Do you know what’s worse than being a single woman in her 40s who lives at home with her parents, has mental health issues and an alcohol problem? A single woman in her 40s who lives at home with her parents, has mental health issues, an alcohol problem AND is Indian.
I mean when I look at my life situation it’s almost laughable. Single, never married, lives at home with her parents, unsuccessful career, ugly mental health history, ex-problem drinker gone sober, not a penny to her name…the list goes on.
I think I’ve been the talk of our sad little town since the day I brought home by first boyfriend at the age of 17, who by the way just happened to be white. Any of you who know my family now will be confused as to why this was an issue but life in our household was very different 20 odd years ago.
Anyway the details of that are irrelevant. My point is in the eyes of many I was the epitome of the black sheep. The failure. The shameful embarrassment. I often joked that if people were going to talk about me I’d give them something to talk about. I clearly didn’t think that would be the case but that bleeding universe is always listening and I obviously manifested my sad and pathetic fate.
Before I go on this has nothing to do with judgement from my parents. My Mum and Dad could not be more supportive if they tried. In the early days the choices me and my sisters made were a bit different then they would have initially hoped for. But they wanted for nothing more than our happiness so they supported us in everything.
I grew up like most people with the pressure of society weighing down heavy on shoulders. Do well at school, go to university, get a good job, get married, buy a house and give your parents some grandkids. I think we can all agree that this is a load of crap. But if you are anything like me you will have thought that but still kinda wanted it anyway. Now for me I had the added joy of being Indian. So take all of the stuff that society expects, stick brackets around them and there you have it, the Asian equation.
Now the theory behind this is two fold. Do what is expected but do it better than most. And do it the Indian way. As second generation immigrants we come from families that worked hard to give us the best start in life in a country that was not home. My parents wanted us to do well because they knew that as British Asians we would need to work that extra bit harder in order to be seen amongst our white peers. But the unspoken rules in most Indian families is to maintain your cultural traditions, go to university but come straight home after, find a respectable job and then get married to someone who is suitable, have children and don’t be the subject of any gossip. The End. This is obviously just a very short generalised version but in most cases not far from the truth.
I did not do that. I was not expected to do that. But that doesn’t mean the stigma didn’t exist. I think the worst part for me was perhaps I didn’t care what other people thought but I did care about what people may have been saying about my family; specifically my parents. There would have been rumours and gossip when me and my sisters all went off back packing on our own, when my sister married her white Australian husband, when we all moved overseas. Asian girls don’t do that sort of thing you see.
But even then my parents were proud of us. We were doing seemingly well, following what we through were our dreams and not causing too much of a nuisance. But black sheep Shaena over here decided it was time to shake things up a bit and what followed was ten years of hell for them and the rest of my family. My struggles with mental health started in my early 20s but I’d managed to keep them fairly under control. Things took a sharp turn when I was in Australia after I went through some difficult shit that my head and heart just couldn’t cope with. From that day on and for the next 8 years things were not pretty.
I’ve talked about my suicide attempts, hospital admissions, alcohol abuse before. I don’t hide away from it, I see no use in that. It may seem I talk about everything like it’s no big deal. It of course is. It’s a huge deal but I also know that it is way more common than you might think. Sometimes when we find ourselves drowning we think we are so far out at sea we can’t be saved. We don’t see the lifelines, in fact in some cases we don’t want to see them. We are drowning and we just think it might be easier to stop treading water, give in and sink.
You might be reading this thinking surely didn’t have it that bad. I didn’t. I know that, but when you are in the middle of all your failures, bad decisions, mistakes; feeling alone and insignificant, it is one hell of a horrible place. You can’t see past any of it and the voices inside your head won’t let you forget about. You spend the entire time trying to numb the pain and shut out the noise. It’s a bloody tiring past time I tell you.
The stigma around mental health however hard we try to erase it, still exists. More than we like to admit. Yes we talk about it more openly, but that doesn’t mean some people just don’t get it. And sadly, in Asian culture it’s still very much a taboo subject. I don’t know the exact reasons why but I think like most things not spoken about in our culture it comes down to shame. For a long time I’ve never really understood this but I realised today it’s always about one thing. Your marriage material rating.
I don’t think people would admit to it in this day and age but one of the biggest priorities in Asian culture is marriage. As a female that means you should ideally have the following:
• A good education;
• An aesthetically pleasing look (sorry, but it’s true!).
• A respectable family background (no skeletons).
• A good set of Indian culinary skills.
• An understanding of cultural traditions.
• A decent job.
These are just a few of the things that are taken into consideration. There are more of course and the importance of these will vary amongst families and communities. I am lucky, my family are more concerned with ‘is this person the right fit for you?’, and not ‘is this person the right fit for us?’ This does not however take away from the fact that in my culture this is what people look at and think about even if they don’t want to admit it.
So back to mental health; well I don’t think mentally unstable bodes well for matrimonial purposes. You might think I’m over reacting but I kid you not, if someone is known to have mental health issues they are looked upon as a bit crazy and no one wants that in the family because they will be the talk of the town. So that’s one black mark against me. And the drinking? Well, it’s not prohibited but it’s certainly not ideal if you’re a big party animal. Females drink, but mostly they do this discreetly and stick to lady like drinks. So to have a drinking problem well, that’s not just a black mark against my name, nah that’s just my name painted over in tar!
Thing is I don’t care about all this stuff. I’m not looking for a nice Indian family to marry into. I’m not looking for any family to marry into at all. In fact, it was the looking for things that triggered the mental health and alcohol issues. Looking to fit in (in a general sense), looking for acceptance, looking for love and looking for happiness. Looking for things outside of yourself leads is futile. It’s taken me a while and a shit tonne of pain and heartache (not just my own) to realise this. If you feel like something is missing, like there’s something more to find then stop for a minute and look inside yourself. There are lots of ways to do this and I have tried many of them. However this is not the post to discuss that. This is about me and my reign as Stigma Queen.
STIGMA (noun) – A mark disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.
Who decided what is a disgrace and what isn’t? Who decided that not having a successful career, being unmarried by 40, not having kids, still living at home, who decided this was a disgrace? Who had the audacity to decide that mental illness, addiction, debt and the like is a disgrace? Clearly this is not the fault of a single person; instead its years and years of people’s opinions as to what is acceptable and what is not. It is also the result of a ‘them and us’ mentality, which we know is still very prevalent today.
This subject area is so big that I don’t know where it starts and ends. For me it started at a very young age. And it has gone on for too long. But it ends here and it ends now. Because for every black mark against my name is a story. A story, a lesson learned and a path forged. But it’s my story, my lesson and a path on my frickin journey so the rest of my community and the rest of the world can think whatever the f*ck they want.