Healing the Whole Family

The night I submitted my college applications, I lay in bed and stared out my window for hours. I prayed to the moon that I would die soon. On paper, I looked perfect (at least to the adults who told me so): a perfect SAT score in one try, three perfect SAT II subject tests, 10 perfect AP tests, recipient of national awards, president of various clubs, avid volunteer, and founder of an education nonprofit. But I would rather have died than learn that “perfect” was still not enough to get into the colleges I’d set my sights on.

I didn’t know there were illnesses called depression and anxiety, and the adults around me never suspected, because I looked like I was on top of my life. When I would burst into tears, my father would shout at me to stop crying because, “No one is dead — save your tears for when I die.” And when I told my mom of my suicidal thoughts her first response was, “How can you be so selfish?” I felt unworthy of their love until I was perfect beyond reproach.

I attended Yale as a first-generation student supported through financial aid, worked at McKinsey in New York and London, and received two master’s degrees from Stanford. My fears of not being good enough for college seem unfounded now, but perhaps understandable given my upbringing.

Contrary to the stereotype of Asian Ivy League students, I did not have wealthy tiger nor snowplow parents. My extended family in Taiwan barely received an education, so in high school I was already among the most educated in my family.

What I did have are parents who, like many others, came into parenthood with their own wounds — and no knowledge of how to deal with them.

According to the team that developed the Adverse Childhood Experiences score (ACE), an instrument to measure childhood trauma, high ACE scores often correlate to challenges later in life, “because of the toxic stress it creates.”

Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente found that people with an ACE score of 4 or higher (about 12.5 percent of the population) increase their likelihood of chronic disease by 390 percent, depression by 460 percent, and attempted suicide by 1,220 percent. My parents both score above 4; my mother has a score of 7. Raised by neglectful, physically and emotionally abusive parents, my parents had scars they dared not uncover even for themselves to see. No one had taught them to address those traumas and avoid repeating them through anxiety-filled parenting. I cannot remember a time when my home was worry-free. I learned early that a moment without worry was a moment wasted in idleness. Research shows that depression and anxiety can be passed from parent to child when children observe their parents’ incessant worries and adopt similar thought patterns for themselves.

Most parents — including mine — are trying their best, but few have been taught much about how to raise kids beyond their own experience, with their own parents.

My family had to learn the hard way that what we don’t heal, we repeat. When my grandmother, the woman who single-handedly raised my mother and her three sisters, died in my freshman year of college, my mother chose to “get on with” her life, focusing on raising my brother. For years after, my brother struggled with his weight and academics to the point of near expulsion from school. In my mother’s search for ways to help my brother, she was exposed to the work of Virginia Satir, a pioneer in family therapy. Ms. Satir saw each family as a system, so if you change one node, the whole system changes. My mother began to process her own grief and trauma. So did I. During college, I sought counseling and studied wellness. I began to meditate and journal to untangle my past from the present. In my last year of college, I finally told my family that I had seen a therapist. And that it had helped. My family was surprised (to say the least) when they learned my mental health challenges were “bad enough” to lead me to seek help. It was hard on my parents, who are part of a generation focused on survival rather than wellness, to hear how their parenting impacted me. They reacted first with ridicule, then fear at the realization that their own wounds were deep enough to hurt me as well. It took much time and effort for my parents to shift away from the mentality they had grown up with. Years into the journey, my mother now runs a nonprofit teaching thousands of Mandarin-speaking parents about conscious communication and mindfulness.

Recently, at a workshop my mom was hosting, I heard my dad tell a participating parent, “I didn’t believe in therapy until Grace told me it’s like going to the dentist for a cavity, which makes a lot of sense to me now. Watching my family learn helped me see that I have some growing to do too.”

Advocating for parents to understand mental health, both theirs and their children’s, feels more relevant now than ever.

Lately, I’ve heard from many parents who worry about how this pandemic season of uncertainty will impact their child’s school year and college applications. These are important questions, of course.

Yet, as I watch my brother apply for college this fall, I can’t help but imagine how many students are lying by their windows, praying to the moon. And I wish, if parents realized how heavily their worries and old wounds weighed on their children, they would pause and tend first to their anxieties.

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