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Mental Health

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.


Reham Cojuangco

Reprinted from "Young People: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 11 (2), pp. 24-27

Transitions in life are a time for self-discovery, so I'm learning. I am in a generation where phrases like: "I'm having a quarter life crisis" and "Adulting is hard" are commonplace. If you aren't familiar with the term 'adulting,' it's slang for doing something responsible and grown-up.

At 23 years old, I am technically an adult. At this stage, I should be able to make adult decisions. But what do I know about being an adult? Did anyone actually teach me the skills to survive in the real world?

When I was in high school I thought that by now I would know what I wanted to do in life, and have a firm hold on how to get there. I'd have an amazing social life, a budding but promising career, a partner who I'm wholeheartedly committed to, and at least the makings of the shabby chic apartment of my dreams.

As it turns out, that's not really the case. Though I have great friends, my social life consists mostly of Netflix and pizza. A few months ago I left a six year relationship and briefly moved back in with my parents. Then more recently I moved into my own suite that I can barely afford (thanks Vancouver for being so expensive) in order to focus on my mental health, and to find my place as an independent 'adult' in this world. I now have antiques haphazardly strewn around my suite while I Pinterest DIY ways to organize everything, meal plan, and budget. That's real life for you.

Naturalization (hint: it wasn't natural)

My family and I came to Canada from the Philippines just after I turned five. I suppose that counts as a transition, but I don't recall any noticeable changes. It felt like one day I was in a private Catholic school learning about Jesus and his Disciples, and the next I was in a kindergarten class having play time and naps instead—which was fine by me!

What immigrant children don't tell you is that there is a special kind of assimilation they have to go through. You have to learn how to balance the fine line between western culture and the culture from your home country. This is especially tricky when you arrive as a young child.

I didn't remember what my home country was like, but I still had to live by their customs as well as adapt to the language and etiquette of my new surroundings. It was hard to decipher what was right and what was wrong for any particular situation. As I've been getting older, however, I can see now that it's ultimately my choice, but it's hard not to feel like you're being pulled apart from both sides.

Being availed (to no avail)

I had struggled with mental health challenges for about 10 years before I seriously sought out help. I was angry and lashing out at my family, I was sad for no reason that I could place my finger on, I rarely wanted to get out of bed, I slept for extremely long periods of time and at odd hours, and I used other avenues such as TV/Internet to keep me from thinking about anything. I either cried often or not at all. It felt like I had two choices, feel everything or nothing.

I went a couple of times to see my doctor and the other doctors in her practice, only to feel let down by their action plans for me. On my first visit to the doctor, I was in grade 10 and I felt scared, embarrassed, and confused by everything I was feeling. I was prescribed a book on how to feel better. I still own the book to this day and though it does have some hidden gems within it, in tenth grade all I could think of was, what the f---! Then I was asked about my grades and how perhaps not doing well in school was what was making me depressed, when in fact it was the other way around. I had no idea what to say about it so I just agreed and left.

I felt like I had little to no support and no follow-up. It was much the same the second, third, and fourth time I went back. Those experiences unfortunately shaped how I viewed clinicians and grew a seed of distrust in me. So I never wanted to go back even when times were rough.

Things got extremely difficult for me the longer I ignored my issues. Then I hit a breaking point at the age of 21 and I had to be my own advocate. I wanted change. I wasn't living a life anymore, I was merely existing. I saw a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. I also started taking medication.

By this point I was too old for Child and Youth Mental Health, so I didn't have to transition from child care to adult care (see box, right). Instead I went from no care to adult care, which in some ways was more disconcerting. I'm supposed to make mental health decisions for myself? With my track record should I even be trusted to do so? Sometimes I still feel like I'm still not getting the care I need. Truth be told, it's a rather confusing system.

Full (family) disclosure

My family did not openly speak about mental health. If you were feeling under the weather you wouldn't mention it. Feelings like depression, anxiety, and, God forbid, going to the doctor about it, were reserved for those who are 'crazy.' I believe it's because we were born in a country where hardship is not uncommon. Where, in many cases, 'keep on keepin' on' is the only choice one has. "You are in Canada! You have so much to be thankful for so you shouldn't feel depressed. There are people back home who have it worse than you."

It wasn't that my parents didn't care about my mental health. Rather, they were in a dogma brought on by their own upbringing. I don't blame them for that. It has taken years of educating, listening, and understanding on everyone's part, but I can honestly say today my family is one of my greatest strengths and supports.

