Issue 09: My job was killing me, so I quit. Should I feel guilty?
On immigrant survivor's guilt
In the days leading up to my trip to New York earlier this month, I woke up with blood on my pillow.
Apparently, I'd been biting my lower lip in my sleep. My lips were swollen, I felt uneasy, fidgety, anxious and just ugly. No medications or ointments were helping. Then came the headaches, further aggravated by the newsroom's fluorescent bulbs. I stopped coming into the office and worked under the dim lighting of my bedroom.
The heart palpitations followed, triggered by the headlines of the day. I didn't have the energy to cope with the onslaught of news, so I kept saving stories to read "later." I’ve yet to get to them.
But worst of all, I could feel my spinal nerve injury preparing for a comeback.
One fall day two years ago, feeling a bit dizzy, I left work early and fell asleep before 5 p.m. When I opened my eyes, I instinctively attempted to reach across my bed to check the time on my phone, which sat on the bedside table to my right. I sleep on the left. My fingers were tingling, and I couldn't move.
Maybe if I rolled over, I thought, I could make it from the bed to the ground, crawl over to my phone and call for help. When I tried, an excruciating pain shot down my back like bullets of wildfire aiming at the vertebrae along my spine. As the fire finally struck my tailbone, I jolted. Before I could even muster up the strength to make another move, I had passed out.
I don't know how long I was in the dark. It could've been half a millisecond, maybe a minute, maybe 20. But when I woke up from the strange fainting, my puppy’s body felt warm and heavy lying on my chest, like she'd been on top of me for a while. She began incessantly licking my face in panic as I flinched. Her unsettling whimpers eventually turned to squeaky, joyous howls as I whispered, "Hi, gorgeous," the morning greeting I'd been using on her since she was just a five-week-old ball of fluff. How long had I been out?
I finally managed to crawl to the bedside table and pick up my phone. It was a little after 10 a.m. the following day. I immediately called my mom.
The pinched nerves in my coccyx, or tailbone, were all induced by stress, doctors said. I had no other underlying medical issues of concern.
This was around the time the President of the United States ended the DACA program, around the time Hurricane Maria had devastated Puerto Rico and our government failed to help our fellow countrymen. I was also in the middle of interviewing a father coping with the suicide death of his teenage daughter.
Ever since I died and came back to life—as I tend to remember the coccyx injury—I've been obsessed with managing my posture and prioritizing comfort while working. I bought a standing desk, a desk cycle, wrist splints and typing gloves. I keep a coccyx pillow in my car, one at work, one at my parents' place and one in my apartment. I have a foldable one for travel. It goes to coffee shops with me, sometimes even to lengthy interviews. I also book at least one back massage every couple of months.
My friends, coworkers and family tend to joke around about the lengths I'll go just to feel comfortable. And I get it. Typing gloves? What the hell are typing gloves? (They're just fingerless gloves). My hands freeze up sometimes and the pain is unbearable. Cold office temperatures make the chronic pain worse. The dumb fingerless gloves actually help. I try to make light of all this, chalk all my "self-care" purchases and habits as my being, well...extra, a little selfish even. I can imagine my parents rolling their eyes. I constantly feel guilty for doing so much for myself.
But in all honesty, I'm just trying to keep up.
I am so afraid my body will give up on me again and that next time, maybe I won't reopen my eyes. When you deal with bouts of depression, your mind has a way of disappointing you when you least expect it. If my mind and my body both fail me, then what? What’s left of me?
My family and I left for New York just a few days after the mass shooting at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California. I remember being in so much physical pain that week. In a span of just 10 days, I'd booked three massages and purposefully ignored my bank account.
Faiz and I had tickets to a Saturday afternoon showing of Aaron Sorkin's "To Kill A Mockingbird" on Broadway and I was eager to sip on some Pinot Grigio, turn my phone off, and get lost in the arts.
