My parents and I sat down in the Vietnamese restaurant on Clement Street we often went to when they visited me in San Francisco. We ordered spring rolls with peanut dipping sauce, pho — the seafood variety for my parents and tripe for me — and one Diet Coke for my mom. I was feeling as if I was inside a bell jar looking out on an unfamiliar world. An hour ago, my parents had picked me up from the St. Francis Hospital in the ritzy area of Nob Hill. I was admitted on a 51/50 or involuntary psychiatric hold and had stayed for the mandatory 72 hours.
This was the last thing that my immigrant Filipino parents expected to see from their college-age daughter. Like many Filipinos of their generation, they had a negative perception of mental illness.
When my parents walked through the community room in the psych ward and saw me in mismatched dark scrubs, my mom cried and my dad laughed and said in his thick Filipino accent, “Ai yi, yi, Sam. What have you done now?”
My stay in the psych ward was a long time coming. In the beginning of the year, my emotionally abusive boyfriend of seven months dumped me over text for another girl, adding that he had used me and was happy that he’d used me. The week after that, I found out I was 5 ½ weeks pregnant, and the day after, I miscarried. Also, the year before, I had been officially diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The consecutive traumas of the breakup, pregnancy, and miscarriage, alongside my preexisting anxiety disorder, were way too much for me to deal with, so I did what I did best — I avoided my feelings by throwing myself into my schoolwork and ignoring everyone who attempted to communicate with me. When people waved hello, I turned the other way. If I was wearing a sweatshirt, I pulled the hood over my face so the person wouldn't see me. Talking to people triggered my envy of my schoolmates' normalcy, imagined or not, and throwing myself into schoolwork provided structure during a time I felt unhinged.
Ignoring my fellow classmates and throwing myself into work helped me feel a bit better, but it did not work in the long run. I broke down in Tagalog class one day and told my teacher I was feeling suicidal. She reported it to the school officials and they requested that I go to St. Mary's, the hospital closest to the school. At St. Mary's, a doctor asked me if I was mentally alright to go back to school and I said, “No.” That's when he requested a 51/50. Since that hospital did not have a psych ward, they sent me to St. Francis.
The psych ward was surprisingly peaceful and the clinicians were understanding and empathetic. I had a narrow view of psych wards from the media and saw them as places where mentally ill individuals suffered and rotted. That was not the case at St. Francis. Instead, I attended different types of therapy, ate, and socialized with different patients. I even had my own clique that was composed of two individuals, both named Danny.
One Danny traveled to San Francisco from Sweden so that he could get high on heroin and kill himself. He failed after he realized that he didn't want to die, but that was right after he slit his wrists and fainted after blood loss on a park bench. Luckily, someone found him and called 911. The second Danny was from Korea and was admitted to the psych ward because he was hiding from his family who knew bad people from high places. He was a paranoid man but had a great sense of dark humor. One joke that stayed with me was one he directed towards Swedish Danny when he ate lunch with us. He said, “You immigrants, you take our jobs, our land, and now you take our suicide spots. Thanks a lot.”
I appreciated hanging out with these men during my short stay because I needed a support system to help me get through my depression. My strategy of ignoring my classmates didn't work— it made my worries and sadness worse. I felt my classmate were “normal” and I wasn’t, so I felt excluded from that life. These men helped me feel less crazy and alone because I felt normal to be around people who had mental illness like me.
Mental health and mental illness is often misunderstood and ignored in Filipino culture. If an individual has a mental illness, a person is supposed to get over it. If a person is not able to get over their mental illness, they are viewed as lazy and weak, and they need to try harder or they need to pray more to Jesus or any of the Catholic saints. Growing up, my parents would threaten to take me to the shrink when I acted up. As a child, I had no idea who or what a “shrink” was, but in their menacing accented voices, this person sounded dangerous.
My parents, similar to other first generation immigrant Asian parents, are guilty of the concept of “saving face.” This idea is concerned with assimilating with mainstream culture, not standing out or causing trouble. A person experiencing and admitting they have mental illness is social suicide.
Growing up, my parents would threaten to take me to the shrink when I acted up.
