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THE MORE TRUMP AND HIS SUPPORTERS REJECT & HARM DIVERSITY, THE MORE MANY OF US WILL EMBRACE & ADVOCATE FOR IT.

MY CONTRIBUTION OF THE DAY: A PROCLAMATION TO PUSH THE BOUNDARIES OF WHAT IS SEEN AS DIVERSE IN YA FICTION.

DEAR YA FICTION, NOT ALL DIVERSE TEENS CELEBRATE THEIR CULTURE(S) 

By: Sonia Patel

In June, my husband and I took our two half Filipino-half Indian teenagers and their three half Filipino-half white cousins to a Little Simz concert in Chicago. Little Simz, a black rapper from England, delivered nothing less than powerful, feminist bars. Her inspiring lyrics seemed to light up Lincoln Hall’s dimness and hypnotize the eager crowd. My family and I head nodded, deep in the zone. And when Little Simz spit the words “the Philippines” in a hook, our kids, nephews, and niece exploded with pride, their fists thumping their chests then pumping high over their heads. I stood behind pressing my hand on my heart and smiling, overcome with a mix of awe and happiness for them. But then a thin layer of sweat formed on the small of my back. I peeled my shirt as guilt and grief took turns trying to tug the corners of my lips down. 

Why can’t you be that proud of being Indian?

You know why.

Sure, but it’s not like you’ve ever been starving or had acid thrown on your face so get over yourself.

But things were bad in a different way.

I don’t celebrate my Indian culture. I never have. I don’t know how to because I was raised around it, not in it. Growing up, it was as if I was an outsider sitting in a dark theater watching our Indian relatives and family friends on the big screen like a Bollywood film. I studied the intricacies of my mom and grandmother’s daily Hindu worship of Thakorji. I noticed the way my mom lent a helpful ear and hand to everyone, despite some of her in-laws putting her down. I plopped down on the sofa next to my mom when she was engrossed in one of her pirated Indian movies depicting perfect, loving families. I was fascinated by the beautiful, intricate saris and gold and diamond jewelry Indian ladies wore to weddings and garba...the delicious, complicated food my mom and aunties made......the emphasis on hard work and education...the sacrifice to help my generation make it in America….

Still I didn’t feel Indian. I felt worthless. What no one knew was that at home, my family’s way of life, our secret culture, was that of isolation, conflict, and abuse. 

Now as an adult I recognize the elements of patriarchy, misogyny, and intolerance long present on one side of our extended Gujju network but the culture of dysfunction (COD) at home was its own terrible beast. Simply put, my dad was a charming tyrant. My role was his wife. My mom was his servant. My mom and I existed, voiceless, to accomodate my dad in every way. 

Instead of getting a shot at normal teen emotional development, I was in a perpetual state of anxiety to keep the peace at home, and then in my future relationships, even if that meant making poor decisions. Instead of having the opportunity to build my separate identity and self-worth, I learned that my only value was in pleasing my dad, and then men like him who similarly lavished me with attention in exchange for my emotional and/or sexual usefulness. And instead of developing skills to maintain healthy, nuanced peer relationships, especially with girls, I didn’t trust anyone.

Looking back I’ve come to understand that my family’s COD trumped any protective effects of my Indian background. Why? Because the COD was the lens through which I saw everything Indian. And since there wasn’t a single day of my youth that I experienced my Indian-ness independent of the COD, the two became inextricably linked for me. Being Indian was foreign to me yet I equated it with pain. 

I’m not alone. Many of the diverse teens I treat who live in COD don’t have strong connections to their birth culture(s) either. Let’s face it—COD is universal. In my office, when these teens reveal their agonizing stories of abuse, neglect, parental drug use, parental mental illness, and/or other severe adverse childhood experiences, their mental suffering is similar regardless of their backgrounds. It’s true that they may manifest some culturally specific variations in symptoms, but there are undeniable commonalities in their negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That and the medically proven trauma-induced brain changes are the same. 

