Fighting Out the Silence
WORDS BY KATHERINE O'CHEE
The first time my brother Kev* went missing, I looked under his pillow for a note. Contrary to what detective movies taught me, I found no handwritten scribble; not even a crease in bedsheets to suggest that he had at least tossed and turned and tussled with his own conscience before he fled into the moonlight.
The bed was neatly made. The clock ticked, too peacefully. My parents ushered me to wear my sports uniform and take a train to school. Halfway down the stairwell, I wondered why no one else seemed fussed or frantic; why the whole household – that day, that week, that year and that decade – would settle more and more into silence; and why nobody, not even me, decided to kick the silence out, although it paid no rent and crammed the house with too many unspoken words. Kev was found that afternoon, but I never heard his story until I interviewed him, ten years later.
Avoiding conversation about mental illness is more common within the Chinese Australian community than one may think. Silence is a shovel, burying mental illness inside a rhetoric of shame. As I was to discover, it’s this culture of secrecy – and not the illness itself – that inflicts the greatest damage upon affected Chinese Australians and their families.
My brother, who immigrated from Shanghai to Sydney when he was eight years old, is one such affected individual.
Although he escaped that night, Kev tells me he never had the option to escape his own mind. If mental illness was Gennady Golovkin, boxing extraordinaire with zero losses, then Kev was a rookie opponent dropped into the boxing ring, not by choice but by lack of any other choice. It’s a continual mental fight for him: “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.”
“If you get knocked out, it’s like you get mental illness after that,” he says.
Kev likes to talk using analogy. With two bony forefingers poised against his chin, and a tendency to glance to the left whenever he speaks, Kev contemplates every reply before he gives it.
“A lot of people think that when you’re on … a 100-storey building, if you suffer a loss, maybe you’ll go back to 99 or 98. But sometimes if you suffer a loss, you might go back to level ten or level 20.”
Kev calls this phenomenon the ‘free fall’, a psychological rock-bottom. Having experienced the free fall himself, he describes it as “feel[ing] like life can’t really go on. You feel like there’s nothing to fight for and no meaning in life.
“I think sometimes you have darkness for too long,” he says. “Sometimes you just wanna start to think positive, you know? Just gather your mental energy to think about something positive, and then you can actually think about something positive for a while.
“But then it leaves. You just don’t have that much mental energy anymore.”
Hearing these words, I want to cry.
Finally, I have an explanation for why I didn’t see my brother in his own bed for weeks; why he seemed like an entirely different person after his stint in what my mother ominously termed ‘the hospital’: more distant, more prone to sudden verbal outbursts, always repeating phrases he had said only a few seconds prior. The last of these traits has since grown into a habit, and he demonstrates this habit throughout our interview, as though he is afraid of being misunderstood, after a lifetime of being misunderstood.
The doctor diagnosed Kev with psychosis, then with schizophrenia. A few winters ago, I found his psychiatry report and some diary entries whilst clearing out the garage. One tabulated his negative thoughts and feelings provoked by every day events. Another listed the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of asking for help. A third debated whether or not his moments of disordered thinking – a symptom of schizophrenia defined by Sane Australia as “muddled, disrupted thoughts and speech” – would pose a threat to him and others around him. He concluded: “No.” But he was scared it would be a yes.
Sane Australia says that up to one in 100 people globally will live with schizophrenia. Yet Professor Tebbin Koo, nurse and cross-cultural public health researcher from the University of Sydney, ranks schizophrenia as one of the least accepted mental illnesses within the Chinese community.
“These patients give some Chinese people the impression that they are very dangerous. They attack people. They will kill someone,” Tebbin says. As a Chinese immigrant herself, she understands this fear from both an academic and personal perspective.
It’s a fear partially founded in a difference in perception towards physical illness and mental illness, she tells me. While we associate physical illness with weakness and vulnerability, we see mental illness as a sign of emotional instability and therefore the opposite of the tough and stoic behaviour expected of Chinese men.
It taints your reputation, says Kev. “[Once] you have mental illness, it damages your record andthat’s pretty much permanent.”
In Chinese culture, Tebbin says, “mental illness is craziness.” Able to inflict harm upon others.
Statistics tell a different story. According to the Australian Government’s website Mindframe, 90 per cent of people with mental illness don’t have any record of violence.
My brother isn’t dangerous. He’s just a little broken.
It’s like dominoes. Chinese culture silences parents of the mentally ill, these parents silence their children, and their children in turn silence their peers. The World Health Organization writes that half of the individuals who experience schizophrenia do not receive support from their family and the community.
However, mental illness stigma is not purely external. Tebbin recognises that a lot of it comes from within: our own insistence that others are judging us.
These dual stigmas are a vicious cycle: We don’t know which one goes first. “It’s like the chicken and the egg,” she says.
This perpetual silence is especially problematic in tight-knit Chinese Australian communities where everyone tends to know everyone, says Tebbin. “The good thing is you get support. The bad thing is you worry about other people knowing what is going on.
