By R. Houman
Sybill Trelawney, Harry Potter’s Professor of Divination, is the perfect analogy for how my family reacts to a lot of the things I say. She’s a Seer who predicts calamity at every chance – and is almost always wrong. My family members often stare at me incredulously, much like Trelawney with her giant, bug-like eyes peering over some tea leaves and forecasting death, famine, or some other form of doom. Only, my family’s medium of divination is not Astrology but The Infallible Persian Culture. And any deviation from the science of Persian Impeccability is a fatal move, a catastrophe – I might as well see an Omen of Death in my tea cup.
To be fair, Persians are remarkable. They came here as refugees and became one of the most successful immigrant communities in the United States. Our community generally produces intelligent, ambitious, well-rounded individuals. It produces educated people who engage in or contribute to the arts, popular culture, and the sciences. Clearly, there is much that this community is doing right. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
From my perspective, we fall short when it comes to accepting the uncommon, the unfamiliar, and the unconventional. The community has a two-fold issue in which (1) a squeaky clean reputation is sacrosanct, and (2) there are limiting boundaries around what is acceptable. By extension, anything outside the limited parameters of acceptance ruins one’s reputation. Even discussing something outside the confines of acceptance approaches too close to the perimeter of a good reputation.
We might tolerate the unfamiliar, but we certainly don’t accept it. Think of the LGBTQ community, or career trajectories that aren’t “professional.” This leaves very little room for individuals who want to claim their identity as respectable Persian-Americans but whose personalities, lifestyles, hobbies, or careers fall outside the sphere of acceptance. To avoid judgement, many Persians eye their dreams from a distance. Girls who want to become rabbis hesitate – because it’s uncommon, and therefore tolerated but discouraged, as opposed to accepted and embraced. Boys who like other boys fear coming Out – because it’s unconventional and therefore tolerated but discouraged, as opposed to accepted and embraced. Persians guard their family members’ health abnormalities like military secrets because someone’s “compromised health” is seen as a reputation ruiner (not just for the individual, but for his whole family!) and therefore, sharing that kind of information is tolerated but discouraged, as opposed to accepted and embraced.
This past summer, during a family dinner, I brought up the idea that an e-mail newsletter addressing the taboo subjects within our community would be a good idea, and that I would like to spearhead such a project. Here’s how that conversation went:
“What kind of subjects?” one relative intoned.
“Being the child of a divorced family, coming out gay, premarital sex, depression, being in an adulterous marriage, what a reputation means, living for yourself or living for your family... basically the things we avoid discussing but which are experienced by many people, if not all of us,” I responded.
My relative looked at me, eyes colored with panic. “You want to let the whole world know about your depression?”
Let’s stop here: yes - I’ve experienced depression. And yes - I want to share my experience with depression so that others, who may experience it or do experience it, are better prepared. I want to share the reality of struggling through a depressive episode because I believe the Persian community needs more information about these kinds of issues. (Realistically, every community could use more information of this kind, but I’m going to play favorites and gear this toward my own culture.) I could have healed faster had I known more about it, had my own family known more about it, knew how to handle it, knew how to help me. Neither my family, nor the Persian Culture, is the culprit here. The culprit is a lack of knowledge and understanding, but it’s perpetrated by the fact that depression is not a sexy discussion topic.
There’s a wealth of information available about depression, despite how poorly understood it is. And I was no stranger to that information! Having worked at a teen-crisis hotline, and having taken neuropsychology classes, I knew a decent amount about depression. And yet, when it hit me, all of that was inadequate. I learned more from my family and my surroundings than I cared to admit. My awe-inspiring parents did anything to help me, and endeavored to understand something so foreign to them; yet, they held certain prejudices against depression, and those prejudices affected me. Some of it was counterproductive to my health: I was advised against disclosing my current state of depression, because that would ruin my reputation. However, that also prevented me from explaining why I didn’t feel like hanging out. Like a growing snowball, the magnitude of my depression increased the longer I adhered to this conventional wisdom: Because I was depressed, I isolated myself, which was more depressing, which made me want to seclude myself even more.
