Embracing the Entirety of Experiences

I’m assuming the person who nominated me is a really close friend of mine and she graduated last year. I’m in the South Asian Student Association and she’s my big. I know she had probably mentioned things about mental health and South Asian advocacy, but I don’t even know how to begin to summarize or even tackle explaining everything that has been for me over the past several years. But yes, I do a lot of work with our South Asian Student Association and as of late, we’ve been doing some programming within our organization to tackle stigma surrounding mental health stigma since that’s a particularly present phenomenon unfortunately. Just because of the generation gap and misunderstanding, miseducation, misinformation, things like that. But yeah, it’s been…it was a nice email to get especially after everything and considering where I am right now. I actually medically withdrew from the college last spring, so this time last year. It was for mainly mental health reasons but also because I think at a point your body catches up and is like, “I can’t do this anymore.” And it was pretty awful, my blood pressure just shot down and I was fainting a lot, losing a lot of weight, lightheaded, had no energy, couldn’t walk up the stairs by myself. And so kind of, it was like my body screaming, “Okay you need to take some time for yourself.” That was particularly rough, I think it was a long time coming but actually having to go through with that decision and suffer through that process was something else. I had been struggling with mental health issues since probably senior or junior year of high school, but I think it’s truly an impactful thing when something else and external forces you to take the time to sit down and be like, “Okay, what’s important here?” I’m not saying that education and all this isn’t important — it’s so important, but more for reasons I hadn’t realized initially. It’s become more about the pursuit of knowledge versus the diploma and stamp of approval you get at the end I think. But yeah anyway, I medically withdrew, I took a semester off, and I just came back this spring. So I would be graduating this May but I’m taking an extra semester — thankfully I got away with just an extra semester even though technically it was a year off, since when you medically withdraw, none of those classes from the semester count. But it just kind of opened up a lot of conversations for not only myself but also the people around me and the people who I think for a long time didn’t want to admit mental health was a legitimate thing. My parents in particular, not to say that they haven’t struggled themselves or had to experience any time of turmoil, I think it’s just that the validation wasn’t there. And I know it’s painful to watch someone you love go through things such as this, so obviously I believe that was part of the struggle for them as well. Going through that process though, I realized the lack of advocacy and, honestly, I don’t know, there was just a lack of a comfortable circle that South Asians, or anyone really particularly could talk safely without fear of stigma against mental health if that makes sense. And particularly for South Asians, there is strong stigma, no one really…it was very taboo and shush shush, I know people were whispering but there’s an importance to put all of this there in the open and be like, “this isn’t something that you should be scared to talk about.” That put me in a very vulnerable place.

I’m aware most people would say it would be embarrassing or something they would be scared to confront publicly normally, which I completely understand — it was terrifying to tell my friends and everything and be able to talk about it in the open but I don’t know, I think that’s part of defeating the fear itself is just saying it out loud. I started a blog mainly for me as part of my healing process but also to just put that information and narrative out there and be like, “hey this is something I’m going to talk about candidly and brazenly.” And the blog is mainly geared towards… actually I don’t even know if it’s geared towards South Asians in particular, there are certainly some struggles through discrimination that I’ve had to face that’s in there but honestly it’s a safe space for me and other people to come and read and truly know that this is a real thing that people are going through and I think there is so much… well people underestimate all the freaking time how much strength, support, and just sheer desire to live that can come out of the love another person can give you. It’s just insane. And people don’t understand what sitting down next to someone and just talking to them and saying, “I love you and I’m here for you and how are you?” can do. People just have no idea the power that can hold and so I think that’s part of what I, now moving forward with the things I’m involved in, want to make sure I remind people of, it sounds so cheesy, the power of love. There’s this really good Nelson Mandela quote that I’m obsessed with, “Our human compassion bind us one to the other, not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” So yeah essentially just the fact that people can struggle together and find solidarity in that, which can bring so much to the world. I really am just taking that and moving forward with it through all the work that I do.

So you’ve been able to use your personal experiences to help those around you.

