The Eastern European Mindset on Mental Health

By Rivka Yeker

Mental illness doesn’t exist to Eastern European immigrants, as they are stuck in their strict beliefs that everyone can pick themselves up from their bootstraps if they wanted to. There is something chilling and apathetic about that ideology, something that screams Ayn Rand and neoliberalism. Probably because that’s exactly what it is, and precisely why it’s harmful.

Growing up, my mind was perpetually wandering, I was always intrigued by the abnormal, by the uncomfortable. I was listening to albums that captured death and torment at nine years old, enamored by song lyrics that mentioned suicide. It was obvious that I started glorifying sadness from a young age, fascinated with its dark mysticism and the ambiguities of the way it exists. It never felt foreign, though, it always felt like a distant friend, something that I could always find comfort in.

As I got older, I started to understand that that my emotions and feelings were sporadic and sometimes even dangerous.  I experienced uncontrollable anxiety and bursts of overdramatic anger. I was worried. My parents were not, though. They reminded me that it was normal, my hormones were just all over the place, that it’ll pass. My parents never once decided that I was dealing with what was entirely out of my control, instead they were convinced that all of this craziness was easily tamed by learning how to breathe and exercise.

Those are two very helpful techniques to decrease anxiety and depression, but it will never get rid of them. This was a concept my parents simply couldn’t/cannot wrap their heads around, this was something that was ludicrous and out of the question. No matter how many times I begged for medication or a visit to a therapist, they refused, and I would be scolded if I were to have a panic attack in public.

Essentially, they believed that I was a spoiled little girl completely out of control. In some ways, they were right. But once they managed to kick the spoiled little girl out of me, with their cold Russian techniques, making sure I’d remind myself how hard they worked to get to where they are/where I am, I eventually became a more conscious and understanding person.

The depression and the anxiety didn’t go away, though. It fluctuated, sure, but it always remained somewhere in my fuzzy head.

Today, my mom asks me why my art always has to be so depressing.

My parents have always been aware of my strange tastes, whether it was in music, film, or literature; they have always questioned the value. They trained me to be an elitist, insisting that I appreciate high art, to essentially become a pretentious snob. They’ve accomplished that in some ways. Yet, they didn’t realize that by encouraging me to pursue a higher education, I’d actually bypass them intellectually and realize how wrong they are about most things. For one, there is no such thing as “real art” as my parents claim, and trying to be apart of a high-brow society when you aren’t filthy rich or American (if you live in America) seems ridiculous in itself.

My parents have a misconception of art today, even though they are huge appreciators of it. They have taken me to museums and plays since I’ve been a little kid, always exposing me to the beautiful and the eerie. I am forever grateful for that, but I sometimes worry about their mindsets during those trips. Which paintings were they intrigued by?

They aren’t artists. They read, even write sometimes, but they aren’t artists. Their friends are other Russian immigrants their age along with their Rabbi’s community of more Russian Jews. The majority of their friends are Russian people living in America, perpetuating the same viewpoints. They aren’t escaping their bubble, and they are very content with where they are.

So, when my mother asks me why depression seems to be popular amongst my friends, I begin to feel nauseous. When she asks me why I surround myself with people that claim themselves to be mentally ill, I feel sicker. When she says that she’s concerned, that she thinks they have a negative influence on me, I feel speechless, filled with anger.

I have explained to my parents countless amounts of times that I can’t simply turn my brain off. They have done everything in their power to make me work as hard as I do, by telling me that it’s all my personality and that I am “overemotional," refusing to claim any of my instabilities as a “disorder,” but I am seeing a therapist, and I am analyzing my actions and emotions. I am trying to find confirmation in something that has been invalidated my entire life. I am doing something they never did; I am making the crucial decision to work on my mental health and am taking the right steps to where I need to be.

I am trying to explain to my mother that my friends are my friends because they understand me more than any of my other friends ever have. I am trying to explain that the art community is filled with mentally ill people because art allows expression of the mind, something that every mentally ill person needs to survive. I am trying to explain that I have never been comfortable around anyone ever, that I always feel isolated regardless of who I am with, and that the people that I hang out with are the only ones that will ever make me feel safe in my identity.

But she still doesn’t get it. She thinks I need to explore different friend groups, probably find someone that likes tasting wine at vineyards and going to noncontroversial plays. Somehow I will find comfort in these people, she thinks. If she thinks that I make too much depressing art, that my poetry is never happy, that I am incapable of being optimistic, I want to show her how my day-to-day life is art, and that I am trying so hard to make it the kind of art she wants it to be.

Every day I get out of bed, go to class where I study media and film theory/analysis, creative writing, and public relations/advertising. I run an arts & culture magazine. I work as a barista bookseller at a book cafe, I freelance write, I am always searching for internships, and throwing events and hosting readings. I am always looking for new projects and writing essays on theories I am hoping to expand upon. I struggle with chronic headaches and migraines, and have been sick with an infection that has completely debilitated my life for the entirety of 2016, yet somehow, she is still convinced that I am losing a battle, that my optimism is somehow sunken and nowhere to be seen.

So when I make art that reflects depressive thoughts, or poetry that is drenched with negative emotional energy, I am not sorry. This is my therapy, the kind that has been deprived from me my entire life.

I do not blame my parents for being who they are; that is not their fault. They aren’t bad people, in fact, they are wonderful people. But, they have ideologies that have been ingrained in them since the Soviet Union, things that they grew up with, and things they thought they’d instill in me. They raised me to be unbelievably strong and determined, and I will cherish that for as long as I live, but I cannot defeat something that is apart of me; that would be like destroying myself entirely.