The night I turned in my college applications, I lay in bed and stared out my window for hours. I prayed to the moon that I would die soon. On paper, I looked perfect (at least to the adults who told me): a perfect SAT score in one attempt, three perfect SAT II test subjects, 10 perfect AP tests, recipient of national awards, president of various clubs, enthusiastic Volunteer and founder of a non-profit educational institution. But I would rather have died than learn that "perfect" is still not enough to get into the colleges I set out to do.
Little did I know that there were diseases known as depression and anxiety, and the adults around me never suspected it because I looked like I was on top of my life. When I burst into tears, my father would yell at me to stop crying because, "Nobody is dead except your tears when I die." And when I told my mother about my suicidal thoughts, her first response was, "How can you be so selfish?" I felt unworthy of their love until I was blamelessly perfect.
I attended Yale as a first generation funded student, worked at McKinsey in New York and London, and received two masters degrees from Stanford. My fears about not being good enough for college now seem unfounded, but perhaps understandable given my upbringing.
Contrary to the stereotype of the Asian Ivy League students, I had neither wealthy tiger nor snowplow parents. My extended family in Taiwan hardly received any education, so I was one of the best educated in my family in high school.
What I had were parents who, like many others, came into parenthood with their own wounds – and had no knowledge of how to deal with them.
According to the Harvard team that developed the Adverse Childhood Experiences Score (ACE), a tool for measuring childhood trauma, high ACE levels often correlate with challenges in later life, "due to the toxic stress it creates."
(Take the ACE quiz.)
Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser found that people with an ACE score of 4 or higher (about 12.5 percent of the population) increased their likelihood of chronic illness, depression, by 390 percent by 460 percent and suicide attempts by 1,220 percent.
My parents both score over 4; My mother got a score of 7. My parents were raised by negligent, physically and emotionally abusive parents and had scars that they were not even allowed to expose to themselves. Nobody had taught them to address this trauma and not repeat it through fearful parents.
I can't remember a time when my home was carefree. I learned early on that a moment without worry is a moment that is wasted in idleness. Research shows that depression and anxiety can be passed on from parents to children when children observe their parents' incessant worries and adopt similar thought patterns for themselves.
Most parents – including mine – do their best, but few have been taught much about how to raise children beyond their own experiences with their own parents.
My family had to learn the hard way that we repeat what we do not heal. When my grandmother, the woman who single-handedly raised my mother and her three sisters, passed away in my freshman year, my mother decided to move on with her life and focus on raising my brother. Years later, my brother struggled with his weight and his academics until he was almost expelled from school.
While looking for ways to help my brother, my mother was exposed to the work of Virginia Satir, a pioneer in family therapy. Ms. Satir saw every family as a system. So if you change a node, the whole system changes. My mother began to come to terms with her own grief and trauma.
I did it that way too.
During my studies I looked for advice and studied wellness. I began meditating and journaling to unravel my past from the present. Finally, during my senior year in college, I told my family that I had seen a therapist. And that it helped.
My family was surprised (to say the least) to learn that my mental health problems were "bad enough" to make me seek help. For my parents, who are part of a generation focused on survival rather than wellbeing, it has been difficult to hear how their parenting affected me. They responded with ridicule at first, then feared that their own wounds were deep enough to hurt me too.
It took my parents a lot of time and effort to move away from the mentality they grew up with.
Years after the trip began, my mother runs a nonprofit that educates thousands of Mandarin-speaking parents on conscious communication and mindfulness.
Recently, at a workshop my mother was hosting, I overheard my father say to a participating parent, "I didn't believe in therapy until Grace told me it was like going to the dentist for a cave, which makes a lot of sense for me now. When I saw my family learn, I could see that I had something to do too. "
It is now more important than ever to work to ensure that parents understand the mental health of both themselves and their children.
I have heard from many parents lately who are concerned about how this pandemic period of uncertainty is affecting their child's school year and applications. These are of course important questions.
However, when I see my brother applying for college this fall, I can only imagine the many students lying by their windows praying to the moon. And I wish that when parents realized how bad their worries and old wounds weighed on their children, they would stop and deal with their fears first.
Grace Chiang is the founder of Cherish, a social enterprise dedicated to helping parents build healthy relationships with their teenagers.