“It’s like … living in cage. I need to think very carefully, watch carefully before I say something, but the key is actually kept by me. But will I unlock the cage and let myself go out to tell people?”
Kev proves that unlocking the cage is almost impossible when he tells me there’s little point in speaking to others about his condition. “I think it makes things worse because talking about mental illness is not something good to talk about and it just brings back memories,” he says.
“I don’t really see Kell Brook or Danny Jacobs going around and telling people that they’ve lost to Gennady Golovkin in a boxing match.” Yet this reluctance to speak up and communicate can lead to another barrier – one placed steadfast between family members.
For Chinese Australian university student Anna*, hiding her mother’s mild depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – the “ugly side of her family” – has given birth to a toxic home environment.
“There were also fights when I couldn’t handle being controlled so much … It’s hard to control myself and understand that what she does is because of her illness.”
The discovery that her mother had mental illness came sometime in year nine. “That was the stage when she’d yell at me a lot,” Anna tells me. Her eyes flit to the building constructions on her left. She pauses, clasping her hands on the table. “I didn’t know that it was mental illness at the time.”
It was only after she sought guidance from friends and spoke with the school counsellor that Anna found a name and definition for her mother’s behaviour.
“I was surprised that [her anger] wasn’t normal, ‘cause I’ve lived through that all my life … and really grateful that there was a solution to it,” she says.
Anna admits that while opening up conversation – going to counselling sessions, convincing her mother to meet with a psychologist, attending church as well as talking to their local priest – has helped both of them heal, aspects of their home life remain challenging.
For one, the fighting hasn’t stopped. “Sometimes she’ll say really horrible things to me and it’s really hard to forgive those kinds of things, especially when she starts taking out her anger at other people who are close to me.”
It’s often unjustified anger, directed at things beyond Anna’s control. “She will blame me for just simply existing, I guess…” Anna hesitates, recomposing her fingers into a ball. “She’ll say that she was really unlucky that she had me, usually when she’s frustrated.”
Incidents as small as Anna not finishing her dinner fast enough can provoke these frustrations. “It makes me feel hopeless, ‘cause nothing I say will change her mind,” she says. “But I couldn’t help but express my anger, because when she yells at me, I’ll get a lot of anxiety myself and that eventually explodes.”
Open conversation hasn’t killed old habits either. In her mother’s mind, cleaning the toilet remains the biggest task in the world, driven by paranoia and an urge to protect the family from germs.
“She tries to not be so focused on the germs,” Anna says. “But she just tries … it’s very hard to succeed and not be so paranoid about everything. Usually it doesn’t work out.”
With mental illness, progress occurs in baby steps. For Anna’s mother, recovery has meant “checking the doors just once and not twice before she leaves and … the ovens, the stoves just once instead of five times before she leaves the house”.
Anna herself has gained solace by investing time in simple things: whether that be listening to music, pulling out her tablet to draw or confiding in her friends, her stepsister and the church community. With no relatives in Australia, Anna’s struggles have given her impetus to build a support network beyond family.
The Chinese Australian community, according to Tebbin, needs more education around mental health services.
“The problem is not that the services aren’t available but that they don’t want to go and ask for help because people worry about people knowing,” she says.
Tebbin suggests two ways of promoting mental health services to a Chinese Australian public. Firstly, everyone can be better served by a clear assurance that these services will keep your identity anonymous and leave no paper trails. Secondly, there needs to be a strong focus around breaking down language barriers between doctors and their patients, particularly if the patient has little confidence in their English skills.
Kev believes that the solution lies with the patient themselves. He uses a Harry Potter metaphor to categorise four types of coping mechanisms used by individuals who experience mental illness: Gryffindor is about surrounding yourself with family, friends and love, Slytherin is about letting go of inhibitions, Ravenclaw is about training and improving skills, while Hufflepuff – the style he currently practises – is about rest, relaxation and meditation.
“I think people from Hufflepuff don’t really hang out with much people at all,” he says.
Ever since primary school, Kev has seen himself as a loner. “I don’t hang out with much people and don’t have much friends. I guess that’s why I tend to think a lot … sometimes, this might lead to a little depression.”
Meditation, he says, has helped to clear his mind: it’s his method of getting used to himself after free fall, of weighing up a situation and deciding which steps to take next.
“Sometimes it’s good to have mental illness in a way, because you start to realise how you should get a grip of yourself,” he says.
“You can still live on … Even if you no longer have a perfect record, even if you have a few losses, you can still fight on.”
So up the mountain he and she and we begin to climb. It’s the fighting spirit that pushes us on; the same spirit that drove Connor McGregor “to challenge Floyd Mayweather to a fight, when Floyd Mayweather has got a perfect record and he has suffered quite a few losses,” says Kev.
At home, I see no battle – no sounds of fist hitting skin; no words ricocheting off thin-enough walls. Instead I see the undisturbed bed, tidied by my brother’s methodical hands. The clock beating to the rhythm of his clicking fingers as he paces up and down his room, before settling in his armchair, one leg crooked upon the other. And now within this punctuated silence, I think I hear a war cry.
*Names have been changed.