On Mental Health as a Filipino-American

I was inspired/#triggered to write this from this article that addresses toxic behaviors in Filipino culture. In it, Abby Pasion revisits her childhood as a young Filipino American and discusses the all-too-familiar family gathering with the infinite trays of food, ear-shattering karaoke, and unwarranted comments about bodies, accomplishments, etc.

Pasion talks about the pain that accompanied the eating and the laughter during these parties, as they were often places of “judgement, drama, and toxic social behaviors like child bragging and comparing, body-shaming, gossip, and even subtle public ridicule.”

As someone who grew up as the fat kid, this really hit home. It brought back memories of making my plate, finding a place to sit to enjoy my food, then being bombarded with comments about my weight.
“Oh my god, look at how much you’re eating, why don’t you just drink water!”
“O, you better run on the treadmill tonight, ha?”
“Your face is so pretty, anak. Why don’t you go on diet? Sayang naman, eh?”
And while I know these came from a place of love, I have to admit that they hurt and enraged me.

I think the most painful part of it all was that I didn’t allow myself to cry or show that I was hurt. Because I deserved and needed these comments, right? I was fat and it was unhealthy, so why would I be upset about the truth? I learned early on that the best way to react was to either not react at all, or to retaliate with a joke. One of the things that came from being a fat kid was the need for a sense of humor and fast wit. I could never speak back to my elders and tell them they were wrong for saying these things, but I could grow a thick skin and deflect. Laughter is the best medicine, but it became my vice and addiction when I used it as a means of numbing the emotions that I should have been processing and expressing.

When I was about 9-years-old, there was an instance where a family member learned how much I weighed. Being embarrassed, I asked them not to tell anyone. This was something personal to me and something I knew was wrong and ugly about myself. So when the person told all our friends and family about it the next Sunday at church, it felt like someone had stripped me naked and left me standing in front of an audience while they laughed at all my rolls and imperfections. I was devastated, but I couldn’t show it. Because if there’s anything worse than standing naked in front of a laughing audience, it’s crying while standing naked in front of a laughing audience.

It took a long time and a lot of reflection for me to get over my fear of treadmills and diets and health discussions, because in the back of my mind I always equated them with being publicly humiliated and ridiculed. I regret to say that it wasn’t until I had a boyfriend who loved me for all of me that I started to become truly okay with my body and understand that self-love went beyond posting selfies and face masks, rather it also encompassed taking care of my emotional and physical health.

With the recent birth of my nephew came the new generation in my family, and I find myself stressing about what kind of aunt and role model I want to be for him. While I do want to uphold Filipino traditions and culture, I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that family is a social hierarchy with children on the bottom. I want him to not fear social gatherings like I did as a kid, and I want him to be comfortable enough to speak up if I do or say anything wrong.

My brothers and I have discussed this and a big word we throw around is “ego.” While I do think that may be a part of the problem, I think the issue goes deeper than personal ego or self-esteem. Being an elder in a culture that values cohesive extended family structures means having taken the brunt of the hierarchy as a kid and young adult. My parents’ generation in my family are wonderful people and have raised my generation to be successful, so a part of their grasp to the hierarchy and archaic traditions could be that it worked for them, so why not us?

What I appreciate about Pasion’s article is that she doesn’t simply blame the older generation, making sure to point out that “it is easy to label the elders as the villains of this story. Taking a moment to challenge that and to look at the larger picture of toxic Filipino culture, there’s really an intergenerational conversation that needs to take place.” I was angry for a long time at my parents and aunts and uncles without analyzing where their behavior came from and what it probably was like for them when they were my age. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more clear to me that the hurtful comments and the toxic behavior were reiterations of what they must have experienced as children. I believe now more than ever that these expressions of “tough love” are not only rooted in good intentions, but that they also provide a window into truly understanding why and how this became part of our culture. And understanding that and starting conversations to fix it is the first step.

I must admit that although I know this first step, it’s still difficult as hell to approach the wheel, let alone try to break it. Confrontation has always been terrifying for me, even more so with the people I love and respect. But isn’t that a part of growing up? Understanding that although some things have been in place for a long time, they aren’t necessarily always right?

An emerging conversation amongst Filipinos is the topic of mental health. Pasion refers to a 2015 study finding that while “Filipino Americans have some of the highest rates of depression among Asian Americans, Filipino Americans also seek mental health treatment at some of the lowest rates.” During a family conversation about depression and anxiety, a family member expressed confusion at the apparent rise of mental health issues in my generation. “We never had depression,” they exclaimed, “but we had less money and things than you guys do. Why would you feel depressed?” A big consensus was that our generation does not pray enough (another issue for another day), but one of the glaring reasons as to why our generation seems to be more depressed and anxious is that we and the society we live in are more open about it. My grandma and grandpa were very loving parents and grandparents, but I’m sure if anyone had come to them and told them they were having panic attacks, they would have pointed them to the nearest Santo Nino and Mary statue with a rosary in hand.

So who can blame my parents and aunts and uncles for not completely understanding mental health issues and how to help?

Throughout high school, I suffered from frequent panic attacks. With how comfortable my life was and how many resources I had at my disposal, I didn’t understand why I had them and felt frustrated at myself for being weak and sensitive. It wasn’t until I started seeing a counselor during my freshman year of college that I started to work through why I was having these feelings and what I could do to address and fix them (it wasn’t prayer).

One of the most difficult conversations I had with my counselor was about the root of my anxieties, where she focused on my relationship with my family. I was defensive at first, because I didn’t want to victimize myself and in turn make them villains. But through long discussions and a lot of work she helped me understand that it wasn’t that simple, and that I needed to learn how to maintain these vital relationships while also distancing myself from toxic and unwanted behavior. The solution we came up with was moving out from my parents’ house while remaining relatively nearby, because until then I was either living under their roof or studying abroad on another continent. She pointed out that my relationship with my parents had only ever seen 2 extremities, which could have been the reason why I didn’t have the tools to confront my feelings about it. I either felt suffocated by them, or was too far away to process them.

So here I am: 23-years-old living about an hour away, a daughter, sister, cousin, and auntie. I can happily say that over the years I’ve worked on my response to my anxieties (whether about my family or work or a sudden change of plans that I wasn’t ready for), and I’ve definitely progressed in how I process and express myself. My family has had its ups and downs but I see my siblings and cousins being more outspoken about their beliefs and the beginnings of what look like open conversations with the older generation. It’s hard work and I don’t see it becoming any easier any time soon, but I have hope that love (and tigas ng ulo) will help us follow through.

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