The Walls We Hide Behind

Featured Artwork: Elena Resko

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Immigrant culture entails hard work and success, but in the process produces the fear of being ridiculed if one ever deviates from that set standard of excellence. It’s not uncommon that even the simple utterance of the words “mental health” in the South Asian community are met with amused looks or confusion. Note to self: stop trying to entertain yourself at dinner parties by making edgy jokes about your eating disorder every time an auntie asks you where all your fat went because she won’t get it. It doesn’t really come as a surprise, because no one really knows how to address their vulnerabilities in a community which is a cesspool of aggressive competitiveness,  comparing who’s the most achieved, who’s the “fairest”, who has the best Instagram, the best cars the list going on. It’s hard to be open about weakness in a community that is so focused on competing against one another rather than extending support — so we build these walls around us and put on faces that aren’t our own to make our lives seem more glamorous than they really are, because we’d rather people silently envy the superficial versions of us than actually know us, weaknesses and all. The endless pursuit of preventing one’s family name from being tarnished consistently overpowers getting help and fostering these open discussions on vulnerability.

Behind those walls lie the messier aspects of being a human and living with mental illness. The hard-working and successful immigrant father becomes overworked and emotionally distant. He, the man, is expected to rise above and be indifferent towards the continuous rise and fall of the crashing waves against the shore within his mind because emotions make you weak and he is not weak. The seemingly perfect mother constantly feels inadequate under the unforgiving scrutiny and condescension of sickly sweet housewives she’s forced to interact with at dinner parties. She, the woman whose entire existence has relied on reputation, is afraid because they’re the reason she worries about log kya kahenge (what will people think?) The straight-A doctor-engineer-lawyer hybrid children, who absolutely do not have any friends of the opposite gender, sneak out at night and would rather cry behind closed doors than vocalize their pain, in fear of being misunderstood. They hold pillows to their faces to silence themselves until the muffled yelling of their mothers beckons them downstairs because the roti is ready. Everyone eats dinner in silence, with glazed and tired eyes, the masks they wear to keep up appearances cast to the side until it’s time to parade their model minority status around their neck like a medal again.

Not being strong enough to keep up appearances is a completely different story because of the heavily communal and faith-based nature of the South Asian diaspora. The rationale connoting mental health with negativity and weakness in the South Asian community is faith. I can’t speak for my Hindu and Sikh readers but as a Pakistani-Muslim, one of the most common responses to someone vocalizing their struggles with mental health is: “it’s because you don’t pray enough, and if you were closer to God, the problems in your head wouldn’t exist anymore.” Struggling with a mental illness makes it difficult for one to constantly have the energy to pretend to be alive and bubbly, let alone leave their house, and that makes them an easy target to becoming ostracized or further isolated.

What we’re not going to do is victim-blame someone struggling with an illness, because on the days when even the simplest tasks seem impossible, the last thing we need is spiritual manipulation. 

Can you imagine telling someone that if they prayed more they wouldn’t have stage-IV cancer, and telling them that they wouldn’t be suffering if they weren’t so weak-willed? While religion can definitely produce a sense of clarity in those that look to it as a source of peace, the added humiliation that comes from being open about mental illness and then being told that it’s your own fault that you’re suffering is what’s poisoning our society and creating that fear of having conversations about mental health. It’s like when you were little and would fall on the trampoline and everyone would keep jumping so you couldn’t get up, and they just watch you struggle, too caught up with themselves to help you get back on your feet. That, or you refuse to ask for help because you feel like a burden for getting someone to stop their own momentum to support you. 

The reality is — the walls we hide behind to keep up appearances wouldn’t need to be there in the first place if everyone realized that we all fall victim to our struggles from time to time and didn’t criticize each other for being human. It is in vulnerability that we find strength, and it is with strength that we rise above as a community to support each other when we need it the most.