Yeah, for sure. As vulnerable of a position it can put me in, I think it’s so necessary and I’m glad there’s this whole movement developing around vulnerability not being identified as a weakness but rather a strength. I think that’s so important. The moment you let your guard down and let people in…it’s not only a very courageous act of your own but also inspires others to do the same. It’s been several years but it’s been good in that I’m much healthier now and I think us being so young, we take health for granted sometimes. Generally we’re so fit and we think we’re virtually indestructible and can do anything to our bodies but it doesn’t work like that unfortunately. It’s all about the mindset, I go to therapy and everything — another very hush hush thing that people don’t talk about. I was so proud of my friend the other day who I knew several years before was very antsy around the topic of mental health, but just recently he just slipped into conversation like, “yeah I got class and then I gotta to therapy but I’m free around this time if you want to grab dinner?” And inside I was screaming for him! That barrier being broken down. I’m super thankful, finding a therapist and all, it’s like shopping. You don’t always get it right on the first time. Sometimes you have to look around for different providers and see who vibes with you. The one that I recently got after I came back to school is phenomenal and really kind of changed this whole idea of fighting everything in my head to fighting for myself instead. It makes the world of difference when you stop pushing yourself away. That stress builds on itself, right? Like “oh my god I’m freaking out,” you know? “I’m stressing out, so sad, so…” and all? But then when you start to realize why those things are there and appreciate each feeling for what it is, it becomes a lot easier, and as terrible as the feelings are, once you start to appreciate what they’re there protecting you from or what experiences preceded you feeling a certain way it’s like, “oh okay that makes sense, let me take that and move forward.” That also helped a lot. But I don’t know, it’s just…it’s…like I said I’m at a terrible loss for words, I don’t even know how to even begin to…beyond being thankful for being able to sit here and talk to you and be able to put this out there where everyone can read it but the fact that I’m even just still sitting here is a miracle. My freshman year — you know how there was unfortunately a string of suicides — and that was really difficult and one of them was a close friend of mine who was from my hometown and also in South Asian Student Association so I think that’s kind of where the necessity for this, you know, this movement against, you know, breaking the stigma and bringing this conversation out into the open, so I’m, you know…I can’t even say thankful because I wish that’s not what had to happen in order to promote that, but I hope that, you know…thankful for everything that she is and wherever she is now. But I don’t know, do you have any questions? I’m flustered, I’m sorry.

A question that we’re trying to ask as part of this project is, if you could talk to a future woman of William and Mary, what would you tell her in regards to your story and your experience?

That’s a really good question. I don’t know, I guess the biggest thing going along what I was saying earlier is it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling, you know? Whether you’re super frustrated that there’s a test at 9 am and it’s 7 pm and you’re freaking out, it’s okay and don’t beat yourself up for being stressed out. If you’re crying about something that seems sort of petty at the moment, I’m sure it’s not. There’s a reason why…I don’t know, I think just …throughout her time here and in the future, to just make sure she’s fighting for herself and not against herself. And I think the William & Mary student, and especially women, we’re so hard on ourselves, you know? We hold ourselves, especially here, to higher expectations than other people hold us to, and it really tends to kick us in the butt, so I think just trusting yourself and trusting your gut instincts because there’s a reason that she’s here, there’s a reason that she’s, you know, feeling and doing the things that she’s doing. She should strive to consistently respect herself and actualize that everything she’s accomplished to this point is more than enough and more than anyone could’ve asked for. So, reach out to your loved ones every day. The best support system is around you. People are there even when you don’t know they are and that’s also something I’ve come to realize. She’s never alone, ever, ever, ever, ever alone. Heck, if she’s listening to this right, just know that wherever I am, there’s me, someone on a corner of the planet that’s there for her rooting for her. There’s so much love to be given and to be found. Hold onto that while you’re here. Yeah, just truly embrace everything that this experience has to give her, the good and the bad. Because it does both. But um, each side is definitely profound. But yeah, that’s the advice I would give a future William & Mary woman.

I think that’s something I’ve found that a lot of people struggle with as well. Even myself, I am from Oregon and so it was really hard for me to come here from so far away. Freshman year was really really difficult for me because I was far from my family for the first time, I was in this place that I didn’t know whether I liked yet. I was like, “I don’t know what I’m majoring in, I don’t know what I want to get involved in, everything is up in the air.” And that was the first time in my life that that had happened to me because my life had been so like straightforward before then, and everything was then turned upside down when I got here. So the first few months here were really rough for me, and I called my parents like every single day and I just cried on the phone and I was like, “I just can’t do this.” And thankfully I had an amazing freshman hall and my roommate was wonderful and I was able to make those friends and those connections to support me through all of that and even since then, like with all the things I’ve gone through here, they’ve supported me. And I think that’s something that, when you first get here freshman year, it’s something that you don’t know is going to happen so it seems like, when you first get here and everything is terrifying, it just seems like it’s always going to be that way and you’re never going to get out of that rut. So I think it’s important for people to know that everything is going to be okay, you’ll make that support system soon, you just have to hang out for a little bit and everything will be okay.

