I remembered going to Naples municipal beach the morning I was forced to leave the United States.
It was a chilly day in Naples, the warm current had not come to the Gulf Coast. My high school found out about my PTSD and depression conditions and decided to cancel my student visa. I insisted on going to the beach that morning, so my parents took a detour, and we arrived at the seaside. We took off our shoes and walked down the coastline. The seawater was freezing, and my toes felt numb in the icing seawater. I just stood there, facing the ocean, saying my last goodbye.
I can see the 15 years old Richard, standing next to me, breathing in salty, humid air blowing from the Gulf Coast. He was scared but excited. He wondered about his future and dreams about his belonging in this land. He wanted to be accepted, to be successful, and to have a life. I look back at me and felt nothing. Antidepressants took away all my emotions. I can’t feel sadness, rage, or regret. My heart is calm, like a puddle of seawater trapped in the sand.
From a certain perspective, I think I am aware of having depression this whole time. It initiated as words and phrases in my diary, where I questioned my mental health after a long day at school. Then it progressed into insomnia. Then I had to push myself to get up every morning. I remembered countless nightmares and tearing up for no reason. I never thought of getting help. Not even once.
Then I had a PTSD episode. Two days later, Tricia Helenbolt from the Admission Office sat me down and told me that she had to cancel my student visa. I was forced to leave the United States in under 24 hours.
I kept wondering why I did not go get help. I asked my friend Sydney when typing down this sentence. She said depression was talked about in middle school. All I remembered is working on geometry worksheets throughout the seventh grade. Psychological health was never mentioned in schools from my memory. I remembered learning about depression through the Internet. When my favorite actor openly talked about his battle with depression. He said: Always keep fighting. I think I misinterpreted those words. He fought depression with medications and therapies. I fought depression alone. I fought by taking melatonin daily. I fought depression by using Oasis app, white noise machines, herbal teas, meditation podcasts, pillow sprays, and a costly light that trains you to breathe like a Tibetan monk. I thought it was just insomnia. I thought I was just tired and groggy. I never thought of getting help. Not even once.
So I looked back at middle school. My mother is a middle school teacher. She has over fifty students in her classroom, and each grade has over a thousand students. According to her, psychological health was never a part of the class schedule. It would not fit into the schedule when the students need to study for nine subjects to pass the High School Entrance Exam, and high school is the same. According to the data from July 2019, 2.1% of the population in China suffered from depression. That would be twenty-seven million patients. At the same time, twenty-eight hundred thousand people committed suicide annually in China. That makes up for a quarter of the global suicide count. But still, psychological health is not a part of education, just like when I graduated from middle school 5 years ago.
I left China 6 month after my middle school graduation. I arrived in Florida on January 1st, 2016. I remembered that day clearly. It was the first time for me to see the actual ocean: I saw seagulls flying above my head, dolphins swimming near the dock, and people surfing between the waves. I walked on the white sand beach with my sneakers and long khakis pants. Waves gently hit the shore and wetted my shoes, but I did not even notice. All I could see was the vast ocean. Blue, in-depth, and infinite. People were staring at me as I stood in the water with my sneakers on, waves were hitting my knees, but I did not care. I felt the ocean calling me. That was the moment that I saw Florida as my second hometown.
Exactly 3 years later, I stood on this beach, with a high dosage of antidepressants running in my veins, and an eviction date on my head. I wondered how I changed from that 15 years old boy — who barely speak English — to this 18 years old guy, being forced to leave this country. The beach was still the same: seagulls flying above my head, dolphins swimming near the dock, and people surfing between the waves. Currents pushed against my ankles and soaked my jeans.
That scene became a reoccurring dream: I looked into the ocean, and tears streamed down my face. The chilly wind quickly wiped them away.
I was no longer that uprising, positive guy with a head full of ambitions and dreams. I was restless, on edge, with medications suppressing all my emotions. How did I become this person? I asked myself that question when I was standing on the beach. I asked that question again when writing this essay. Was it because of depression or my lack of education? If I was educated on mental health, would I have the courage and strength to reach out for help? Would I be happy now if I got the help in time? I have no answers to those questions. I only know I am being punished, for the harms I once received, for the things out of my control.
Every time I look back to that scene, I feel the urge to weep, not only for my situations, but also for what I had become: The damaged dock is me, fleeing from Hurricane Irma all the way to Atlanta and came back to a flooded house with holes ripped on the wall; the coastline is me, walking down alone every time I found the loneliness in the foreign land too overwhelming; the palm tree is me, having a kiss with Glen and told him I love him; the white sand is me, collecting seashell samples to work on my individual research, and won fundings from research labs; the shallow sea is me, searching for algae and hermit crabs for my ocean demonstration projects; the Port Royal Club is me, celebrating with my teammates when I won the Model UN as the first international student. Florida changed me. All the things I have been through shaped me into a person I did not know. I gained knowledge, experiences, and global perspectives. But somehow I lost. I used all my strength to build my life here, to find a sense of belonging. Now I was forced to leave all of this behind: my support, my friends, my getaway, my sanctuary. I was being punished, for the harms I once received, because of the things out of my control.
As I was writing this, middle school kids in China are having their morning classes. They sit in the classrooms where I sat in; they work on the geometry worksheets I worked on; they face the entrance exam I faced; they have the same education I had. We do not know what depression or anxiety is. We do not know how to cope with grief or anger. We sat in our seats, preparing for the exam. Naively, idiotically. I wonder what they are thinking about. I wonder how they deal with pressure and anxiety. I wonder if I am the distant, possible future to them. I wonder if my mother is depression’s accomplice because her son suffered from depression, but there is still no psychological health education in the class schedule for her students.
I had to stop writing. Because I start to imagine thousands of teenagers standing in front of the mirror, holding knives, holding pills, holding pesticides, ready to end their lives.
I hope God is there to send them the helping hand I never received.
I had to kneel and pray.