Talking to therapists and taking medication for mental illness is also taboo. In my early childhood, I pleaded with my parents to allow me to go to therapy because my anxiety was overwhelming, but they either told me I could tell them about my thoughts or that it was too expensive to go, even though we had health insurance. When I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at nineteen, I told my older cousin over AOL instant messenger that I was taking medication for it. She told me to be careful because she heard that medications for mental illness had dangerous side effects. I had a similar negative experiences in college. In this educated environment, one would expect that people would be more open to those in mental distress, but that wasn't the case for me. I still had friends who told me just to get over my anxiety, or who'd be exasperated listening to the obsessive thoughts that plagued me.
As much as I appreciated my break from life when I stayed at St. Francis, I still wanted to get out of the hospital because I was embarrassed about needing critical mental help. I felt the stigma of mental illness from my family and friends. So when my clinicians told me I had the choice to leave the hospital after the mandatory two days or stay longer, I jumped at the chance to leave. I felt I had already benefited from my stay at the hospital since it allowed me to reflect on the stress that had accumulated since the beginning of the year without any distractions. But, once a doctor says you're allowed to leave, it means you're cured, right? I mean, that's what usually happens to people after they have surgery.
At the Vietnamese restaurant, I announced to my parents that I wasn't hungry. “I want to die,” I said.
My dad clicked his tongue angrily and glanced at my mom, and my mom looked at me with tears rolling down her face. “Sam,” she said, “Please.”
So much for being cured.
After my confession, my parents took our food to go and we went back to my apartment to eat and rest.
At the apartment, I did the one thing that I shouldn't have done as someone who has recently been discharged from the psych ward.
I went over to my laptop on my sofa in the living room and logged onto Facebook. I typed in my ex's new girlfriend's name (which I had done before many times since the breakup), and cried again once I saw on the left panel in small print that they were “in a relationship.”
I wailed, “She's better than me! She's better than me!”
My mom ran over to me and asked, “What's wrong?”
I blubbered through my tears and explained. She took my laptop from me and tried to exit the browser with her limited technology skills.
I paced back and forth in my apartment screaming, “She's better than me in writing, she's smarter than me, she's prettier than me, she's a better dancer!”
My parents tried to calm me down and stop my pacing by blocking me, but I forcefully paced past their grip. They told me that the things I'm saying to myself weren't true — which in itself was a true statement, but I was stuck in my self-pity mode.
I collapsed in the kitchen in the fetal position, still bawling in despair. My mom went to her purse and took out the Ativan that was given to her by my psychiatrist and gave it to me. I calmed down and began feeling tired. I left for my room and slept.
On November 20, 2017, a majority of the 293-member of the Philippines's House of Representatives approved of a third and final reading of a bill providing a comprehensive national mental healthcare program and its integration into the country's primary healthcare delivery system. This mental healthcare bill being passed in the Philippines shows that the country is realizing the significance of mental health and the need to provide critical care for those who suffer from mental illness. It shows an acceptance that I didn't see the last time I visited the country, over a decade ago. I'm appreciative that the Comprehensive Health Care Act passed — at least it's a start in destigmatizing mental illness in a highly religious country.
Just as it took time for the Philippines to recognize the importance of mental health, I didn't heal from my miscarriage, my abusive relationship, and my time in the psych ward that night. Nor that month, nor that year. It took five long excruciating years of going through the grief process, attending therapy, taking medications, emailing angry letters to my ex, and sulking to my friends to accept that I went through a traumatic experience.
Just as it took time for the Philippines to recognize the importance of mental health, I didn't heal from my miscarriage, my abusive relationship, and my time in the psych ward that night.
Both of my parents still see mental illness as a taboo, and despite my meltdown in college, they still tease me about taking medication and seeing a therapist. I accepted that it will take time for them to come around and see mental illness as legitimate as physical illness. The only way I survive their comments is by showing compassion towards both of them and telling myself that they did not have mental illness awareness growing up. It's hard, but it beats filling myself up with rage and shouting at them.
The best lesson I learned from my stay in the hospital was just because I left the hospital in one piece, it doesn't mean that was the end of my recovery, it was just the beginning.
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Samantha Jean Sumampong is an ABA therapist and a freelance writer who has written for xoJane, Role Reboot, and the Good Men Project. She has a mental health blog about her experiences dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anything mental health related. She is on Facebook,Instagram, and Twitter.