“Heritable” by Tessa Kaur

16 October 2020 on Nonfiction  

“Have you ever thought about suicide?” My new psychiatrist asked me.

I focused my eyes on his shirt. What a stupid question to ask. Obviously, I thought about it constantly. I thought about it as I crossed the street, as I cut meat into small pieces with knives at dinner, as I stared out of my bedroom window, snaking my fingers through the metal grilles that stopped anybody from getting in, and me from getting out. Did any of his patients say no to that question? Did people come here if they didn’t want to kill themselves?

I did not say any of these things. I stared at his pale, purple pinstriped shirt. It matched the picture frame on his desk, the couch covers, the mousepad he used, even the sticky notes next to his left hand. I lifted my head, said “Yes” like a good, cooperative patient.

“Often?” he prodded.

“Yes,” I said again, the words a long exhale.

I didn’t want to break eye contact and make him think I was ashamed, although I was, or that the facts of my daily life made me uncomfortable, which they did. I tried not to blink. I tried to tame the wavering of my voice as it crept through octaves, cracking and breaking. Yes, I have nightmares, I told him. Yes, I find it hard to get out of bed most days, yes, I often find myself crying with no provocation. I rubbed the edge of his shiny desk with my thumb, wondering if it was real wood.

It was a small blessing that my psychiatrist had a face that was almost unkind. He looked like he could be my uncle, but the uncle that made a lot of money and thought he was better than you because he drove a Porsche. He seemed physically incapable of making those pitying eyes that most people start to make when you talk about being horribly sad. It made me like him more, even as he made me list off my traumas like I was reading a shopping list. Bullied in school, check. Multiple incidents of sexual assault, check. Self-esteem crushed as a child by authority figures, check. Used as my mother’s emotional dumping ground from young, also check.

He cracked a smile as I explained that I had first tried to kill myself by drinking liquid soap when I was ten, only to throw up violently in my toilet shortly after. Growing up had been hard on me, especially since I’d had Asian parents – there was always so much academic pressure on me that I thought I would crumple like a piece of paper at any second. Like a good child, I’d internalized that it was better to be dead than to disappoint my parents.

I described the pale green vomit to him, the way it tasted coming back up. I described how I imagined I would puke bubbles. He laughed, and then I laughed too, because it really was a ridiculous thing to picture – me, young face puffy with tears, spewing foam into the air from my mouth like a bubble gun.

“I think you know what’s wrong with you,” he said.

It wasn’t like I needed to hear the words “you have depression”, but after over a decade of adults telling me that I was just regular, store-brand sad, it was nice to have a middle-aged, certified authority figure tell me that I was actually sick.

“Yes,” I said. “Depression, anxiety.”

“Any family history?” he asked, tapping away at his keyboard.

I hesitated. Nobody in my family had ever killed themselves, nobody had ever been diagnosed with any mental illness, and nobody ever talked about being sad, let alone struggled to stay alive and functional. I also knew that depression lived in my house, sat at the dinner table with us, nestled between us on the couch as we all watched television in silence. It was a part of my family photos, standing in-between my brother and I like a third child.

There were a few seconds of awkward expectant silence.

“My mother,” I said, feeling a wave of resentment rise in my chest, and not knowing where it had come from. Doc keyed it into his computer, white desktop screen reflected in his glasses, then looked back up at me again, obviously waiting for more details.

I blanched. “She’s never been diagnosed, so maybe it doesn’t count,” I added quickly.

What a stupid thing to say, I thought almost immediately, dropping my head in embarrassment. For most of my adolescence, my mother had insisted precisely that about me – store-brand sadness, not real sickness.

He smiled, lips stretching thin, and said, “Tell me about that.”

I looked at him dumbly. My mother’s mind, her special brand of sickness, was impenetrable to me. I could predict what she was about to do, but never why. She was alternately spiteful and kind, cruel and gentle, rational and incomprehensible.

“What do you mean?” I asked, at a loss.

“Well, tell me how you know she’s depressed if she’s not diagnosed,” he said.

I looked at him with genuine confusion. Because she’s like me, I almost said. That wouldn’t mean anything to him, I realized. He was practically a stranger, after all.

I said instead, “Because she told me.” My doctor raised an eyebrow at me.

“When I told her, I wanted to see a psychiatrist, she told me she thought there was something wrong with her too,” I clarified.

“I see,” he said.

But that wasn’t really the truth. I’d known since I was a teenager, when I was old enough to know what mental illness was and that I had it. When I was young enough to still be wearing school uniforms, my mother would pick me up in her car and drive me home. Sometimes she would talk about her parents, and how much she loved and resented them.

“I was never good enough for them,” she always said. “I gave them so much money, I took care of myself, I never asked them for anything...”

She would rage on. This was not particularly strange to me, because she was Chinese, and her parents were typical Chinese parents – unkind and dissatisfied.

Then she would rage about my father, how angry she was that she was supporting him financially while he sat at home and watched television all day. She believed it was her right to have somebody take care of her, but she’d ended up, essentially, supporting three children for twenty years. She’d cursed the fact that she’d married an Indian man who’d been spoiled by his mother, who would swear and rage at her. I would bite my tongue as she spouted stereotypes about the race of the man she’d chosen to marry.

And sometimes, without saying a word to me about anything at all, she’d pull off onto the side of the expressway and turn off the engine and cry hysterically, inconsolably, biting down on her fist to muffle her sobs. I’d watch her, unable to do anything, unable to speak, or move. In the face of my mother’s towering emotion, I was always helpless.