In order for youth to survive traumatic experiences that are out of their control, dysfunction can become hardwired in their developing brains. They can become stuck in survivor mode as COD clouds their vision and becomes the blueprint for future relationships, leaving them prone to an endless cycle of repeating and recreating what they’ve endured at home with others. This is largely why the buffering effects of their birth culture(s), such as positive relationships with extended family members or participation in traditional activities and religious practices, can remain out of reach.

It’s crucial to understand that these diverse teens are often alienated from their backgrounds because they never experience it apart from their COD. They are shoved onto different playing fields of development far apart from teens being reared in healthy families where culture isn’t shrouded in toxicity. So to expect all teens, particularly those from cultures stereotyped as nerdy and family-oriented immigrants, to rise above their struggles is unrealistic. More likely these vulnerable teens living in COD may have extreme difficulty making friends. Or, they may choose another family of  “bad kids.” They may not be able to set limits with people. They may engage in repeated risky, quick feel-good behaviors (sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) not condoned by their birth culture(s).

Let’s take fifteen-year-old Kaya (not her real name), a part Native Hawaiian-Filipino-Japanese girl who I began treating recently. She wants to feel connected to her family’s blended way of life but can’t. She’s spent her youth battling recurrent negative thoughts, flashbacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, and worthlessness. Our talk therapy to this point has given her insight into why her neural circuitry hardwired with depression and anxiety—it allowed her to survive the abuse. Her symptoms told her that the abuse was her fault, thus giving her a sense of control in a situation that’s been totally out of her control. It’s my fault. I’m bad. I deserve it. Why else would the people who say they love me the most hurt me the most? Why else would the people who’ve taught me cultural values of family, respect, and honor treat me and each other like this? She wants to feel pride when her family participates in Native Hawaiian activism but ends up feeling disgust. Her profound emotional burdens have denied her the mental free time to be a “regular teen.” She hasn’t dreamt about her future or romance or hobbies or college or achievement or the next party. She can’t help but feel like an imposter at family gatherings and traditional ceremonies. She hasn’t had a fair chance to form strong female friendships. She hasn’t been able to set limits with boys—she’s allowed them to push her around and she hasn’t been able to say no to sex like she wants to. She also hasn’t been able to come out as lesbian though she identifies as one.

This brings me to YA fiction. Obviously teens read for different reasons. Some of my diverse teen patients enjoy escaping the hardships of their lives by immersing themselves in YA fantasy, dystopia, or paranormal. Some are drawn to YA romance. There are some, however, who seek to find themselves in books. But diverse teens being raised in COD have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding themselves in existing YA fiction. At this time most of it celebrates different cultures. Most of it includes at least one functional parent who protects against the occurrence of COD and therefore makes it possible for the birth culture(s) to be appreciated. 

Kaya hasn’t found herself represented. How can she when COD has prevented her from experiencing her birth cultures without bias? How can she when she feels distant and, at the same time, repulsed by her birth cultures?

When I was Kaya’s age, I couldn’t find any Indian or Indian-American YA novels. There are some these days but I can’t relate to any of them. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Rani Patel In Full Effect. It’s why I decided to keep writing (Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story, Bloody Seoul, and a fourth YA novel in the works). 

Teens living in the complex dynamics of COD may not be able to see themselves in diverse YA fiction, including realistic bestsellers, that happen to be by or about people of their same background. To think otherwise—from my point of view as a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the trenches with vulnerable teens—is short-sighted, minimizing, and insulting to those in the midst of survival and in the most need of empathy from sources outside of the family. 

YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way. It needs to depict the ugliness of when COD hijacks birth culture. It needs to represent the unpalatable perspectives of teens who don’t have the luxury of enjoying their cultures and working through typical teen concerns. It needs to embrace painful reality, not just what’s convenient. It needs to champion these types of troubling diverse stories the way it does those stories that make people feel comfortable, content, and less guilty. Afterall, the Kayas of the world are worth it even if they themselves can’t feel worth it yet. 

 



WHAT I'D TELL MY YOUNGER SELF REGARDING SUICIDAL THOUGHTS

I made this video for the Child Mind Institute. I’m grateful to be a part of their #myyoungerself project.

