Growing up in Vancouver, I was a reclusive kid, raised on video games while my parents struggled to make a living in a new country after the Iranian revolution in 1979. More often than not during my high school years, we wouldn’t have family dinners together, and you could find me in my room for almost the entire day, escaping the harshness of reality using more…favorable forms of distraction.
In high school, I was called “mysterious,” never once letting people get to know the real me, and I frequently hopped between cliques like a ghost. Near the tail end of college, the seedling of depression (unknown to me at the time) was then planted into my very soul.
Fast forward about 13 years and the universe had found a way to prove me wrong. The boy who denounced ever finding love in this world eventually got married and even bought his first home in Los Angeles.
Throughout the past and even today, everything felt like an uphill battle. Every decision, no matter how small, was overthought to death, and it was always easier to keep quiet in social situations and let things play out than to contribute and make any kind of difference. In wishing for a drama-free life, I spent years trying to maintain a neutral stance on everything, treating everyone with equal amounts of respect and contempt, and never won the admiration of coworkers or friends. The passions and hobbies of my past were becoming chores in my adulthood. They sucked up too much valuable time, quickly sapping any energy or motivation I had left.
You might be thinking, “Suck it up buttercup, be a man and move on, it doesn’t get any easier as you get older.” And…while some of that statement is true, most of it is false. In burying my feelings and deluding myself into thinking the world was filled with nothing but misery, I robbed myself blind of finding happiness. So badly, in fact, that to this day I’ve never learned what things actually bring me joy. The system is always working against me.
Looks pretty bleak, right? Well, what if I told you that my weapon of choice for battling anxiety and depression was something that was a constant throughout all the stages of my life, hiding in plain sight? Something nobody ever mentioned works wonders?
The “Great Cheer-Upper”
Tea, a simple elixir of boiling hot water and leaves, is the world’s most socially accepted beverage. It has been sipped by royalty and commoner alike and was so important that Britain made it a priority to get tea to the front lines during World War II. As an essay on the Boston Tea Party Museum website reports,
“Tea was the great ‘cheerer-upper’ of the war….The water burners were lit in mobile tea canteens even before the flames of burning buildings were extinguished so that fire brigades and ambulance drivers might have a cup of tea as they completed their horrific tasks….Tea canteens followed the Allied troops as they crossed France and marched into Germany. Grateful communities from Wisconsin to Ceylon raised funds to sponsor these rolling tea wagons that brought a bit of home comfort to battle-weary soldiers.”
Dare I say tea was probably on the desks of all great people who shaped history, too.
And although I’ve yet to become one of those people, tea has always been inseparable from my own life. A pot was always at the ready and acted as the foundation of my morning, carrying me through to the final moments of the night.
When the pressures of life were beating down on me and there was no one around to help, a cup of tea would give me a sense of working stability to see things through. It didn’t cause any bursts of productivity or help me believe I was better in any way—it was merely a tool in my repertoire.
Chemistry, Ritual, and Empathy
Tea’s power against anxiety and depression is due partly to its mood- and energy-boosting caffeine and antioxidant contents, with the added benefit of helping to fight disease-causing free radicals. It contains thousands of natural chemical compounds that bestow both its soothing aroma and nutritional value: polyphenols, amino acids, enzymes, and minerals to name but a few.
Tea also retains an intangible, ancient aura of the posh, spiritual, and ritualistic in today’s society. Consider the complex symbolism of the Japanese tea ceremony, inspired by Zen Buddhism, with its mindful performance of steps to create a beautiful and peaceful mood.
If tea were a person, it would be the friend who silently listens to your every word, nodding and understanding, not overstepping its place as a support. It holds no prejudice; it cares not about your race, orientation, or age. When you finish that last sip at the bottom of the cup, it’s almost as if it gives you a pat on the back and tells you to keep your chin up, even when all seems lost, before grabbing its hat and coat and seeing itself out, ready to visit another day.
But its true power comes from the people behind the cup. Tea is merely the drink that brought you together. All the self-reflection and philosophizing in the world can’t beat the straight-up truth when told to you by someone you trust or love.
Sitting and Sharing
Unfortunately, traditional American society has developed a stigmatizing bias, believing that seeking help with emotional struggles is reserved only for the direst of cases. Anyone who does seek it is subconsciously or openly discriminated against as crazy or less credible than someone who “has their life together,” whatever that means.
