Reaching out to others: Tone Yao Lee opens up about the importance of saying “I’m not okay”



Written by Tone Yao Lee

How are you? How was your day? How are you doing?

No matter how I was actually feeling, I always gave the same, robotic response—I’m okay. Growing up, I was taught to mask my emotions. Even when everything was going wrong, I still forced a big grin across my face. Everyone had their own problems, and I didn’t want to add mine to their burden. I had always been the counselor rather than the counseled.

This behavior stuck with me throughout my youth and followed me even when I moved to Palo Alto freshman year.

Freshman year sped by with me hardly noticing. As sophomore year started up, my spirits could not get any higher. Everything was working out, and I had the perfect balance between school, friends and sports. I looked forward to school every day. However, my beliefs would soon be put to the ultimate test. In less than a year, I lost three friends to suicide.

However, my beliefs would soon be put to the ultimate test. In less than a year, I lost three friends to suicide.

My thoughts on happiness and positivity were greatly shaken. My mentality after the deaths stuck with me throughout junior year, and I began to struggle with everything in my life as signs of depression began to show. In an attempt to distract myself from my condition, I pushed myself to support my friends in a way that I wasn’t allowing myself to be supported. Despite seeing how my friends opened up to me and how they made themselves vulnerable, I still could not share how I was feeling on the inside. I wanted to be strong for them and didn’t want them to worry about me.

Tone and his friends visit the Lee house. Photo courtesy of Tone Yao Lee.

This behavior took a huge toll on me. I felt my health and happiness begin to decline, and my love for learning was slowly taken over by feelings of listlessness and lethargy. Even completing a basic homework assignment had become a massive struggle. Still, I asked myself the simple question, “Am I okay?” I knew deep down that I wasn’t, yet I was still scared to say otherwise. No matter how bad of a day I had though, I still kept to myself, never telling anyone how I was actually feeling. However, the negative thoughts began to consume me. The distractions of schoolwork and friends weren’t enough help, and I felt myself spiraling into an all-time low. At school, I still forced a fake smile, and I managed to fool everyone, but myself. The feelings had become overwhelming, and I often thought about confiding in a reliable friend, but when the time came, I backed out. I didn’t want people to think that I was weak or dramatic.

Finally, the feelings of depression became unbearable. I had lost my enjoyment in activities I used to love. Even basketball and hanging out with friends had become monotonous and just another daily routine. I had no other choice, so I decided to take a leap of faith. Just as my friends trusted me with their emotions, I felt compelled to do the same. One school night as I came home, I ended up telling my friend who had previously confided in me the three most important words: “I’m not okay.”

By saying this, I relieved myself of a lot of external and internal pressure. As humans, we strive to be perfect, or at least put on a facade of perfection. People assumed that I had everything together, and everything was under control. This caused me to always try to live up to that same expectation that people assumed of me—even though it wasn’t reasonable. Putting on the mask of expectation is exhausting, and it forced me into making decisions that I wouldn’t make myself. I wanted to be the person that everyone expected me to be, but in doing so, I failed to be the person that I wanted to be. I had managed to please everyone except me. However, by acknowledging I wasn’t okay, the pressure of perfection was taken off my shoulders, and I allowed myself to live my life the way I wanted to rather than the life expected of me.

When I was feeling down, my friends could tell, and they began to worry about me—especially because I would never admit it. They would much rather have had me say what’s on my mind than let me face my problems by myself. Friends show their love in times of trouble, not happiness. By saying “I’m not okay,” I allowed others to help me and begin my recovery. However, if I had kept to myself, I would have been stuck in a loop of sorrow that is unhealthy and insidious, ultimately hindering my recovery.

Tone and his friends participate in the Relay for Life event. Photo courtesy of Tone Yao lee.

Saying “I’m not okay” is difficult though and can also be scary. Everyone has so much to do whether it’s going to the gym, doing homework or hanging out with friends. Sometimes, it is frightening opening up to friends about such a vulnerable topic when they are already drowned in their own work. Especially for me, it did not feel right to burden a friend with my problems, and in the moment, it often seemed like the better decision to keep to myself. However, no one should ever go through those hardships alone. Friends, family and teachers—they are all here for you in the good times and especially the bad. After I finally told my friend, he helped me find the proper treatment I needed. I began to go to a psychologist, but more importantly, those three words opened up a two-way stream of communication, and he also knew he could rely on me.

At the end of the day, as cliché as it sounds, it is crucial to remember that there is always light at the end of the tunnel and that is what keeps me pushing today. I realized it is possible to recover from my depression, but it can only happen if I acknowledge it and fight it. Although I failed to see it at the time, I now know that it will always get better, regardless of how bad the situation is currently. Whether it will take a day, a week, a month or even a year, I will get better and my friends will be with me every step of the way. The recovery may be difficult and extensive, but it is worth it, and it all starts with acknowledging your condition and saying “I’m not okay.”

Whether it will take a day, a week, a month or even a year, I will get better and my friends will be with me every step of the way.

I’m currently still in the process of healing. My depression is getting better, and I’ve began to slowly rediscover my enjoyment in the little things in life. Though I still live with many regrets from my friends’ deaths, I’ve learned to accept them and allow them to shape me into the person I am today.

When I’m not feeling well, I talk to my friends about what’s bringing me down and let them know. Initially, I was terrified of opening up to my friends. I wanted to be strong and I was afraid that revealing my true emotions would make me seem weak, but, in reality, opening up allowed my friends to view me as a genuine and trustworthy person, allowing for deeper and more meaningful connections. When I chose to open up, I got to know my friends on a much more personal level as well.

As humans, we strive to be okay at the bare minimum. No matter how scary it may seem, take a chance and open up to your friends, but most importantly, remember it is always okay to say you’re not okay. After all, saying “I’m not okay” made all the difference in the world.