How Being an Iranian Immigrant Affected My Mental Health
When I was young, my family and I moved from Iran to America, the land of opportunity. I left behind friends, family, delicious food, a language I spoke and understood—a life that made sense. Suddenly, I was a young child entering sixth grade in a foreign land and unprepared for what lay before me.
If I hadn’t already been hyperaware that I was different, I was reminded of it every day. My thick, jet black hair, my bushy eyebrows and my long pants in the middle of summer didn’t go unnoticed. I attended school with all the other children, but when they went out to play, I learned English. I would read picture books, repeatedly practicing pronunciation while all the other kids bonded and solidified friendships.
I distinctly recall sitting in math class as my teacher asked if anyone knew how to solve the problem on the board. Before I knew it, my hand was high in the air, and the teacher was doing her best to pronounce my name. This was my opportunity to show the other kids that I was smart, too. If they knew I was good at math, maybe I wouldn’t be left alone when we were told to partner up. Maybe I’d be asked to sit with someone during lunch, instead of by myself. Maybe someone would talk to me during recess, so I wouldn’t collect rocks alone. Here was my big chance—but when I opened my mouth, nothing came out, because I didn’t know how to say the words in English.
I continued to experience situations like this that made it obvious I wasn’t like the other children. Puberty was an absolute disaster, as I developed body hair that was normal in Iran but was considered excessive in America. I so desperately wanted to be included and accepted, but I couldn’t find where I belonged.
I remember running as fast as I could home from school to escape the deafening isolation that being different awarded me—only to find myself confined to my room. I often tried turning to my family for support, but my pleas for help were met with cold silence. My parents were having a tough time adjusting to our new life as well, and I often found myself the target of much of their anger. I felt utterly alone with a family that had chosen this North American life for me, but was unwilling or unprepared to help me understand it.
Instead, I would spend hours daydreaming of fairytales wherein a family who truly wanted me would come to my rescue. Sometimes, I would draw out these fairytales only to have my father walk in my room and shred all my drawings—all my friends.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, one of the biggest tragedies to touch America happened: 9/11. Overnight, I went from being different to despised just because of where I was born. I never really knew what racism was before 9/11, but from that day forward, I would never forget it. I quickly learned that I was not safe thanks to my dark, Middle Eastern features, my birthplace, the language I spoke and essentially anything that made me Iranian.
I hated myself, I hated every part of my body; I had sunken so far into despair. Never had I been more confused, isolated and rejected. Every day, I faced both an internal and external hate I couldn’t understand and that no child should have to understand.
This world didn’t want me, and I started to think that I didn’t want it, either. At the time, I didn’t know what depression was, but looking back now, it’s very likely that this was the start of my spiral into mental illness.
Experiences like mine are simply not forgotten, and they have contributed to my mental health battles with depression and anxiety. I may not have broken bones or visible scars, but that does not mean my illnesses are any less relevant or difficult. Each day brings its own battles, and I face them as they come. Each day, I try my best.
As I reflect on my mental health journey, I feel confident in saying that I don’t blame the West, my culture or my family for my challenges. There are so many contributing factors to mental health conditions, just as human beings are made up of more than one characteristic. I am a woman. I am queer. I am Iranian. I am an animal lover. I am a health care professional. I am so many beautiful things.
Moving to the West was hard, but the experience was also magical. My eyes twinkled with delight as I discovered new fashion. My ears were treated to music that my lips would subconsciously mouth along to. As a child, I wasn’t permitted to bathe in this individualism that the West offered, but as a young adult, I spared no expense. Once I moved away from my family, I was finally free to celebrate my creativity, my quirks and ultimately myself. The West provided me an opportunity to flourish in a way I was unlikely to do anywhere else.
After many attempts, I finally found a physician who was dedicated to helping me with my mental health battle. I’m also hoping to meet a mental health professional who will weave both my culture and my difficult upbringing into my treatment. I need a therapist who can help me work through the many challenges that accompanied shifting from a conservative Iranian culture to the liberal USA, because growing up as a multicultural woman in a place that never felt like home has most definitely affected me in ways that I continue to deal with today. For a while, I wished I weren’t so different; maybe then all my pain would disappear.
But then who would I be, if not me?
Culturally competent providers understand the essential role that cultural beliefs, values, practices and attitudes play in your care. Check out NAMI’s tips and advice for finding culturally competent mental health care.
Yasaman Gheidi is a social media influencer with an Instagram and YouTube channel called @lilmoonchildd that focuses on alternative makeup/ beauty and mental health awareness. Yasaman has used makeup as a way to express her own mental health struggles with depression and anxiety through the creation of a project called the “Inside Out Challenge,” which has since gone viral. When Yasaman is not using social media, she works as an X-ray technologist in a busy hospital.
Note: This piece is a reprint from the Fall 2017 Advocate.
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