Yeah, and that’s completely understandable, I mean I could not imagine dropping everything and flying thousands of miles away to start completely fresh. That’s amazing to hear that you found such a beautiful home so far away from what you actually knew. Yeah isn’t that crazy though? To think that you could just drop everything and then find people who just get you? It’s absurd. I think people also underestimate the value…again like I said another person’s presence in your life can make all the difference. It’s just like the genuine human compassion, like you can find someone anywhere in any corner of the world and be friends with them if you needed to, which is a nice feeling.

Right, there’s always someone looking out for you.

Exactly, that’s important to remember especially through the tough times here with the school and everything. Yeah it’s…lucky to have found a solid group of friends. That’s why I’m super thankful for SASA and groups like that where you can, you know, bond with people who have the same morals and values and upbringing and struggles and stigmas that they have to deal with, and so…super appreciative for the diverse organizations that we have here that can cater to every type of William & Mary student. But yeah, trying to think if there’s anything else remotely interesting that I can tell you. It’s like overwhelming slightly, you know, like what else could I possibly say? If anything, it’s like me wanting to tell other people to start a conversation with themselves or other people around them, right? Because how much can I say versus who knows what the person sitting next to you while you’re reading this could say to them too. Like anyone could’ve been sitting here and could’ve said something equally as interesting or moving, which I think is a special thing about this, you know? I swear to God in my head I was more prepared for this…I’m trying to think…there are things, they’re just simmering a bit. My little sister goes here, that’s kind of cool. Biological little sister. I would technically be a senior right now and she’s a sophomore. We couldn’t be more different but it’s kind of cool to see like…we’ve gotten a lot closer since we’ve gotten here. And that’s not even something that I wanted to admit, like in my head in theory I would be like, “oh yeah we’ve always been close!” But um…she said that to someone once that we’ve gotten a lot closer and it’s like “wow, I really appreciate that she feels that way” you know? I’ll take it.

Has she looked up to you going through these experiences?

That’s a good question. Good question for her. Maybe I’ll have to sit down and ask. It’s been difficult, right, like um…I think for anyone that loves someone else, it’s really hard to see them struggle so I don’t…I know for sure that it wasn’t easy at all for her knowing that I was in such a tough spot consistently going to doctors and falling down the stairs fainting and also had those mental health things and…I’m very emotional, like I will blurb and tell you everything I’m feeling and will get you to talk about your deepest darkest secrets and how you feel inside, but she’s very…I don’t know if she feels like she has to compensate for that. Like she’s very, you know, needs to hold a little steadier. And so I didn’t initially tell her about all these struggles and everything because I thought she would feel a little awkward about them, which I think she kind of was. She didn’t really know how to navigate the subject which I don’t blame her, it’s difficult. But she learned, and I think that’s very reassuring for me, like if people do have preconceived notions that aren’t necessarily accurate, like stigmas or fears, like genuine fears of starting a conversation about something so sensitive, change to that can be done. I think that applies to more than just mental health. I think, you know, this is the time and age when we’re having very difficult conversations that are making people feel awkward and embarrassed if they don’t know much about what they’re talking about but I think if you approach every conversation with kindness, respect, a buttload of patience, and the right genuine intention, I don’t think there is a wrong way to broach a topic like that. And on the receiving side, I also…it’s been tough for me but I also have to understand that there are plenty of people who aren’t necessarily aware of mental health illnesses and things like that. I think from the receiving side we also have to be patient with those who are unaware but have genuine intentions and want to learn. It’s a double-sided thing and so…I could not have a better sister than her. She’s everything that I hope I don’t become. As in like…wait that didn’t make sense. She’s everything that I wish to be but I’m not. So I know she can aspire to more than what I’ll ever accomplish because she’s just such an incredible person. She’s so strong. Truly my best friend. She’ll be a little shocked to hear that because we rip each other’s hair out every other day but she’s truly…she’s a good human and I appreciate wholesome good humans. And I’m not just saying that because she’s my sister. She’s a part of my good support system. And we’re from Virginia Beach so that’s not far away at all, maybe like an hour away. And it’s just me and her and my parents so the three of them kind of navigating me withdrawing and all the medical bills and expenses has been inconvenient, so I really appreciate that patience that they’ve given me.

Oh yeah, and that kind of support system really makes all the difference.

