Mentally breaking down my identity

By Giannina Ong

It's not everyday that our university, Santa Clara University, posts to Facebook boasting about you, a student, as such: "Daughter of two immigrants, one a Bronco. Baptized in the Mission Church. Captain of the Women's Tennis Team. Triple major. Hackworth fellow." 

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 7.35.11 PM.png

Over the last two years, I, as a nonfiction editor, have encouraged publishing non-normative narratives. I’ve asked my authors to be compassionate, empathetic, and reflective following in the Jesuit tradition; I’ve also asked that they display their vulnerability. Now, I turn the tables on myself; for, it is high time I become radically vulnerable myself. (TW: depression, mental health, suicide, eating disorders, etc.)

Concerning the Facebook post: I am all those things. And I am honored to be a representation of my university. But I am much more than the stereotypical, overachieving Asian-American that post’s caption makes me out to be. I feel the need to not only (1) break the mold that construes hard work for Asian-Americans as second nature—believe me, I love tennis now, but I still hate to sweat—but (2) talk about the uglier realities of being a woman of color, a student, an undergraduate, and most of all a human and citizen of the world. 

For those who study theory, I live within the tensions of my reality: specifically, the tension between wanting to succeed and highlighting hardships and inequalities. Society—and in this case, university relations—has deemed my life narrative as more inspiring by hiding these challenges and focusing on the accolades I have received. Aside from daily challenges and the structural issues of our society—which I would love to discuss with all of you in another essay, one battle I face everyday is that of mental health: dyslexia haunted my childhood; depression, suicidal ideation, and body dysmorphia my teenage years; and now, my latest battle remains unnamed, like many other mental health concerns faced by the people in our world: 

Every few weeks, I hit a wall. Sometimes literally, I will punch a wall or break a tennis racket. But typically, it’s panic attacks, intense sadness, dark moods, inability to function, etc. 

  • Because I am a woman, concerned people like to chalk these issues up to the unpredictability of hormones; yet hold me to a standard of proper femininity with no outlet for aggression. 
  • Because I have been molded into a model Asian-American, having been preached to about hard work and perseverance going hand-in-hand with privilege and opportunity from my immigrant parents, I always keep in mind that I must take advantage of everything that I have been given and to chase every dream I have down. 
  • Because I am an NCAA D1 tennis player who has always struggled to run sprints and breathe while performing athletically, I had been on prescription medication to aid the opening rather than seizing of the bronchioles in my lungs, with the adverse side effect of depression being a possibility. 
  • Because of the social justice-oriented and Jesuit education I have been blessed with, I am reminded constantly of those who have less than I do and feel the need to not complain, because I, being college-educated, am complicit in the systems of oppression.

However, this “Giannina,” an example of her “model minority,” sold to the public is a flat, paper doll version of me: highlighting my successes, my diversity, and my spirituality. She is an impossibility. 

I am flawed, complicit in a system entangled in its oppressions, and striving not only to better myself to be a better self. I find that my Catholicism is in conflict with my feminism. My loyalty to family in combination with a social justice consciousness reinforces the privileges I have and my ambition. I find that all those bullet points are just one side of a coin in which I am neglecting my own needs and especially, my mental health. There are only so many paradoxes one brain and body can hold.

Through all these ironies, I strive: some days, the negative effects arise only when I am stuck in traffic through yelling at another driver, honking my horns, being that person; other days, it's violent and consumes me. I am immobilized for days, can't get out of bed, and rarely take a shower, a total 360 from the girl who never goes to bed without clean freshly washed feet. Once again, there are two sides to every coin.

During one tennis season, I was hurting from a series of hard workouts, but did not want to stop training in fear of being left behind or looked over as “not ready” to be a starter in a match. I asked myself and the trainers, "How much pain is too much pain?" 

The mantra of "No pain, no gain" looms in every athlete's mind. This same sentiment follows me in all aspects of my life: I pushed and pushed myself until I was so efficient, so productive that my mind could write essays in my sleep (not a figure of speech). It is this same celebrated perseverance that allows me take on a load of 25-27 units a quarter and to knock out the only paper out of 5 that I had to leave until the night before it's due during finals week and then stay up straight for 36 hours in order to take a final the next day. 

The same strength of mind allows me to wake up and practice at 8:30 a.m. then knock out three 100 minute classes in a row without a lunch break then take two 90 minute meetings right after. This same brand of perseverance had me weighing just over 90 pounds my senior year of high school. 

Mental health issues affect not only the best of us, but the best in us. It is truly two-sides of the same coin. On the flip side, it's this “je n’ais se quoi” that helps me get through long three set matches when the team’s win hinges on my performance, 3 Roddick 17s—look them up—in a row, and writing essays lay out a persuasive argument over 25 pages. The difference is so subtle, perhaps even just one interaction over the course of the day, that changes whether I go to bed with ideas popping into my head or crying my eyes out, both sleepless nights.

One look I get often is along the lines of "You are crazy" when I tell them I am a triple-major. Like I did it to myself. The reality is I love everything I do; being a student is part of my identity and I am proud of it. Even W. Kamau Bell, our current artist in residence, filled his book title with identifiers: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, and Stand-up Comedian. Yet despite being willing to label himself with all these identities, we all feel safer obscuring our mental state. But then again, perhaps, Bell simply has no mental health concerns to share with us, being that he is a comedian (no offense!). 

We feel more comfortable blaming other issues, hormones or teenage—now evolved into twenty-something—angst, than embracing the word “crazy,” because it’s more than pejorative, it’s taboo. 

The “mad black woman,” the bald-Britney-wielding-an-umbrella, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, “I dumped my girlfriend because she’s crazy,” etc. These characterizations of mentally unstable figures cannot be accepted as normal people, because to us, they are just one jump, hop, and a step away from those who are mass shooters, serial killers, and what we would imagine as “psychopathic” Hannibal Lecters. 

But mental health is something that affects everyone. Even when we are of a “normal” healthy mental state, we are considered content or happy. However, we do not have vocabulary for us to communicate our mental states without sounding “crazy,” per se. In fact, even in nonfiction, we rarely get submissions that deal with mental health. Furthermore, the only non/less pejorative term I can use is “mental health,” because any other terminology would read as a call for help or a danger to society. 

At the Santa Clara Review, we have an ironic and unofficial mission statement that the pieces we publish must be "dark enough for the Review." At a history conference, I overheard a student proclaiming that "it's always the dark essays that win prizes." Mental health issues, aside from other “darker” topics, are not “dark” or depressing issues; they are overly prevalent and pressing concerns that have not been aired. The only darkness when discussing these issues are the shadows that obstruct our ability to have conversations about topics, like mental health, without sounding the alarm. 

I, for one, want to reappropriate the term “maniac”; not necessarily a reclamation of the phrase, but mania describes the chaos of knowing that at one moment I am this and the very next I am that. Mania is how I can utilize my mental state to both be the most efficient person I know, but also be overwhelmed with ideas and drown in the weight of the world. Of course, it is not a clinical, psychological usage of mania, but we need to start creating a vocabulary that allows more people to voice their concerns without fear of being hospitalized or raising the fears of their loved ones. By naming it, I am reclaiming its power over me and owning it as a part of my fluid identity. 

Yes, I have moments of mental instability and that is normal. My wish is that when we discuss who I am, I am not depicted as a unique, totem of my race, privileged woman able to conquer any task without a sweat, but a peer who is exposed to the same, similar, and silent realities as others.