August 19, 2019

Silent Pain: Depression Within the Persian Community

“Soheyl” is a Persian Jew in his early 30s. He’s also a homeless drug addict who often can be found sleeping on the sidewalk near the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards. An addict since he was a teenager, he is no longer welcome at his parents’ home due to his history of physical violence and his futile efforts with drug rehabilitation centers.

“Omid” felt he could not find anyone to listen to him and to help him escape the psychological pain that haunted him from years of growing up in an Iranian-American Jewish family that repeatedly engaged in horrible fights and emotional abuse. He badly needed access to mental health services but went to Jerusalem instead, where he sought refuge at a yeshiva. Apparently unable to deal with his trauma, he took his own life, authorities said, by jumping off the yeshiva’s rooftop.

“Roya” comes from an Iranian-American Jewish family that was so worried her teenage depression would bring shame upon them, they refused to allow her to seek help from a mental health professional. In her late teens she was raped by a distant male relative, but when she told her family about the attack they demanded she stop her “harmful” accusations. With no access to a therapist and no emotional support from her family, she attempted suicide while in college, after which a non-Persian friend persuaded her to get help from a counselor.

“When a child is struggling with depression, we revert back to our old, very Persian selves, which remind us to keep everything hidden.” 

I have come to know about Soheyl and Omid from a close friend who shared stories of trying to work as a counselor for them and their families. I’ve known “Roya” for almost 15 years, although she opened up to me about her terrible pain only a few months ago. I have changed their names and others you will read about later — all of whom come from Persian-Jewish families in the Los Angeles area — in order to protect their identities. 

I, too, am a Persian Jew. My struggles and the struggles of numerous other Persian Jews in Los Angeles are similar to those I mention here. 

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nearly three decades, having arrived from post-revolutionary Iran in 1989, when I was 7 years old. Like other quintessential local Persian Jews, I belong to a tight-knit family; I attended Beverly Hills public schools, where I was surrounded by other Persians. I became intimately familiar with the challenges facing my community as a co-founder and the first executive director of 30 Years After, a nonprofit that promotes the participation and leadership of Iranian-American Jews in American civic, political and Jewish life. 

My family and I have endured painful struggles ranging from untreated mental health disorders to great financial strife. Although in my younger years I never heard of anyone in our community with similar problems, I always assumed there had to be more people like us in the highly secretive, taboo-afflicted morass of the Persian-Jewish experience.

“We need one or two families that are willing to stand tall and talk openly about their children’s struggles with drugs, depression and other darkness.”

Today I’m married to a Persian Jew, and we’ve been blessed with two young boys. I’m constantly straddling a line between the old and the new, the constraints of the East and the freedoms — some of them destructive — of the West. I’m often doing so without a metaphorical guidebook on how to raise children who can shed the rigidity of Iranian expectations without losing their cultural bonds and connections as Persian Jews amid America’s free-for-all of values. 

Three decades in this city have taught me that our community badly needs a few trailblazers. We need one or two families that are willing to stand tall and talk openly about their children’s struggles with drugs, depression and other darkness, that can lead the way for others to shed the shame and embrace truth and healing.

What thoughts come to mind when you think of local Iranian-American Jews? That we’re affluent? That we were diagnosing your medical symptoms last week or winning your legal case this week? That we’re the living embodiment of East meets West and a certain tension between fierce traditionalism and stubborn progressivism? That we really need to keep the noise level at our backyard parties down to a minimum after 2 a.m.?

To think about us in shallow stereotypes is to deny us of our imperfect humanity. Like everyone else, we have problems; but unlike everyone else, we’re Persian. You can take the family out of Iran, but it’s much harder to take Iran out of the family. 

As parents, we badly want to help our children overcome mental illness or substance abuse, but when they do receive help, we’re terrified of anyone finding out. We fear that our children’s challenges will embarrass us and destroy their chances (and their siblings’ chances) of getting married to a “good” partner from a “good” family.

We feel cruelly robbed of any security we had in believing that our escape from Iran would surely be rewarded when, instead of our children thriving in the United States, they end up stealing our rent money to pay for their drug addiction. We can’t understand why they would be so “sad” (aka clinically depressed) when they have everything they need in this country.

