A-Z

Maya

Age at interview: 27
Age at diagnosis: 15
Brief Outline: Maya (age 27) grew up in an emotionally abusive family and was diagnosed at age 16.. She also has complex PTSD, anxiety, and chronic pain. Healing strategies includes medication, holistic modalities, therapy and reading.
Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

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Maya was diagnosed with depression in high school. She also has anxiety and complex PTSD, along with chronic fatigue and pain. She grew up in a Chinese American “academic family” that was riddled with untreated mental illness. Her family had high expectations and was emotionally abusive, which eroded her self-esteem and set her up to be a target for sexual abuse. By high school her anxiety, depression and health problems resulted in many missed school days; her fabulous grades plummeted. Eventually Maya’s parents got her connected with mental health services. She was prescribed and took Zoloft at various dosages through high school. With medication her “emotions just flat lined… no highs and … no lows”. But she could function in her household until it was time to leave for college.

In college Maya hung out with “the free thinker, misfit, creator types” among whom mental health issues were “almost a given”. Overachieving, which was “applauded in academia” and in her culture was her coping mechanism. While a fulltime student, she worked, volunteered, participated in several organizations, and maintained friendships and a relationship. She was constantly sick and stressed out. When her body “just crapped out”, her doctors prescribed Adderall and other stimulants.

Now a young professional, Maya has integrated holistic approaches to develop her own path to grow in the face of her depression and limited energy. She is kinder to herself and no longer measures her value by a punishingly busy schedule. Instead she works limited hours and takes time to “literally stop and smell the roses”. Through her extensive reading, Maya has come to question how medication is used to treat depression: “I think trying to medicate ourselves to the middle and …medicating women’s emotions to meet a masculine standard of emotions is really unfortunate. …I think that it’s a form of cultural numbing. …I don’t think that compassion is rooted in numbness and I think that kindness and compassion are two of the things that we as a culture, as a society, as a world need to cultivate the most”. 

Maya also believes that people with depression have special gifts. “The orchid hypothesis goes like this. Most people are dandelions, most people are really hardy. You can throw them almost anywhere and they’ll thrive. Some people are orchids. …If the soil is a little too acidic, if the sun is not just so, if the humidity’s just off, …they will wilt. They will falter and they just will just refuse to thrive. But if you get those conditions just right, just right, you get it just perfect, they will blossom in ways that a dandelion never could”. 
 

Maya discusses her early experiences with anxiety.

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I would have to say probably as far back as I can remember, I at least had pretty significant anxiety. I remember when I was really little if someone was late for something I would have this really bad catastrophic reaction like, “Oh no, like, they got in a car accident or they are never coming home,” or something like that. I remember being very scared to be in a room by myself, I had, you know, I had this feeling that just around the corner somebody was going to leap out and get me and pretty much I had that feeling almost all of the time. 
 

Maya is able to act upbeat even when her depression is bad – a skill she sees as connected to the “insincere culture” around her.

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By the time I got into high school I was pretty good at masking my feelings. I’m fairly good at sort of keeping up an upbeat persona regardless of how depressed I am, even when I am fairly nonfunctional. If you see me out and about most people see me as pretty confidant and pretty well adapted and they’re like, “Oh, you know, you’re such an optimistic person and you’ve got it all together,” and stuff like that. And I think a lot of that for me comes from the fact that we have a fairly insincere culture when it comes to emotions. I mean, especially if you work in something like service. I mean, service with a smile. And foreigners a lot of times comment on how, how strangely friendly everyone in the states is and sort of how we have this sort of culturally mandated exuberance, you know, we can’t just be like, “Oh, you know, things are ok, they’ve been kind of tough lately.” Everyone is supposed to say, “Great, everything. It’s going to be the best day it’s ever been and it’s going to be the most beautiful and so successful.” And so I’ve sort of taken that on which I think can make it difficult sometimes because people don’t recognize that you’re suffering, especially when you are able to sort of meet your obligations that it can be harder for people to identify you as someone that has depression. 
 
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Maya says her Chinese mother’s untreated mental illness, cultural beliefs and expectations combined to create emotional abuse throughout her childhood.

