Me and mental health
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
This blog wasn't easy to write. I recently watched the Meghan Markle & Prince Harry interview with Oprah and had a lot of thoughts, with the main one being mental health. When Meghan talks about her deteriorating mental health in a toxic environment, the lack of support, the silencing, the suicidal thoughts and having to smile for the camera even though you're broken inside...that really really hit hard for me.
People see me and probably think I'm really well put together and have my shit in order. In reality, I get depressed, anxious, and suffer from imposter syndrome a lot, but I'm also excellent at covering up and pretending to be ok until I burnout and crack. I am a classic case of a high-functioning depressed and anxious person, and I don't let people see that most of the time. Today though, I will, and this blog is about my own experience with mental health and mental illness.
Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health. The brain is an organ in the body, and just like your liver or your kidneys, it will malfunction if you don't look after it right. That's mental illness. Mental health and mental illness is a topic most Tongan people don't like talking about or easily dismiss. If you've ever brought up mental health and illness in a conversation, how many of these have you heard?
"Oh, just say a prayer and you'll feel better".
"You just need Jesus"
"Tuku ho laupisi"
"Tongans don't get mental illness. Mental illness is a palangi thing"
"It's not that bad. Other people have it worse"
"Just get over it"
It doesn't help that there is so much stigma about mental illness in Tonga. It also doesn't help that there aren't many suitable Tongan words that describe mental illnesses to make it easier to understand to the wider public. I've been racking my brain to think of what mental illness, mental health, depression, and anxiety is translated into in Tongan, but it hasn't clicked into my brain yet (And if you know the translation, do let me know).
If you grew up in Tonga, we all know there is only one psychiatric doctor in Tonga, Dr. Mapa Puloka, and his lifework is to talk about mental health and mental illness in the Tongan context. He guest shows on TV programs and radio shows and he talks about mental health, as well as the impact of stress, drugs, and alcohol on mental health. He does tend to use complicated sounding words (which I assume is the Tongan translation for a foreign medical term or something) and because those words sound so strange, it ends up being the butt of a joke or as a casual insult (e.g. 'Aavanga mosikuu). That needs to stop and that needs to change. If we want to break down the stigma around mental illness and mental health, we have to try and be as open as possible and make the language around it accessible as possible too.
You know, the first time I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety was my first year of uni when I was in Auckland Uni. I was 18 and had arrived in New Zealand just 2 weeks after my father's funeral. My father was originally supposed to come with me to NZ so he could get medical treatment, but he passed away unexpectedly before that. His passing, the funeral ceremony, burial...everything felt like a whirlwind and I have a hazy memory of what happened at that time. All I remember is that he was there, then he wasn't.
I was a recipient of the NZ Pacific scholarship to study at Auckland Uni. I had excellent grades from high school and great recommendations from my teachers, so everyone thought I'd be ok. However, that first semester was incredibly rough. I felt like I was studying really hard, but I barely passed all my courses. I didn't fail anything, but I was always a straight A student through primary up to high school, and barely passing just felt extremely shameful and wrong to me. I felt like I was a fake who didn't deserve that scholarship, that I was letting so many people down, and that my father was turning in his grave. I pushed myself into a dark space and it was not good.
The first few weeks at uni, the scholarship officer would have a regular meeting with all the scholar students to see how we were. I fake smiled through the first couple of meetings, but one day, he pulled me aside and asked if I was truly ok, and I just started crying in his office. Like, super ugly crying. He immediately booked me in for a counsellor at uni. The counsellor was a nice palangi. She made me tea, asked a few questions, made me do some tests, and we had a little chat. A few days later, she emailed me my diagnosis results and that I definitely am depressed, anxious, and still grieving, and I needed to pop in for more sessions. I read the email and never went to another session because, at that time, I thought "Ok, there's a label for what I'm going through. Now that I know, I'll be ok". I didn't tell anyone about it, because like I said, I am excellent at pretending to be ok. Thanks to confidentiality clauses, the scholarship officer didn't know I didn't attend any more of those counselling sessions, and I never cried again in his office, so I guess we both thought I was ok.