By intermission, my mascara proved unworthy of its waterproof label. I looked around and realized I was the only one sobbing uncontrollably, and that made me feel even worse. Strangers asked if I was alright. My brother didn't know what to say, what to do. I've always internalized pain to an extent he never quite understood. The arts (and the wine) let me spill, I guess.
After the show, I turned my phone back on. It was a little after 4 p.m. on August 3.
The number of victims eventually skyrocketed to 22.
"Did you hear about El Paso?" my brother asked as we settled back into our hotel room.
I kept to myself, put on a smile for my parents and joined them for dinner.
The next morning, I woke up lightheaded, my back in pain, my lips bloody and swollen. I walked down to the hotel lobby. Engrossed, guests held the The New York Times' El Paso coverage in their hands as CNN's chyron spelled out the loss of another nine lives overnight, this time in Dayton, Ohio, on all three lobby TVs.
I haven't had news notifications or news apps on my phone for a couple of years now, so I didn't know about the second shooting until I walked into the hotel lobby that Sunday morning. I fell deeper within myself, but didn’t let my body react.
When I hugged my brother goodbye the following day, I was ready to erupt.
"Here, a valid excuse!" my brain justified to the rest of my body as its audience. "You're dropping your baby brother off. Sure, you've lived without him for over a decade and not once have you felt living apart hurt your close relationship, but if you cry now, it's like...normal! Right?? Like, you...love him a lot and will miss him! THE TIME IS NOW. CRY!!"
I sobbed like a maniac as we called a cab to the airport. My parents were confused. Faiz was confused. My brain understood.
The three of us landed in Atlanta that evening, and I drove back to my apartment. Around 4 a.m., I texted my mom.
"I think I’m going to take some time off from work, ease into a different role," I wrote, shocked by how quickly my fingers were able to hit send.
I told my mom I think the news industry might be taking a toll on my health. That I’m not itching for life, and I might be itching for the opposite instead. That I need to spend my time really writing, on my own. To heal, to create, to be. I finished each sentence off with a reassuring “I don't know.” I know it's not just the industry to blame. It's everything. The rhetoric. The helplessness. And so on.
After sending the text, I breathed for what felt like the first time in days and tried to shut my eyes for a couple of hours, knowing I wouldn't be able to properly sleep until I got more closure.
It's not like me to make rash decisions. I’m not a risk-taker and tend to weigh the pros and cons and "see all sides" to the point that I find myself playing devil's advocate with what I know and feel is right.
"What am I doing?" I thought to myself. "Why would I leave a full-time gig with benefits at a legacy newsroom for...for the unknown? Is this a mistake? Am I just weak? Why can't I handle this?”
I called upon a leader I trusted in the newsroom. Before she even sat down in the conference room chair across from me, I broke down.
Again, very unlike me.
She told me to get out now, to make the decision soon, before I changed my mind. Nothing in the world is more important than taking care of my health, she reminded me. The next morning, I told my boss, and that was that. My last day at The AJC: Friday, Aug. 30.
I haven't been in physical pain since I gave my notice three weeks ago, and that says something, I think. My body feels invincible, my brain unclogged. My lips, by the way, are completely healed.
I am excited for the first time in ages, eager to do more, whatever "more" might look like. I can't wait to just write, to feel less burdened after every headline, to have more time, to express myself, to just be.
The uncertainty doesn’t scare me.
Is this what it's like to want to be alive? Did I just need to leave a sense of "stability" behind to get hungry for life again?
"Or," a ghost whispers in my ear, "are you just taking the easy way out? Are you simply too weak to handle pain? Where’s your resilience? Will you always let your depression control you?"
At the end of the day, we're all struggling, aren't we? Some more than others, sure. But we can either find viable ways to cope, or do nothing. Trust me when I say I know I'm privileged. I do not have children to care for, and if in six months I can't support myself financially, I have people to lean on.
But as someone who's had no real thirst for life since she was a teenager, if letting my depression control me means cutting the cord from stressors that keep me from wanting to live another day, from feeling strong in my skin, I'll gladly let it pave the way.
There is, however, one aspect of all this risk-taking that's letting the ghost of guilt tiptoe closer to my ears.