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… my family was very verbally abusive, so my mother has threatened to kill me literally more times than I can count. I’ve been disowned literally more times than I can count. I’ve had the cops called on me at least three times for things like talking. 

And it’s because she only sometimes takes her medication and she has not ever stuck with any form of therapy. And I know a lot of this comes from, she had a mother who clearly had mental health issues.

There comes into a lot of cultural issues is that my mother, you know, is that I give you life, I can take it away and you know, threaten to kill someone in China is or South Korea or a lot of you know East Asian countries, isn’t an unusual threat to be made, but, you know, it’s part of sort of like a cultural thing.

And so I lived in a highly critical household, that regardless of how many…. There’s actually, there’s, I mean, it’s becoming more and more common to see this, there’s an even an episode of the Simpson’s where I forget Marge’s sister adopts this little Asian girl Ling and she is doing spectacularly. She’s like, painting something and playing a flute and keeping plates spinning in the air and they’re like, “Look at what a good girl Ling is.” And she just like whispers to whoever’s in the room, “Help me.” 
 
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Maya has depression and PTSD. She describes how early life sexual abuse plays out in her pattern of attracting dangerous, predatory and abusive people.

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I have complex PTSD because I also endured a great amount of, not a great amount, but I also dealt with sexual abuse when I was younger and I have been in numerous sexually abusive situations since that time. And so I want to say that my abuse started when I was probably about 7 and continued on and off until I was like 9 or maybe 10 … 

This sexual abuse took place between children and they were my god brothers who were also altar boys, so I was more or less molested by the Catholic Church. And then you proceed to be in this environment where there is just profound shame about, you know, being a woman and then that purity is your highest virtue and the virgin Mary and the virgin whore dynamic and all of that. And I think that’s a lot of what prompted me to becoming a feminist and also becoming very educated about sort of gender roles and sexual health issues in general…

I learned very negative patterns of relating with people that have attracted very dangerous people in my life and I, there’s an incredible book called The Gift of Fear by, I don’t remember who it’s by, but it’s called The Gift of Fear that pointed out a lot of things. One of the things was sort of like, the victim interview, like how people sort of screen for people who have no emotional boundaries and who can be manipulated and I was just like, “Oh, that totally happened to me before that incidence of abuse.” And I was just like, “Oh yeah, that’s, that’s totally what happened.” Because at one point, I was abused by a stranger and that’s when I, and this was in my adult life and I was just like, “Oh yeah, I have a giant ‘you should abuse me sign’ on my forehead. I should probably deal with that. I should probably address whatever issues are there that do not allow me to keep myself safe and to avoid people and their predatory.” Because I just ignore my gut feeling that I am uncomfortable or ignore my feeling that someone is doing something wrong, because that’s literally every moment of being with my family, is having your boundaries and your emotions just trampled over and then being told that ‘it’s your fault that you’re upset.’
 

Maya views “depression” as too simplistic a label to represent who a person is.

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But I think that it’s very difficult to reduce people to one aspect of their identity and I see that a lot with identity politics like, “Oh look gay people.” As if that’s suddenly the most important thing about them is who they do or do not want to love or have sex with and I think that being able to be like, “Oh this person is gay and they love guns and country music,” is, is a thing. There are gay people who love music, you know, there are nuns who are pro-abortion, you know what I mean. Many people live in this grey area and I think that being able to not pigeon hole yourself into any one identity so you don’t have to be like, “Oh I am a depressed person.” Or like, “Oh this is an autistic person.” Or, “Oh this.” You know, I think that, that’s unfair and I think that denies you, your the totality of your humanity. 
 

Maya’s most trusted friends were those who shared her struggle with mental illness.

