This guest post is written by Quyen Truong
We were in my grandma’s tiny apartment, squeezed into the stuffy living room, where my father, brother, and I had been living for two weeks. As refugees, we had just left Saigon to create a new life in Hartford. The transition had been difficult.
Framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, her eyes wild with frustration, my mother was all fire and fury. Voice tinged with deep despair and anger, she poured all her disappointments towards us. Her words lashed furiously at me. I had never experienced anything of this magnitude before.
I don’t remember the whereabouts of my grandma, father, or brother. I only remember standing in front of my mother, transfixed and terrified. The snow floating serenely down behind her seemed to mock us. My life with my mother would never again be the same.
Over the course of my childhood, my mother continued to threaten suicide, often in my presence, always to get attention and a response from my father, and fortunately never completed. To the outside world, she was a sweet, generous, beautiful woman who shared fresh egg rolls and participated in cultural fairs. To my father and brother and me, she was tempestuous. Her mood swings wreaked havoc in my childhood- terrifying me with her screams and accusations, and worrying me when she completely withdrew from our lives. She sometimes disappeared into her room for days. Once, when she was laid off from a job, she lay in bed, shrouded in the dark, completely unresponsive. I felt powerless to help her.
Now I realize that she lacked a community in which she could feel supported. She also lacked language ability to advocate for herself, time to seek therapy or treatment, and money to acquire high quality, culturally competent mental health care.
Nonetheless, despite a turbulent life in a new country, my mother learned a new language in her 30s, earned her bachelor’s degree in her 40s, and completed a nursing degree in her 50s. Her mood swings slowly improved through my teens and twenties, as our family socioeconomic circumstances improved. She also made sure we had hot meals every night; paid all our bills and did our family taxes; and hosted Thanksgiving for many years. She was incredibly tough and strong, and I found her inspirational, even as I struggled with her ongoing bouts of erratic behavior.
Growing up, I thought endlessly about how to help my mother. As I studied psychology in college, I wondered whether my mother had a mental illness. But I couldn’t even talk to her about her feelings or the root of what bothered her; how was I to talk to her about such a taboo subject as mental health? To this day, she has never been diagnosed by a professional nor sought help.
At some point, I recognized that I couldn’t be the only person to address the topic with my mother. I started to wish my mother had an opportunity to contribute to and learn from a community of like-minded people, so that she could contextualize her struggles and feel supported. At the very least, she could benefit from a community of affirming, thoughtful folks who were willing to share their experiences and help.
This is what I want to do in developing Community Conversations about Health Reform: create a place where minority groups can come to share our unique struggles, figure out how to address behavioral health issues together in a context of shared cultural understanding, and create action plans about how to access relevant resources by using tools provided via the Affordable Care Act.
We all grew up with a mother tongue. It’s the language that we most recognize and understand. It’s the language that most soothes us; it’s the language that we revert to when we’re triggered or frustrated or at our most upset.
To broach topics like mental health, to get at the onion of our individual lived experiences, to help one another get through the stresses of life’s transitions, we need to honor our mother tongue. We need to create opportunities where we can talk freely and openly, in our preferred language and community, so that we can get at what is most debilitating in our psyche.
My mother is still searching for that community in her adopted country. Meanwhile, many others live in silos, suffering in silence, separated by barriers having nothing to do with their mother tongue. To overcome stigma, to address health inequities, we have to go back to what fundamentally connects us: our ability to communicate honestly and openly about topics most difficult to breach. We have to start the conversation.
Quyen Truong is the Review and Evaluation Coordinator at North Central Regional Mental Health Board (WWW.NCRMHB.ORG). She is currently directing a SAMHSA initiative to develop Community Conversations about Health Reform. To learn more about this project, or to participate, email Quyen at [email protected]. Learn more about Quyen at www.linkedin.com/quyencycles.
Image credit: istock photos