For most of my life, I thought my inability to turn my brain off, my over-thinking, and my immediate panic response when life got stressful, were an unchangeable part of the fabric of my being.

It was always this white noise in the background of everything I did, whether I recognized it or not. There were just so many things I wanted to accomplish—as a student, daughter, sibling and human—and the pressure to succeed took its toll.

For me, the feeling of anxiety in my chest is like a pile of bricks atop my rib cage, threatening to crush the bones that hold my heart in my body.

I never brought up this constant weight with my parents, because I thought they’d never understand. 

Silence surrounded the concept of mental health in my household, and it just wasn’t something that was discussed at the dinner table.

I was lucky instead to have a house constantly filled with laughter, that although helped me forget my worries, never quite remedied the never-ending fear of what has yet to come.

When my urge to address it began to feel more urgent, I thought it was going to be a solo journey, so two years ago, I went to therapy for the first time.

But on this journey, it dawned on me that something was missing. Or rather, someone was missing.

It hit me then that I wasn’t making this journey to better my mental health alone. Whether she liked it or not, I was taking my mother with me.

Even during adolescence, although the things that weighed me down were smaller in scope, like things that were said at school or the uncertainty of doing well on my math test, these thoughts always kept me up at night.

As I got older, I realized that in order to truly be at peace, I would need to manage my anxiety and learn to improve my responses to things that cause me stress. I knew it needed to be proactive, before the same weight of bricks on my chest became unbearable.

There were many nights when I worried about things that were out of my control; things I’d said or done years ago that I had yet to forgive myself for, or things that were yet to happen. 

One day remains fresh in my memory.

It was towards the end of the semester of my first year of grad school, and I was supposed to go to dinner with my family before heading back to my basement in Kitsilano where I was living with two friends.

I had numerous deadlines piling up, but I wanted to spend time with family to ground myself. But that morning I woke up with that same pile of bricks on my chest, the kind that lasted throughout the day and was simply relentless.

Even with each deep breath, it only got harder and harder to breathe, the anxiety emboldening feelings of self-doubt and suffocating me as I tried to move to positive thoughts.

Each thought that crossed my mind brought me to the worst-case scenario—reminding me of the clock that told me I was running out of time to cross off my to-do list. I hit my boiling point when I had a panic attack, cancelling my dinner plans because of the anxiety that paralyzed me from thinking about or doing anything else.

A text I received when I left home that day

After that incident, I knew that in order to keep the pieces together, caring for myself couldn’t be a one-off solution. I went to therapy for the first time a few weeks later, to help me work through my anxiety by learning better ways to stay grounded, and manage the high expectations I had for myself.

I set out to broaden my self-care horizons, by moving from solo acts of self-preservation like exercising, journaling, and reading and writing poetry, to leaning on the community around me.

Sports and exercise were always my chosen way to decompress, but I knew that moving forward I would need to address both the physical and emotional origins of the silent anxiety that had become a part of me.

I never really explicitly named my anxiety for what it was and how it impacted me, even to my Mother, who I was certain had encounters with it throughout her life.

My mom was married with a child by the age of 22. My dad and his family were already in Canada and had only gone back to Punjab for the wedding, so she flew alone from India to Vancouver at 21, already pregnant with my older brother.

Her degree from back home meant nothing here. She left behind her family, her life, and anyone she’d ever known, to move to a country where she didn’t speak the language, to live with complete strangers, and to have to build her life again.

And you expect me to vent to her about my problems?

My mom at 19, before getting married

For much of my life, I became aware that similar to my mother, I had learned to stifle my emotions, leading to an internal warfare that was only harming me. 

In hindsight, it makes no sense to have thought that my parents wouldn’t understand. As immigrants, anxiety had always been central to their existence in a new country, and in the many roles they had to inhabit to survive here.

They didn’t know anyone here other than those they arrived with, they weren’t able to create a network to lean on because they were just trying to stand on their feet. They had to learn how to do everything themselves in an entirely new language, all the while raising kids from a young age.

They didn’t have space to object or complain when things were scary because there wasn’t any alternative.

Through my own self care journey, I wanted my mom to also seek out and find space where she could say what she truly felt and know that there would be no repercussions, in a world where what she says and how she acts is always being watched; being an immigrant woman of colour, a mother, a wife, and a daughter-in law. 

As I have many times throughout my life, I try to explain to my mother how caring for herself can’t just be something she does if and when she has the time. I tell her that rest is crucial to her well being. 

“I have to be doing something all the time. I cannot sit still,” my mom says, sitting across from me on the dark blue couch in our home office. 

I ask her about what her encounters with mental health were like throughout her life.

“My priority was always my kids,” said my mom.

“I try to focus on my mental health a little bit now, but before I never even used to think about it.

