Talking About Suicide

Talking with Sarah Yoon

 March 24, 2014

Sarah Yoon asked me to use her English name. She continues to sift through her feelings and her identities. “At this moment, right now, I’m trying to figure out who I am. Again,” she says. “I thought I knew.”

Here, she talks about life as a Korean-American and cultural pressures to not show the effects of stress, how her therapist made a crucial connection by disclosing her own past depression, and whether she thinks she’ll ever be “cured.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m Sarah, I live in Queens, and I was raised here since, like, kindergarten. I immigrated here. I went to college and grad school out of state. I’m currently 33 years old, and I’m currently a math teacher. Although that might be subject to change.

You teach at a public school?

Well, I’m a certified math teacher, but the school I was in got downsized. They didn’t fire me, but I became an ATR; basically, I go to different schools every week. Considering I had a bad year last year, I decided to take it pretty easy. I’m taking a class right now, and it’s easier than teaching full-time. I’m currently doing a master’s program for a professional degree.

How did you find me?

The thing is, since I’ve experienced you-know-what, I don’t know if “comforting” is the right word, but I feel at home when hearing other people’s stories. Of course, different people have different situations, but I just feel like I’m not completely alone, you could say. Of course, you know, it’s kind of risky to read because it might trigger something, but at that point I was doing a lot better to do such things.

How are you doing these days?

Well, for me it’s been up and down, honestly. Every day and every week are different for me. This week is fine for me, but I don’t know what next week holds. I’m doing a lot better than a year ago, but I do have moments where I do have a breakdown, I guess. Now, it’s like once every month or two weeks. It used to be like every day. It was pretty bad last year.

How did you come back from that?

Well, it took a lot of willpower, honestly. Right now, I have a therapist I’ve been seeing three or four years so far, and I forced myself to see a psychiatrist, and I’m on two medications right now. I guess I try to keep myself busy. And although I have friends who have been a little flaky, they have been encouraging and stuff like that. Ironically, my ex-boyfriend has been the most supportive.

How did you decide to tell people?

The thing was that last year, and two years ago, were not the first times I had done these things. I guess six or seven years ago was the first time I had done these things. In 2007, I was hospitalized three times. And I’ve been trying different medications, but they really didn’t work. At that point I had a pretty good community and was able to bounce back pretty quickly.

I think this year, my depression was triggered by a breakup, actually, a breakup that shouldn’t have happened, and he kind of regrets what he did. I guess it got me into a state of confusion. I don’t know, I’ve been reading a lot of books, and it’s been a long process. I’m still recovering, honestly.

How did people respond?

Seven years ago, I was hospitalized, but it was up ’til the last attempt that my parents knew about it. I had no choice but to tell them. The first time, I didn’t tell them. When I did tell them, they took it extremely hard. They pretty much cried for two hours. My parents had a hard time because they come from a very conservative background, very Asian. It took a couple years to be on terms with it. This one, honestly, I was hospitalized once last year. My therapist urged me to tell my mom, and you know, my therapist spoke to my mom, and my mom got angry because I was drinking quite a lot. I don’t drink anymore. It’s a very slow process.

And with my friends, they come and go, honestly. Some people couldn’t deal with it, they kind of like walked away. The other half are extremely nonjudgmental, very encouraging. Ironically, my ex-boyfriend was at the point where it affected him, actually. And of course, his mother was opposed to us dating, that kind of thing. I know, it’s like a weird situation. But I became so depressed, more than I thought I’d be because we broke off the relationship. But I mean, I’m trying to move on with my life.

And I have very few close friends. The ones I have, they’ve been pretty awesome, trying to make sure I’m OK. They’ve been very gentle, very accommodating. I mean, they’re like a little younger than me, and some of my closest friends are not of Asian background. I don’t know why, it was easier to talk to them. A couple of my Asian girlfriends couldn’t deal with it, maybe because they’re kind of fake, I don’t know. One of my friends from college, for like 10 years, kind of fell off the face of the earth. The other one, she said she’s always busy, but I think she feels incapable of dealing with this. My ex-boyfriend is a very strong person and couldn’t deal with it, either.

What made you decide to speak with me?

The thing is, I’ve always been passionate about mental health and the stigma of mental health, depression, whatever mental illness. And for me, I think it always is something, a cause, that I want to be part of. I’m Asian, and Korean. And most Koreans have difficulty accepting it, but in Korea, they have the highest suicide rate of the world. It’s pretty ironic, actually. I have a much older friend who is Korean, she’s actually a professor at Harvard, and I think every year she goes to Korea to kind of, like, raise awareness about mental health. I feel that’s courageous and noble.

Why does she do that?

I don’t if there’s a personal thing, but it is something she’s always been passionate with. She’s got a doctorate in psychology, a mental health worker.