Yeah, family is everything, you know? But I know people get, which I completely understand, some people get like uncomfortable calling other people that aren’t biological family “family.” Which I totally understand, for some people it’s a very special and sacred word. But I think for me, not that my actual biological family isn’t special, but it’s crazy the family that I’ve found here and in other places. Professors too, like we just don’t realize how much of real people they are, if that makes sense. Like behind the tests that they give and assignments and homework that we think is unreasonable, they have a life. They have struggles. One of my favorite professors here my sophomore year also took some time off for herself, and I look up to her. She went to a phenomenal school for her education and is teaching in what I’m interested in, and the fact that she is so vulnerable and so strong and so resilient and able to take the time off when needed, like this is not…this kind of stress and mental health is not just something that affects twenty-year-olds in college, you know? Being that forgiving and loving to yourself is a lifelong process, which I decided to continue to do. I have to get so much better to myself. It’s so easy to beat yourself up here.

It’s so easy to just compare yourself to others here. We’re surrounded by a few thousand high-achieving people and it’s very easy to get lost in that and to be like, “oh well what did I do to deserve my spot here?”

But that’s like the cool thing, like I’ll meet people and after you get to know them awhile, like you can kind of pick out why they’re here, like what phenomenal thing…like usually one thing will stick out. I have one friend and he could just network the butt out of you. I don’t know how he does it, but just the way he talks, it’s like you’ve known him for years. He just has this incredible quality to make everyone feel so welcome when you’re talking to him. And I have another friend who’s just insanely intelligent. It just takes her no time to process whatever she’s learning, picks things up, knows the mundane little facts and also the big giant theories. And I have another friend who is somehow the most wholesome human I know, she is able to juggle like ten different things so beautifully and is able to maintain all her friendships and all her extracurriculars, is just like the quintessential well-rounded being. So it’s just kinda nice to see…again there’s a reason for why we’re all here. Sometimes you have to be nice to yourself and be like, “okay, let me turn that admiration inwards and be like, ‘okay why am I here?’” you know? What am I bringing to the table? And if I don’t know, let me take some time to delve into that and figure it out. There’s no reason we shouldn’t love ourselves the way we love other people. And it’s hard, I think people always think that self-love and appreciation is something that’s supposed to come so naturally, and you hear people like “you shouldn’t date anyone until you’re in love with yourself” and like that’s totally valid and I get the idea but for people who have self-esteem issues and things like depression and anxiety, that’s not an easy battle. And recognizing that that’s not easy and not beating yourself up because it takes time to reach the point where you can confidently say, “oh I love myself,” you know? So yeah, just being forgiving through that process is so important. You think all those things come easily but they unfortunately don’t, especially when we’re in an area like this where things can be so cutthroat — not as cutthroat as it could be, but still. What do they call it — high pressure makes diamonds or something? I don’t know, I might be making that up. I don’t think that’s a thing either though. People also feel like they can only thrive if they struggle through things but there’s nothing wrong with taking the easier, more “kind-to-yourself” path towards a goal. In fact this is something I’ve been doing some research on, as part of defeating the stigma of mental health in the South Asian community is realizing why it’s there. So there’s a stark difference between…America and more eastern societies. America tends to be extremely individualistic whereas South Asian countries tend to be more collectivist, so…like America is built on, “You can do this, you can do anything, like I got myself here,” very much about the strength of the individual, which there’s nothing wrong with. But in South Asian communities it’s more about the family centered. Whatever you do reflects upon your brothers and your sisters and your parents particularly. So when translating that to stigma when “there’s something wrong with you,” quote unquote, like a mental health illness, the “blame and responsibility” reflects and falls more so on the parents where their internal dialogue is, “what did I do wrong in raising my child?” And I know my parents have felt that too, like “where did we go wrong? Why are you suffering like this?” Not that that doesn’t happen in America, but I think that’s part of where that strong stigma comes from. But like I said, in America, everything is so much more about what you can accomplish as an individual and I think that “the grind-”, you know everyone’s idea where you gotta work hard, you gotta sweat, blood, tears, comes – in order to pursue the American Dream. And so people think that you have to beat yourself up in order to reach the top but I just don’t think that that’s a) fair to yourself and b) how it should really work. We shouldn’t strive for pain in order to birth success. I don’t think that’s healthy. Like what’s the point of getting to the top if you’re barely alive when you get there? It’s so important to be kind to yourself. Especially like now during finals. I usually get a big thing of candy and just go around Swem, starting on third then going to second. Everyone needs sugar, you know? Everyone wants candy. You gotta get the hard candy and the chocolate so that people have the choice because one time I did just chocolate and people were a little disappointed.

They had little baggies of candy the other day in Swem. That was nice.

I saw that! That was so nice. And it’s good that this isn’t the only movement towards health being holistic. *clapping* Round of applause for the Integrated Wellness Center that’s opening next year — I’m so excited for that. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just something that is just a movement within students, which I appreciate. The whole campus is getting on board and people like Kelly Crace and Mayanthi…I love that woman, Mayanthi, oh my God. Unfortunately she’s leaving William & Mary, but she works in the Office of Health Promotion and she’s just a beautiful human. But people like that you know, they just make the school better. I appreciate them.

