Today I am thrilled to welcome Maya Gittelman to Shattering Stigmas with a fantastic post about how important books can be to our journeys of navigating identity and mental illness. Maya Gittelman is one of the coolest people I know. They write for Tor.com, The Body is Not an Apology, The Dot and Line and more. You can find them online on Twitter.
“Love was an opportunity, not a burden.”Adib Khorram, Darius the Great is Not Okay
For me, the intersection of biracial diaspora identity and mental illness have contributed to my personal sense of nonbelonging. My mother is Filipina, my father was Jewish, and I’m queer and nonbinary, living in America. I’m not Iranian, but like Darius in Darius the Great is Not Okay, the majority of my family is across the world in my mother’s homeland. And whenever we reunite, mental illness isn’t part of the conversation. Not in a productive way for me at least. It’s seen as a secret, a shame, or something fixable. Or something solely American.
“I hated that question: What are you depressed about?Darius the Great is Not Okay
Because the answer was nothing.”
There’s a specific catharsis that comes from reading a book that takes some of your deepest, most shameful aches and lays them bare. I haven’t gotten the chance to read the sequel yet, Darius the Great Deserves Better, but I’m so, so looking forward to it.
In this first book, Darius reckons with the privileges of being a diaspora kid, while also allowing room for the discomforts of racism, internalized racism, and feeling like a guest around your own family. And through it all, he’s depressed. He takes medication for his mental illness. Depression isn’t positioned as a solvable problem, or the core of his story—it’s just a part of him, something that colors his world, something he’s always carrying. And that’s what it feels like for me. While I’m wrestling with feelings of non-belonging, of navigating the liminal spaces of my identities, I’m also depressed. While I’m grieving, or going through family trauma like Darius does, I’m also depressed. And when I talk to people about my depression, whether they understand it or not—I’m still depressed. But there is a difference when someone genuinely listens. When they reckon with the fact that it’s a chemical imbalance, that it doesn’t have a root in external circumstances and, most importantly, that it’s not my fault. It’s not a personal failure, or a weakness, or a lack of character. Darius wrestles with this, and it means so much to him when Sohrab genuinely hears him out. It means so much when his father opens up and tells Darius that, for all his Übermensch behavior, his own depression has been a severe struggle too. It means so much to know we are not alone. As his father tells him, “It’s okay to not be okay.”
It is okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to not be okay in the specific experience of clinical depression. It’s okay to need to seek help, through therapy and through medication. It’s important, and it’s really common! But we’re still doing the work of destigmatizing depression, even for those of us who live with it. Darius the Great Is Not Okay tells depressed, queer, mixed, diaspora kids that you do belong, that your story and your struggle is valid—and you don’t need to be ashamed of it. And as a depressed, queer, mixed, diaspora adult, I felt this book help heal a part of me. In large part because Adib Khorram knows there are no easy answers! That depression stays with you, though your relationship to it can evolve. Healing isn’t linear, and it isn’t finite. But it’s cathartic to bear witness to that truth, too. To find community within the pages of this book, for the parts of myself that grew up feeling so alone. I come away from Darius feeling that for all the weight of my depression and my grief and the intersections of my identity, to love me—for others to love me, and for me to work to love myself—is not a burden.