A freak of culture…

My mental health has always been at odds with my culture, a classic case of nature vs. nurture. Growing up in possibly one of the world’s most picturesque islands (Sri Lanka) sounds like a dream. Instead, it is the setting for some of my most vivid nightmares.

I deal with depression, borderline personality disorder and anxiety. It is a common mix. However, to me it was – and still is with some of the most important people in my life (i.e. my parents) – the biggest secret of my life.

I grew up in a community where you were expected to hide your flaws. You presented your best self, and most of the time it wasn’t good enough. Everything felt like a careful production.

Growing up, the worst part was not knowing what was going on. Having no clue that your mind could get shaken up to the point you start seeing the silhouettes of things that are not there… Developing a sort of paranoia because I didn’t have the tools to deal with my trifecta.

Everything I did was somehow controlled by the expectations of my culture.

I felt like a freak.

Suddenly home did not feel like home. I had to lie, pretend and muster up energy I did not have to make sure people around me were comfortable. I had a checklist of things I went through for the perfect version of myself.

My first panic attack happened around age 10.

I found my spot under my table and listened to all of Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. After that day, wherever I moved I had a favorite spot, a corner, a cave of my own that I felt safe from myself and the judgment that I am not 100 per cent.

There are many faces to mental health, mine included.
There are many faces to mental health, mine included.

Everything from the poetry I wrote, to the words that I painted around my mirror should have tipped off the people in my life that something was wrong. The physical pains that still come with my panic attacks, unexplained by multiple doctors, is easily resolved by coping mechanisms that ground me and bring me back to reality.

My aversion to school, my hatred of crowds, and how terrified I was of everything should have pointed to me needing help. Instead it festered.

There is no one person to blame.

Tradition has a stronghold in our society; family and community are highlighted. It is one of the most intriguing parts of our culture. However, it has also held us back from being progressive in areas such as mental health. There is no ongoing conversation.

We grew up believing that mental health issues are a myth. The idea that a few chemicals can take down an individual for extended periods of time is an alien concept.

It took me 10 years to get help, jolted by an almost attempt at suicide – a sixteenth floor epiphany. Ten years of silently dealing with my multiple states of mind, afraid that I was going to disappoint.

I was angry and frustrated that no one seemed to notice.

Looking back, it seems more like no one wanted to.

Willfull blindness

Cultures like mine remain ignorant to what mental health issues could do to a person. They pretend that words like depression and suicide are the linguistic versions of the bubonic plague. It seems as if saying the words bring forth dark forces that would destroy the integrity of an already broken society.

I went back to my school, to speak about mental health, to share my experiences, and to have the chance to stop at least one kid from resorting to self-harm. I also did it to feel sane, because not to feel perfectly fine was insanity.

The reaction to the word suicide baffled me. Teachers panicked at the sight of it, they did not want me giving ideas to the students. Suicide is not something that you can plant in someone’s brain, it is the result of hopelessness.

The more cultures ignores mental health, the more it alienates people with mental health issues and the more people we lose. Society still continues to turn away from it, labeling people who take their lives as weak.

Facing facts

I struggled for years just to say the words – I need help. Self preservation should have come as a natural instinct, but somehow, I was rewired to think otherwise.

There is a disconnect between what I’ve learned is the right way to be and the way I am. It has taken years for me to admit that who I am is completely okay. It has taken me longer to open up to the people I love. In many ways, it is still ongoing.

While there are a lot of illogical and irrational things that haunt me, it does not make me a freak – just someone with a lot of chemical imbalances. I look forward to moving away from the attitudes my culture has towards mental health, and making myself a priority.

Talk about it

I am part of a more aware generation and hopefully we can start the conversation, become more empathetic and remove the label of shame. In an ideal world, cultures have the potential of progressing without losing tradition. I choose to be optimistic.

Everyone should put themselves first, no matter your background – there is no shame in seeking out help or accepting who you really.

Surprise! You are good enough even if you are a little bit of a freak.

Feature photo by Oshi Oshadi

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