Many people on the front lines of fighting anxiety and depression are too caught up in it all to realize that it really isn’t a bother to ask those around you for help. I can say from experience that some of them might already know something is up, based on your actions or word choices. They are simply waiting to be asked, fearful of not overstepping your boundaries and personal space.
With the act of sharing a cup of tea with someone you know and/or trust, you begin to form a way to deal with mental issues that would otherwise never be addressed. It lets you uncork and release the things that have been building up in your mind in a safe environment of your choice, (re)connecting you to people in a way that is more genuine and insightful than having a drink at the bar or at a party at your friend’s place. It provides a reason for two people to sit down and help one another, doing away with daily distractions and really giving each other the time of day.
It teaches introverts how to socialize and extroverts how to reflect.
The best part is, you might be able to help your companion’s mental state by offering advice to help them get through their own tough times, too. You might even learn that you each have a solution to each other’s problems!
The Internal War
Like many people, I hit the proverbial rock bottom at one point. As my youthful confidence and invincibility were slowly replaced by doubt and the piling on of life responsibilities, I reached a point when it seemed there was no way out. As much as I wanted to believe I was the master of my own destiny, I couldn’t help but wish something would strike from the sky and just solve all my problems overnight. Sadly, the epiphany never came, but I got something else instead: a chance to drink tea in the kitchen with my spouse.
At the time, pressures from all directions were bombarding me: my struggling start-up solo business, her desire to start a family, dismal luck in finding and holding a job for longer than a year or two. All that, and the high living expenses in LA, meant I’d become something less than a partner or contributor: I’d become a burden. The guilt ratcheted up and eventually overwhelmed me.
I soon found myself turning into a depressed and jaded old man at the tender age of 30. I’d all but given up all hope but was responsible enough not to end my own life and be done with it.
That night, over cups of Iron Goddess tea, our conversation started awkwardly. It was on the verge of becoming a full-on argument and throughout the discussion, I kept assaulting any glimmers of positivity with my worries and fears. It took a lot of time and effort to work those feelings through, and after four cups of tea between us, all the pent-up emotions were finally piled on the table for all to see under the dimmed globe lights of the kitchen island, dumped like a pile of unwanted weights from our shoulders.
I waited in worried silence for her reaction to everything that had just happened. Would she think less of me because of my weaknesses? Leave me entirely and not have to deal with my baggage? The worst-case scenarios ran through my mind as I hopped up and seated myself on the cold, granite counter a couple of feet away.
Her face showed concern. When she finally spoke, she accepted my outpouring for what it was and steeled me with words of hope beyond all logic and reasoning. As long as I promised both her and myself that I’ll take steps to fix our situation on a day-by-day basis, she reassured me that we would get through this. I dumped the last of the leaves from my teacup into the sink, heaved a big sigh of relief, and vowed to make things right again.
Power of Communication
Therapists and medication can only do so much. Therapists aren’t around every moment to intervene and offer sage advice. Medications won’t permanently fix your problems, just offer some people temporary relief from their woe. Tea, and its gentle caffeine kick, is almost always available, and unlike prescription pills, is meant to be shared.
It’s the power of human communication that is essential for us as driven, status-conscious Americans if we want to reduce the overall pressures of life. And we can’t use excuses like pride or formality (“I don’t want to be a burden”) to tiptoe around our woes.
Have I been completely “cured” of depression and anxiety because of tea? Sadly, no, but it has helped immensely.
If we’re being honest here, the self-inflicted burden I carry in my heart and mind is something that’s probably going with me to the grave, but as an adult, you learn to cope with it and work around it as much as possible. It’s mostly unavoidable if you’re living in a society that demands you to give 150% at all times, yet still requires that you remain happy and empathetic toward everyone you meet, while also knowing that you have dependents who rely on you for support.
For me (and possibly many others), depression is a war. A war that I’m in for the long haul; one that slowly degrades the mind and soul and that requires allies in order to fight back. Today, with the help of my supportive wife and a sharp therapist, I’m able to speak about my demons a little more openly. I began to realize that I’m not alone in all of this and that everyone has demons of their own to combat.
So it’s down to us to be that friend who says: “Hey, I know this is out of the blue, but let’s do tea. There’s a lot on my mind and it’d be nice to see each other again.”
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.