Child Mind Institute

Published on Apr 20, 2019

Sonia Patel is a physician and author. Patel is psychiatrist in Oahu and is passionate about helping teens work through emotionl obstacles. She is also the author of several books including, "Rani Patel in Full Effect," and "Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story."

#MyYoungerSelf by Child Mind Institute is an anti-stigma campaign. We are grateful to Sonia for her willingness to open up about her childhood experience with anxiety and depression.

ABOUT CHILD MIND INSTITUTE As an independent, national nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders, we deliver the highest standards of care, advance the science of the developing brain, and empower parents, professionals, and policymakers to support children when and where they need it most.

SAFE DIVERSITY IN YA LIT ISN’T ENOUGH DIVERSITY

While YA novels are increasingly diverse, safe diversity—with accessible and likable protagonists and their convenient struggles—is usually seen as enough. These unoffending books tend to be championed and more popular. Unsettling diversity, on the other hand, is often frowned upon, discounted, or misconceived.

I’m a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and a young adult novelist. To me, dismissing YA that’s outside the realm of palatable diversity is like a psychiatrist refusing to treat certain teen patients because they have “too many problems.”

I’ve spent over fifteen years treating diverse teens who suffer tremendous adversity—abuse of all kinds, neglect, parental mental illness or drug use, etc. Medical research proves that youth exposed to these types of adverse experiences have an increased incidence of chronic medical and mental health problems, increased risky behaviors, and less future success. That’s why I’m dedicated to being in the trenches with them, helping them dodge life’s bullets. Hoping to steer them to higher ground.

An example is in order.

Kai (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old Filipino-Hawaiian-Japanese-Korean boy, is sitting across from me, staring out the window. It’s been six months of almost weekly individual  talk therapy sessions. I bring up the heavy family issue. Kai presses his lips together. Suddenly he shoots up, a scowl covering his usual poker face. He takes three steps to the large window and slams his head, three times. A pause then three more slams.

I call his name. He glances over his shoulder, his eyes moist. In a gentle voice, I ask, “Will you sit down or should I call the police to keep you safe like last time?”

He punches his head three times. “It hurts so much in here,” he angry whispers, tears now streaming.

“Let’s talk about it,” I suggest.

He glares at me but then sits. “Fine,” he mutters.

That was Kai’s breakthrough moment. It was the first time he spoke about a feeling instead of showing it with alarming behavior. It was the moment we started translating his behavioral language (obsessions, compulsions that were often harmful to himself, bullying, social isolation, alcohol use, and truancy) into English words.

Still, healing took years. Negative coping strategies had been automatically reinforced, and eventually hardwired, in his brain. New, positive brain pathways took time and work to form.

I have personal experience with this. You see I grew up in a dysfunctional Gujarati Indian immigrant family with dark secrets. The opposite of the typical Bollywood family depiction. I started writing to cope. It was poetry and rap at first. It turned into my debut young adult novel Rani Patel In Full Effect.

I struggled with how to portray Rani, my Indian-American main character. In the real way teen survivors of sexual abuse present to my office? Or in a sugar coated way with righteousness, fully formed feminist strength and insight, and flowery perfect prose to make her more appealing to readers?

I decided on real. Real meant raw and flawed. Real meant making her an uncomfortable protagonist. As a reader, you invest time caring about her. But Rani doesn’t have gorgeous words to describe the pain of her abuse, she speaks by recreating her role as an object for men to use and ends up making obviously bad decisions. You want to scream at her.  That’s what it like supporting a person working to recover from trauma.

My next YA novel, Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story is based on amalgams of real teen patients. Sorry, but there’s nothing comfortable about walking in the shoes of a depressed, suicidal Indian-American trans boy and a sex trafficked mixed ethnicity girl.

My third YA novel, Bloody Seoul, will be released in July. The main character, Rocky is Korean and has aspects of Kai, other patients, and my imagination. If Rocky kept a journal, his abrupt sentences would reveal his brain’s ingrained survival reactions to the chaos of his mother’s abandonment and his father’s violence—a hard edge, limited empathy, emotional unavailability, and OCD behavior.