We mourn the loss of the village back in Iran that not only helped us raise our children but also provided an omnipresent umbrella of social mores that was comfortingly constraining, because it ensured that our kids would stay on the right track, if only out of fear of violating rigid taboos. 

We blame our kids’ friends or the pressures of their work and school obligations; and, if all else fails, we simply lament that this new generation has no resilience to deal with any pain. If only they knew what we had to endure in Iran, we say.

I’m not going to win any friends among the older generations in my community by saying this, but most (though not all) young Iranian-American Jews who are suffering — whether a little or a lot — have been affected negatively by their families and their community. 

Don’t mistake what I’m saying as an attempt to exonerate young Iranian Americans of their own culpability. No one forced them to buy, and often sell, drugs. They made that decision on their own or with the influence of friends who didn’t have their best interests in mind. No one physically blocked the doorway when they became adults, thereby denying them the opportunity to see a mental health professional who could help them be treated for depression.

But long before they became addicted to drugs or felt the wrath of untreated mental illness, a seed had been planted, a toxic seed I loathe with an intense repulsion — the seed of perfection, whether demanded by a family or an entire community. 

Dara Abaei, founder of the Jewish Unity Network, has been helping mostly Persian-Jewish families for 25 years, whether they’re in need of jobs or their children are in jail on drug-related charges. These days, it’s usually for the latter. 

I first got to know Abaei 13 years ago — a couple of years before the Jewish Journal named him one of its Mensches of the Year in 2007 for his work with at-risk Persian-Jewish youth. It seems he’s even busier now than he was back then.

Abaei told me he believes there’s a real crisis among youth in our community because of the inescapable pressure to succeed. I agree, but based on my experience, I would describe the situation in even stronger terms: Young Iranian-American Jews are not just expected to be successful, they’re under pressure to be perfect. 

The perfect son or daughter. The perfect student. The perfect spouse. The perfect breadwinner. The perfect person. Perfection upon perfection, until one day, it’s time to find the perfect therapist, attorney, rehab facility or all three. And if the pressure is allowed to build and build until it’s unleashed painfully and violently, a family is forced to search for the perfect coffin. 

Back in Iran, it was difficult for a Jew to break through the ranks to go to college and have a successful career, because of systemic anti-Semitism, which began to fade away at the institutional level in the 20th century but then resurfaced after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Perhaps this oppression ingrained deeply within our parents a fear that without perfection there would be no survival. 

Rachel Sumekh, 27, a Persian-American community leader, board member of 30 Years After and executive director of Swipe Out Hunger, believes this drive to be perfect is one we inherited, but now must shed. Sumekh was born in Los Angeles; her parents were born in Iran.
“The urge to be perfect may be justified for some,” Sumekh said. “There is trauma many still carry from their time in Iran, when one had to be exceptional to overcome the barriers upheld by anti-Semitism both at school and at work. You had to work 10 times harder and not show weakness just to earn your place.

“This belief,” she continued, “was reinforced when our families arrived in the U.S. with very few resources, but with the understanding that survival was guaranteed more if we were perfect. It seems we are now paying the price for having had a singular focus (survive at any cost to self) for too long. It is hard yet critical for a people to transition from a survival mentality to one where we accept it is finally safe to take a breath and ask, ‘How do we now improve the quality of the life we sacrificed so much to protect?’ ”

Pressure to succeed doesn’t necessarily break a person, but the pursuit of unattainable perfection will, little by little, chip away at their resolve to live a good and productive life. Because this pressure asks too much of us, we become much more concerned with seeming to be perfect than with actually being perfect. 

You can seem wealthy but owe tremendous debt. You can seem happy but be desperately unfulfilled and lonely. You can seem like a giver without ever actually having to be one. As a mother, you can seem thrilled at your son’s wedding but be dying on the inside because his happiness inevitably reminds you how unhappy you are with your husband — and also that you just took out a second mortgage on your house to pay for the damn wedding. You can seem like you are thriving in law school, even though you actually dropped out two months ago and are making plans to travel to Southeast Asia with your non-Jewish girlfriend, whom no one knows about.

I often wish that we would spend less time-saving face and more time saving ourselves and our children. 

To a select few in our community who are trusted with such sensitive information, the stories are truly hard to believe.

There was “Daniel,” an Iranian-American Jew in his early 20s who was a student leader in college. He began using drugs recreationally, became an addict, and went in and out of rehab programs. A few weeks ago, he died of an overdose.