And that's the guilt that comes with being an immigrant, a child of resilience. As immigrants, we're taught to power through when the going gets tough. That's how we've survived as a people. Other minorities and groups with limited power can relate, I'm sure.
It's that "keep your head down and do your work" mentality, my friend Sonam Vashi wrote to me in an email. A mentality that applies “to a lot of different immigrant groups, but particularly ones who feel like they're 'lucky' to be in the U.S. and were afforded an opportunity that their communities back home weren't."
I feel that to my core. I am lucky.
"There's much to be celebrated about that humble way of thinking," Sonam says, "but it's also unrealistic—and harmful—to go through life thinking you can do it alone."
It's that mentality of private resilience that's kept our elders and previous generations from asking for help and potentially embracing a happier, more fulfilling and healthier life. It might even contribute to generational resentment, to the constant debate around: Do we deserve to put ourselves first if our parents didn't get the same chance?
I felt the universe was reaching out to me in a way, because just as I was writing this all down, I found this story from journalist Kimberly Lawson, a fellow Georgia-based writer who left a salaried newspaper position to take the full-time freelance plunge. Mostly, she said, she was just unhappy.
“My mom, of course, couldn’t wrap her head around the idea of me voluntarily leaving the security of a regular staff position — with benefits, mind you — for work that was so unpredictable,” Kimberly wrote. Her mom suggested she go back to school instead.
Like Kimberly’s mom, my parents, too, have fallen under the impression that racking up academic degrees will somehow lead to better-paying work no matter the industry.
“Rather than try to understand why I didn’t want a PhD… or the reasons behind me taking this leap of faith to work for myself, she said nothing,” Kimberly wrote. “She never asked about the stories I wanted to write, how I thought I was going to get assignments, or even what I planned to do if this didn’t work out.”
Even as Kimberly’s freelance business began to succeed, she could feel the growing disconnect between her and her mother, their silence “so deafening that I didn’t even bother to tell her about my first New York Times byline last year.”
This isn’t uncommon in immigrant families, Angie Y. Chung, sociologist and author of Saving Face: The Emotional Costs of the Asian Immigrant Family Myth told Kimberly.
“Part of it has to do with the context in which people live their lives,” Angie says. “Immigrants usually leave their home countries for a profound reason: war, poverty, persecution. They’re often looking for a way to give their children better opportunities in life.”
Many immigrant parents don't think to prioritize emotional satisfaction, personal happiness or fulfillment the way their children have learned to desire in contemporary America.
For them, it was just about surviving.
“Even if they become successful themselves,” Angie said, “they can’t get out of that mentality, because, again, they sacrificed a lot to get to that point. Because of that, they don’t understand our need for personal fulfillment. They still see this antiquated version of their homeland country, where it was always about survival and competition.”
Kimberly still worries she’s disappointed her mom by choosing a career that won’t necessarily guarantee the big bucks.
“As one second-generation interviewee in Chung’s book said about feeling obligated to repay his parents for their sacrifices, ‘You want them to think that what they did had some meaning and you don’t want to be a fuck-up.’”
Kimberly wants her mom to know and feel “her sacrifices made a difference, not only in my own life, but maybe also in the lives of the people who learn something from my stories… I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”
My mom has always had an open mind since she was a kid, and she was incredibly supportive of my decision to quit. My dad isn't in the exact headspace; He’s quite vocal about his doubts and I think it’ll always be an uphill battle trying to prove to him I’ve got what it takes to succeed.
But despite hinting at going back to school and getting a PhD (in what exactly, I don’t know), even he was surprisingly supportive. “You seem really excited,” he told me. I have been visibly enthusiastic since making my decision.
“Maybe one day I’ll get you to actually read my stuff,” I said, only half joking.
As news of my leaving spread around the newsroom, colleagues have asked where I'm headed next, some expecting me to say I've got a great gig lined up with better pay, better visibility, more power. I knew to expect that reaction because it’s the exact reaction I’ve given anytime someone left a full-time job in journalism. These gigs aren’t easy to get or keep, as folks in the industry know.
