The following article contains material that some people may find distressing, including reference to bullying and sexual abuse. If you find yourself in need of assistance, visit beyondblue.org.au or call our Support Service on 1300 22 4636.
Ashley grew up in Shanghai, an only child. With her mother and father away working in Japan, she was raised by her maternal grandparents who provided her with much-needed stability and love.
“My parents were these two strangers who I wasn’t emotionally connected to,” she says. “But then, when I was 10, they asked if I wanted to go to Australia because my dad had been offered a job there.
“I didn’t know anything about Australia apart from kangaroos, so I just said okay. If they had asked me when I was older, I’d have said, ‘Umm… Let me think about it for five years.’”
It was 2004 and the family moved to Melbourne, where Ashley was enrolled in a prestigious private girls’ school. There, she would have her own ESL teacher – thankfully, since she could only speak Mandarin (she was just one of two non-English-speaking girls in her year). Even so, she had to deal with an intense culture shock that not only existed in the school environment, but was exacerbated in the family home.
“I could only talk to my grandparents by using phone cards, which wasn’t the same,” she says. “But more than that, I did everything their way, not my parents’ way. Like, I didn’t know how to shower and I didn’t eat bread.”
No matter how hard she tried to fit in – by agreeing with other girls no matter what the situation, and by making sure she had the right pencil case – Ashley found herself the target of bullies.
It changed me as a person, being called names and not understanding what people were saying about me.
“I couldn’t find anyone to help me with my homework and my parents weren’t very helpful about what was going on,” she says.
As Ashley observes, international students who come to Australia temporarily in their last years of high school or for university often flock together, but younger immigrant kids who have made a permanent move here tend to avoid each other in a desperate attempt to be accepted by the rest of their classmates.
“I’ve carried years of not wanting to be ‘the girl from China’, rejecting stuff about the culture that I might really enjoy,” she says. “Like, in the past few years I’ve realised I like watching Chinese TV shows. And that’s no- one else’s business!”
In early high school, Ashley started skipping class, then got into alcohol and other drugs. She considered school to be pointless when she could learn faster on her own at the library. Plus, school heightened her social anxiety.
Her parents wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer. Ashley chose the latter and did two years of law school in Canberra. Then her substance abuse – Ashley’s way of coping with the pain she felt inside – spiralled out of control, as did an eating disorder that had also begun in high school.
She had to return to Melbourne for treatment and, while in hospital, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
For the first time, her parents were forced to confront the trauma she had been through, but there was more going on than they had ever realised. During her school years, Ashley had experienced ongoing sexual abuse from a music teacher.
I didn’t tell anyone about it [the sexual abuse] until I blurted it out on my first day in hospital. Even then, I didn’t have a lot of insight. I wasn’t consciously going, ‘I’m gonna drink today because I want to dull my pain
With the help of a rehabilitation program, Ashley was able to detox and stop using drugs, but without that coping mechanism – and while struggling to stick to an eating plan – she made multiple suicide attempts. An intensive treatment program – including ongoing work with a psychiatrist, psychologist and a dietician, as well as attendance at psychiatric day programs – got her back on track.
Upon leaving hospital, she moved back in with her parents and, after a two-year break, switched to a university in Melbourne to continue her studies.
“It was very messy, but we had to start communicating and we’ve got to a point where we can live peacefully beside each other,” she says. “Mental illness is a taboo topic in Chinese culture. Although my parents’ understanding of my struggles has grown, they continue to believe that mental illness is partly due to an inherent character flaw, without recognising the complex and intertwined biopsychosocial causes. I continually attempt to educate them, but it’s frustrating and upsetting.”
Ashley believes that recovery from trauma isn’t linear. “Yes, there’s the point of surrender – which, for me, was going to hospital – but then there will be back and forth beyond that. It can be complex. I’m a lot more stable now, but once or twice a year, things might come up if I get triggered.”
Now, Ashley keeps a deliberately moderate pace through her studies and tries to monitor when she’s under stress. She has really learnt to embrace her identity and pursue the things that she loves doing, such as working with others who are struggling. She’s done stints of making meals for people who are homeless, and also works with Raise Foundation, mentoring at-risk students at high schools.
It means I get to meet people from all different walks of life,” she says. “That’s very valuable, instead of only seeing one section of society and deciding that’s what society is like.
“It also made a huge difference finding a hobby – I do a lot of sewing, like things for the animals in the bushfires, scrubs for nurses and gifts for family and friends.”
As we talk, she pushes back her chair and pulls onto her lap a white fluffy Japanese Spitz. Audrey is Ashley’s constant companion, and so much more than a pet.
“I’m still working on finding my tribe,” Ashley says, “but Audrey came into my life and saved me. Life felt empty, until there was this amazing fluff-ball that I had to look-after 24-7. Every time I get home, her wagging tail makes me feel like I’m loved and valued, for being just who I am.”
*not her real name
Where to get help
If you are from a diverse community and need support for your mental wellbeing, Beyond Blue has information and translated resources on our website, or you can google the ‘transcultural mental health service’ for your state or territory.
If you have been a victim of racism or discrimination, you can find out how to report it here.
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, 1800 RESPECT provides confidential sexual assault and family and domestic violence counselling via phone and webchat. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Phone 1800 737 732.
If an interpreter is necessary, you can request one via 1800 RESPECT, or call the Translation and Interpreting Service (TIS) on 13 14 50.
HeartChat is an online platform that connects people from under-represented communities with mental health professionals that match their cultural and religious beliefs. Available in multiple languages, the HeartChat website makes it easier for people who speak languages other than English to read and understand information about mental health.
You might also choose to visit Beyond Blue’s support services. Our mental health professionals are available 24/7 on: 1300 22 4636 or via web chat (1pm-12am AEST). Alternatively, contact us via email (responses within 24 hours).
For immediate support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and in an emergency, always call triple zero (000).