Content Warning: The following story contains mentions of crude language, anxiety, depression, and sexual abuse.
Anxiety is not something I ever expected to be a problem for me. I grew up as a normal, quintessential immigrant kid that really had nothing going wrong for him. Sure - I faced problems here and there.
A little bullying over my lack of physical prowess in sports.
Some teasing about my ill-understanding of American culture.
A misunderstanding of my masculinity.
Being a minority in a community that did not understand Indian customs.
Doubting my cultural background and viewing the majority group as superior.
A father consumed with his career.
A mother that had her infidelity discovered by her son.
These issues, to me, did not seem too burdensome. The individual mishaps and hurdles seemed minuscule on their own. These were problems thousands of kids across the country were facing. There were kids who had it much worse than me and that’s what I kept telling myself.
Over and over.
On the surface, I really did have a good life. My mother was nurturing and compassionate. She was tough when needed, but molded a young man who was independent and a critical thinker. My father spent much of his time building his company. Yet, I knew he worked tirelessly so that my sister and I could have a better life. I had friends, a strong extended family, and three square meal a day. I helped around the house and did a little above average in school. Simple, plain, and stable. I smiled, joked, and looked happy.
My early life was seemingly unchanged by the issues I faced. I did not notice them festering inside me. I downgraded their importance and told myself “that boys don’t cry”.
This did not make the painful memories go away. They stained my blank canvas of a mind indefinitely.
I meandered through high school, doing well but not amazing. I never pushed myself and was complacent. My parents questioned my lack of effort but did not push me. I saw other students succeeding and was jealous, but grew not to care. I fell in love for the first time. I had decent friends but none that I felt connected too. Again, an average high school experience.
I found myself at my state university, not too far from my family. I was beyond scared to go to a new setting that would challenge me. I was scared of my social skills and background. I feared failure.
The first months were difficult. I found my high school girlfriend cheating. I felt disconnected and felt I couldn’t make any real friends. My grades were not stellar. I blamed myself and my lack of any resolve. I went home almost every weekend. I did not dare tell my parents in an effort to protect them from any grief. It was a downward spiral that got progressively worse.
By some stroke of luck, I ended up finding groups of people who actually cared about me. I finally found meaningful friendships and fulfilling relationships. My grades were great. I felt confident and empowered for the first time in my life. I pushed myself to expand my boundaries. I was truly happy and nothing could stop me.
Then it hit.
It started while studying for my MCATs. This test could shape my career trajectory and the rest of my life. Many expectations and dreams were dependent on my performance. First was the shortness of breath. I started hyperventilating whenever I tried to open my MCAT prep books. Then came the lack of sleep. One, two, and sometimes three days in a row where I could not fall asleep. A pain gripped by whole being and I felt suffocated. I could not scream, cry, or ask for help. I could not comprehend what was going on.
Eventually, I pushed myself to tell my parents. They were concerned but did not understand what was happening. My mother and father were supportive and tried to give me words of reassurance. They confided that it did not matter if I went to medical school or if I was a doctor, as long as I was happy and healthy. They cared so much but no amount of love could make it go away.
The struggles of my younger years began to haunt me. I tried to find solace by labeling them as insignificant but this did not work this time. Bright memories flooded my mind every day.
Images of my parents fighting. Thoughts of a naive child being molested. Flashes of misdirected bullying.
I had less and less sleep, became socially distant once again, and apathetic about life. I kept telling myself to not let this affect me. Sleeping pills and empty bottles of Nyquil occupied my desk. I tried telling myself to stop being so weak, stop being so useless. My thoughts turned darker. I blamed myself and constantly referred to myself as a “little bitch”. Thoughts of suicide and depression began to form.
My friends noticed my struggles and forced me to reach out for psychiatric help. I was combative but finally follow through. This was where I learned I was suffering from anxiety. That constant voice in my head was anxiety. It felt powerful to give it a name but still I felt so weak. My psychiatrist was fascinating. She wanted to hear my problems and discuss them.
She was the first one to tell me that my problems were not minuscule. That I was allowed to cry. That I was not a “little bitch”.
She explained to me that I had been marginalizing my own problems and never addressed them. I was wrong to think just because some children had it worse than me, I couldn’t be angry or sad at my life. We explored my complications and I learned a lot about myself. We unveiled trust issues, lack of confidence, and a distaste for romantic relationships. I was aware - I felt amazingly powerful but exposed.
My psychiatrist did not prescribe medication. She walked me through my head and helped me find hidden thoughts. I found what really makes me happy and what still troubles me. I picked up running and used it to channel my emotions. I meditated and could find peace when needed.
I ended up getting in medical school. I have a better relationship with my family and have a wonderful girlfriend. My life is fulfilling and I look forward to a bright future.
The anxiety did not go away completely. I still get the attacks from time to time. I still become paralyzed with fear and am reminded of my past. I found it hard to leave all my friends back home to come to a new city for medical school. I still am struggling to make friends and feel lonely at times - but I know it will be okay one day. That is all that matters.
Mental health is a plague that burdens many of us, especially in the South Asian community, but you do not have to fight it alone. Reach out for help. Try to understand yourself and your past. Your problems, not matter how small you think they are, are real. You are allowed to feel pain, grief, and sadness. No one, even yourself, can take this human right away from you.
Life may seem hard now but it can always get better.