“Reclaiming mental health as Asian Americans”

After I got the advice from a friend to re-join a second library system, I used my Manhattan address to confirm access to the Queens Library last week, which I hadn’t accessed since 2012, when I lived in the borough. I always had Queens Library access and New York Public Library access since I first moved here, as it was one of the very first things I did once I got set up in this new city; Queens covers just the borough of Queens (since it’s so freaking huge!), while New York PL provides access for Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. As an avid reader, I figured it would be wise to continue getting access to books that my tax payer dollars were covering. Until 2018, I was borrowing hard copies and picking them up/dropping them off at the nearest library. But since then, I access the library fully electronically via the Libby app. This then allows me to either listen to audio books directly from the app, or send the electronic book from the library directly to my Kindle. It’s been amazing: I cannot even count how many books I’ve read this way, and I’m obsessed.

The first book I got off the wait list for in Queens Library that NYPL did not even have in its catalog was Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans, which is written by psychologist Jenny T. Wang (who I actually started following on Instagram during the pandemic!). I already knew by page 2 that this was going to be a good book after I read this line:

“Our suffering and well-being do not exist solely in overcoming major crises or managing diagnoses, but also within the conversations held behind closed doors, in the tears we shed alone in the shower, and in the deep emotions that we cannot ignore despite our best efforts.”

I think when the average person thinks about mental health, they do define it based on crises and diagnoses; they don’t think about the everyday interactions and how they have such an impact on us. I think that is especially lost on older Asian generations like my parents, who think of “mental health” being a concern just for people who are “psychotic,” “crazy,” or “mental.”

I’m about halfway through the book now. It’s an easy to digest read, but it’s definitely extremely triggering, especially once we got into the section called “Boundaries.” So I can’t read too much of it at once and need to give myself breaks, which is what the author actually suggests, along with questions to stop and ask yourself. Other than the sexual and physical boundaries subtitles, my parents have basically violated every other boundary of mine:

They regularly would go through my belongings, from reading letters addressed to me without my permission to my school binders and notebooks to my closet/drawers; my dad has even gone into my electronic files on the shared computer, which resulted in quite the family drama.

They eavesdrop on my conversations and then would gossip about it later/yell at me for what I discussed with others.

Whenever I come home, I’m constantly being asked to do this, do that, with zero regard for what I might be in the middle of doing. I get yelled at if I don’t come right away.

When I come home, I’m expected to drop any plans I had made with any friend/relative so that I can spend time with them… most of the time doing nothing, just being under the same roof. She used to insist that, “(Insert name) is not that important… tell them you are sick and can’t make it,” or, “You already saw (insert name) a couple days ago. Why do you need to see them again? WHAT IS SO IMPORTANT OVER YOUR FAMILY?” And, if I don’t cancel the plans, then I’m “disobedient and against my parents, which means you’re against Jehovah!”

When I was in middle and high school, my mom used to regularly call my friends and ask them to be spies, to “report back” anything “inappropriate” I might have been doing. A friend I used to go hang out with after school at her house was one of these people. She told me my mom would regularly call her to “make sure” I really did go to her house.

Once I started working, I knew something was very, very wrong with my mom’s demand that I only take time off to come home and see her. If I took time off for a trip, it had to be with them. I was not permitted to take time off for myself, to take a trip with friends, or god forbid, a trip with a boyfriend/partner. So when I did take small trips to hang out with friends or travel to new places with them, I just didn’t tell her. The first time I finally admitted to taking a week off to go to Mexico with my then-boyfriend, the fireworks went on for two days. All she did was scream and yell. She said I was betraying her; I was not to supposed to take trips with a man I wasn’t married to; I wasn’t supposed to take time off unless it was to see her. How could I be so selfish…?

My mom has “tested” me by asking to me to write her checks for thousands of dollars… for dental and health procedures that she didn’t even need or follow through with. It was all a test to see how “loyal” I was to her. After sending her one of the checks (and after she cashed it), she told me she ended up not proceeding with that dental procedure. You can imagine how annoyed I was (and how infuriated my husband was…). She just wanted the money and likely had zero intention of ever getting the procedure done from the beginning.

My mom used to say to me regularly, “I control you until you get married, and then when you get married, your husband controls you.” That was fun to hear. I guess it’s no wonder why I made a goal during my senior year of college to get a job out on the East Coast, far out of her control and constant spying. And once I moved to New York, I vowed to never live anywhere close to my parents ever again.

She also used to tell me regularly that Ed and I “have no right to get angry at your parents! You have NO right! We do everything for you, and you get angry with us?!”

It took me a while to figure out that being angry at one’s parents, or at anyone, is completely fine and healthy. All feelings – happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, whatever – they are what they are. There is no such thing as a right or wrong feeling. It’s just a matter of how you deal with them and move forward with them that matters. To tell someone they aren’t allowed to feel is pretty inhumane… and quite sad, when you think about it.

My first therapist once asked me, “Do you think you will ever move back to San Francisco?” I paused for a bit, and then responded, “I’m not sure. I don’t think so? Maybe I could. But only after they’re both dead.” It sounds like a very harsh thing to say, but I really meant it. The truth hurts. I don’t think my mental health could handle being that close to them. They have no concept of boundaries or how to treat me (or really, anyone else) respectfully and with true kindness. And like any other human being, I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. I’m not asking for that much.

It’s hard to think about the fact that I will never have a good relationship with either of my parents. In an ideal world, we’d get along and be much closer. But it’s not meant to be. Ed was the same way. But his life has already ended. Mine hasn’t… not yet, anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.