Depression was a Dirty Word: Suffering from Dysthymia as an Asian American

By Kaila Yu 04/23/18

Dysthymia feels like slowly moving backwards through limbo in a disjointed dream. You can’t go forward despite your best efforts so you simply admit defeat and just exist in half-fulfilled stasis.

Woman standing with eyes closed, in profile and in the sun.
I was always searching for that feeling of well-being and peace. Photo by Nguyen Mei on Unsplash

In my traditional Asian household, we didn’t make excuses. We were bred to be the very best so that our parents could trot us out as trophies. My brother and I were prepped and coddled like perfectly manicured show dogs to outshine the successes of other people’s children. We were to be the personification of the American dream: bright, shiny and above all happy. With our shiny bowl-cut raven hair and crisp, clean Mervyns sweater sets, we were kept as busy as bees, buzzing from school to piano lessons, swim team, speech competitions, SAT classes, Chinese school ad infinitum.

I didn’t have time to be depressed.

My brother and I were groomed for advancement and ruled over with an iron fist by our classic Tiger Mom. By my sophomore year in high school, I was on the cross country team, in all advanced placement college level classes, was a National Merit Scholar and had a 4.3 GPA. My mom was looking forward to the day that I would get into Stanford. She didn’t realize that I was deeply angry and unsatisfied with life. My solution was to rebel. I got arrested for shoplifting, skipped class, got caught cheating in AP Chem, and ran away from home, all in the course of six months.

There’s no word for depression in my household, in fact we didn’t discuss our feelings at all. I knew intuitively that my undefined state of mind would be seen as a sign of mental weakness. I fought back against feelings unspoken by ripping into my mother with all the spitfire of a caged honey badger. Somehow I made it out of high school relatively unscathed. Even though my GPA had dropped a full 6 points, I still made it into a solid college and moved away from home. I thought that I had finally found the solution. I was certain that the little gray cloud that followed me everywhere was formed by the vast ocean of my mother’s regrets. Moving away would solve everything.

It took me years to realize that my depression had nothing to do with my mother.

I was happy for a time; being away at college was exciting, but after the novelty wore off, I went right back to feeling as I always had before.

My life changed one night, late into the second semester of my freshman year. One Friday evening, I went with my boyfriend to a party. For the first time, he encouraged me to try ecstasy. I had never tried a real drug in my life before this time, except marijuana. I popped the little green, triangular pill and as I was walking to the bathroom an hour later I was suddenly transported. The throbbing techno music in the background suddenly slowed as if I were in a rumbling decrescendo vacuum. I felt a champagne-like bubbling of electric energy coursing through my entire body. I was fizzy and uncontrollably happy and I felt a deep gratitude and intimacy with my boyfriend for introducing me into this fourth dimension of feeling that I had never even come close to experiencing. Instead of feeling completely shut down from my emotions, I easily professed my love and gratitude to him that night. Scales fell from my eyes as I realized that this kind of pure joy was possible in life. I felt like it was the beginning of my very own superhero origin story.

This was a huge turning point in my life because I now knew how to self-medicate. At first I used the ecstasy to enhance the occasional weekend rave, but I quickly escalated to harder drugs like cocaine. Before I knew it, drugs were a daily ritual. I supplemented my cocaine usage with GHB, ketamine, Vicodin, Valium, Xanax: I was constantly trying to manage my highs, my lows and my sleeping schedule with any chemical that would get me out of my head.

Self-medicating worked for an entire year. But after the high eventually wore off, things were worse than ever. I was flooding my brain with Serotonin and depleting any reserve supplies that I had. My baseline mood was far bleaker now and I felt like I was being smothered by a pile of heavy blankets. So began the endless cycle: my body had developed a tolerance to the different substances and I needed more and more to get just a fraction of the previous high. It was an endless hamster wheel of misery.

One day I looked in the mirror and I realized that I was 26 years old, a fractured and broken vessel of unfulfilled potential. I hated myself but I didn’t even realize it. Even though there was a pervasive stigma in the Asian community about needing therapy, I could no longer do it by myself. I was directed to the Maple Center to sign up for therapy and I was assigned to Rachel, a soft spoken woman who studied my face with an intense seriousness. Somehow, it was not intimidating or off-putting and it was the first time that I truly felt heard.