And then there’s “Eli.” He was 9 years old when he was sexually molested by a distant family friend. Believing that his parents could never handle knowing the hideous truth, he didn’t tell anyone and, therefore, didn’t get help. As a teenager, he began abusing cocaine to escape the pain. Almost 20 years after he was molested, he told his family, along with the fact that he was a cocaine addict — albeit a highly functioning one with an impressive job. His double admission of molestation and addiction left his family “paralyzed,” Eli said. 

It is precisely because Persian parents have such a hard time dealing with reality that they wait until it is too late to seek help, and the suffocating culture of having to save face renders their struggling children frozen in pain.

In my frustration one day,  I told Abaei: “We need to make this public. Why don’t you organize any seminars or events for drug-related issues among youth in our community?”
“You’re kidding,” he replied. “No one would come. They’d all be too embarrassed to be seen at such a thing, even if they only came to learn or support others and don’t have these problems themselves.”

The biggest mistake that my community made when it came to the United States was stubbornly believing that everything it cherished in Iran — family values, children who listened to their parents, parents who knew everything about their children, and Jewish continuity through Jewish marriage and children —would be guaranteed in the United States.

The most traumatic change the community has endured in the past 40 years has been watching as parents and elders — those respected, cherished souls who in Iran did the caring and tending and setting of rules that helped their children navigate the world — became seemingly adrift on a red, white and blue lifeboat in the unfamiliar, choppy waters of American life, while their children were the ones rowing, usually toward an unapproved or culturally foreign destination. 

The ones who did the caring now became the ones being cared for, and they didn’t have the tools to remain the all-knowing, all-helping parents and elders that they once were in Iran, because the adolescent pangs of their children and grandchildren became such unfamiliar territory for them here.

My mother is one of seven children — and the lone girl. In Iran, her mother didn’t know how to provide emotional support to her only daughter, so she simply showed her love by forcing my mother to do grueling housework. Not surprisingly, my mother didn’t know how to offer support to her own two daughters once we came to the U.S. 

By the time I was 16 and suffering from severe, untreated depression, no one knew of my pain, least of all my mother, and certainly not my father, whom I didn’t want to burden with the thought of having an unwell child. I reckoned that my family had already lost so much by having escaped Iran. Many young Persian Jews feel the same way and avoid burdening their families with their heartbreaking hardships. 

I don’t want to paint a picture of an entire community on the verge of physical breakdown or emotional explosion. Many young Persian Jews are leading fulfilling lives with meaning, goals, values and, most important of all, the security that comes with access to support systems. 

But here’s my concern: There are so many who seem to be functioning well — they’re students or young lawyers, doting daughters or medical interns — who are nevertheless constantly on the verge of something. And just what that something is varies from person to person.
Some youth are just one scathing criticism away from assaulting an overburdening parent as a means of expressing their pain from constantly being made to feel like a failure; others are one romantic rejection away from losing any remaining sense of self-worth and spiraling into a secret depression that they will hide so well. Still others are a few weeks away from an overdose that might be fatal. 

And then there are those who are so deeply entrenched within the dark clutches of untreated mental illness that they already have written the suicide note and marked the date on their phone’s calendar. And if they do end it all, the Persian part of their identity will fuel unstoppable gossip, and the Jew in them will be judged for having committed suicide, all in the eyes of their mostly well-meaning community.

I believe the worst burden falls on our young women. We don’t know the extent to which they struggle with drugs or mental illness, because most Persian families will do anything to protect their daughters’ reputations.

Not even Dara Abaei, who probably has the best sense of what goes on in our community, wants to make an educated guess of how many of our young women are suffering. Women like Roya, who could have killed herself if not for that helpful, non-Persian friend.

What is it going to take for our community to finally stop dismissing our pain, finding creative ways to hide it, and once it’s revealed, gossiping about it? Another mental breakdown after a failed attempt at law school? Another person who thinks they’re in complete control of their addiction? Another depressed teenager no one believes?
Judaism is obsessed with life, and one person who stops believing in the value of life is one person too many.

I couldn’t help but wonder: would sending someone to rehab, to only have him or her re-enter the often suffocating environment of their family and community, constitute a truly maladaptive situation?