You mentioned conservative and Asian. Why is that, and do you think it’s linked somehow to the high suicide rate?

In Korean culture, I think, we were kind of taught to suppress our emotions. I think our identity comes with doing well in school, in life, being a good mother or father. In a way, and I’ve thought about this a lot, I feel our emotional being is neglected. I think it’s the last priority our parents teach us. I have to be true to myself. I see it in my friends as well.

How do you even start to change that? Should you?

It’s a very big task to raise awareness. I mean, I haven’t thought too much in a full extent, but given that I’m an idealist … I don’t have a solution, though.

But with your parents, are you more open?

We don’t really talk about it a lot, honestly? Given that we go on with our lives, I guess they just accepted it. It used to be case where my mom was opposed to me getting medication. Last year she was like, “Try to get off medication as soon as possible,” and I’m like, “Am I going to take this for the rest of my life?”

Sorry, I sort of lost my train of thought. I was on medication a couple of years ago when I first attempted, and I guess I’ve been, like, changing medication all the time because one thing didn’t work and another didn’t work. My biggest mistake was to get off medication on my own volition. I think because I wasn’t maintaining my well-being, that’s also the reason why I kind of crumbled. When I went to the hospital, I had no choice because the psychiatrist kind of forced me. Not forced me, but highly encouraged me to take the medication. I got over my stubbornness. At first I was like, “I’m not going to take medication at all.”

What else have you done for yourself?

I’ve been trying to focus on myself. I don’t know if that’s wellness. For me, I think my problem has always been worrying what other people thought of me. My happiness depended on my relationship with other people. At this moment, right now, I’m trying to figure out who I am. Again. I thought I knew. I’m just trying to figure out what works best for me. I mean, this math teaching career, I’m not completely passionate about this career, so I’ve been thinking what career is best for me, so I’m trying to figure that out. Another thing I’m doing is, I’ve been trying to watch what I eat because, you know, your food and your mood is connected? I’ve read a lot of things. And trying to balance life with sleep and stuff like that.

What would you like to change about the kinds of support and treatment you’ve received?

I mean, nobody’s perfect. My therapist and psychiatrist are doing their best. And at times, my therapist doesn’t understand me. But I guess, of course, there’s nobody who can inside and out understand me completely. But I guess they’re trying to understand me?

In the history of all my relationships, I feel like I’ve always been betrayed a lot. And not just romantic relationships. That’s where most of my depression comes from. I wish the quality of relationships would be in a way where I wouldn’t feel judged. And I guess for me, loyalty is big. And to not be judgmental.

I guess it’s easy to be judgmental on topics like mental health?

Definitely in the Asian-American community. For instance, a girl I was in the hospital with, she was Korean, a good 10 years younger, her parents know my parents. A few months ago, my mom found out she had jumped off a bridge and killed herself. It depressed me a lot, actually. Of course I knew the girl, sort of. I thought about her situation, what would have been the step for her to have not taken that step, if you know what I mean? What preventative measures could have been done? It just says a lot, I guess, that issues of mental health are so suppressed. I don’t know for different races, but at least in the Asian-American community if you’re depressed, it’s kind of like it’s your fault, like you lacking in something, you now? It’s hard to take.

And a lot of people have absolutely no idea what this is. For me, I experienced depression, I lived through it, I know what it is. But for your regular Joe Shmo, they have, like, no clue. I spoke to my pastor at my previous church, they’re good people, no mistaking me, but they’re, like, kind of ignorant. Because, like, they don’t really know what it is. And that bothered me.

I mean, my ex-boyfriend is Korean but a very understanding person. He’s done research to help me out. He got into depression because of me, actually. It’s pretty sad. Two of my closest friends are Caucasian and African-American. They understand me. I feel more comfortable with them. They don’t look at me with the strange eye, you know? If I have a bad weekend or something, they’re always there for me.

What about your colleagues?

For me, the church knew, but they were really great about it. I don’t know how that came about, but they were very good to me. But this time around, because I became older, in my early 30s and more mistrustful, probably like only about seven people know. Definitely not more than 10. I definitely will not tell my colleagues, people I’ve been to work with. Last year, when I attempted suicide, my boss and other math teachers absolutely did not know what I was going through. At all. I just covered for it, I guess. I guess I did a good job considering the state I was in.

I guess my biggest fear is telling my extended family. They live in Korea, and I don’t know. They like to compare me with a lot of cousins. I’m afraid if they knew about my depression or attempt, they’d be kind of like putting me down. And also, you know, the church that I left, I did not feel comfortable with the people because they were superficial, like a high school. And it would have been really hard. One of the girls, she’s actually  a social worker and an advocate of mental health, Korean-American, and it was comfortable for me to talk to her. But for the rest of them, definitely not.

You like in Queens, a very diverse community. Does that help?