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I sort of hung out with the, sort of like, the free thinker, misfit, creator types. There’s actually just like a dorm where it’s sort of like all of those kids, so you just take all of like the musicians and the drama kids and the gay kids and we’re just like one dorm [laughter]. And I hung out with mostly kids that just hung out in that dorm. So I want to say that mental health issues is almost a given with almost everybody I know, the severity and the variety is very different. A lot of people just have, I don’t want to say just have, because it can be debilitating, but a lot of people have like a couple things like OCD, but it doesn’t seriously impair their function, they’re just kind of quirky. Other people have had very serious psychotic breaks that have seriously impaired their lives. I have many friends who have been hospitalized for mental health reasons many times. So I don’t imagine that anyone didn’t know I had depressions, it’s just something that all of us dealt with. In fact, I have had conversations with people who are like, “You know, I don’t really trust anyone who has never been through really dark periods.
 

For Maya, starting to do less well in high school was a sure warning sign that something was wrong.

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By the time I was in high school, I started having trouble just functioning. I was just breaking down sobbing all the time. I mean like, in a ball shaking and that would happen at school. And so I spent a great deal of time in the in the counselor’s office and around my sophomore year, I mean, I was I don’t know if it’s fair to say, intellectually suicidal. I wasn’t going to take any active steps, but I did have a lot of suicidal thinking and I had very clearly all the signs of depression to anyone who really cared to notice. 

And I tried to seek like help. I was just like, “I need to see a psychologist. Like, I’m having problems.” Because all of a sudden I had gone from being a straight A student or not a straight A student but an A/B student to, I went from having like having an 89 percent in my statistics class to having a 16, because I just wasn’t able to function.
 

Maya’s life is busy and demanding, but sometimes she needs to conserve her energy and prioritize the hard work of daily life.

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I have to say, “No.” All the time I have to say, “No I can’t come see your show, no I can’t get coffee today, no I can’t do that project, no I can’t do that job, no I can’t volunteer for that program, no I can’t stay out late, no I need to go home, no I need to rest, no I can’t do the dishes, no I can’t comfort myself today, no I can’t go to the store.” Or if I do go to the store, that’s literally the only thing I do all day, like when I was really sick it was just like, “Wow, that was my major accomplishment for this week,” was being able to go to the store and get all the groceries into the house and so that’s been one of the most difficult things for me to be the person that does literally everything at an amazing level, well not an amazing level, but a very high level. It’s impressive that I did all of that at a high level to be a person that’s just like, “Cool, I carried groceries upstairs and didn’t leave any of them in the car for my partner to carry up later.” So that’s been my biggest struggle.
 
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Maya contrasts her productive everyday life when feeling well with the difficulty she has getting out of bed and taking a shower when depressed.

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I was in, you know, cool gifted programs and stuff like that so I was surrounded by a pretty exceptional bunch, but I’m seeing that as more of the norm. But yeah, I think there are things about depression that are very difficult and one of the things that I struggle with the most is just the fatigue, just the, I can barely. And I’m someone who like, I like to run around and I like to have my fingers in all the pies and I like to be a mover and a shaker and for many people like, they couldn’t imagine me being the person who just cannot get out of bed, you know, that like, if I take a shower that’s, that’s a success. That in these past three days I haven’t been able to get out of bed and take a shower and I think that that’s the truth for many people, many people who come across as very high functioning and I think there is an enormous amount of shame about that to have other people see that you occupy such a vulnerable space, because I think that projecting strength is so important here….
 

Living between Chinese and American cultures was a struggle for Maya, and the tensions it produced with her mother and for her own internalized expectations for high achievement sometimes deepened her depression.

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I violate a lot of her understandings of what it is to be a good woman and because I have always been so assertive, she finds it to be aggressive and condescending. So she would always try to keep me in my place because of the Chinese sort of dynamics of hierarchy and what you can and cannot say. And I was just like, “If you wanted me to be a good Chinese daughter you should have raised me in China, because if you’re going to raise me in the United States and I’m to be successful here, I am going to take on American socialization.” Especially because I didn’t know any Asian kids growing up I was literally like, there was like me and the one Jewish kid, so we would like take our turns he would show everybody dreidels and I would show everybody like, Chinese New Year, like red envelopes and give them candy like, Chinese candies and so like, that was the extent of the diversity growing up. So not being within a culture where certain statements were normalized I think was part of the damage, but also I think there are, you know, a lot of issues and I mean this, this is part of the thing, like nobody wants to bring shame on their culture, but I think a lot of East Asian cultures have, you know, very frequent physical, emotional abuse. And I think it’s something that’s commonly not addressed because the kids do really well in school and they don’t act out, so no one sees it as a problem and I think that’s incredibly damaging. I mean there’s like an entire Reddit forum, like a Reddit sub-forum that’s just called, oh what is it, Asian parent stories. And like, there are stories of people who are just like, “I did it. I graduated from John’s Hopkins and I’m literally a brain surgeon and they’re still not happy and every day I want to kill myself.” 
 