I wanted to tell him more. I wanted to tell him that as I begged her to help me fix my brain, pleading through tears, she cried too. She’d held my hands between hers and promised she would never abandon me if I needed her. I wanted to talk about when I told her about the depressive episode that left me crippled in bed for a week, unable to shower or eat or sit up in bed, she stroked my hair and told me that she had felt the same, every time she had lost a child in the womb, that she’d been completely immobile for weeks.

And then I wanted to tell him about when I was a teenager, wrestling with bulimia, she’d told me that I was exaggerating when I told her my life was slipping out of my control. I wanted to describe the anger that pooled in my chest every time she said cruel things and refused to apologize, saying that being hurt would make me tougher in a world without room for softness. I wanted him to know that my mother had always told me I was weak, that I was soft, that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. But that wasn’t particularly strange to me, either – because she was Chinese. Chinese people don’t believe in mental illness.

I wanted to tell him that my mother had told me about all the terrible things my father had done to her, and then told me that I had to keep her secrets for her because nobody else could help her shoulder her burdens. She didn’t believe in friendships, only herself.

I said none of this. I looked at him, and he looked at me. We moved on.


I was prescribed daily medication and weekly therapy. I put in the work, the time, the energy, into trying to be a person who did dishes and spoke to her friends and didn’t lie in bed crying all day. I began talking frankly about my emotional stability, or lack of, with my parents. I would say, “I’m not feeling good today,” and they would understand and make their voices quiet and gentle and cook me foods I like. When I inevitably got sucked into a downward spiral, they would notice and remind me that they love me, and I always have a safe space where I can ask for help. I talked to them about the side effects of my medication, how the weight gain caused by my pills made me feel insecure and unattractive. Our relationship improved.

But a wall remained between my mother and me. I thought that the illness that made us so similar was also what drove us apart. Where she had somehow powered through her depression through sheer willpower, I had been forced to turn to expensive doctors to make me less sad. I decided that therein lay the difference between us – she was strong, and I was fragile. I was unstable, constantly at risk of hurting myself, and she was sturdy as a rock, rising above her pain, always in control.

I couldn’t understand why we were so different. My superstitious mother attributed it to me being a Pisces, and her a Scorpio. She believed inherently she was more independent than me, had a stronger backbone. She once told me I was a snail waiting to be stepped on. She’d adopted the unkindness of her own parents and turned it into a weapon to use against me, one less of a hammer and more of a chisel. She chipped away at my self-esteem, assuming I would grow a thicker skin. She truly believed that Chinese people weren’t supposed to show their children real affection, weren’t supposed to hug their children in public or say anything too kind because they’d take it for granted.


A few months into treatment, my mother and I stood in the international food aisle of a grocery store. I was holding a packet of mentaiko sauce, trying to feel the texture of it through the plastic skin. I liked my mentaiko smooth, but a lot of times it was sold in an almost solid packet. I probed it with my fingers meditatively.

My mother pushed the trolley up to me and said, unprovoked, “I’m just as crazy as you, you know.” I turned towards her in surprise, and she plucked the packet of sauce out of my fingers and set it in our trolley.

“Crazy?” I said with a half-smile, expecting her to make a stupid joke about our shared obsession with food. But she wasn’t smiling. Her mouth was rigid, her jaw set, her eyes unfocused. The words tumbled out of her as if she couldn’t stop herself. It was her voice, but it didn’t really sound like her.

“When you were about five, and your brother was still a baby, we all went to Uncle Mel’s house for dinner. And, you know, your daddy got drunk. We always drink at Mel’s. Your daddy wanted to drive home, and he wouldn’t let me drive, and your brother was crying, and he kept driving faster and faster because he was so angry at the noise. And he started shouting, and then you started crying too, because shouting always made you cry, because you were so sensitive, and everything made you cry. And I couldn’t take it because he wouldn’t stop shouting. So, I took off my seatbelt and tried to jump out of the car.”

She was breathing hard by the time she stopped speaking. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. Her knuckles were white from how tightly she was gripping the trolley. I had so many things to say. Me too, I thought, and then, why are you saying this? Instead –

“I must have gotten the crazy from you, then,” I said, trying to turn it into a joke that we could bond over.

She frowned. “What do you mean?” she said, clearly confused.

I immediately began stammering. “I mean, not like it’s your fault. Just that this kind of thing is hereditary, you know?” I said quickly, racking my brain for a way to change the subject without being blatant about it.

“No, it’s not,” my mother said, her brow creased. “Depression isn’t genetic.”

“Yes, it is,” I said, picking a pack of instant ramen off the shelf. “It’s genetically-linked, I read about it. Having family history of mental illness makes you more likely to have it.”

I studied the ingredients on the packet intently. Now I was the one who couldn’t look at her. The silence between us thickened like clotting blood. Finally, I glanced up at her. She was staring at me, face white, as if I had just slapped her.

“It is not my fault you’re like this,” she said, venom dripping from every over-enunciated word, and pushed the trolley past me.

I watched her disappear around the corner towards the frozen meats, my stomach sinking. It was a familiar feeling, knowing I hadn’t done anything wrong but still feeling like I had. It was a feeling I got often when it came to my mother. I put the ramen back where I had found it, fingers trembling. I began to walk after her, tracing the path that I knew she would take. She was a creature of habit, obsessed with order and efficiency. I knew her route well.

When I caught up with her, she was inspecting cuts of beef, French manicured nails digging half-moons into the plastic wrap. I approached her like she was an injured animal, but she just looked at me like nothing had happened.

“Should I buy oxtail? I can make your favorite stew.”

I smiled hesitantly at her, unsure if this was a truce, and she put the meat in the cart.

“Yeah, I thought so,” she said, and she smiled back.


Tessa Kaur was born and raised in Singapore, where she lives to this day. Her work largely explores trauma and inequality. This is her first publication. 

Photo by Bilal O. on Unsplash.

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