How Depression Broke My Cultural Conditioning
Content Warning: Depression and Suicide
In 2016, I became a victim of my mind. My mind: a sea of rage, sadness and shame, and I was drowning in it. I wanted to drown in it if only it’d put an end to everything. Some call this phenomenon depression, but at the time the only word I had for this was pain. And the one way I was taught to manage pain was the Cambodian way: suppression.
Do we inherit experience? Generational trauma lingers on minds, bodies, and spirits. Epigentics, a study of how external factors impact genetic makeup, indicates how trauma influences one’s DNA sequence. ‘Epi,’ meaning ‘on top of’ or ‘in addition to,’ suggests we inherit more than just eye color. For Indigenous, Black and other people of color who’ve endured histories of genocide, slavery and other traumas, this means we can have a greater susceptibility to anxiety and depression.
In my awakening to psychoeducation, I grew resentful against myself, my family and my culture–even my race. My own cells felt overburdened, shouldering the weight of western oppression on their backs. Why did I inherit this weight? Where was my say in my own DNA?
During the height of my depression I received a book from my mother. It was a yellow book labeled, “A Day Of Positive Thinking.” My first thought after receiving this gift was, how did my mother know I was depressed? In our household, emotions are communicated through action. Love is demonstrated by cooking and providing financial support. Fear is shown through unconditional worrying and giving unsolicited advice. My mother is a typical Asian mother. She could not tell me everything would be okay, but she gave me a book that would.
In 1975, my family survived the Cambodian genocide. My mother was only 17 years old when she, along with my family, was uprooted from their lives and forced to work in the Killing Fields: the grave sites where more than one million Cambodians were killed by the communist regime, Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge targeted educators, doctors, leaders, and anyone they deemed as elitist. If the Khmer Rouge discovered my mother’s relation to my grandfather, a well-respected figure in their hometown of Battambang, they would immediately kill her. The mindset they utilized to survive this nightmare for four years was silence, obedience, and suppression. When my mom escaped and moved to America in 1979 with the rest of our family, she maintained this mindset and unknowingly passed it on to me.
In 2016, I was 26 living in New York City, working at one of the most luxurious fashion labels. I was ill-equipped to handle the toxic nature of the industry. Being raised without a sense of agency resulted in the only way I knew how to protect myself from female leaders abusing their power: I carried one mantra.
Silence. Obedience. Suppression.
Suppressing my pain and isolating myself from everyone around me drove me to a state of unworthiness. By blocking the physiological pathways to pain, I unknowingly blocked the pathways to joy, laughter, and happiness. My world turned grey until I was able to rescue myself.
My mother never knew about my journey of healing through therapy or antidepressants. It was my doing alone to de-program limiting belief systems that were passed down to me from unhealed trauma. During this time, I was in a storm of rage and grief as I realized my depression was unavoidable, but what followed was a surge of compassion for myself and my family. My family, who did not have the tools and resources to cope with the aftermath of genocide, acted in self-preservation in the only way they knew how. Suppression was a way of self-protection for my family, but it was synonymous with depression for me. Suppression. Depression. Two words separated only by two prefixes. ‘Su’ meaning towards, I was moving further and further into my depressive cycle. ‘De’ meaning from, as my mental illness stemmed from teachings of suppression. Together they danced back and forth with each other to create a deathly ensemble. Now, I am slowly learning to disentangle them.
Although my mother never grew to learn about therapy and mental illness, she never stopped learning. When she came to America, she adopted a new language, built an education, created a stable career, and raised three children. She continues to grow while navigating the challenges of her life, including how to help a daughter with depression.
The yellow book sits by my side as I write this piece. It is one of my most prized possessions, because it marks a pivotal moment in my relationship with my mother. The book was her way of telling me she saw my invisible pain, she hears my silent screams, and above all else, she will be there for me when I am ready. Like me, she is learning to break the cycle of suppressing pain by acknowledging mine. Like me, she is healing.
There is another word with the suffix ‘pression,’ or the act of applying pressure: expression. The prefix, again, a mere two letters, saved me from my self-induced suppression-depression cycle. Ex, to be out from, showed me how to feel and speak openly. It gave me the power to ask for help. It gave me an out that was so much more exhilarating than the one I originally wanted.
Healing is both a beautiful journey and an ugly process. It is the process of surrendering to open wounds of the past and the present. It is the process of unlearning beliefs no longer serving you and learning new ones that do. To heal is to have complete openness to painful emotions out of its desire to be felt. There will be anger. There will be heartbreak. There will be grief. Then one day, you wake up to the rising sun, and you realize you never had to be alone. So, together with the ones you love, you inhale peace and exhale freedom.
Meet the Family
Maryann Samreth is the founder of Sincerely Miss Mary, a content creation service for businesses in the creative and wellness space. She is a former handbag designer for Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch, and Tommy Hilfiger. She is an artist at her core and is now stepping into the spotlight as a writer and visual storyteller. Through the power of words, she helps businesses connect authentically and creatively with their customers. Her purpose is to empower people to tap into the significance of their voices.