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Maya thinks of depression and anxiety as only parts of her emotional spectrum, and describes many ways they enrich her life.

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One of the things that I wanted to share in this interview that I was thinking about a lot was the fact that I think so often we are talking about depression and anxiety as though it’s only a negative. And I’m really a big fan of the biopsychosocial models of depression and anxiety that show that one, it’s a spectrum. You’re not either depressed or not depressed. But you know, we all have these different ranges. But I’m a person when it comes to like, the analogy about a piano, I play all the keys. I have very high highs and I have very low lows. But at the same time, I think that despite the fact that it has made my life a lot more difficult, I think it also affords me a great deal of empathy, a great deal of sensitivity, a great deal of understanding that, you know, someone who hasn’t struggled with something like this might not have. And I think when it comes to doing interpersonal work or educational work like I do now, having such a broad range of experiences is actually really helpful. And when it comes to sort of creative pursuits, I mean, I think there is a reason why there is this stereotype you know the, the tortured artist. I think that if you come into this world and you are more sensitive, you know, you see more or you hear more you’re a noticer whether or not it’s, you know, the dew on some rose petals or it’s the immense suffering of the people in front of you. I think that being a noticer is - it’s a strength but also it’s a liability and I think it’s important to focus on both sides of that, and not only see it as a cost that needs to be managed.
 
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Maya ties her sensitivity to her capacity to appreciate, notice and witness.

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But I was told that I was just too sensitive to everything and in many ways I am, but in just the right environment I feel as though I have so much more to offer because I notice so much more and I appreciate so much more and I witness so much more than the average person, it’s just as though I don’t have filters, you know what I mean. It’s like other people wearing sunglasses and so they can stand in the bright light for a long time, but I don’t, I don’t have those blinders so I have to take it all in. And I think that can give someone tremendous strength and so, it’s just about getting those conditions just right for those people.
 

Maya talks about finding a therapist and calling her when she needs help.

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Therapy, and I know this isn’t a perfect analogy, but therapy is like dating. You really need to find someone you can develop a rapport with, who you like, who you feel like likes you. I mean I’ve had therapist who I feel like, just don’t like me and are judging me and I might see them for a little bit because they might be useful with one thing or another, but they may not be useful in general and you also need to take into account that, like, these people are human, so they have their limitations. And so I saw a gifted therapist and we mostly did phone stuff and I remember the first time I saw her, I saw her like, literally once and we like, and she was like, here’s some bibliotherapy read these books. I went home and read them and problem solved. I started a new career and I was like, well that was terrible for your business. I saw you once and now I’m not going to see you again. I called her 6 months like, actually no, it was like a couple of years later and then I talked to her once because I was getting so anxious. It had taken me two weeks to buy a bottle of shampoo just because I was like, being greedy and stuff and chemo phobia and I just, you know, I would have this incredible decision process like, “Alright, I guess my anxiety is out of control again I should call a professional.” So I called a professional and maybe talked to her like, maybe twice and for 6 months again I really didn’t need to see anyone, so I really use therapy on an as-needed basis. And I recognize what each individual therapy and what each individual therapist can offer.
 

Maya says holistic models of mental health work best to help her feel safe and comfortable in her own body.

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And I think that for people with depression, people with anxiety, people who have a history of either physical, emotional, or sexual trauma, finding a way to be safely embodied is very important and I think that it’s difficult in the western model to find those therapies that help you find safety in yourself and feel like your body is a safe place to be.

And I think that Eastern models of mental health always include the body and always include, you know, being safe in the body and feeling grounded which is a lot of my work. I work with a meditation teacher. 
 