Throughout the rest of my undergrad, I had other mental meltdowns, but I was able to cope with it better (i.e. hide it better). They felt smaller in comparison to the time I was bawling in the scholarship officer and counsellor's room when I felt like my world was ending.
Each time I was able to hide it felt like a win to me, and I thought I was building up mental resilience. I was not. I was building myself up for a big breakdown further down the line.
Despite studying Psychology, and eventually graduating with a degree in Psychology and Sociology, I didn't think of my mental health as a priority, because I was proud of what I thought was mental resilience. What a fucking idiot I was. My mental health and so-called mental resilience all broke down and came crashing when I started working.
Remember how I mentioned in my earlier Uni tip posts that I'm a lazy person who likes to work smart? I do that at work too. I get things organized and get shit done quickly because I want to go home quickly. But it doesn't work like that. Unfortunately, my efficiency at work got interpreted as high performance, so I kept getting flooded with work, work, work (despite not getting other remunerations or pay rise). I started getting assignments way above my paygrade, and I was told this is good "professional development". Remember also, I was still starting in my career, and I was at a point where I could not say no (yet), so, what did I do? I silently worked myself to the bone and I felt like an exhausted, walking, empty zombie for a few years. Yes. Years.
Why didn't I tell anyone? Well, I did. At first anyway. I'd share how I was having a tough time, but it got brushed off and laughed off.
"Oh, you newbies have it easy. It was worse when we started off."
"Oh, you'll get used to it. This is nothing"
"Oh, just say a prayer. You just need Jesus"
"Oh, you'll be ok. You're a hard worker and a quick learner"
"Oh? But you're not making any mistakes or submitting anything late"
"Haha, Naah, you're overthinking it".
"Just be positive. Happy thoughts!"
I suppose some of it was meant to be a compliment and was well-intentioned. However, it seemed like overworking and workaholism were a badge of honour so people don't believe you're struggling if you still managing to deliver high-level results on time. Not only that, there was an unspoken rule of toxic positivity, to always be happy, bubbly and optimistic. Always forcing positivity invalidates actual emotional and mental struggles and makes you feel like an ungrateful whiner for even daring to express difficult emotions like anxiety, sadness, fear or frustrations. There was an unspoken yet a heavy weight in the air implying "How dare you to speak out about mental struggles at work? There are other people who are jobless out there! Others who came before you did just fine. This is the way it's always been. How dare you even be unhappy for a minute?!"
It made me feel like no one was really listening, so I eventually just stopped talking about it. I don't think it helped that I am also actually introverted. People wrongly think I am extroverted because I know when and how to fake a smile and be sociable when needed, so people tend to think I'm enjoying myself and not struggling. (What did I say about me being excellent at pretending to be ok? lol).
So what did I do? I just shut-down. I withdrew and felt empty and exhausted inside, but I kept on sludging on because I felt like I had to. Remember, I was also on scholarship before, and work is part of the scholarship bond requirement. Also, this was in Tonga, where mental illness is treated as a myth and the "solution" for everything is prayer. While prayers and bible verses work for some people, it only made me feel worse. Being around people was so tiring and draining, so I avoided and shut people out so I wouldn't feel so exhausted. Holding a conversation, even small talk, was taxing. Everything and everyone felt so noisy and excessive and heavy and just too much. I hated that feeling and I hated myself for not being stronger during those times. Those few years, I felt like I wasn't myself and a part of me died. A part of me felt like I wanted to die. I still went to work and I still behaved as normally as I could in front of my family. I did everything I was supposed to, everything that was expected of me and I faked a smile when I had to, but I wasn't enjoying anything. It was like forcing a car to keep running and to speed up when there is no gas in the tank and the engine is busted. That's how it felt.
