Yvette Enrique knows what it’s like to struggle with “hiya,” or shame. She also understands what it’s like to feel the other side of “hiya,” known as “sayang” — in other words, feeling like a waste. Both of these concepts play a big role in Filipino culture: To be on the wrong side is akin to being ostracized in the community.
Growing up, however, Enrique looked like she was living the Filipino American dream. She attended private Catholic schools and took piano and dance classes. Shortly after high school, she became a nurse — a profession highly glorified among Filipinos across the diaspora. Internally, though, she was struggling. She lived in a household of domestic violence, and her parents got divorced when she was young. But it wasn’t something she felt like she could open up about.
Enrique started drinking alcohol and using cocaine when she was a teenager. Her family found out she was using cocaine and sent her to a short-term recovery program. But she kept using, which eventually became a gateway to methamphetamines. She was able to keep it under wraps from her family until it started affecting her work. At around 26 years old, she quit her job, not realizing at the time that she would eventually lose her license and quit nursing altogether.
Studies often suggest that Asian Americans have lower rates of substance abuse than people of other races, but mental health advocates say this belies the dark reality for the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States.
“Cultural stigma and shame and the lack of knowledge exacerbates the hidden nature of mental health,” said Diane Ujiiye, an activist and former substance abuse counselor. “So if you don’t access psychotherapy or counseling, certain kinds of medication — and I’m not a proponent to medicate quickly — then you’re going to seek other ways to cope, to numb the pain, to escape and to function.”
This erasure largely stems from the way data on substance abuse has been historically gathered to begin with. In fact, Asian Americans weren’t a category of data collection for various state agencies until the 1990s, Ujiiye said.
“If you don’t have the data, you don’t have the basis to advocate for federal, state, county funds for treatment services, so there’s the cycle,” she said. “No data, no services — ergo, no data, no services.”
It’s something that Enrique, who is now reunited with her family and working at AADAP as a case manager, wishes more people understood about dealing with addiction in Asian communities. She explained that enabling goes hand in hand with “hiya” because encouraging someone to go to treatment means something was wrong.
“That’s not something you want to admit to for your family, that there’s a problem, ’cause there should never be problems,” Enrique said. ”[But] it’s OK. It’s OK to get treatment. It’s OK to save your family, you know?”
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