alight with action potentials and take my feelings with a grain of salt.
After college, I decided to move far away from home to have space from my family. I’m still on this journey of finding my confidence, the kind that can’t be destroyed by anyone else and doesn’t seek validation. Although I still have bad days, I’ve learned to rise better from a low. Instead of trying to fix things alone, I ask for help and let my friends know how I’m feeling. I wish that I had learned sooner that asking for help with regards to mental health is not a sign of weakness; it’s smart because you are actively helping yourself reach a better place personally and professionally. Although I may not always be able to control how I feel, I can choose how I react to how I’m feeling and try to make the best decisions for me. Each day, I work towards defining myself through love, happiness, and creation instead of the internal struggles that have imprisoned my passions for so long.