What helped me during that time though is definitely my partner. He has seen me at my absolute worst, ugliest, most depressed, rock bottom. That man has the patience, kindness, and compassion of a saint. I couldn't fake a smile around him as I did at work or at home, because he saw right through it. With him, I didn't have to pretend to be strong or pretend to have all my shit together all the time. Some date nights, we'd go out for a nice dinner, then I'd suddenly get incredibly sad out of the blue, and we'd sit in his vehicle and he'd wait as I cried my eyes out. He understood I wasn't crying because of him or anything he did, so he'd let me cry on his shoulder, letting me wipe tears and snot on his shirt until I felt better. He'd always ask, "Do you wanna talk about it?" and if I did, he listened without judgment and never gave unsolicited advice or prayers I didn't ask for. He just listened and held me tightly as I cried, and that was enough for me. With snot down my nose, red eyes and runny mascara, he'd still call me beautiful and smart and reminded me he's going to be with me through all my highs and through all my lows. He's not a wizard to have magically fixed me all up 100%, but he always magically had a handkerchief to offer for my tears. His simply being there for me really did help slowly bring my mental health around. I really don't know what I did to be with a man as kind and gentle as he is, but I am so grateful for his existence in my life.
Another thing that felt like a mental health reset button for me was the Chevening scholarship. I got the notice around July 2019, to start postgrad studies in the UK in September 2019. There was a part of me that felt like coming to the UK was a whole new restart and for the first time in a long time, I was genuinely excited and happy. Of course, my partner was extremely supportive and happy for me too.
This was before the whole covid pandemic though. To be fair, I still enjoyed most of my uni experience, despite the hindrances caused by the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Brunel University was extremely supportive of its students and staff's mental health and well-being. I genuinely enjoyed learning and the coursework, and what triggered my depression and anxiety in London was not my academics this time around. What made me feel depressed and anxious was trying to figure out a way back to Tonga for when my studies would be done.
It was around mid-March 2020 when the UK acknowledged the seriousness of the pandemic and started putting measures into place, like the first lockdown. There were a few Pacific Chevener students who managed to leave the UK before March, although it was out of policy at that time under our scholarship conditions. For the rest of us Pacific Chevening scholars, we had no choice but to remain in the UK, because all the usual transit hubs to our home countries had closed their borders in early March (i.e NZ & Fiji only allowed citizens in). This wasn't a major stressor to me at the time, because I still had a lot of studies to keep busy with, and I figured things would get better later down the line. I think we all thought things would get better soon. Maaan, weren't we all bloody wrong?
March and April 2020. UK lockdown was in full swing. I was mostly still busy with uni work. My Instagram feed was full of justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her sleep by white policemen in the United States of Amerikkka. She was my age. Covid cases and deaths in the UK rapidly increasing. May and June 2020. Still lockdown. I still had a lot of uni work. The Black Lives Matter movement was at its all-time high, as there was so much anger over the murder of George Floyd, again, by white policemen in the United States of Amerikkka. In the UK, anti-Asian racism was at a high with the increasing number of Covid cases around the world. July and August 2020. Covid lockdowns eased in the UK. I still had a lot of uni work. I cried by myself in my dorm room, watching my boss's funeral on Facebook live. September and October 2020. My studies were coming to an end, and this should have been the time for us Cheveners to go home. However, borders to our islands were still closed, and it was a frustrating time for us to negotiate our ways home. Our Chevening Pasifika cohort was made of scholars from Fiji, Tuvalu, Samoa, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. By November 2020, everyone else had managed to go home, except us Tongan scholars. We spent Christmas, New Years, Valentines... still stranded and still under lockdown in London.
As I write this, it's March 2021. Almost a full year now, since the initial lockdown in the UK.
I truly never could have imagined to still be in London at this time. This ongoing lockdown situation in the UK has truly tested my mental health. I've felt my depression and anxiety crash onto me like a tsunami because there are so many things out of my control. One of the biggest things I currently have no control over is my travel arrangements back to Tonga through New Zealand. The whole NZ visa process was a wait in the dark, and somewhere along the application process, my passport became unaccounted for when it was sent to the NZ visa application centre. No one knew where my passport was at the visa centre.
Remember, London is still under lockdown and offices don't work the way they usually do. Had the world been normal, I could have popped over to the office in central London or called the customer services phone line. But both services aren't available during the lockdown. So, those several weeks, I kept trying to email the visa office to get back my passport. I constantly suffered from a panic attack at that time. I felt like I couldn't breathe. My chest hurt so bad. My heartbeat was racing and I felt like vomiting the whole day. I couldn't sleep at night. And the cycle continues. Having a panic attack several times a week, over a couple of weeks, is the shittiest feeling ever. You feel absolutely helpless and alone. It's really the shittiest feeling ever.
