Asians Speaking Up: Michelle's Story
Growing up among different cultures and experiencing discrimination and racism has an impact on our mental health. Asian Raisins believes that more attention should be paid to this issue. For the Storytelling project ‘Asians Speaking Up: Mental Health,’ we asked people from East and South-East Asian communities about their experiences and how those affected their mental well-being.
Michelle* is 34 years old, lives in Amsterdam and works as a freelance finance professional. In her free time, she practices martial arts, including Kungfu. Through Kungfu, she has learned to understand both her body and mind better. Michelle shares her experience with dealing with mental health and the role that growing up with Chinese culture played in it.
Could you tell us about any mental health issues you’ve experienced?
My symptoms started a while ago. I started to become overwhelmed, and I noticed that at a certain point, I couldn’t concentrate as well anymore. I felt less sharp. Fortunately, I reached out for help in time to prevent it from progressing into a full-blown burnout, but I did experience long periods during which my symptoms would gradually worsen, and I began to forget things. This was very scary for me. Eventually, I started making all kinds of mistakes, and it felt like I couldn’t trust myself anymore. This wasn’t something I was used to. I also started experiencing more physical symptoms. I had headaches and I was very tired, all signs that indicated overexertion.
Where do you think these symptoms came from?
I think it was a combination of experiencing very long, very high levels of stress and not being able to handle or process it in a healthy way. After my studies, I started constantly overworking myself. I really wanted to prove myself, so I worked extra hard. When I got home, all I could think about was work. So, my symptoms had been building up for a long time, since I was in college, I just hadn’t realised it until a colleague pulled me aside at the office and told me, “You’re not doing well at all. You need to seek help and hit the emergency brake now.” That’s when I thought, “Okay, maybe I should do something about this.”
And when you were overworked, were you able to talk to someone about it?
Yes, I did talk to my father about it. I found it quite nerve-wracking to tell him because it felt like a personal failure on my part. But he was actually very concerned and supportive. He said, “You don’t have to do so much. You’re working too hard, and you can also take it easy.” That was a completely different message from what I had grown up with.
Why was this so different?
I think it’s because we never really talk about our emotions in my family. So, it’s very difficult to recognize what’s happening to you once you start experiencing mental health issues. Suddenly, something unpleasant happens to you, and you think, “Shit, what is this?” The situation becomes very urgent. But at that time, I didn’t really know where to turn for help or if help was even available. By seeking help, I’ve learned that it is actually very healthy to address your emotions. That was a big learning process I had to go through and discover on my own.
Nowadays, I’m much more in tune with what I feel, what it means, and what causes it. I didn’t learn any of that from my upbringing. In my mind, I had decided, “We don’t talk about it. So, I’ll just bury my emotions because I have to perform.” I have to keep going and going, on a kind of autopilot. Seeking professional help wasn’t something that my upbringing had encouraged either. Plus, the concept of mental health isn’t very well-known. It’s not really talked about. So, I don’t think the way I was brought up helped me deal with this at all.
Why do you think your parents talked so little about emotions?
Because of my Chinese upbringing, I felt as though there was a strong emphasis on having to do my best and meet expectations. That’s why I also ended up setting high expectations for myself. I felt that pressure and, as a result, didn’t have the space to talk about it. My parents themselves didn’t learn to talk about their feelings, so I don’t blame them at all! They were just doing their best. If you’ve never learned to talk about your emotions, I can understand that it’s very difficult to suddenly start walking a completely different path.
What else helped you?
For me, it was very comforting to talk to friends from different cultures who’ve dealt with their mental issues very differently. They advised me that it might be a good idea to talk to a psychologist. I also discussed it with a Chinese friend, and she thought it was really brave of me to take these steps. It was interesting because people from my Chinese friend group all had similar stories and struggles. But none of them talked about seeking professional help.
You were the first one in your friend group to seek professional help. How did that affect the rest of your Chinese friends?
I believe it’s much more accepted now. It’s easier to seek professional help. Hearing stories from someone you know was very helpful for me. I have only positive experiences with seeking professional help because that journey brought me a lot of good things. I hope my positive experiences have encouraged my friends to seek help as well.
And how is your relationship with your father now?
My father’s response when I told him I was overworked was a huge relief for me. It gave me the peace of mind needed for a proper recovery. I thought it was beautiful that he tried to help me in his own way. However, after my recovery, I faced a second identity struggle in a way. Despite having shared my mental health issues with my father, and his supportive reaction, we still don’t talk about emotions much. He would never spontaneously open up about his feelings, but I’ve reached a stage in my life where I do have room to do so. From time to time, I try to initiate conversations with my father about emotions. Although I still find it very challenging, I hope that by doing so, we can connect more.
Since I became a freelancer, I’ve noticed that my father is very supportive of me. He says things like, “I know you’ll make it. You have it in you.” I had never heard those things before, so it was very comforting. I think there used to be a sense of distance between us, but I’ve learned that it can be very beautiful to talk about difficult things together.
Because of your upbringing, you are used to striving for excellence. How has your perspective changed since your treatment?
The drive is still there; I still want to work very hard. I am still ambitious and willing to give my best. But the difference is that, thanks to my treatment, I now have a better understanding of what energizes me, what I enjoy, and what actually suits me. I think it starts with recognizing your own boundaries and learning to accept them, which is still very difficult for me. And realizing that everything is okay, everyone is different, and everyone’s limits are different.
Thank you for sharing your story! What final message would you like to leave to others who may relate to your story?
Try to talk to someone you trust about it. Understand that there’s a lot of strength in admitting that you are struggling. For me, being open about my true feelings and acknowledging that I needed help was a crucial step. Although I was afraid that others might think I couldn’t handle anything anymore or take care of myself, most people found it very brave and powerful when I spoke out about how I was really feeling. I really needed that at the time! No pressure to perform, no stress, nothing to prove. I could just focus on my recovery. It was very comforting to simply admit that. It’s okay not to feel well. You are allowed to be yourself, regardless of how you are or what state you find yourself in.
*Michelle is a pseudonym.
Do you need more information regarding mental health? MIND Korrelatie provides advice, support and information to people with (early-stage) psychological issues and their loved ones.