Yeah it’s definitely been interesting to see this movement happening while we’ve been here.

Yeah for sure, and again I think some really unfortunate, unnecessary things happened to spur that movement, you know, but nevertheless I’m glad it happened. I always love the doggos. I got a cat, a therapy cat. Let me just highly advocate for cats for a second. Don’t underestimate the power of a kitten, okay? Because it can change your world. I thought I was a dog person. I thought cats were the pet of the devil but they, in fact, are not. I went into the shelter for a dog, came out with my kitten whose name is Leela and she’s the most adorable thing in the entire world. She’s kinda like a dog. She plays fetch. All of my friends reading this are gonna be like, “Oh my God the rest of this interview is going to be about her cat” but I swear it won’t be. But yeah, animals, we just don’t deserve them. We do not deserve them, dude. She’s been a great source of comfort with everything. And where I was going with that is that the school even allows emotional support animals in dorms and stuff which I think is important. I’m not gonna put my cat in a 10’x10’ Jamestown single but it’s allowed if I needed to. I’m living in the gradplex next year so hopefully they won’t be too bad so she’ll have some room to run around. But yeah, definitely support getting cats. They’re just as good as dogs. They play fetch too. Animals and people, they’re equally important.

I live in an off-campus house with some friends, and we recently got two guinea pigs. And they are just adorable and they love to just hangout on your chest and are just happy being there for hours.

Oh my god I want a guinea pig. My cat would probably eat it though.

Their names are Ruth and Cleo, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Cleopatra, named after just two strong women. I love it. They just hangout. They are beautiful and amazing…I’m trying to find a good picture of them.

How long ago did you get them?

We got them at the beginning of the semester. So here’s Ruth.

Awww! She’s a little guinea pig!

They’ve gotten huge though. They’ve gained so much weight. There’s both of them. Cleo’s the lighter one.

That’s a wonderful picture! Oh they’re precious.

They’re both so cute! So that’s definitely been a highlight of our semester, having some guinea pigs to hangout with.

I’m telling you, Petsmart is somewhere I frequent often, as well as the shelter that’s here. They’re special. They had buy one get one free for kittens when I got her but I had to prevent myself from that.

Two kittens! That would’ve been a lot.

Yeah, it would’ve been something. Because I was in Williamsburg over the summer scribing after I withdrew, which is another whole thing because I was supposed to be taking the time off for myself to really invest in my health. It didn’t come until later. But anyway, I was alone in a huge three-story house and it was wonderful company having a cat. They’re like babies, you know? I’m a mother now, that’s what I tell my mom. My sister is convinced that my cat is evil but that’s how I feel about our dog at home. It evens out. My dog at home though, he’s a Maltipoo, a Maltese and a Poodle. He’s the most particular, prissy thing in the entire world. He will not walk on the grass. He’ll take the sidewalk everywhere. And by taking the sidewalk, I mean that he won’t go on walks. If I’m going to the mailbox, he’ll follow my around the lawn. Like if I’m walking on the grass he will literally walk around on the sidewalk next to the lawn. And if you try to take him on an actual walk, he’ll get about twenty steps and then stops and sits so you have to drag him the rest of the way. So yeah, they have personalities too. I’m grateful for everything including my cat. Cats and people and food and sleep. Sleep is good too. The four most important things. Sincerely. Are you graduating this year?

Mhmm. It’s crazy. I have like a week?

I can’t imagine. Do you have any things you’re trying to do before you graduate? Any last-minute bucket list things? I need advice for next semester. I have to make sure I squeeze everything in.

I’m really just trying to spend as much time with my friends as I can.

Are you going back to Oregon?

I’m actually going to Boston for the next two years for grad school, and then I’m hoping to go back to Portland after that. So we’ll see, I’m excited. I’ll be studying Computational Biology so it just…it’s really awesome. It’s really overwhelming to think about two more years of school right now, especially during finals. And I have a pretty intensive summer internship so I’m kinda like…trying to figure out when I’ll actually have time to sleep and relax but yeah, it’s exciting! Just a lot going on right now, a lot of moving parts. Yeah I’m just trying to spend as much time with friends as I can, because I don’t know how much free time I’ll have when I’m in Boston to come back here and visit. But it’s tough because I have a full final schedule. So other than that, I really want to spend more time in CW because it’s such a unique thing about here, maybe go out to College Creek a few times since it’s finally nice. I think it’s supposed to rain on Saturday though.

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