On that note of shitty feelings, people may disagree with me, but I don't think Tongan society is particularly kind to its women. What I mean by that is that the double standards are incredibly and ridiculously ingrained in how we interact, and Tongan women are far more likely to be harshly judged, criticized, and demonized for their choices in comparison to Tongan men (off-track example but teen pregnancy in Tonga for instance. People will ta'aki and lau'i the girl, but no one will say anything about the guy. It takes two to tango, but girls will bear the brunt of judgment while guys often go scot-free. Anyway, back to the topic). As the eldest daughter growing up in a conservative and patriarchal society like Tonga, I always felt like I could not afford to misstep the imaginary line and expectations drawn by society, or else I would be scrutinized and marginalized and bring shame to my family. Part of that line means you're expected not to complain, always be obedient, always be happy, always sacrifice. Always. What do you think the weight of those expectations will do to one's mental health and mental well-being?
On the other hand, I suppose there are also elements of the Tongan culture and societal expectations that also make it difficult for men to talk about issues around mental health. The expectations of being a "manly man", to always be strong, boys don't cry etc are also common ideas we feed our young boys, so no wonder they grow up thinking that it's not "manly" to talk about emotions and mental struggles. Why do you think youth suicides in Tonga are almost always young men from their teens to early 20s?
With societal and family expectations in minds, I guess I put so much pressure on myself to always be successful, and I guess the few times I failed or things didn't go as planned, it really got to me. I also always felt I had to be a proper role model for my younger siblings, and that meant if I did anything, I had to be really fucking good at it, especially in academics. I have the reputation of being "the smart one" and "the good girl" in the family and the one that's always got their shit together. And when you're the one who's supposed to always have your shit together and supposed to be always helping others, it's incredibly difficult to ask others for help. When you're "the good girl", you're supposed to be close to perfect. Mental illness and depression shouldn't be part of that mix. That was in conflict with how I felt inside, so, I struggled in silence by myself for years, until it became unbearable and I felt absolutely miserable and broken.
I was in my mid 20's, almost late 20's when I finally realized enough is enough. One thing that's been particularly challenging for me is to be open about my failures and hard times, and not just my success and good times. I realized it wasn't as helpful nor does it depict a full picture if we only ever talk about the highs, and always hide the lows. My biggest lows are often to do with how I deal with my mental health, and I've had enough of my own bullshit pretending to always be ok.
I remember writing the short poem at a time when I felt the most depressed and anxious whilst in London, but there were so many other past experiences that kept building up onto it. I've been through hell so many times in my mind, that it feels easier to just sit in hell because it's so hard looking for a way out. In my depression, I was emotionally numb, indifferent and apathetic. But that's not how you're supposed to live your life.
You know, I still have a lot of issues I need to work on and improve upon. But now I know when my mental health takes a hit, I won't suppress it, or hide it, or solider through it. I know how to say No and place boundaries now. My brain is an important organ, and it can get ill if I don't take care of it.
Another thing my journey with mental health over the years has taught me is that people only want to be around you when you're happy and full of light. When you're struggling and in a dark place mentally, they don't know how to deal with you, and a lot of people will leave. That's happened to me. I know who still stuck around for me despite my bad days, and that's all I need. Do you know that super cliche saying you'll know who your true friends are when you're lost in the dark? That's the idea lol.
So yeah. That was tea and today's blog was me sharing my low. Another thing I've been thinking while writing this is this: Shouldn't we be leaving something better, or creating something better for those who come after us? With me sharing my experience with mental health, what I want for those who come after me, is that they have the freedom and courage to share their mental health struggles and triumphs without judgement, shame, dismissal, or stigma. When they share their stories about their mental health and any struggles, I hope they have someone who will listen empathetically, listen with kindness, listen without judgement and really understand where they're coming from. I was lucky I found those few people who did that for me. If you ever need someone to share your stories with or just to listen, I'm here for you.
Tu'a 'ofa atu.