back to top
Reader

We Don't Talk About Mental Illness In My Family

It wasn't until I mentioned to my mother that I'd been feeling depressed that she finally told me about her own struggles.

Posted on

A very short history of how I came to be: Before the war, my father came to America to go to college. After the war, my mother and her family came to America because there was nowhere else to go. My parents met here, as expats, at Portland State. They fell in love. They got married, built a house in the suburbs, and had me.

After the war, after the airlift out of Saigon enabled by a contact at the embassy and the arrival in Arkansas and the refugee camps and the transfers from state to state, my mother’s side of the family settled into a life overseas. For a long time everyone was poor and life was difficult and they all lived together in a house in Northeast Portland, Oregon, six daughters and one son and ông ngoại and bà ngoại who I loved dearly and who now rest beside each other in a cemetery just outside of Vancouver, Washington, where we all take turns bringing bouquets of peonies and persimmons and tangerines still on the branch. As her sisters and brother started their own families, they moved along the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, which is where I grew up.

As for me, I wanted for nothing. We were well off by the time I was born. My parents dressed me in velvet and satin; they gave me books to read and sent me to private school. When it was time for me to leave for college at age 17, I saw, suddenly, my life like a long hallway with many doors before and after. How strange to think that all the world had come to this, to me at this narrow point, the bud at the apex of the family tree.

We don’t talk about mental illness in my family. Rather, we wish we didn’t have to. When we do, it’s the folk sickness that twines its way through my maternal lineage like ivy. We speak of it in whispers, though everyone’s been treated for it at some point, Prozac and Zoloft and Lexapro all the way down the family tree, and yet here I must also admit we’re all just as apt to believe in ghosts as to believe in something like brain chemistry. What is depression, anyway, when you’ve already passed through the fire and returned? How can you be sad when you live in a world with such marvelous, fantastical luck?

When I was a junior in high school, I found in an aunt’s house a photograph of my mother from when she was around 16. How to describe the magic of finding a parent’s old photographs — it’s like seeing an alternate timeline, a you before you were you. My mother and I have the same square face, the same high cheekbones and funny, placeless nose, which always causes people to ask — where are you from? Here, I guess. If I had it with me, I’d show them the photo, where my mother, at 16, is still prettier than me. Her hair is pulled back, tucked behind her ears, and she has a faint smile on. Her depression hasn’t set in yet. Neither had mine, then.

At 17, the same age my father was when he crossed the Pacific and didn’t come back for 20 years, I moved east with all my family’s dreams. As I got older, my inheritance began to show. I grew into my looks and in doing so I grew into my mother, too. I picked up her habits: her posture, her sidelong glance, the intensity with which she gives gifts. I think fondly of my time at college as a shimmering, golden streak, but of the last two years there are entire months I can’t recall — great featureless blocks of time that seem, in retrospect, like very small deaths. I moved in a miasma of sadness. I don’t remember ever having the language to articulate what was happening, only that it didn’t seem to be happening to anyone else.


Asian-American women have higher rates of suicide than the national average. Asian-Americans are also much less likely to report mental illness to our friends or seek treatment — only 2% of Asian-Americans even mention symptoms of depression to their doctor, compared to a national average of 13%. There’s a culture of silence around mental illness, a stoicism that pervades cultural attitudes because talking about suffering isn’t what’s done. You don’t share or complain; you grit your teeth and keep your head down. It seems impossible that sadness could be chemical: Even now, I have to convince myself of that veracity.

In memories half obscured by the passage of time I find hints of that sadness in my mother from when I was very young. They have the quality of dreams, surfacing in a place between remembering and invention; the kind of memories where I feel I must look up at her, as if over a photo album, and ask, What happened next? The two of us lying on the couch, listless, reading, my mother’s hand encircling my small forehead. Days of her quietness; days of her refusing to eat, cooking for all but setting the table for three and for herself a bowl of rice and chao for one. In retrospect, I’m not sure if I am overlaying her darkness with my own, allowing it into the film of the photograph of our shared depression I’m only now developing.

Picture us together, me and my mother side by side: dark black hair, square faces, full mouths, mine with a Cupid’s bow. Genealogy is easy work with a resemblance like ours. I look at her and see traits I’m afraid I’ll take on — her stubbornness, her perfectionism. Of course, these traits are already mine. Besides the cheekbones hidden behind baby fat, I’m coming to learn what my inheritance consists of, the things that I carry down the family line. I don’t want to shoulder it all, but what else do you do?

I finally told my mother, in an offhand way, about my depression. It was in the context of happiness, even. We were somewhere in Downtown Brooklyn, that strip of Atlantic where all the furniture stores are, and I had just moved into an apartment in Crown Heights, the summer after I graduated college and went to build a life in the city. I was giddy with the promise of a future full of love, but nervous, my fears following me around like a dark cloud. “I’m worried that all this joy is going to end,” I said to her. We were looking for a desk and chair — running our hands over surfaces, checking drawers and loose knobs, in the way she had taught me to inspect everything before committing to purchase. “I get like this when I’m happy — I worry that it’s going to run out, that I’m going to be sad again.” She looked at me for a long moment.

“I’ve always felt that way,” she said. “I’ve never had words to express it.”

Over time we talked through it, around it, of it: the lethargy, the sleepless nights, the meaningless crying jags, the self-doubt. My father and my brother have never felt this way, we agreed. Once, my father suggested that when I was sad I ought to just put on some nice music and take a bath, which is a tender, temporary measure, but not an end to clinical depression. My mother and I wove a lexicon of language we both understood, giving shape to things she hadn’t known how to say before. You know how naming a thing gives it more and less power? That’s how it was: We tamed that wild fox together. It didn’t make my depression any easier, but at least it was a pain we could articulate. And it was like opening a door to a side of my mother I had never seen before — how terrible that that door was our shared sadness; how wonderful that we could share it now. When she and my father flew back to Portland, she urged me: “Talk to me when you’re sad.”

She doesn’t always know how to comfort me, but I treasure the effort. As I’ve gotten older, she’s gotten older too.

Lately, my mother calls me when she’s feeling sad. She’s alone a lot of the time, in the big old house I grew up in, surrounded by books. Sometimes she goes shopping and she’ll call me from the store. I always pick up her calls: “Hi Mama, what’s up?” “Oh, nothing much. I’m going shopping. I’m at an antique mall. I’m feeling sad. I miss you.” The luckiest thing of all of this is that I always know how to comfort her, because I know what I need, what I most desperately want to hear. As I am her daughter, her sadness is mine too.

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Maxim, Adult Magazine, Nerve, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.

Contact Larissa Pham at larissa.pham@gmail.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.