Author’s Note: TW: mention of suicidality and trauma
As of late, my mother tells me her father, my grandfather, is getting worse, but not in an order that makes sense. “He can still finish two whole bowls of rice,” she says, “on a good day, but his memory has gotten so bad, so quick.” My grandmother, ten years his junior, is his sole caregiver. My mother feels the magnetic pull of filial piety: “Once I get you settled, I have to go back to China.”
I haven’t talked to my grandparents in years. In middle school my mother used to call me over to greet them with my poorly accented regards before bed, which could still be considered charming then. Now, I duck my head in shame when she videocalls them over WeChat: the irony of the family’s first college graduate who knows less Cantonese at twenty-one than she did at six years old. Truly, what a waste.
Family stress scholar and educator Dr. Pauline Boss proposed a pioneering theory on unresolved grief in the late 1970s centered around the concept of ambiguous loss. Put simply, ambiguous loss is loss with no tangible source of closure, no sign of relief—loss that doesn’t come with a body. Mourning becomes indefinite. Trauma, the hurting space around the void that remembers the irrecoverable. Boss contended that this could manifest from a family member who goes missing, or a loved one who is physically present but emotionally absent.
My ambiguous loss looks a little different. On the surface, I am the perpetrator. My choices, accumulated over the years—to be accepted in spite of my low-income, immigrant background; to desire validation from those who would legislate me out of existence before looking me in the eye; to assimilate at the risk of erasure—have brought me to this point: the granddaughter who goes missing because she doesn’t know how to return. As I grow closer to the kind of conditional belonging the younger me once would have destroyed herself for (and that she did), I mourn the possibilities of the people I could have—I should have—had in my life.
All that is to say, I suffered through much of these realizations in stereotypically rugged individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” silence throughout college—the last four years of my life. Most months of which were marked by oscillating cycles of suicide ideation and planning. Disordered eating and sleep deprivation saturate many of my final semester memories; and my mom, at a loss on the phone, listening to me beg not to go to my own graduation.
When I would, in rare moments of vulnerability, confide in close faculty and staff mentors about my struggles, the typical response I would be met with, colored by undertones of surprise—because I’m just “doing so well”—was, “But you have so much to be proud of. You’ve accomplished everything despite what you’ve gone through.” I’ve never seen the show, but a clip from Netflix’s hit original, Bojack Horseman, appears on my TikTok “for you page” occasionally (because the algorithm, of course, knows us all scarily too well). In it, a Vietnamese American aspiring writer named Diane breaks down after being asked why she absolutely has to write her book of autobiographical essays:
“Because if I don’t, that means that all the damage I got isn’t good damage, it’s just damage. I have gotten nothing out of it, and all those years I was miserable was for nothing. I could’ve been happy this whole time and written books about girl detectives and been cheerful and popular and had good parents, is that what you’re saying? What was it all for?”
If I hadn’t been a conventionally “good” student, I wonder how my “damage” would have been perceived. This is the story and insomnia-inducing question of many children of immigrants and women of color. Our damage, our intergenerational trauma, the sacrifices of our parents, and the sacrifices of our parents’ parents must be “justified” in some way—ideally, by our attainment of academic, professional, and then financial success. Our legacies are simultaneously our burdens.
While trying to seek help during my final semester, I was referred to my campus counseling and psychological services. I hesitated. I did end up filling out the appointment request form, but missed the office’s call and never returned it. Truthfully, I was afraid of being not understood. In my gut, I didn’t think traditional Western talk therapy was going to make me feel any better, nor did I want to explain to a therapist that didn’t look like me that racial and gendered trauma is endemic to my very existence.
In May 2023, I joined a community-based support group for Asian American women and femmes dedicated to fostering healing justice through connectedness. So far, I’ve attended two sessions, two hours each, and the experience has been transformative in every aspect of the word. During the first meeting, we shared our liberation stories; in other words, how liberation feels, looks, smells, tastes, and sounds for us. My answer was one I’ve been sitting on for years, though I didn’t know it at the time: “When I finally see my mom at rest, when I see her hands find stillness.”
The mounting national conversations surrounding the importance of college students’ wellbeing have been anchored in demands for more institutional investment in robust mental health resources. I argue that community-led, culturally competent services should be a major element of this ask. Our current Eurocentric, biomedical system of mental health care mirrors many of the systems that have inflicted—and continue to inflict—historical harm on marginalized communities across the world. Under it, I can’t help questioning if my damage is the good kind, or if my healing journey “looks right.” Being re-grounded in my community has reminded me that you can hurt and heal at the same time, that the mourning and the love are inseparable, and, most importantly, that “nothing about us, is for us, without us.”
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.
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