Written by Katerina Birge on August 24, 2014
Available In: Español
At the age of 20, my Irish-American father brought home a dusty box from my grandparent’s house. “Here is Grandma’s O’Connor’s wedding shawl. She <Bridget>had it dyed black.”
The box with its ancient Irish wedding shawl infuriated my mother. “¡Hasta aqui con ustedes! You can give it to your kids. What is with your father’s people and being sad?”
Left sitting alone with the moldy box in my hand, I realized she did have point: my father’s side of the family tended to be happier when troubled, seemed to be at their very best when erring on the more anguished side of life.
Indeed as the emo teenage I was, I often wanted to tell the guidance counselor I would probably do best as a type of corrido singer, boxer, religious sister or writer given my surroundings and genetic background.
Growing up in my family was often loud organized chaos and now I realize in part why: Two cultures who viewed life differently yet much more similarly than mainstream American culture. While my father’s family would philosophically use the euphemism “Irish Happiness” for people who were extremely sad, my mother’s side would proudly talk about various distant “tios” who never let life get them down, yet oddly, could always be found in the cantina or crying in church. Yet, no matter what side you asked, depression did not affect my family. You see Americans, only they get depressed.
During my early twenties, the JRA hit me as if I were a stalled car on a railroad track. Until just two years ago, no drug or help from rheumatologists would touch it. After a hip replacement, serious prednisone face, and diagnosis of a life-challenging immunodeficiency diagnosis later, I was in a pretty nasty spot. Sure, by any measure, I had good reason to be sad: Life had not gone according to plan. But was I depressed? According to me, of course not.
I believed and still do that unlike the majority of mainstream American society, many ethnic subcultures don’t recognize depression as a medical condition. Year upon year, I hid my most difficult feelings from my family and close friends because most of my grandparents became who they are with only a dream and “$9.87” in their pockets. (I don’t know why but according to family legend, they all started out with that quantity).
It wasn’t until I met another person with JRA, a young man my age who lost his sight due to the disease that I figured out what was going on: that a series of difficult, unexpected and sometimes life-changing events can make your brain go in loops of despair you can’t control, or in other words, depression.
Unlike sadness, depression is chemical and necessitates medical help. To date, this is the most challenging thing I have ever written or even publically admitted to. However, if I have to be the first example, I will. I lost an engagement due to depression but thankfully not my life. Our ethnic communities need to come to grips with the reality of depression as a medical condition or we will lose lives.
So, if you find yourself continually listening to “Canciones pa pistear” on Pandora or starting to identifying with the people in “Mujer, Casos de la Vida Real” instead of laughing at it, turn it off and call a close friend or if nothing else, a hotline. There is always someone ready to help. I promise. Life gets better.