Now I have more time because my kids are more grown up,” she said

In our household, my mother never named her feelings of anxiety, because she was never taught that it was inherent or uncontrollable. Stress was always seen as something that we must learn to let go and move on from. 

We were taught that trauma and grief had a limited life span, and that the show must go on, and I learned this from a young age.

In addition, the notion of “what would other people think,” dictates what people in the South Asian community feel they can or cannot voice. Many people stay in silence out of fear of how something as small as naming their stress would be perceived by others.

“I didn’t even know what anxiety is, I never knew, I just thought, ‘why am I getting this?’

I was always restless, but never figured out why,” said my mother.

I too felt this unending, unexplained restlessness that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. I never realized what it was because of the unspoken words that those in my family needed most. 

“I’m usually stressed for my kids, my extended family or I take on other people’s stress and take things so personally,” she said.

My mom juggles all of the roles naturally expected from immigrant mothers. She’s constantly trying to balance a number of roles, including as a mother, wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law, with very little time to pay mind to this thing called “mental health.”

From working, balancing running a household, extended familial relationships, to being everyone’s problem solver, chef, fixer-upper, and shoulder to lean on is a lot of work without a place to put down all of these roles and look after herself.

The physical manifestation of anxiety was a topic of conversation, but the emotional origins of the ills were never named or discussed.

“I’ve never talked to my doctor about anxiety or stress,” said my mom.

While getting a flu shot or talking about her migraines are frequently brought up, she never tells her doctor she gets this feeling in her chest when she’s stressed out.

She doesn’t explain that when she is stressed out her body goes into fight-or-flight, as if her heart is going to beat out of her chest. Or how some nights she stays up worried about things that haven’t happened yet, like when her kids aren’t home yet and she fears why.

These are all normal sources of stress for a mother but can be detrimental with no advice on how to cope, or without making any time to step away from her responsibilities and focus on herself.

“Instead of worrying about myself … I never worry about myself, I stress out about other people in my life,” said my mother.

I certainly get that from her.

Still, my mom is considered lucky. She can create community with the women in her life and is able to find some time to fit in walks or workouts. She has friends she can call up and vent to, or occasionally go for dinner with, but some immigrant women are so far removed from their networks that it’s hard to find a place to put down all the weight they carry.

“Talking to people is helpful, if you don’t talk to people the stress stays in your body,” my mom said.

“Our generation, in our community especially, people don’t go out for socializing that much. But if you talk to your friends or get time to go out, it helps to talk.”

Even as young daughters, the expectations of accountability to your family, to uphold their reputation, their trust, their happiness just as you do your own, weighs on you from a young age even if you’re not explicitly told this. The idea of not being accountable to anyone is not a reality, even if you try convincing yourself it is.

“I always used to think about other stuff first and other people first. I never even thought about going to the gym or for finding time for a walk because there was no time,” my mom said.

When she sees me going on solo walks or to the beach, or buying myself flowers,  meditating, painting and doing yoga outdoors, my Mother is always perplexed at the number of activities I enjoy doing alone.

I explain to her that my first priority in my life is me, and I hope that she one day finds the space, despite never having been her own first priority, to grant herself that, too. It's the only way we'll be able to make it past that white noise, and finally hear a different tune.

This was the first time my mom and I both named the uninvited guest called anxiety in our own lives in front of each other -- this unnamed thing we both lived with but never found the space to talk about, even while we both silently tried to work through it.

“I have my friends at work and at the gym, friends from my college, we talk about these things, even my coworkers, we talk about these things and talk about stress all the time,” said my mom.

Although I was opening my mom up to the need to sometimes look after herself instead of everyone else, I also learned she is now starting to recognize on her own that self-care is an act of self-preservation, and that I can take a few pages out of her book, too.

“I’m starting to learn that whatever is going to happen is meant to be. I cannot change it. So, it’s getting better and better as I get older,” said my mom.

She may not feel fully comfortable talking about it yet, or understanding what it means to practice “self-care," but she’s doing what she can, and all I can do is pass along what I’m learning, too.

I may not be able to bring her along with every act of self-care I do for myself, but what I learned from speaking to her about this journey I’m on, is that she’s just starting out on one of her own.

I learned that I can take just as much from her; both of us striking a balance between pure survival and self-fulfillment, and that we can walk hand in hand in this journey—because despite how different our realities are, all we are trying to do is lessen the weight of that pile of bricks.

Like my mom, I’m learning to accept things as they are, and sending myself love through it all.

“I never used to think about these things, but now, I’m trying,” she said.

Me too, mom. Me too.

About the author

Rumneek Johal

Rumneek is a journalist, host and speaker. She is currently the BC Reporter at Press Progress where she focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism. Her previous work centers on asking tough questions within her community, starting conversation and chipping away at the status quo. Other focus areas for her work include the South Asian community, arts and culture, pop culture, and more. She is a proud Punjabi woman from Surrey, BC.

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