My Mental Health Journey

This article was written as part of a collaboration with Shattering the Stigma for their “Sharing Our Stories” series.

Mental health was the least of my childhood worries—or at least, I was taught that it should be. Growing up homeschooled by Indian parents, I never really heard about it until I was well into my teens. Poor mental health was always something that happened to someone else, and only to be addressed in the most extreme of circumstances. I was taught about manic schizophrenia and hallucinations in tenth-grade biology, but never about depression or anxiety, or eating disorders. These topics were always glossed over, seen as something almost impolite to talk about. As I grew older, the utmost importance continued to be placed on physical health, while the bit of conversation about mental health that crept into my household focused on how people with poor mental health had in some way brought it on themselves, either for attention or because they were too “weak to get over it.”

Growing up internalizing these messages, really, is it any wonder that I had no idea how to take care of my mental health or see the warning signs of it worsening? I put a tremendous amount of pressure myself from the beginning of high school, completely tying my self-worth to my academic and professional accomplishments. Many of us in Asian—or really, any immigrant—households can relate to being compared (mostly unfavorably) to other kids or having our only source of validation being our tangible accomplishments. I set about signing up for every AP, SAT, and SAT subject test I could find and getting so many books from Barnes & Noble (where I was a top-tier rewards member carrying on a lovely little scheme of buying and returning test prep books) and the library that my spaghetti-esque arms bulked up from carrying books the size of watermelons. On the side, I took on as many internships, research assistant positions, and other extracurriculars as I could find—not as many as I had time or mental space and capacity for, but as many as I could find. I began working 12-14 hour days, downing 8 cups of coffee a day. I could feel what I now know are symptoms of the severe anxiety I’ve been diagnosed with, the sleeplessness, the shaky hands, the panic that gripped my trachea until I could barely breathe. I hyper-rationalized it, ascribing the sleeplessness and shaking to how much coffee I was having (not an untrue assumption), and the constant stress to either the volume of my work or fear of not achieving what had become my sole goal in life: getting into an Ivy League school (preferably Princeton, but I’d settle for Penn).

Spoiler alert (not really, as I’m almost done with freshman year): I didn’t get into Princeton. Or Penn. Or Yale. Or Harvard. Or even Georgetown. I went to my safety school. A safety school where I found a loving, supportive friend group, a wonderful mentor, got straight-As, multiple jobs and internship offers in my dream field, and access to the mental health, academic, and professional resources I needed. Not bad for high school Rehana’s worst fear, eh? A couple of months into my first semester, which was incredible despite being all online due to COVID-19, I couldn’t understand how I had been so worried about ending up here. That is until I worked myself into—and now, this isn’t me being melodramatic. It was diagnosed as such—a full nervous breakdown. By December 2020, the composure and efficiency that instilled such confidence in my staff and impressed countless professors and supervisors finally cracked. After years and years of bottling, pushing every anxious thought down in pursuit of the next accolade, I slipped into a depression so deep I legitimately did not think I would make it out. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I lost physical sensation in my arms. My voice lowered until it cracked, my dark circles (always prominent, thanks to my South Asian genetics) worsened until it looked like I permanently had two black eyes. I couldn’t cry, because I couldn’t feel anything. Thankfully, the aforementioned loving friend group pushed me to get help, first through a wellness counselor at my school. Talking to her, pouring out everything I was going through and experiencing, I will never forget the wave of emotion that slammed into me when she commented, in passing, not even as a diagnosis, that I was depressed. It was the first time my mental health had ever been validated, or even really acknowledged, by an adult. When I expressed this to her, she immediately understood what I meant (she was also a woman of color, which definitely gave her the necessary cultural context—we need more therapists and mental health professionals of color!) and further validated what I was going through. This was the push I needed to seek therapy, which in turn led to me getting prescribed the medication I needed to control my anxiety. 

This is not to say that all the problems in my life have been solved. I still cry. I still get anxious, very, very anxious. I still feel rejected, I still feel empty. But these are feelings now, usually triggered by something and almost always able to be calmed down in some way. It’s not my way of life anymore. More than anything, the knowledge that I am able to get through things—whether it’s a big test, crisis at work, breakup, or just a massive zit—is incredibly empowering. When I feel the old panic rising up, I know how to bring it back down. When I’m having a hard week, I know I can unload it all on my therapist later. And when everything just feels like too much, I can know that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with me–I’m a normal human person with normal human emotions and trauma, and a slight chemical imbalance doesn’t change that! I’ve also made it a personal mission of mine to destigmatize mental health more by just talking about it. I’m a young, conventionally successful Asian-American woman with severe anxiety and depression—and what about it?

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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