A few years ago, all my friends were Korean. For some reason, I felt like I didn’t connect with them. I always felt like something was wrong with me. But given that I work in a profession where there is diversity, I met a lot of Hispanic teachers, Caucasian, and I realized I was extremely comfortable with them. It’s like a recent epiphany.

You mentioned wanting to be a mental health advocate. What do you have in mind?

It’s still a thought in process, but I’m trying to figure out how to help. I mean, the thing was that in my mid-20s, I have a master’s in school psychology. What happened was, I guess I breached confidentiality and pretty much got kicked out of grad school. I loved the program, and I looked forward to becoming a school psychologist. And even after all this happened, I guess I got kicked out after my first set of attempts. It was chaotic. I guess I felt like my hopes and dreams were gone; I thought I wouldn’t be able to return to the field because of my history, my past.

I tried to apply for Ph.D. programs, but of course I didn’t get into any of them because part of my transcript was not complete. And then, I guess, the reason why I got into being a math teacher was because I was more interested in adolescence and mental health. I first became depressed around 15 or 16, actually. Since I remembered my experience as a teen with depression, I guess I wanted to relate. But I guess being a math teacher took over.

But at some point, I do want to became a therapist myself. Kind of like food for thought.

Just checking, you weren’t kicked out because of your attempt? Because that’s illegal.


(We talk a little about disclosure, especially in the mental health world.)

My therapist actually shares that she had a long period of depression. I guess my depression was so severe that she mentioned it. I think we’re comfortable enough where she’s able to share her experience with grief and depression. She didn’t attempt suicide, but at some point she was able to relate to me. She’s extremely empathetic.

Do you think all therapists should be open like that?

For me, I think it’s a positive thing. If I speak to a person who’s never even been through depression, that person could do so much research on it, but he or she wouldn’t know the full extent of it.

My therapist is much, much older, in her 60s, I guess. Her depression happened long ago, in her 30s or 40s. I guess for her it’s something she has let go of? Like a phase she’s moved off from. That’s why I think she’s comfortable. She didn’t share, like, her whole life story or anything. She went into depression because her husband died. She just talks a little bit; she doesn’t talk about it for half an hour. If she feels like it’s necessary. So she can kind of, like, use her life example to, I guess, for me to relate to her.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I guess the past year has been a little crazy for me. I was rock bottom, honestly. For me right now? I just feel like I’m still digesting it. It just seems so surreal that I felt this much depressed. And it’s kind of like, when you go into depression you have a difficult time seeing what’s in front of you, focusing. Even to this day, I sometimes have difficulty being motivated. And on a bad day, I don’t want to do anything. My last bad thought was maybe three weeks ago? I’m still trying to come out of this. I’m not fully recovered.

Do you think you can be cured?

Personally, I’ve thought of that question. I have absolutely no idea. I want to know the answer. There are times I’m able to say, “I’m able to recover from this.” I watched a lot of documentaries on the BBC, etc., but I hear people who have depression for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, whatever.

For me, I’ve always never been normal. I mean, not normal as in “Am I weird?” but normal as in terms of mood. It could be extremely low or extremely high. I mean, I forgot to tell you that last year, also like six years ago, I went into a DBT program. Six years ago, I was doing partial after my full. During the day, I was in the hospital, a partial hospitalization program only for women. That helped considerably. I did it last year. I was there for a good six or seven months. Every Saturday I went. I mean, of course, I was too depressed to kind of practice all that. But it takes a lot of willpower.

Do you do it now? Does it help?

I guess for me, I’m in the process of digesting a little bit of everything right now. I’ve been trying to keep myself busy. I tutor two kids twice a week, and I’m starting to study for exams. I don’t know, staying busy kind of helps. Although it could be not a good thing.

Who else are you?

That’s a very hard question. I’m a good friend, a very good friend. And I’m good at art, good at math, a good teacher. I can relate to people pretty well. I don’t know if it’s relevant to say … I’m naturally very reserved, though you probably wouldn’t believe it. I have a lot of interests, actually. I guess, you know, sometimes I could love being around people. I have a lot of fears, obviously. And I’m Asian-American, Korean-American, American. I guess I’m trying to find my American-ness, I don’t know if I can say that. I’m a jack of all trades and master of none.

The thing is, I’m extremely jaded with romantic relationships. And although I tell my mother or father that I’ll never get married, but in all honestly, I would really want to become a mother. And then I feel like my life would be different. I’d be a good mother. My problem in the past was, I was too nice and people took advantage. You know, always try to find a balance in life. Not be too nice to people. So, you know, eventually I want to get out of my jadedness in people and hopefully not be a cranky old lady, and hopefully will come out of this depression 100 percent. Hopefully. I think it will always be part of me, since I had it since I was 15 or 16. Although, like, I’ve felt hopeless, I actually feel hopeful most of the time. I want to be hopeful and optimistic.

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