But no, nothing of the sort. I’ll be writing a lot more, spending time on stories and people I care about. Making room in my life for pleasure. Creating art. Maybe actually going back to school for my MFA, not because my parents will be outrageously elated, but because I think it’s time for some structured learning. I’ve got books to publish and places to see. Maybe I’ll move abroad. Maybe I’ll stay right here in Atlanta. Maybe I’ll become a digital nomad with a 60-pound mutt sidekick.
I honestly don’t know what the future holds, but I can’t explain how reinvigorating it feels to actually see a future for myself at all.
Guilt and mental health: What's the connection?
What exactly is guilt?
Guilt, considered one of the “sad” emotions along with agony, grief and loneliness, “follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case,” according to Psychology Today.
From a cognitive approach, people who suffer from chronic guilt or feel guilty on a regular basis “mistakenly suffer under the illusion that they have caused other people harm.”
Guilt and mental well-being
Guilt often leads to self-doubt, shame and overall lower self-esteem. It’s also common for those feeling guilty to struggle with concentration, productivity, creativity and efficiency. It brings out “The Dobby Effect,” which Psychology Today refers to as “a psychological tendency for people to employ self-punishment to ward off feelings of guilt.”
People with mental illnesses often feel guilty just for having a mental illness. This has to do with the idea that you’re burdening your loved ones with your pain. People with bipolar disorder and major depression may have heightened levels of guilt during their depressive episodes.
There are multiple types of guilt, but the one today’s issue focuses on is called survivor’s guilt.
A majority of first-gen immigrants leave home and go to college to “repay” or help out their families. While many are labeled “savior” or “delegate,” students also struggle with what’s called breakaway or survivor’s guilt, conflicted feelings that their “desire for education and upward mobility may be viewed as a rejection of their past,” not to mention the guilt of physically leaving loved ones behind. (London, 1989)
Other studies have reiterated that: “An emotion central to key motivations in the migration process is guilt. In the words of one migrant daughter; ‘Guilt, guilt, guilt is what all migrants face!’” (Baldassar, 2014)
For undocumented Latino youth, compounding guilt, anxiety and despair is becoming increasingly common in America’s volatile anti-immigrant climate where their futures are already at risk. (Vargas and Ybarra, 2017)
Documented immigrant students safe from deportation have “a hyper-awareness of the vulnerability of loved ones,” a survivors’ guilt that can interfere with their education. (UCLA)
Refugees who survive traumatic events like war or illness often experience survivor’s guilt that can lead to issues that keep them from positively settling into a new society. (Simich and Andermann, 2014)
In general, children who show excessive guilty behavior may be at risk for a host of mood disorders in adulthood. “Children whose parents used guilt-inducing tactics were far more likely to internalize their problems.” Depression and anxiety are both examples of internalizing disorders. (Belden, Barch and Oakberg, 2015)
A generational outlook: Immigrant parents are known to be primarily concerned with making the best of a new environment and retaining traditional family life, and that leads them to focus on the future, emphasize discipline and scholastic achievement. When children respond to these demands “in an unexpected way,” parents wonder, “Can’t they understand that I wouldn’t have chosen a life here if it hadn’t been for them? What should I do to keep my children from losing their cultural roots and from assimilating too much?” (Zhou, 1997)
Note: There is much more academic research on adult immigrants and less on their offspring or subsequent generations. Have you read a study that debunks or perpetuates some of the experiences you've read in this issue? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org!
What can you do if you're struggling with survivor's guilt?
As I mentioned above, it’s normal for people with mental illnesses to feel guilty or fear you’re burdening loved ones with your pain. If you struggle with this, HealthyPlace Medical Director Dr. Harry Croft suggests asking yourself this question:
Am I truly responsible for what happened?
No one is responsible for simply having a mental illness.
If you’re dealing with survivor’s guilt and that’s compounded with a mental illness, work on upping your confidence. According to Healthline, doing so ultimately helps prevent self-blame.
