“Don’t share your problems or else you’ll bring shame to yourself and the family.”
That’s what I learned when I was a child. I was one of many American kids born in an immigrant family who were taught to obey our elders and authority and just do as we were told. I never knew that my voice mattered.
I also grew up being my own worst enemy. Despite how kind I was to others, I did not know how to be kind or loving to myself. I didn’t know how to feel proud of myself. In my mind, I was the tormenter and the victim. I was only capable of seeing my weaknesses. I felt inadequate and anxious around people. I wanted to share my heavy heart, but didn’t know who I could trust. I was a lonely girl who felt damaged, but yearned to be loved and accepted. Throughout my life, I was paralyzed by my fear, feelings of inadequacy and self-disappointment. I felt like a nobody. Who would ever want to love such a broken person? Shame followed me like a dark cloud wherever I went.
Little did I know how life would change for the better years later, when I opened my third-grade diary. I experienced a time warp where my older, mature self came face-to-face with my nine-year-old self. I began to cry excessively, becoming more aware of my subconscious negative self-talk. For the first time, I apologized to myself:
“I'm so sorry I lied to you all your life. I'm sorry for telling you that you were stupid, slow and not worthy. You are incredibly bright, expressive and talented! I don’t want to work against you anymore. I want to work for you.”
Although this experience was an emotional breakdown, it was an incredible breakthrough too! As I remembered the painful memories from my past, I learned to see the value of my struggles. I recognized how resilient I had been all those years, despite my feelings of hopelessness. I finally learned what it meant to be proud of myself, for choosing life over suicide. Discovering my strength helped me become a mental health advocate, both for myself and for others struggling in silence.
Since July 2013, I gained the courage to speak out. At a legislative briefing on Asian American mental health, I publicly stated, “I will not end my life because I have a story to share. The more we talk about mental health, the more we will alleviate the stigma. There is no shame. There is no shame.”
Since then, I’ve dedicated countless hours to normalize conversations about mental health, mental illness and suicide. I’ve collaborated with NAMI, Each Mind Matters, LA County Department of Mental Health and many other organizations to lead support groups, seminars and conferences. One of the latest initiatives I led was to establish May 10 as Asian Pacific American (APA) Mental Health Day for the very first time in Los Angeles.
On May 9, 2017, in honor of APA Mental Health Day, Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn commended my mental health advocacy efforts. It was a rewarding day to acknowledge the adversities and resilience of the Asian Pacific American communities in Los Angeles.
Becoming a mental health advocate and motivational speaker was not an easy journey, especially with the mental illness stigma being so strong in my community, but I defied cultural traditions, faced community stigma and became stronger for it. And so can you.
Emily Wu Truong is an award-winning motivational speaker, who graduated from UC Irvine with her B.A. in Psychology & Social Behavior in 2003. As a suicide-attempt survivor diagnosed with depression and anxiety, she transformed her adversities into wisdom, inspiring others to face their fears and find value in their own life struggles. As a mental advocate, she uses her voice to advocate for community mental health support programs for under-served communities of color. She has been a member of NAMI San Gabriel Valley in Southern California since 2013 and has been serving as a Board Member since 2015. In 2016, Emily worked on a short film “Letter to My Younger Self” with Filmmaker Sundaram Ader from Austin, Texas for the Together Empowering Asian Minds (TEAM) campaign.