My fourth YA novel will follow suit. I can’t stop, won’t stop, introducing troubling protagonists because there are entire groups of diverse youth not yet represented.

YA lit needs to transcend safe diversity. It needs to be enthusiastically inclusive of disturbing realistic novels that purposefully miss the bull’s-eye of acceptability. Even when it’s really hard, we need to try to understand all teen protagonists who engage in incomprehensible behaviors. Even if we don’t agree, we need to try to empathize with them when they make upsetting choices. That is true tolerance. That is true diversity.






CHECK OUT THE HAWAII BOOK & MUSIC FESTIVAL! I’LL BE REPPIN’ YA LIT & MENTAL HEALTH ON 4 PANELS.

SUICIDAL THOUGHTS ARE A SYMPTOM & SOMETIMES I'M SYMPTOMATIC.

“Every year close to 800,000 people take their own life and there are many more people who attempt suicide. Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries and has long-lasting effects on the people left behind. Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and was the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds globally in 2016.

Suicide does not just occur in high-income countries, but is a global phenomenon in all regions of the world. In fact, over 79% of global suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries in 2016.

Suicide is a serious public health problem; however, suicides are preventable with timely, evidence-based and often low-cost interventions. For national responses to be effective, a comprehensive multi sectoral suicide prevention strategy is needed.”

--World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Suicide 8.24.18 https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide

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Yesterday, Keith Flint, the frontman for the band Prodigy, took his own life. He was 49. His suicide hit me hard. As hard as Chester Bennington’s, lead vocalist of Linkin Park who was 41. Being a first generation Gujarati Indian American, my life experiences didn’t align with theirs, but I found solace in their powerful music. As did many other people. That and I’m also in my 40’s. And I’ve had suicidal thoughts. The shit is real.

But I haven’t taken the thoughts to the next level—the attempt level or the deadly level.

How am I lucky enough not to have taken it to the next level when so many people have?

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent years in medical school and residency training studying trauma, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts on a biologic level. Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent thousands of hours putting myself in the shoes of numerous youth and adults with suicidal thoughts and attempts and trying to help them survive. Or maybe it’s because I remind myself that I don’t want to hurt my husband and children. And I’m fortunate to not be abusing drugs or alcohol.

What I know for sure is that it isn’t easy because sometimes the suicidal thoughts are so intense, so real, so seemingly inescapable. Vivid swirls of GRAB THAT KITCHEN KNIFE AND STAB YOURSELF IN THE HEART…RUN INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC…  

See that’s what happens sometimes to people with hardwired anxiety and/or depression. The suicidal thoughts are SYMPTOMS of this hardwiring. The suicidal thoughts are not a character flaw. They are not a cop-out. Suicidal thoughts can be misguided, automatic thoughts aimed at exerting the ultimate control over overwhelming chaos.

A person with well-treated asthma isn’t in a constant state of an asthma attack, but can have symptoms such as wheezing when triggered by weather changes or exercise. In this type of case, breakthrough asthma symptoms can be treated quickly, allowing the person to return to normal functioning. Similarly, a person with well-treated anxiety and/or depression can have suicidal thoughts when triggered by tremendous stress, conflict, loss, reminders of painful pasts, etc. That’s how it is for me. I’m not in clinical depression or anxiety. But things can trigger symptoms. I’ve learned to manage these breakthrough symptoms immediately so that I can return to my normal, healthy baseline in no time. If the breakthrough symptoms include suicidal thoughts, I remind myself that my brain is playing tricks on me because I’m overwhelmed. I tell myself to listen to music instead, it will pass. Or I tell myself to write, it will pass. Or maybe take a nap, it will pass. Cry if needed, it will pass. Go for a hard run, it will pass. Ask for a hug and reassurance, it will pass. Now is not the right time for the glass of cabernet, it will pass. I repeat the mantra IT WILL PASS.

And it does.

But the breakthrough symptoms, including suicidal thoughts, may come back because that’s how my brain is wired to automatically handle massive stress and I understand that. But I’ve got an arsenal of coping strategies at the ready to help me pull through no matter how many times symptoms such as suicidal thoughts breakthrough.

If you are depressed or have suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/