What can you do to build more confidence? Here's what I've gathered from Healthline and from personal experience:
Get to know yourself.
Slow down and unplug.
Celebrate small victories.
Take extra care of your personal hygiene and don't be afraid to pamper yourself every now and then.
Recognize who isn't adding kind energy to your life and consider spending less time around them. This also goes for workplaces.
Talk to your parents or loved ones.
Therapy, therapy, therapy...
Have any practical tips I can share with the group next time? Send 'em my way!
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I mentioned this one up above, but take some time to read Kimberly Lawson’s essay “My Korean Mother Doesn’t Understand My American Success” for ZORA. It’s lovely and I still can’t believe how it found me just when I needed it. Read here.
Survivor’s guilt can keep you “solely in survival mode,” as Laura S. Veira-Ramirez wrote in a column for The Harvard Crimson. It can worsen your mental health by keeping you from talking about your problems with family. “I struggle with my self-care, as I keep my struggles silenced: I’m used to minimizing them, since it always feels like there’s somebody who has it worse. That’s the mentality I grew up with.” Anytime there was a tragedy in the news, Laura’s mom reminded her to be grateful for their lives. But that’s invalidating. “One person’s suffering shouldn’t erase someone else’s.” What we need to keep in mind, as Laura realized, is her mom’s reactions were just coping mechanisms. “She doesn’t have the same access to mental health support that I do now.” Read here.
“No matter how flawed it is I keep thinking that I can power through it, fix it, push through. But I rarely take the time and actions to fix the damn thing. I’m still here. I won’t give up. And that’s how boxers go brain dead.” I love this stream-of-consciousness post from Asian American Hyun Kim, “The Courage to be Courageous.” It’s quite fitting with today’s theme, I’d say. Read here.
In “I Make More Than My Immigrant Mom Ever Has. But I Can Never Repay Her,” Matt Ortile talks candidly for BuzzFeed News about the guilt of succeeding or chasing the opportunities of generations past. “Once, my mother told me that I’d wound up living her own dreams. In Manila, she’d wanted to work in media, but her mother had insisted there was no money in it… I have ‘a better life’ only because my mother placed hers at the American altar. That tang of guilt is how my own immigrant privilege tastes.” A must-read. Read here.
Lots of great stories here in this Bustle piece highlighting 10 first-gen women going against the grain. “With my dad, we actually had more issues when I decided to quit my corporate job. He said that I had all this stability: a near-six-figure salary, health insurance, and more. It makes sense he would crave a steady income and predictability considering what he had to do so I could have the opportunities he wished he had growing up,” says aspiring lawyer-turned-wedding planner Michelle Perez. Read here.
“Every night I unceasingly feel like I should be doing more. Mentally, financially, and creatively. Are my choices good enough?” Julia Khait Bruce, a first-gen immigrant whose parents escaped the anti-Semitism of the former U.S.S.R for a better life in San Francisco, writes for Kveller.com about feeling guilty for choosing to be a stay-at-home mom. Read here.
ICYMI... Meet our new copyeditor, Hanaa’ Tameez!
Hanaa’ Tameez is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Jersey. She helps fact-check and edit the newsletter. Hanaa' was previously the diversity reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas where she covered race, identity and social equity. She holds an M.A. from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a concentration in bilingual journalism. She has previously worked for Animal Político and The Wall Street Journal in Mexico, Americas Quarterly and The Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the Green Bay Press-Gazette in Wisconsin.
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Foreign Bodies is a monthly e-mail newsletter dedicated to the unique experiences of immigrants and refugees as they relate to coping with mental illness and wellness. It’s written and curated by Atlanta-based writer Fiza Pirani with copyediting and fact-checking help from New Jersey-based independent journalist Hanaa’ Tameez. Want to contribute your time or share your own #ForeignBodies story? Send an email to email@example.com or say hi on Twitter @4nbodies. Special shout-out to Carter Fellow and friend Rory Linnane for the adorable animated logo!