Headshot and poster by Diana Toshiko.
My earliest memories of even thinking I might be depressed were met with warnings by my mother that if I ever dare seek professional help for depression, even as a kid, my employers would one day find out and fire me. It did bother me that being depressed-but-employed versus happy-and-unemployed was the better of the two (and only two) options, but I heeded her advice and never sought professional help. God forbid anyone know I was once a crazy 12-year-old kid.
So I hid it for years. And not very well. Even into my college years, I managed to turn club meetings, sleepovers, friendships and intimate relationships into my own impromptu therapy sessions. Anything to avoid the stigma of actually seeking professional help. When I introduced myself to a circle of new friends, somehow unsolicited emotional clutter would always spill out with it. Sometimes my friends were halfway decent at playing Freud, but very often, they were so mired in their own messy lives that my problems just exhausted them.
In high school, my best friend was a white girl named Siobhan. She told me about her therapist. How much her therapist listened to her. How much her therapist loved her. I wanted a therapist to listen to me and love me too. But I didn’t have $50 an hour to pay for that kind of love. Instead, I settled for casually asking for help from friends who would jokingly dismiss me with: “You’re a crazy weirdo, Kristina Wong.”
Being called a “crazy weirdo” was enough for me to not show signs of weakness again. So I’d call out other people as “crazy.” I decided that as long as I could call somebody else crazy, I was doing just fine.
Siobhan didn’t seem to care that one day she would be found out as crazy and never get hired for a job. Somehow, she passed off her crazy as cool. In fact, she relished in being “the bad girl with the shrink.” I think Siobhan fed off the energy of everyone thinking she was so bad she needed help. Being branded a “bad girl” was easier than trying to carve out her own identity.
In retrospect, it may not have even been that I was actually clinically depressed. I think I was just very isolated ina predominantly Chinese-American community that shunned ever talking about anything that might be going wrong. My family was so insistent that I project only the best, that during car rides en route to family engagements, my parents prepped me with which highlights of my life to talk about with the rest of our family. It was as if I was a political candidate being prepped for a campaign speech. Except, the people voting for me were from my own family.
I was constantly being introduced by my accomplishments (“This is Kristina. She wins trophies and has a perfect GPA”). This confirmed that the only value I had to the world was my net worth. I was never introduced as who I was… because who was I but my accomplishments? I was living in a fictitious world where the only life worth living seemed to be the one that moved along a specific storyline of success. Simply, I was a living cliché of Asian American teenhood: Get good grades, go to the best college, go to the best med school, marry a Chinese doctor, buy the biggest house on the block, and then have Chinese doctor babies.
Supposedly, after that storyline was complete, I would be successful. And successful would equate happiness. Never mind how unhappy the whole journey was because how could a six-figure income and a Chinese doctor husband not make anyone happy? Right? Right?! Nobody talked about what would happen if I diverged from this storyline, but I could only imagine the worst… Poverty! Obscurity! A single woman surrounded by cats!
I lived in so much fear of failure and struggled to meet an unrealistic prescription of success. I’d break down crying over the unwritten fate that lay ahead if I failed my parents’ expectations.
The misery was becoming undeniable even in high school. I went to a Catholic all-girls school in San Francisco. At the start of religion class, we could go around and set an intention for prayer. Girls would pray for relatives dying of cancer or the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. I’d pray for God to bring me the same thing in rain or shine: “Please God, help the babies dying of cancer and whatever, but especially help me ace that Trig test!”
Now that I’m a grown woman, I’ve learned that having a liberal arts degree does not cause you to self-destruct the moment you graduate. And as evidenced by many of my fellow Asian-Americans thriving in a whole range of professions, there is indeed, life outside of medical school.
And no, you won’t get fired from your job for having gone to therapy at 12, 32 or 65. In fact, I’ve learned you can actually make a career out of addressing the crazy that nobody will talk about in graphic detail. I am now gainfully self-employed as a solo performer and writer. I tour the country and make a living talking about all of the things I never got to talk about as a kid, in front of packed audiences.
It is no cake life to make a living as a performer and writer. I keep late hours, often wonder where my next paycheck is coming from, and I have an extremely difficult time assuring the people I am dating that they will not be part of my shows.
I implode… on stage, and people pay to see it. For the most part, unlike implosions in real life, I can put myself back together again.
My show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest addresses the stigma and shame around depression and suicide among Asian-American women. Asian-American women have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide in this country. It’s the kind of factoid that simultaneously shocks some and seems intimately right to others.
In the show, I critique the insanely unrealistic pressures some Asian-American women have to please everyone and the dangerous cultural pressure to hide that anything is going wrong. In the show, I use the “Dramatic arc of Fiction” to critique the fictitious lives women like me were expected to live out. It’s been a wonderful poetic justice to take a whole lifetime of angst and confusion and find a way to channel it into something creative.
In talking to women about their depression and getting audience feedback after my shows, I didn’t anticipate how many women would “out” themselves as depressed or suicidal. Many of these women are the women I thought least likely to show their vulnerability. They are professors, professionals, and community leaders. Where were these emotionally open women in high school? Would our lives have been less depressing if we knew each other more honestly? What if we could have been so vulnerable with each other? Would this problem even persist?
Kristina Wong is a writer and performer, who is touring Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The concert film version of the show is available on DVD for schools and libraries.