“There is trauma many still carry from their time in Iran, when one had to be exceptional to overcome the barriers upheld by anti-Semitism.”
— Rachel Sumekh

Last month, I met Benjamin Toubia, a 34-year-old marriage and family therapist from Los Angeles who has extensive experience working with young Persian Jews struggling with mental health or substance abuse. He believes that well-meaning Persian parents often make things worse for their children post-rehab.
Toubia, a recipient of a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Minority Fellowship Program, which tackles mental health issues for ethnic populations, believes that “an individual’s success in recovery may be stunted if they re-enter their family or communal systems that remain as dysfunctional post-rehab as they did during their addiction. Addiction may present as an individual issue, but it is systemic in nature and therefore must be recovered from systemically.”

Often, rehab programs may be helpful in initially helping individuals but, according to Toubia, there still remains “a deficiency in how individuals in recovery are supported once they exit the recovery system and re-introduce themselves into their daily lives.”
Practically speaking, for most young Persian Jews who are recovering addicts, this means returning to the family Shabbat table to face a deafening silence and awkward tension because no one knows what to do with a “moh-tad,” or addict, in their midst. The silence is then shattered by the heartbroken shriek of a concerned mother, father or close relative who doesn’t know how to express their sadness and anger in better ways. 

When we want to, Persians can be very “American.” We roast turkeys for Thanksgiving, pretend that we don’t see our daughters kissing their boyfriends in our backyards, and put up fake skeletons and spider webs every October in our front yards. But no matter how Americanized some of us are — no matter how often we shop at Whole Foods or help our kids write their bar or bat mitzvah speeches in English — under times of great duress, such as when a child is struggling with depression, we revert back to our old, very Persian selves, which remind us to keep everything hidden.

I believe that as far as these issues are concerned, my community has forgotten one fundamental fact: This isn’t Iran, it’s America, and help is available, if only we would banish the shame we associate with accessing such help. 

Parents, you sacrificed it all to come to the United States for your children. If you insist on keeping them bound to the same crippling constraints they would have faced in Iran, why even be here? Does it matter that “Daniel,” mentioned above, graduated from one of the best universities on the West Coast before he died from an overdose last month at the age of 21?

There is much about Persian culture that is beautiful, and sometimes it can be a blessing to care so much what everyone else thinks. I dare, then, to remind Persian-Jewish families that those who openly support their children’s struggles may pay the legitimately painful price of shame in the short term, but in the long term, they will be trailblazers. 

Eventually, we must reach a point where our seeming obsession about how others perceive us drives us to actually show support for our kids’ challenges,  because we don’t want to be seen as the only family who stood by and did nothing.
Such maverick parent-as-public-advocate leadership already has taken place in the past few years among some mothers and fathers of gay and lesbian Persian Jews.

An excellent example of the Persian community moving forward was the Dec. 2 Taboo Summit, held at the Iranian-American Jewish Federation and organized by Cohort 5 of 30 Years After’s Maher Fellowship. I attended the event not just as a board member but as a fellow Persian Jew who badly needed to hear taboo subjects discussed truthfully, compassionately, and most important of all, publicly.

The Taboo Summit did the unthinkable: it addressed topics ranging from mental health to sexual orientation by including mostly young Persian-Jewish speakers who had firsthand experience with these and other stigmatized issues in our community. Event organizers were rewarded with a full house of about 200 young Persian Jews, some of whom even brought their parents.

It was a great start, but now we need another compassionate and honest event that tackles drug abuse among our youth. In fact, while we’re at it, I propose that the 2019 Taboo Summit (30 Years After hopes to make it an annual event) focuses on four issues that we still can’t seem to discuss as a community: drug abuse, poverty, toxic family dysfunction and sex. The last topic is sure to guarantee a sold-out event, because if it’s one thing Persians stigmatize above all else, it’s sex.

I have deep compassion for my community and know full well that changes don’t happen overnight, especially because asking for help is not a Persian norm. But my compassion ebbs when I learn how many are suffering because our learning curve has been so maddeningly slow.

It’s amazing that the growth we need has taken decades to begin, when we have seen how judgment and gossip can race like a wildfire through the lush forest of our youth, decimating their dreams by invalidating their struggles.
Ultimately, it’s up to us Persian Jews to force our community to change. We need trailblazers to lead the way, exposing their imperfections and vulnerability, one taboo at a time.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and co-founder and former executive director of 30 Years After.