In everyday American culture, politeness is valued above most qualities. But how often is empathy substituted by politeness? On January 27, 2014, a trending status popped up on my Facebook homepage:
You know the most f*cked up thing about our society is? We’re only allowed to express what we hate openly, and what we love quietly.
You know the most f*cked up thing about the social expectations is? That ultimately no one gives a shit about you, your welfare, or your feelings.
Because no one wants to listen, they’ll give you that dirty look as if you’re the one at fault and should not try to throw this emotional burden on others.
It peaked at 83 likes.
I met Steve during my undergraduate year in film class. He came off as personable, friendly, and a general do-gooder. He seemed like the last person I’d suspect to have a mental breakdown. Though we conversed entirely in English, both our mother tongue ties back to Mandarin. “In Taiwan, they really don’t give a damn about your individuality… they make you feel like your self-worth is just. Splat. Down there. That you’ll always belong in this group, you’ll always learn the same thing, [and] you’ll always be doing the same thing.”
During the time China and Taiwan had political and plausible violent conflicts, Mr. H convinced Mrs. H (Steve’s father and mother, respectively) to take their son to the sanctuary of Canada. On one of Mr. H’s rare visits, Mrs. H became pregnant with a girl. Mrs. H was prepared for the transition into a full-time caretaker of her children and life in a foreign city. The move granted her children exposure to both Western culture and education. Mrs. H eventually went back to industry after the family reunited in Taiwan four and a half years later.
Steve grew up in the absence of his father in his early years. “[Even in] the times he did spend with me, it felt like he only did it out of obligation. Like he would be on his cellphone or reading the newspaper or whatever.” In the later half of high school, Steve stayed with his aunt and uncle in New Hampshire. What temporary relief that the move to America could’ve brought was lost when he realized he was wedged in-between the rocky marriage of his aunt and uncle.
Keelung, Taiwan. Steve’s hometown.
“I wasn’t a freeloader,” Steve said. “My mother paid my uncle out of courtesy, because my mom is my aunt’s younger sister. Technically speaking, my aunt wouldn’t have asked her sister to pay anything, but… that’s just how it went.” His aunt often ended her day in tears, despite being the ‘more reasonable, more logical’ one and sought Steve for comfort against his uncle’s hurtful accusations.
“I always had to be this person that I did not want to be […] I was always put in that position where I have to sort of compromise between them. I have to sort of appeal to my uncle because I want to stay in that house, I wanna finish my high school. But I always have to comfort my aunt […] I would always have to analyze things for her. ‘Oh, things will get better because our uncle had this kind of background, that’s how he became the man he is today,’ this and that.”
It’s noteworthy to mention that in traditional Chinese culture, the eldest male in the family receives the most pressure to succeed financially and to carry on the family name. He had to face exceedingly high expectations for ‘success’, determined by the amount of wealth and prestige one can generate, both from his family and himself. This building accumulation of expectation snowballed in college, when he ultimately “shattered” against the weight of expectation.
“So I always had this expectation of myself right? And this expectation was that I could pick myself back up […] I’m an Aquarius, the one with the vase. It was like I would break and have to piece myself back together again with glue, but it wouldn’t really hold.”
SH: So you took those feelings and went to college.
ST: […] I wanted to make myself feel worthy again. I wanted to try my best to get involved with student organizations, and I think I did a good job of it. […] No one took the time to call me, to text me, or even Facebook message me. Well, a few of my cousins did.
I didn’t feel like just lounging at a person and telling them all my issues. Again, this sounds ironic because I already threw it on Facebook. I’m already trying to make it someone else’s business, but there’s this guilt inside of me that I feel like if I were to trouble somebody with this–
SH: It’s not their burden to carry.
ST: Right, and I would owe them something… For the most part, they were like, ‘do you want to talk about it? do you want to meet up this weekend?’ and all I did was, ‘it’s okay, don’t worry it, I’ll be fine soon enough.’ Lies, lies, lies.
The next day after Steve made his first Facebook post, he realized that it might’ve been a mistake when some of his friends acted differently towards him. “Is it completely going to change my image in front of people?”Steve reflected out loud. “And it did. I had someone ask me if I was bipolar… like they didn’t believe I was depressed, because I didn’t act like it. They thought it was a joke.
[I] climbed to the elevator shaft on the first floor of my dorm… until someone I knew walked by and asked if I was feeling okay, and I felt the sincerity in the voice asking me that triggered me to release all the negative emotion I had inside of me. So I just straight up started crying. I just cried and cried and cried. I didn’t even care how terrible I sounded. I sound like a seal when I cry, you know.”
He and his ex-roommate, who had been promoted to be a resident advisor, had a long chat the same night of his breakdown. Steve was told that if he had a breakdown within the next week, he would be put on suicide watch and would have to get professional help.
SH: What would be your advice to someone who’s struggling with depression, anxiety, or maybe just struggling in general?
ST: I would say to get help. Tell someone, anyone. Don’t let it get to my point where you breakdown. And if you need professional help… you should get it.
What my counselor did was that she listened to me from a very neutral standing point, and just encouraged me to talk as much as possible… She believed the best way to deal with sadness was to fully comprehend what had gone on and for it to get to that point.
SH: Have you gotten better since you’ve gone to therapy?
ST: Definitely. I’m a lot better now. It took time, but I’m better.
To read Steve’s original full posts, click here.