“Deconstructing My Depression”: A Film by Sally Tran

deconstructing

Two pictures with blue background lighting of a short-haired person of Asian descent. On the left, the person is standing against a wall that has a large image of bare feet projected on it; on the right is an up-close shot of the person sitting at a desk, looking down and resting forehead on hand with a concerned expression.

Sally Tran is a filmmaker based in the Bay Area, where they previously made the film “API Hair & Queerness” (which we interviewed them about a few months ago). “Deconstructing My Depression” is a nine-minute short that follows Sally’s experiences at college, in therapy, and with family as they reflect on their histories and current realities of mental health and trauma.

The film and Sally make clear that discussions of mental health need to talk about “systems of power that are constantly producing chronic stress,” delving into how institutions of class, race, ethnicity, and gender all affect Sally and their family’s experience. Living in the U.S., Sally says their Vietnamese parents view depression as a “Western construct for the weak and privileged,” and though Sally turns to therapy, they recognize its limits. “I piled all of my worries on a single body with a title ‘therapist’ on top,” they say in the film, “hoping to find an answer to all of my troubles, forgetting that these troubles have the possibility of never going away.”  

[content warning for film: descriptions of depression, PTSD, anxiety attacks]

(Transcript available.)

In an email interview, Tran talked to As[I]Am about how they came to shed consciousness on the many factors — family, race, gender, etc. — they now consider when thinking about mental health in their life and in QTPOC communities:

[content warning for interview: mentions of sexual/physical violence, depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide]

As[I]Am: Hi, it’s great having you here again. Could you introduce your film and yourself to our readers?

Sally: Hello, my name is Sally Tran and I am a 2nd generation Vietnamese-American genderqueer FEMME boi. I’m originally from Vallejo, CA (East Bay Area) and currently reside in San Francisco, CA. I am an ARTivist through mediums of writing and film. I graduated at University of California, Santa Barbara with a major in Feminist Studies and a minor in Asian-American studies.

As[I]Am: In the months since you’ve released the film, what have audience responses been like? Have people described your film and work to you in ways that surprise you?

Sally: Honestly, before I released the film, I wasn’t mentally stable. I actually didn’t think I was going to finish this film project, so seeing this film blow up in a good way was actually very surprising for me. So before I go into details of how audiences responded to my film, I wanted to talk a bit about the process of how this project started.

Throughout my undergraduate years at UCSB, I was battling with chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. It’s funny because, my whole life I thought I had a perfect childhood. I thought I was “normal” and that everything around me were butterflies and rainbows. When my friend and I started sharing our childhood narratives growing up, I began to self-realize that “hey… something’s off… i think my childhood was actually really shitty.” Not until I attended UCSB (taking Feminist and Asian-American Studies courses), I began to discover this “political language” that I thought was supposed to be “empowering” and “uplifting” for me… but it actually was the opposite. I was overwhelmed, frustrated, and lost when I began to realize and accept what I’ve been struggling to battle with and what I have experienced in the past.

So, when I was a kid I was sexually assaulted and physically abused. My sophomore year at UCSB I was also sexually taken advantage of which caused me to build a lot of self hate. I wanted to run away from all of my problems. As a result, my mental challenges started to negatively affect how I performed in my academics.

Even though I was highly involved in both people of color spaces and queer organizations, I wanted to only work on issues that didn’t involve my own. I didn’t want to take care of myself because I’d rather take care of someone or something else. Matter of fact, I was scared to ask for help. I had too much pride. I was still operating on this Vietnamese ideology that “mental challenges are for the weak” because “we have other things to worry about” like school, food, shelter, physical survival, etc. I kept asking myself, “How do I explain this to my parents? How do I talk about sexual assault, depression, PTSD? How will they handle it?”

Understanding the long history of how my parents came to the U.S. and all of the sacrifices they’ve made in the hopes to give a better future for their children and future generations, I couldn’t help but feel like I had to do better… and doing “better” could only operate within the educational institution… within grades… within my career. It had to pay off somehow.

But operating on this “perfect model-minority myth” was too hard for me. In my senior year, I finally decided to seek professional help. I went through four different therapists when I finally found one I got along with, but even seeing a therapist (at the time) wasn’t still enough for me to improve.

I began to become hopeless about the world. Hopeless in the sense that it wasn’t going to get better for me. I was tired of hearing this “It gets better” campaign shit. Maybe if you’re white and have resources, it might? Because for me, being low-income, queer and differently abled, how was it? The world was so dark and brutal that I no longer wanted to be a part of it. For three years straight, I have literally failed a class in each quarter, making my grade point average suffer. I couldn’t focus in school. I had no motivation to do well anymore, I couldn’t even get out of bed. I just began to rot. Then that’s when I attempted to take away my life… twice. Thankfully, with my therapist and police involved, I decided to withdraw from the courses that I took at UCSB, and began to work on mental health.

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