How Grandma’s Dementia Taught Me to Prioritize Wellness Over Resilience

How her grandma’s battle with dementia taught Jocelyn Wong that she needed to break cultural norms and prioritize wellness over resilience to protect her mental health.

Disclaimer: This article discusses subject matter that some readers may find triggering, including racism, violence, and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

“I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I’m exhausted by the strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many.” 

— Zandashé L’Orelia Brown

image of empty bed - prioritize wellness over resilience
Photo credit: lilliekate on Flickr

It’s March 2021. In Grandma’s room, clothes and old cards from grandchildren are sprawled on every surface. The bed is undone and every drawer has been pulled out, inspected, and promptly turned upside down. Pill bottles have been emptied, decorating every corner of the room with tiny little pink and blue tablets.

Someone’s been searching for something they seemingly cannot find — but by no means will that stop their pursuit. When a person tries to intervene and calm the situation, the creator of the mess vehemently accuses them of stealing all her money. In fact, when anyone comes near by even so much as a metre, she pulls out a kitchen knife and threatens to kill. 

Loved ones of the paranoid woman fearfully stand and console her for what feels like the span of a century until finally, she’s feeling more tired than delirious. It soon becomes clear that no money ever existed in the first place. When a trip to the doctor’s office is proposed, the weathered-looking culprit complies. 

This culprit is my 91 year old grandma.

Colonialism breeds intergenerational trauma

Like many of my Asian family members and friends, my grandma has lived a traumatic life at the hands of colonial harm. Much of the stories I’ve heard about my family’s past have been fragmentary. They come up casually during family dinners, woven between mundane conversation and remarks from old aunties that we’re either getting ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny.’ 

Nonetheless, like loose threads on our favourite t-shirts, stories from my family about world wars, food scarcity, deep poverty, and more have always existed; they’ve just never really been unraveled. I thought all families had diaspora stories like the ones my racialized loved ones held. 

More importantly, I thought that everyone kept or were meant to keep these stories silent. It wasn’t until my grandma was admitted into a dementia ward last spring that I truly began to challenge this deeply ingrained belief. 

Traumatic upheaval

Close to the time of Atlanta’s tragic massage parlour shooting, where eight people were killed (six of whom were Asian women), I received a call from my mom regarding my grandma’s state. 

As I listened to her speak, I saw the world crumble around me. 

image of sad woman from behind - prioritize wellness over resilience
Photo credit: Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

A week prior to this event, a Caucasian professor had told me that my tone in an email was ‘harsh,’ ‘unprofessional’ and ‘uncalled for.’ I had only been asking for clarification on a school project.

During that same period, I had been dating a man double my age and socioeconomic class who went on to dump me for having ‘too small of an ass’ and ‘too serious of an attitude.’

For the first time in my adult life, I encountered a racist person at work, where a customer called me an ‘uneducated chink’ and flipped me off. 

It’s safe to say that during this time, I wasn’t doing very well.

See also: Mental health tips to cope with anti-Asian racism

In my mind, mental health assistance was rewarded only to those in the most dire of cases. Now, after 22 years of silent suffering, and a barrage of additional trauma, I’ve finally deemed my situation to be severe enough. But it took a lot for me to get there. 

And so, as I listened to my mom’s shaky voice deliver the news about my grandma over the phone last March, the words formed in my mind and could no longer be repressed. 

“I am not okay.”

We need to stop prioritizing resilience over personal wellness 

For millennia, Asian folks have been raised to feel as though they are superhuman — or at least as though they should always act that way. As a cultural group, we have endured vast and traumatic diasporic journeys. We are strength in human form. We have always been exemplary at making ends meet—of being resilient. But have we acknowledged the equally important need for us to prioritize wellness over resilience?  

While my grandma has lived a tough and gritty life of sacrifice, her story isn’t all that unique. There’s a plethora of tales from immigrants outlining the struggles they’ve faced in their journeys towards a ‘better’ Canadian or American life. 

Yet, rather than reaping the rewards from their hard work, people like my grandma lay in bed at night — perpetually worried about providing monetary assistance to their marginalized families. To her, and my similarly tough AAPI brothers and sisters, words like ‘depression’ and ‘therapy’ are for the rich and colourless. The most important word in their minds is actually ‘survival.’ 

My grandma, for example, is extremely tough. She was forced to abandon her hometown and most of her loved ones in Vietnam during a particularly turbulent battle in the Vietnam War. She grew tired of waiting for assistance after staying in multiple refugee camps in surrounding regions with foreign people and foods she didn’t know. Soon after, she and the three youngest of her children embarked on a journey to Canada. To grandma, you move forward or you give up. 

See also: How I overcame cultural expectations to regain control of my mental health

Breaking the cycle 

While the pandemic has surely brought loss and destruction, for me, March was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It made me see the sheer magnitude and impact of this time on a racialized person’s reality. In many ways, this time of complexity prompted me to finally acknowledge that a vicious cycle needed to be broken. 

image of woman looking out of a window - prioritize wellness over resilience
Photo credit: dashu83 on Freepik

Despite being immensely proud of what my family has been able to achieve against the systemic oppression they’ve faced, their penchant for simply carrying through has historically undermined my ability to practice true wellness. 

From the ages of four to six, I was molested by someone in my life that I should have been able to trust. I told no one and blacked out the memories out of fear that this violation would be dismissed as not being severe enough. 

I began exhibiting signs of the abuse in my teenage years via panic attacks and traumatic nightmares. And yet I still felt as though I were unworthy of seeking help. I was raised hearing my grandma’s stories of suffering that seemingly eclipsed what I had experienced. She didn’t need any help, so why would I?

It took me 22 years to acknowledge the abuse I never deserved. Even now, I worry that my trauma is nothing compared to people like my grandma. Despite finally taking the steps to prioritize wellness and mental health over resilience, there’s still room to learn and unlearn. 

See also: Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic as a sexual assault survivor

Big changes start small 

As my grandma’s dementia worsens, I work to record the many experiences she remembers onto paper. I can’t help but feel as though other Asian folks need a reminder that it’s okay to show their cracks and accept care from others. 

While I may idolize the superhuman strength of the members in my family who’ve survived calamity, I also equally mourn the fact that like countless others, they and I have had to suffer alone and in silence for so long. And while there may be a way to give energy to both of these sides, I want members of the AAPI to reclaim the support and care they deserve. 

image of a hand reaching out towards the sun - prioritize wellness over resilience
Photo credit: Todd Rhines on Unsplash

We are only human, after all. As more instances of anti-Asian hate crime crop up around the world, we continue to navigate a time of deep complexity. I see great power in asking for and receiving help. 

Self care should be practiced collectively — not insecurely. There’s an undoubtable duality that exists within the realm of immigrant experiences and intergenerational trauma. 

Read more: Healing in Colour

If we’re to move forward as a more equitable and empathetic society, we must begin the work from within—to prioritize wellness over resilience. Because dealing with mental health issues is not a sign of weakness. 

It’s a basic human right.

Featured photo credit: Jeremy Wong on Unsplash

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