Love, Life Stories

My skin might be brown, but my mother thinks that my mental health is white

The first time I saw papery floral hospital gowns in real life was in 5th grade, in a basement psych ward in Staten Island.

Editor’s note: The content below is raw and graphic in some aspects.

I assume that I’m my therapist’s only Filipino patient, but I assume a lot of things.

Sometimes, I feel like I purposefully put heavy emphasis on my conflict with American culture to stand out from her other patients. As far as I’ve seen, the patients coming in and out of the waiting room are all white. I wonder what they talk about in there, but there’s a little machine outside of the door that generates a subtle, buzzing, white noise so that no one from the outside can hear.

All my therapist's other patients are white. Click To Tweet

I see people on Facebook mocking behavior they deem “white.”

While no one has ever confronted me with that accusation, my paranoia convinces me they must be thinking it. Given how hard quality treatment is to obtain for those who need it, the white majority and ethnic minorities alike, admitting I go to therapy slates me as being privileged and self-centered.

My paranoia is a reflection of how I feel about myself. Never Filipino enough, but never intelligent enough to be considered of equal intelligence to white people.

The first time I saw papery floral hospital gowns in real life was in 5th grade, in a basement psych ward in Staten Island.  Witnessing patients’ behavior that was not deemed as ”normal” was scary for a ten-year-old. It was 8:30 am when I was sent to the nurse’s office after an uncontrollable crying spell, right after morning prayers on a sunny day. I knew then that something was wrong with me if I could not feel happy when it was sunny. I could not seem to block the obsessive thoughts and the compulsions – I wanted to stick my finger down my throat and throw up.

It’s hard to explain, the whole throwing up thing. I felt so much internal anxiety that I needed to purge it somehow, and throwing up gave me some kind of relief from the rotten feeling in my stomach.

It seemed there was a voice in my head mumbling, “just do it,” and so I did.

The nurse diagnosed me with bulimia, but I knew for a fact that was not it. I knew well enough that I was underweight and the last thing I wanted was to lose more. For a decade after, I nodded my head with “okays” and “yeahs” during lectures by psychologists and psychiatrists about what they think I might have.

It’s hard to explain, the whole throwing up thing. Click To Tweet

My Filipino parents have had many reactions my mental stability, or lack thereof. The first reaction I can remember was the good old bulimia talk that took place on my bed after I threw up on my comforter, using Karen Carpenter as an example since she was a singer who died from bulimia. The Carpenters were a musical duo I grew up with, specifically through hours spent singing karaoke. Karaoke was a stress reliever for sure, a mild form of occupational therapy in and of itself, one that I can attribute to the Filipino karaoke culture.

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The “Magic Mic,” as they call it. It truly was magic.

As for my father – we went to the mall before he drove me to the hospital that day in 5th grade to buy me a yellow Ralph Lauren polo as if that would alleviate things. I was able to have nice things; I was so lucky.

Typical Filipino ideal, coming from a third world country – if only we had money.

Money buys happiness.

Now, I am alone in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris. I’m in a studio with all the windows open, as we all do around here. In fact, I can vividly hear two children screaming at the top of their lungs from above — I hear these two quite often. From this distance, I don’t understand what their father is yelling at them in return or how he is disciplining them per say. Inevitably, my mind veers off to memories of my Filipino mother.

What I can remember is her anger, perpetually manifesting itself in screaming, pinching the insides of my thighs, ear-grabbing, and cursing at me in Tagalog. I was desensitized to the crude remarks because I preferred to speak English. She spoke to me in Tagalog and I spoke back in English. I looked out of the front screen door as I wondered how many people would attend my funeral and if it were possible to be buried with Dondy, my stuffed kangaroo.

“Ha? Don’t think about that,” Mom would always say with a look of mocking surprise on her face, her mouth would hang open unevenly, revealing her bottom teeth.

Her eyes would widen with eyebrows raised when the word “Ha?” was said.

It implies “What the hell are you talking about?” This is a typical Filipino phrase.

“Why can’t you be happy like the other kids? I’ve given you everything.” I don’t remember when or where exactly she said this, but I must’ve been crying. I only remember the words because I was wondering the same question — why?

I had been wondering that for a while as a child, observing the way that my classmates would come to school and go home. Did they fear going home as much as I did? Home was where the anxiety was, where the solitary pillow hugging carried on through the late night with a small radio above my head in hopes of reaching an inner hush, a little white noise to drown out the voices in my head.

I wondered why I couldn't just be happy. Click To Tweet

At 22, I was admitted to the same psych ward in Staten Island, doing time for suicidal ideation after a breakup. My tumultuous romantic relationships had caused me a great amount of guilt. To live with myself knowing that I had inflicted pain on partners who cared about me, who put up with the violent mood swings, was heavy baggage.

My relationships had caused me a great amount of guilt. Click To Tweet

The guilt was what brought me to the hospital in the first place.

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One ex suggested seriously going to therapy after our break-up, which I did not know how to cope with back then. Another saved my life once by bringing me to the hospital after I stood on the Williamsburg Bridge, unsure of what was to happen to me next. These ex-boyfriends seem like angels now, guiding me through the depths of my instability.  However, it’s also worth noting that those exes were all white.

Therapy and the general field of psychology were discussed in their homes, and I can’t help but wonder how my life would’ve turned out had it been a topic of my own. There’s no way to tell, of course, and I’m trying to eliminate the residual bitterness that I feel when thinking of this past. My mom is a kind person who has come to support putting me in therapy and has even considered it herself after years of my saying “see it my way”. Now, I can see things her way as well and I possess a deep appreciation of all she’s done for us to be here.

The guilt was what brought me to the hospital in the first place. Click To Tweet

I do not mean to tell a sob story that garners either cultural resentment or white guilt. After all, it’s true that quality mental health is inaccessible to those who need it or have considered it but given up after seeing the price tag. However, by no means does my participation in therapy make me white, especially because I do not fit the mold of what’s thought to be “Filipino” in the first place.

Therapy is nothing to be ashamed of. Click To Tweet

I may have fallen into the field of someone else’s cultural tradition, but I think that’s beautiful. there is much to be learned from the struggles of others, including those outside of our own cultural identities.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

After all, we are who we are.

Audrey Alunan

Audrey Alunan

Audrey Alunan is a native New Yorker, but can call any place home. She is an avid opera-goer, has a membership to the movies, and drinks coffee very slowly. People watching is her specialty.

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