I have depression. It’s taken years of counseling and treatment to make it highly functioning, but it’s there nonetheless.
It’s not something that I would ever talk about with my Chinese coworkers or even to a doctor in China. There’s a huge stigma against taking antidepressants here. I’ve heard that those who are able to get their meds refilled have to be careful to make appointments to see their doctor for something other than mental health (sore throat, stomach ache, etc) and must lie and say that they need this medication to sleep well at night. This is partially due to the lack of privacy among the rooms of over-packed patients and to keep the hospital staff from gossiping.
Asian cultures, to generalize, frown upon taking advice outside of their own cultural sphere and are very sensitive to change, even if it is best for one’s health. In traditional Chinese medicine, many diseases are attributed to an imbalance of the body and cosmic forces that can be restored through diet or exercise. Some see mental illness as punishment for a wrong doing committed by themselves, family, an ancestor, or an infestation of evil spirits. Many Asians still see mental illness as a taboo subject, one to be ashamed of discussing. I love my mother dearly, but she still tells me, to this day, that she doesn’t understand why I’m on medication when I could just stop dwelling on bad memories and be okay.
One of the hardest things about being in China, a land with very little access to supportive care, is the fact that your employers all know and critique your health history. Employment in China can be based on very superficial requirements. One cannot be hired in China without showing your employer a picture of yourself (I’ve known of people being rejected for looking “too fat”) and offering a health record. Some will even straight up ask if you’re married or not. In the hiring process of my current position, I was grilled on the medications I was taking and how I was going to cope since an American guy they hired the year before me in anther part of China ended up failing badly. Something about he stopped going to his classes, stopped showering, and locked himself in his room to drink for days on end.
What’s helped me, besides my twice daily talks with my super supportive husband back in The States, is having lots of bright light around me. The rains make everything dreary, which puts a damper on my usually positive outlook. Keeping yourself distracted is a must. This past summer, I had a beautiful little dwarf hamster, books galore, and American tv (!) to keep me busy.
I love people. I love being around people. I love listening to others talk. China’s great for that, as there’s always someone there whether you like it or not. The more energy those around me have, the happier and more excited I tend to become (to borderline manic if I’m not careful). When I’m not hanging around with friends or teaching my normal classes, I am often tutoring kids from grade five on down to kindergarten. It’s hard not to feel good when a little human being latches to your leg, laughing up at you, or when you’re giving high fives and cheering on the older kids for practicing their English. I also try to make time to go to the gym or walk around my gorgeous town.
I’ve used a sunlamp on my darker days…These are the days where I spiral. The days where I feel so defeated and hate everything about myself. Where I question and reevaluate choices, the ones I’ve made in life and the ones made by others who raised me. Where it’s hard to go out my front door and immensely draining to think about facing the judgments, the looks, the critiques on my language skills and my slightly non-Chinese features. Where I repeat every little demeaning thing ever said to and about me. Where I question how I’m still here. Where it’s easier to hide away and let any emotion I have be sucked down the spiral into the core of my sadness…
Typhoons are always a particularly stressful time. We had them fairly often when I lived in Japan (‘95-’02). Rain naturally makes me incredibly depressive and susceptible to my darkness. Just the sound of rainfall is enough to give me anxiety and set my emotions on edge. The loud rumble of thunder can cause me to unintentionally bawl, which ruins the mood for the day. I feel like my nerves lately have been up and down as the death tolls rise in the wake of the storms both in the West and here in the East.
My family and I are lucky: the worst experience we have had so far being when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. It was painful waiting days to hear back about the status of my favorite grandfather and extended family as at that time we were too far away in New Mexico. Luckily, Grandpa survived the roof collapsing on him and escaped with only a broken leg. Over three thousand people lost their lives in that disaster. It remains a deeply humbling and heart-wrenching experience, and I feel for the many friends and families currently awaiting news of their loved ones. For now, we hold our breaths and hope for the best in the rainy days to come.
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You are brave, Steph.