It didn't happen overnight, however. It was awkward to start talking openly about my struggles, and the denial on both our ends was long and tedious. I was paving the road for my family to make it a less taboo and more accepted topic. A lesson I had to learn was that if I wanted people to understand me then I would have to be able to verbalize what I was going through and what I needed. It's a lesson I still learn daily.

Higher learning (or rather, harder learning)

When my grades were tanking in high school I saw little hope of even getting into a post-secondary institution. It was drilled into us that grades were everything, so the thought of applying for school was daunting and anxiety inducing.

When I did start college I had no idea that mental health issues counted as a disability. Therefore the first few times I tried, I flunked or dropped out. Then I was embarrassed to tell people I had left school. Again. I felt there was no way for me to get past my particular set of challenges. I felt crummier with every stop and start of school.

A good friend of mine at the time dealing with her own mental health issues later told me I was eligible for disability services. I thought, "Why didn't anybody tell me sooner? How were other people in my position supposed to find out about it?" I'm not even sure how she found out about it! In order to gain the services, however, I had to prove my illness, and hand deliver a letter to every professor each semester explaining my disability privileges. This was challenging, and made me feel ashamed and vulnerable for what I deal with. That being said, I can't offer a better solution. I didn't register for school the following semester and I haven't enrolled since. I'm hoping that one day I'll feel equipped to go back and do well.

School is still a touchy subject for me. Especially since almost all of my friends have since graduated and are now pursuing their careers. It was hard for my friends to get into school and find jobs, but I felt utterly and completely lost in the process. It was challenging enough to have to deal with my own mind telling me that I did't deserve happiness, friends, or, in my darkest moments, life itself. So how was I supposed to figure out my future too?

Interlacing my life with others (tying together the shoelaces of life)

With all of this happening in my life I find both solace and isolation being among my friends, who are like my chosen family. Just as my blood family has grown to support my journey, so have my friends. It turns out that my old friends always have my back, and the new ones teach me about life and myself. All of this was when I learned to open up.

When I talk to my friends about their experiences of growing up, it seems we are all just floating around in life. Not really knowing what we’re doing but rather figuring it out as we go along. This is common with 20-somethings.

At the same time, that's where the similarities end between me and them. Sometimes I think, "How lucky are all of you to not have to deal with the issues that I do?" I even feel like yelling obscenities at my friends who don’t have mental health issues and saying "Walk a mile in my shoes and see how you feel!" I deserve a medal! Or a hug!

My previous position as a Youth in Residence for the FORCE Society really showed me what genuine support looks like, and I met some truly inspiring people. Last Christmas I remember sitting with my coworkers, remarking on just how far I had come. Less than a year before I'd felt so low I thought I wanted to die. I'd felt broken and unable to make any significant impact on others, but it turns out I was wrong about that. After much healing, there I was helping youth like me. There is great wealth in being able to tell others about your experiences and connect on an emotional level. I found that some of my closest friends have been made through sharing my stories and hearing theirs.

Adulting done right (or wrong) and what that means to me

For those looking in from the outside it makes absolutely no sense how someone just can't get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other, and make life happen for themselves. I can't give you a straight answer that makes sense to everyone, but I can tell you that in my darkest moments I didn’t ever want to live that way.

Even though it sounds incredibly cliché, it does get better and you don't have to live in such a dark pit of despair for your whole life. I know this because I'm living through the journey every day.

This isn't without some bumps along the road. Nobody is perfect and we can't always recognize our triggers right away or use mindfulness to get out of a tricky situation. Setbacks are inevitable, but you learn a little more about how to deal with them every time. So when they happen, be kind to yourself. It's easier said than done, but I am learning to be my own best friend.

There is no right way or wrong way to adult. We all carve our own paths. Some, like mine, just have a few more challenges. I still struggle on a daily basis and sometimes I resent my diagnosis—but it doesn't define me. Ultimately these challenges have made me a stronger, better, and more empathetic person.

So embrace your transitions and know that there are people out there who care and will listen if you're open to it. It's okay if you don't know what the hell you're doing. Adulting is hard but we don't have to do it alone. Let's adult together.

About the author

Reham is a young adult with lived experience of mental health issues and she is a strong advocate for youth mental health awareness. Reham currently resides in Vancouver

photo of reham

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