After about six months of this torment, I thought screw it, and I no longer hid how shitty I felt. My honesty led to frank and meaningful conversations with people, which pulled me out of my emotional isolation. I felt less alone and more understood - which is the biggest blessing for someone who is depressed. The best thing to come of my honesty was the help I received in turn. Some people replied with, “Oh I’ve experienced depression before!” and they proceeded to share with me what worked for them: books, medication, homeopathy, essential oils, meditation, intention practices, psychiatrists, exercise, talking therapy, etc. After hearing how others recovered from a period of depression, I was able to handle it better: I learned what to tell my parents so I could teach them to support me in the most advantageous ways. I learned how to conceptualize what I was going through. And I was empowered to attempt a variety of antidepressant practices.
When I withheld what I was experiencing, it felt like I was damning myself into a catch twenty-two. I could either reach out for help, admit I was going through a difficult time - and I’d be reputationally damned. Or I could remain silent and suffer quietly - damned again.
This catch twenty-two is a lose-lose situation. In this scenario, I’m not better off, my family is not better off, and the community is not better off. This is where the Persian Culture, great in a thousand and one ways, has room for improvement.
I never got to answer my relative’s question with these thoughts. She had asked why I wanted to share my experience of depression, but before I could, another distant family member followed with, “Why do you want to share the worst parts of yourself? Why are you airing out your dirty laundry? Why do you want to sacrifice yourself?”
I sat like a mute, vacillating between laughing at its absurdity, and dignifying the question with a patient answer. But this perspective is no stranger to the Persian culture (or other cultures); it has legitimacy. It feels ludicrous that I have to state this, but sharing my experience with depression is not sharing the worst parts of myself. Discussing my experience with depression isn’t airing out my dirty laundry...because the nature of it isn’t dirty. And, most importantly, this is the very perception that needs correcting!
When I shared my point of view with my family members, their eyes grew bigger and bug-like – swollen with apprehension. Their hands gently massaged their foreheads, as if making fine adjustments to their Inner Eye, straining to see anything other than doom.
I reasoned, “I’m simply going to lead an initiative to start a series of conversations within our community.” It was an attempt to reorient the arrow of their compass away from excommunication.
The two of them looked at each other, lamenting that I did not yet have the gift of Sight that experience had bestowed upon them. Their brows furrowed, unable to See past the destruction I was proposing to rain down on my life and, by Persian Logic, the whole family. They gave a last exasperated sigh, silently prophesying: We’re ruined, done for.
I poke fun at them but I see their point. They were raised in a culture in which someone like me is seen, at best as an emotional exhibitionist, and at worst: a disturbed, diseased individual. They’re worried I won’t get married. They grew up in a culture in which someone like me would be the ultimate undesirable, and they’re trying to shield me from an unwanted fate: loneliness.
The pair of them recruited another family member to stop me pursuing this project, AKA from turning myself into a reject. This relative attempted to appease me. “Great project, great idea, great initiative...but why do you have to sign your name on it? Why can’t you just keep it anonymous?”
He made a fair point - and perhaps one day I will write something anonymously. But not this. It’s mind-boggling to me that I would “hide” a life experience in which I became terribly sad. It’s not something I feel weird about sharing. Perhaps most importantly, writing this particular essay anonymously is a level of hypocrisy that I can’t live with. I could never write: “No one should hide the fact that they’ve experienced depression. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! Even I’ve experienced it! –Anonymous” I can’t, in good conscience, advocate for authenticity and vulnerability behind a mask.
The other founders of WIWIK agree. But we each have our own standards for how much we want to share. It’s important to note that we encourage each other to write honestly and sign our names, but if sharing anonymously is what it takes to get a story out there, that’s fine.
As Persians, we’re part of an incredible community, and the founders of WIWIK think it is time to amend the standard for a perfect reputation to include authenticity, even when it falls outside our familiar conventions. We can support each other by being vulnerable enough to impart what we wish we knew. Our shared wisdom will be a collective shield, one that will arm us against the vicissitudes of life.
Roxanne is a native of Los Angeles and holds a bachelor’s degree from UCSB. She is looking forward to not being excommunicated.