It was Rachel who suggested that I was suffering from dysthymia and when she described the symptoms it rang true to my core. Dysthymia is a low-grade, persistent form of depression. They used to describe the disorder as a “depressive personality” in the 1970s. “Depressive personality” resonated with me; I had almost all of the typical symptoms: low energy, low self esteem, and an inability to find pleasure in most activities.

Dysthymia feels like slowly moving backwards through limbo in a disjointed dream. You can’t go forward despite your best efforts so you simply admit defeat and just exist in half-fulfilled stasis. It’s not like a severe depression where you can’t get out of bed in the morning but it's undoubtedly a low quality of life. An ex-boyfriend once called me a sociopath because I never displayed any major emotions, happy or sad.

Before I learned about dysthymia, I had punished myself with an endless ritual of self help books, courses and coaches. I had already spent thousands of dollars trying to better myself: reciting the scrolls in The Greatest Salesman in the World, dabbling in Buddhism, reading A Course in Miracles. I was always searching for that feeling of well-being and peace, grasping for something to fill up that infinite hole that loomed inside. It was never enough. I was never enough.

To learn that I had an actual condition provided relief in an indescribable way.

I was referred to a psychiatrist and I began taking Wellbutrin to treat my depression. It was a traumatizing experience, the side effects were brutal. I couldn’t sleep for nights, had paranoid thoughts and felt an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Finding the right antidepressant frequently takes a period of testing several different medications. I am so glad that I didn’t give up on medication after this disturbing experience.

I was lucky enough to hit gold on my second try, using the SSRI Prozac. It took about two months to kick in and once the medication was coursing through my body, my depression evened out. Mostly I just felt normal. It was truly cathartic, like I was shedding off the dried-out snakeskin of a former life. But it was only the beginning.

The truly transformative part of my journey began when I committed to becoming sober from drugs and alcohol for the rest of my life. It’s dangerous to take drugs and/or alcohol with Prozac so I really had no choice. My therapist suggested that I check out Alcoholics Anonymous and my self-help addicted nature dug in with a vengeance. I found myself a sponsor in AA and immediately threw myself into the program. I followed instructions diligently and went to a meeting once a day, every single day, for a year. I quickly built a community of new friends who knew me as my naked, vulnerable self and accepted me 100%, with all my damage. I am so happy that AA is a place where people don’t see color, age or background. There were very few Asians in the meetings that I went to, but I never felt unwelcome or out of place. Still, today, I rarely see Asians at meetings, but I hope those suffering in silence will eventually let go of their shame and open themselves up to recovery.

My recovery from depression and addiction is akin to peeling away the layers of an onion. I am constantly shaving away the dead skin of my past self and discovering new experiences of being in my body and participating in life. Later on in my adventure, I discovered meditation and yoga, which took my recovery to yet another level. Finally, I experienced the cotton candy-flavored pink cloud that they often talk about in AA. I was finally happy.

I learned pretty early on in AA that many old-timers in the program strongly oppose the taking of any kind of medication that affects you “from the neck up.” This means that painkillers, prescription sleeping pills, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications are all off the table. I believe that it is dangerous and irresponsible to suggest to someone who has a chemical imbalance that they should not take medication they legitimately need. No amount of positive thinking is going to magically manufacture more serotonin in my head.

This is an underlying belief that the need to take antidepressants implies weakness. I think it actually takes great courage to admit that you have a problem and it’s simply common sense to follow the medical advice suggested by a trusted doctor. After all, if I had diabetes would I try to use positive thinking to help my pancreas to release the needed insulin? Would I recommend that someone with bipolar disorder try to take a self-help class to treat his or her mood swings?

I’ve now taken Prozac for several years and I would recommend it to anyone who asked. These most recent years of my life have been incredible. I am happier in my 30s than I ever was in my 20s. I am pursuing a satisfying new career which I have a deep passion for and could see myself working in this field until I am 90 years old. I no longer hope that I die at 40, falsely convinced that youth and beauty are the most important values in the world.

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Kaila Yu is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles covering travel, food, and lifestyle. She is the co-founder of the travel blog and has been regularly featured in print and media publications around the world including Rolling Stone, MTV, Skyscanner, Matador, and more. Follow her on Twitter @kailayu.