Today for Shattering Stigmas, I’m so excited to welcome my friend, YA author and podcaster @TheBridge Alex Brown to discuss her ongoing journey with depression in this deeply personal and honest essay. I can’t wait for Alex’s wonderfully creepy writing to scare all of us soon. You can find Alex online on Twitter and her website.
Depression never really seemed like something I was allowed to have. Growing up, I had no idea that we had a family history of it. I didn’t even know there was a word for it. But I knew something was wrong when I watched people I loved slowly change into someone else. Or sometimes it was a quick change, and then the person I thought I knew was gone forever. That’s what it felt like, at least.
And through all this I refused to think about the little voice screaming in the back of my mind that the same thing was happening to me, too. While my single mother was working multiple jobs to pay the bills, it was my job to hold things together to make sure my little brother was okay. It was a job that it always felt that I was failing at, as depression swept into our lives and got to know my little brother before it ever found me.
My mother immigrated here from the Philippines in 1980. Mental health—and family histories—weren’t really things we talked about. And my father wasn’t much help, either. When he was around, our house wasn’t safe. Alcohol abuse and the demons he carried with him warped him into someone who was meant to be feared, rather than someone I could get answers from.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I slowly started to learn the words that could define what I’d been feeling for so long. But when I tried to engage in these conversations with my mom, she was hesitant. We’d built a life around pretending everything was okay. Any acknowledgement otherwise felt like a betrayal. At the time, she thought that depression was something that anyone could just get over, as if it was as simple as choosing to not be sad. She’s since changed her stance, but for me, having these arguments was devastating. I was still in denial about how depression was impacting my own life. How my father’s demons were slowly turning me into someone I didn’t recognize, too. It would take another five years or so before I finally admitted that I struggled with depression. And a couple more before I actually got the help I needed.
Now, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with writing. I wondered the same thing for a very long time, until I finally parsed out the truth: depression lived with me for so long that it became a part of everything I do. To this day, the characters I write struggle with the same feelings that have haunted me for most of my life. Loneliness and isolation that run so bone-deep that most days it feels like I’ll never be able to make a true connection with another person. That I’ll forever be adrift and lost in an ever-expanding sea, with no one but my own negative thoughts to keep me company. Trapped listening to an infinite loop of my own shortcomings as they remind me that I’ll never be good enough, or amount to anything, or be happy.
The thing about these thoughts is that if they’re allowed to parrot all of that bullshit back to you long enough, you start to listen. Or, at least, that’s what happened to me. I let these reminders drill a hole so deep that, when they tossed me into it, it felt impossible to claw my way out of.
And it was, for a long time.
From 2012-2014, I wrote a few books with the intention of getting them published. They were my first attempts to quiet the voices in my head that told me I wasn’t worth anything. And, like most first attempts at things, they weren’t completely awful, but they also weren’t the best.
From 2015-2016, I took a break from writing. For a few years, it had been the one thing outside of school or work that I could really lose myself in. But I was querying my manuscripts before they were ready, and despite some early successes I hadn’t gotten an agent. Suddenly, the one thing that I thought I was good at—the one thing I enjoyed—became another thing that I forced myself to do. I wasn’t writing for me anymore. I was writing things that I thought would land an agent or get published and when that didn’t happen I lost what little progress I’d been able to make as I tried to climb out of the bottomless pit of depression that I’d been thrown into. So, I took a step back and stopped writing. And it might have saved my life.
Looking back on my earlier work now, it’s easy see all of the flaws and understand why things never panned out the way I wanted them to. But I’ve lived my life believing that every bad thing that happens is my fault—even if sometimes it isn’t—and all of that rejection I faced earlier on bolstered the voices that told me I wasn’t good enough. I’d never amount to anything. That there was no point in sticking around if all I was ever going to do was fail at everything.
In early 2016, a critique partner and I started to talk about co-creating a narrative-fiction podcast, which eventually turned into our show, The Bridge. The scripts for this podcast were the first writing I’d done since I’d stepped away from it entirely a year before. Our podcast slowly helped me build my confidence back up not only as a writer, but as someone with stories to tell. It didn’t fully push all of those negative thoughts away, but it was a start.
It took me a few more years after our podcast launched before I could finally type The End on a manuscript, and there are still so many days where I’m stunned that I was able to do it. But damn, it was worth the wait. Instead of writing things that I think stand a chance of selling, I’m finally writing for me. I’m creating the stories that teen me would’ve loved to have—things that would tell her that it’s okay to not know who you are, or who you like, or that it doesn’t pay to pretend that everything’s fine when it’s not. That asking for help is not a weakness. And depression is a very real thing that might stick with you for the rest of your life—but it doesn’t have to define you. Instead, you can define it.
I am a queer, biracial Filipino American writer who also struggles with depression. I am the daughter of an immigrant and an alcoholic. I am their strengths and their weaknesses. Their inherited traumas color my decisions and thoughts as much as my own do.
It took me so long to be able to type out those words, and it’s still a little scary to put these facets of myself out there, but here I am. The parts of me I wish I could’ve acknowledged long before this. The parts of me that sometimes I wish I never had.
Sharing my story helps me feel less alone. Although we’ll never have the exact same experiences, I do think there’s something to learn from everyone you meet, whether that’s in-person, in a digital space, or through someone’s art. And that, maybe, by seeing things through someone else’s perspective, we can shed a little light on the things that haunt us. The demons and voices that insist we’re not good enough. The walls we’ve built to hold ourselves back. There’s such a stigma around mental health—especially things that aren’t depression and anxiety. There’s still a lot of work to be done and conversations that need to be had. I really hope that we can work through these stigmas and that, one day, blog posts like this won’t be necessary. But until then I hope some part of my story was helpful.
As for me, I’m still clawing my way out of the hole. There are days where it goes more smoothly than others, and days where I lose my footing and fall down farther than I would like. But I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who are there to help when I need it. And writing is finally a tool that helps me, rather than sets me back.
If you’re like me and you’ve convinced yourself that your stories aren’t worth being told, write them anyway. Create things that are so uniquely you that it’s terrifying to put them out in the world, and then put it out there anyway. Someone out there needs your art.
If you’re struggling right now, please know that you’re not alone. If you don’t think you’re good enough, you are. You might not believe me, and that’s okay. One day you will.
Be as kind to yourself as you would be to others. I know it’s hard, but please, remember to do this. Take a break from writing if you need to. Write like wind if you need to. Go at your own pace. Write for yourself. And, most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.
Slowly but surely, we can chip away at the stigmas surrounding us as we work through who we were, are, and want to be.
I shared my story with you today. I can’t wait to hear yours, whenever you’re ready.
Alex Brown is a YA Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror author, who’s made it a life goal to subvert the ‘bury your gays’ trope in every story she writes. She is one of the inaugural recipients of the SCBWI’s On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award and is proud to be the biracial daughter of a Filipina immigrant! Alex Brown hopes to pursue a career in TV and film, bringing stories with more diverse characters and perspectives to the big and small screen. She’s also one of the co-creators and producers of The Bridge, a spooky, folklore-filled audio drama podcast that has over 1,000,000 downloads to date! You can find her on Twitter @gravity_fail09.