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Maya benefits incredibly from her meditation community, where she engages in deep work with other people from all walks of life who “do the work.”

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I actually moved here mostly to join this meditation community, because I found so much incredible benefit from being around people who are doing the work and like, that’s the thing that I like about meditation and mindfulness communities, that like, when you are talking about people who are doing internal work, people who regularly are going to a meditation community are doing the work… And I think surrounding myself with people who are doing the work and whatever flavor that is, whether or not, that’s people who dance at a [unknown] and who sing and play music at the center for conscious learning. Or, you know, people who dance and sing in the gospel choir at this Baptist church or people who chant, you know, or sit in silence or go on silent retreat for weeks or months or years, you know what I mean. Anybody who does the work, that is where I feel at home and I guess I’m sort of like a universalist. I’m not going, regardless of what the sign says on the door I’ll go in if it suits me. 
 
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Maya finds it healing to be with animals.

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But growing up, honestly, my pets were probably my closest friends to be very honest …For as finicky as they are, they are very forgiving, regardless of what you’re feeling. Cats and dogs, obviously less so fish, and lizards, [laughter] but they can be present with you and that’s what I think can be the most healing thing, just being with someone or something, depending on how you see your pets…. [they] can be with you regardless of what you’re feeling and allow you to hold that space and not have to fix you, but they can just be there with you.
 
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Maya found unconditional acceptance in religious community.

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I go to a Baptist church on Sundays because this preacher is just phenomenal, he is such a gifted orator, he really touches you at, at the heart and soul and I have really never felt so welcome and so much like I belong as I do when I go to this church and the music is incredible and the people are just wonderful. I mean like I literally can’t count how many hugs I get there just, just for showing up and people are really genuine and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.” And it’s so, it’s so wonderful, you know, sort of have that space because there are people laughing, there are people dancing, and there are people weeping, you know, whatever you bring to the table, whatever sort of thing that you’re feeling you can feel it there and it’s a place where people are able to feel pain and I think that’s something fairly rare, especially if you are in sort of more of the, like the white American culture where I, where I tend to reside most of my time. There isn’t a lot of expressiveness and there isn’t a lot of safe space to sort of express these emotions beyond this really narrow range, but I find that at this church there, you can play all the notes.
 

For Maya, living with depression means accepting that her capacity for life activities will be somewhat limited.

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Are you familiar with the spoon theory of chronic illness? I think it applies to mental health very well. So there’s this young woman and she’s trying to explain to her friend what it was like to live with chronic illness and I think she had something like lupus and then she was in a cafeteria and she was like, “Alright spoons, alright ten spoons.” She was like, “I only have so many spoons each day.” She was like, “I want you to hold these spoons and then try and get through your day because everything you chose to do will cost you a spoon.” So, you know, you’re getting ready for school, you know what I mean, you’re getting ready for class that’s going to cost you one spoon. And then you go to your classes and that’s going to cost you two more spoons. And now it’s lunch time and so you can either skip lunch and, you know, get whatever this, you know, paper or whatever done but that’s going to cost you three spoons or you can eat lunch and that period of time will only cost you one spoon. You know what I mean, going out to coffee with a friend, that’s another spoon. You know what I mean, by the time you get to noon you’ve already used more than half of your spoons. And so sometimes you have to choose, am I going to do the dishes or am I going to get some work done, you know what I mean. It’s a lot of, “Am I going to get out of bed and go see my friends this evening, even though I know I’ll start with fewer spoons tomorrow”. So it’s just being aware that sometimes when it comes to your own capacity, it’s kind of this zero sum gain and that you don’t have as many spoons to spend as everyone else.
 
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Maya found it was essential to set aside time to be reflective and really focus on healing.

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I was able to take time off from work and really rest in solitude. You know, spend enormous amount of time just processing emotion, you know, self-evaluating, self-reflection and do just tremendous amounts of internal work and I do think it’s work and I don’t think its commonly recognized as such and I think it’s work that not only benefits me but I think it benefits everyone around me and I think it benefits my career to be able to take that time.
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