When your mental health brings shame upon your family

Nav Sohanpaul
·9-min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

“Remember where you come from!” my dad would regularly exclaim, whenever my sisters and I sat him down in the big living room to talk – it’s where all the formal discussions took place. “Don’t embarrass the family, what will others think?” He’d wheel out the same refrains for things that would be innocuous for your typical Western family (such as when my eldest sister said she wanted a simple wedding, rather than having a 500 strong guest list). Never mind when my parents discovered my 'temporary' tattoo was actually permanent.

I’m of Indian descent and in our culture there’s ‘Izzat’ – essentially meaning ‘honour and reputation’. The reminder to stay quiet in uncomfortable situations and maintain a 'good' image became ingrained into my mind and way of being. Although we’re a modern Sikh family, I always knew there were certain things I’d have to achieve to meet the aforementioned positive criteria. The check list included: being well-educated, getting a good job and choosing a partner from a reputable family.

By the age of 23, I felt I’d ticked off two milestones - being educated and getting a good job - when I landed a role with a leading corporate firm. I felt that I could hold my own alongside my sisters, one of whom became a dentist, the other a pharmacist. To me, it was an easy way of showing others I was also a valuable asset to my family – but on the inside, a voice nagged saying I still needed to prove my worthiness. This voice saw me sacrifice my social life, staying late in the office most nights.

I prioritised being seen as respectable over meeting up with my friends or spending precious time with my family (even though I still live at home, I struggled to switch off and disconnect when around them). I’d limit myself to just five hours of sleep, offsetting my tiredness with three cups of black coffee a day. The combination was both unsustainable and burnout inducing.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Months in, I started experiencing overwhelming panic attacks. Breathing became a struggle and as the room seemed to close in on me, my only instinct was to run – I'd literally sprint out of whatever building I was in, sit on the ground and cry until exhausted. I was terrified, with no idea what was happening to me. But worst of all, I knew I could never tell my family about what I was experiencing. “What will others think?” played on loop in my mind.

A turn for the worse

Like many parents from my culture, my dad came over to England as a teenager with nothing to his name. He hustled tirelessly to achieve the life he wanted. Undoubtedly, he would've felt stressed and under pressure – probably in the same way I did. But because mental health wasn’t as well-recognised back in the 70s, or as openly spoken about, he pushed on silently and hid his feelings. My father took pride in raising my sisters and I to be strong, successful and independent women. Telling him about my panic attacks and my anxiety was out of the question. I knew he’d think of me as weak.

I began shutting myself in my bedroom whenever I felt a trickle of panic rising, fearing my struggles would cause others to criticise my parents, which I couldn’t bear. At work and family gatherings I put on a brave face, in an effort to prove I was still confident and crucially, happy. But it wasn’t sustainable.

In November 2018, after three years of extreme working days, I’d just stepped into a lift in the office when, suddenly, I felt suffocated. I shoved my way out and collapsed in the lobby. Struggling to pick myself up, I called my sister and hysterically cried out: “I can’t do this anymore!” It was then that a kind stranger pulled and guided me to a seating area. I desperately wished I could have called my parents and asked them to collect me, but I knew they wouldn’t understand what was going on. Instead, a friend took me home.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Shortly after, a doctor confirmed I was burnt-out and signed me off from work for a month. I was devastated and in denial. How could this happen to me? I’d been raised to be a strong, calm person. Things like this didn’t happen to someone from my family. I trembled as I spoke to my parents, waiting for them to be disappointed and angry with me, but to my surprise, they were understanding. “You’ve been doing a lot of hours; you probably just need to rest,” they replied. I felt relieved and as though, for the first time in years, I was legitimately allowed to rest.

However, during my month of ‘rest’, my daily panic attacks resurfaced with a vengeance. Everything around me became a trigger; loud noises, certain smells, even walking up the stairs became a fear, as I didn’t want my heart rate to increase and spark an anxiety attack. My month off soon rolled into two, then three, eventually stretching into an entire year off. My whole world shrunk... and my parents had run out of patience.

Finding my own voice

Every day, I battled to get out of bed, to attend my therapy sessions and reflect. I spent a lot of time downstairs because I hated being on my own. I needed to hear the sounds of people in the kitchen. To everyone else, it looked like I was depressed and going down a dark path, but I knew I was starting to slowly and quietly heal.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

My parents went from being sympathetic, to fed up. They'd lost faith in my ability to move out of this ‘phase’ and my father told me I was making my mental health difficulties up. When guests visited, he’d make a point of saying I was working from home, never admitting I’d really been signed off. Once, while FaceTiming a friend, he even spun the phone around to show me ‘working’ on my laptop, when in reality, I was journaling. He started telling me off for crying and would call me names, such as ‘loser’ or ‘weak’.

My father was confused and fixated on what others thought, believing if he ignored my “attention-seeking” behaviour, everything would eventually work itself out. I’m not the only one who has experienced this either – when one of my closest friends, also from an Asian background, suffered with depression, her parents swiftly advised she “snap out of it”. They told her if she didn’t, she’d end up like another individual in their extended family who they perceived as a “failure”.

With the help of therapy and meditation, I too found my voice and understood the importance of living authentically. I reconnected to myself, to my goals and what I wanted to achieve. I removed toxic people and realised I wanted to live a much simpler life, where I prioritised myself. I decided to leave the corporate life behind and used the extra time to create a blog, where I share my experiences and help others who are struggling with their mental health. Thankfully, my employer continued to pay me during my sign-off period which eased any potential financial pressures (and really helped with the costs of therapy). I became happier and more like my true self. My sisters and mum told me how proud they were of me for turning things around. My dad, on the other hand, remained sceptical… until, one day, everything changed.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Earlier this year, sixteen months after being signed off, while staying with my eldest sister, I could hear my dad on loudspeaker during a FaceTime call with her. He was emotional, panicky and concerned about his health. I immediately knew what was happening – he was having a panic attack. I rushed to the phone and told him to breathe, to calm down. I barely finished my sentence when he cut me off. “I’m sorry for not believing you,” he said as he desperately cried and began to explain that he was feeling the same things I used to during a panic attack. He said it made sense now and asked for my forgiveness.

In a heartbeat, nothing that had happened between us in the past mattered anymore. He’d learnt his lesson. By experiencing the same physical and psychological pain that his daughter had gone through, his thinking evolved.

We drove back to my parents’ house as soon as the call ended. My father seemed calmer once he saw our faces, but things took a turn at night. He didn’t want to sleep and couldn’t be left alone. I knew this feeling better than anyone. I taught him breathing techniques, downloaded my meditation app onto his phone and stayed up with him until he could no longer fight his tiredness. Over the next few days, I continued to share all the things that had helped me to overcome my own anxiety – and he listened. We grew closer and thankfully, he hasn’t experienced anything similar since.

My story isn't uncommon, but I have hope that the stigma surrounding mental health issues within Indian culture will change, thanks to the newer generation. The truth is that, no matter what your culture may make you believe, embracing your mental health and really being honest with how you’re feeling will only make you a stronger person. As awful as it was, I don’t regret all the darkness my father and I both had to go through. It's made me the strongest and surest version of myself. Today, my family respects what happened to me and we're able to have more open conversations about mental health. It’s as if the shame around such topics has been removed in our home and now, the big living room is a safe space. It's where we go to support each other.

*Name has been changed

Visit Peace Over Panic for anxiety-related tips and to read more about Nav's mental heath journey.

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