by SHARLINE CHIANG for New America Media
My mother called like she did every week. “How are you?” she asked in Mandarin.
“Fine,” I lied.
“How’s the baby?”
“Good.” That was true.
Then, once again, I rushed her off the phone. “I’d love to talk but the baby’s crying.”
“Okay, I know you’re busy,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll call you next week.”
The baby wasn’t crying. She was sleeping. I wasn’t busy. I could barely do anything. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, could hardly dress myself.
After I hung up I pushed away from the table to lie down. I had used all my energy trying to sound normal.
How could I tell my 70-year-old mother who had finally become a grandmother the truth—that I was going crazy, that in two months since giving birth I had gone from being thrilled to fighting thoughts of killing my baby and myself?
I pictured my mother in the kitchen of my childhood home in Jersey, placing the phone back in its cradle before knitting another pink sweater for my daughter Anza despite the pain in her diabetic hands. She was probably sitting there, gray permed hair gripped by a plastic headband, eyes switching from smiling to intense (so much like Anza’s), trying to decide how else she could help. I could see her packaging more baby clothes, gifts from church. Later, she sent an email: “Don’t forget to write thank you cards to my church friends. And don’t forget to work on your belly weight.”
I wanted to say: I’m not okay, Mom. I’m so tired it hurts. I feel like I’m being electrocuted in a tub of ice water. I sweat. I shake. I have panic attacks. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m so scared.
I didn’t know I had postpartum depression—postpartum anxiety to be exact. Even after I found out and was diagnosed with severe PPD a month later, I lied. Even after I was put on anti-psychotic medicine, even after I was registered at the mental hospital in Berkeley, I lied. I lied, because I didn’t want my parents to worry. It seemed the right, Confucian, filial thing to do, to protect one’s elderly parents from one’s own suffering. Most of all I lied because I didn’t want to be judged. I already felt like such a failure. I was failing as a mother and I was ashamed.
Four years ago I had three miscarriages. “You’re not careful enough,” my mother said. “You’re too active.” While I was pregnant with Anza, I learned I had balanced translocation, a genetic condition. We needed to get lucky. Even after explaining this to her, my mother would insist: “Go on bed rest so it doesn’t fall out.”
I couldn’t risk hearing words that sounded like blame. I already felt it was my fault: I was too soft.
My grandmothers combined had birthed and raised 15 children while fleeing the Japanese, the Communists, and poverty. What right did I have to fall apart?
So I took selfies of me and Anza smiling and sent them to my parents every day.
I lied because even though depression is so common in Asian American communities, we rarely talked about it. The message I grew up with: your mental struggles are our own; it’s up to you to find the inner strength to “ren,” to endure.
The character for “ren” 忍 is the character for “knife” over the “heart.” Endure even when there’s a knife in your heart.
In my thirties I discovered talk therapy, tried to get my parents to go. Their response was basically: “That’s for white people.” “They hook you in,” my mother said. “You can never be cured.”
I wish mental illness didn’t come with stigmas. I wish I could have told my parents that my mind had broken just as easily as if I had to tell them my arm had broken.
Whenever my husband would say, “You really should tell them,” I felt that chasm again (he’s white, son of hippies). To him it was unimaginable to suffer the darkest period of your life and not tell your parents. Meanwhile, everyone in his immediate family knew. His mother and brother moved down from Canada to help take care of me.
The fact that I could get PPD never crossed my mind. I had no history of depression.
Two years ago while pregnant with Anza, I had spent thousands of hours reading about pregnancy and birth and exactly five minutes reading about postpartum depression.
On the cover of the brochure was a white woman with long brown hair. She was staring into space under the words: “Feeling Blue?” I took one look and said to myself: white woman, sad woman, that’s not me and that’s not going to be me.
I was 41. I had traveled the world, had a great career in nonprofit communications, and had married the man of my dreams. We lived in sunny Berkeley. We were finally having a baby. I was elated.
Looking back I wish more doctors had talked to us about PPD, its signs and how to get help. I wish someone had told us about Postpartum Depression Spectrum because PPD manifests in so many ways, including intense anxiety. I also wish I had been given articles written by survivors, especially other API women.
I got lucky. I found a psychiatrist who diagnosed me in time (I didn’t go to the hospital). The medication—Seroquel, Klonopin, and Zoloft—worked on me with no side effects. In six months, with the help of a therapist and support group, I stabilized significantly and was pretty much back to “myself” within a year.
I’m slowly accepting that there is a new me. The new me is more sensitive to stress. Like any survivor of a health crisis, I try to remind myself to manage my stress levels and overall health.
By the time my parents visited us again Anza was six months old. I was doing much better. They watched her eat her first solid food (mashed yams). It didn’t make sense to bring up my ordeal.
I don’t like lying to my parents. They deserve my honesty. If they ever read this, I want to say I hope you can forgive me and see that I did this out of love, love for you, and love for myself.
I hope if they come across this, or any of my other articles about my experience, they can understand that I’m trying to share my story to encourage other survivors to tell their stories, so we can let other women know that that they are not alone, that they’re part of a larger family of women who have been there too.
Sharline Chiang is a writer based in Berkeley, originally from New Jersey. She is a proud, long-time member of VONA, an amazing community of writers of color. Sharline previously wrote a piece for Mutha magazine about her experience with postpartum depression and anxiety.
This article was originally published by New America Media. Reprinted with permission.