Relearning Joy in Our Minds and Bodies
Interview with Emerald Rubio, a Community Therapist and Organizer in the Bay Area
Emerald May Rubio is a Filipina American marriage and family therapist based in San Jose, California. She is a strong advocate for victims of sexual trauma and seeks to destigmatize mental illness in all communities. Rubio has organized and spoken at numerous rallies in the Bay Area, and facilitated a variety of online events to break the silence surrounding mental health and sexual abuse.
As a clinician, activist, and survivor, Rubio demonstrates the importance of compassion in the fight for racial justice. Her advocacy is rooted in empathy and healing, striving to help others embrace their truest, most vulnerable selves.
You’re very involved in all kinds of work as a therapist, an activist, and a mother. The nature of all this work is so inherently giving. What gives you the strength to keep moving along with these commitments, even through your struggles?
I don’t know how to shut it off. When I was 17 and I was in a group home, they put me in handcuffs to go to a crisis stabilization unit, so I experienced what it was like in these systems. You know Angelo Quinto, Christian Hall… when I hear those stories, it brings me back because I’ve been there. In those mental health crises, knowing what it looks like to be in a hospital, and I just thought, “That could’ve been me.” Right? They put me through the 5150, to go from that to a children’s shelter, to a group home, and then back to the place where you were abused your whole life.
Experiencing all that and seeing how people are in the system, I was like “I don’t like the way they were.” Now looking back, they must have been burnt out—it is a burnout job. I was like, “When I make it out to the other side, I’m just gonna do it differently. I’m gonna do it my way. I’m gonna give what I wish I had. That’s what I do with all of my clients. I give them what I wish I had: unconditional acceptance, unconditional love, just being there.
I don’t have to make this up or muster up this passion. It’s in me, and it just runs through me. But you’re right—all my roles are very giving, every single one of them… Given everything that’s going on, I’m healing from my sexual trauma, I’m in the middle of my case, all this violence within my community… I kind of just had a real moment with myself this month, during AAPI Month, during Mental Health Awareness Month, that you know what? What kind of life am I trying to create? I’ve seen so many different Asian entrepreneurs, all these beautiful Asian American mental health people that are doing it differently, I’m trying to do that. A little exciting, frightening, but I know that there’s just a different way that I can serve my community and not be run by corporate systems.
As a survivor of sexual trauma, coming out as one sometimes feels impossible. Likewise, coming out as someone who struggles with debilitating mental health issues is also difficult. As an Asian woman, you’re also in a space where you’re socially conditioned to shrink and swallow your pain. What was the shift in mindset that made you reject this notion?
The place that I’m at right now is the only place that runs childhood sexual abuse groups in the county. San Jose is so big, and it’s really sad that there’s only one place that holds that, so I really wanted to be part of it. My supervisors know that I’m a survivor of decades of trauma. Being intimate, but not really being in your body; just performing because you feel like that’s what you need to do, a submit and comply kind of thing… I thought it was very important to be open and vulnerable with that. I never wanted any of my personal stuff to get in the way of others’ healing because it’s not about me, it’s about them.
I was consulting with them on one of my clients—let’s call them Bobby. Bobby is going through their court stuff, and I’m frightened by that because court freaks me out. When I hear the word “court,” I think of cold, rigid, insensitive, and factual.
[My supervisor] was saying, “Hey, you need to empower Bobby to go to court.”
But I said, “I don’t want to force my client to do something when they’re not ready.” I wanted to be very sensitive to their process, so I pushed back.
They retorted back, “You don’t want Bobby to be some 35 or 40 year old person that regrets letting their perpetrator go, knowing they’re gonna be repeating offenders out there, do you?”
That hit me so hard, and I just started crying. They just talked about me. That’s me, I’m 35, and I live with that regret every day. I feel like, who am I? Some impostor therapist who has taken the healing steps for other things like abuse, addiction, emotional abuse, but this is the one thing that I will not touch. I have not taken those steps because I’m scared. It was through that moment where I was unpacking all this stuff, yet court stuff was just something I didn’t want to do. So I just started researching at like 2 o’clock in the morning, all these lawyers, processes, then I was like, you know what? I’m just gonna do it. I consulted with different lawyers and I showed up at the police station at 8 o’clock at night. I had to wait an hour for them to take my report, but it was that. It was that conversation with my supervisor that led me to my police report, and a few weeks later to my detective, and now my perpetrator is in jail. This Friday is actually the plea hearing where we find out if he’s gonna say guilty, not guilty or no contest.
When I post, when I go to all these rallies, all these public forums, I do say “I’m feeling it with you. This is a parallel process.” I realized when I put my story out there, there are so many other survivors. I gained a whole family that I’d been seeking my whole life. I was alone, a prisoner in my own body, figuring it out. I’m always aware of my own body.
That’s huge. I commend you for having the strength to go through with this. It must have been painful to reopen the story over and over again.
It was, but it was also liberating. I didn’t realize how heavy it was to hold onto it because it’s been constricting. I’m swallowing secrets that are not even my own to keep. I’m swallowing shame that was never meant to be mine. They did that, not me. So it feels liberating, but yeah there are waves. Court days are always hard, it’s trauma waves hitting my body.
That whole court process is happening virtually too, like this interview. On one end of being in a pandemic, a lot of people are suffering and struggling to adapt to this “new normal.” But what I have seen with organizers having virtual events is that, in some ways, there are more possibilities. You can connect with people and collaborate with them from across the country, or even internationally. What are your thoughts on these doors opening up, and how have you adapted your work to this current state of being?
I’m a wild extrovert, so I wasn’t gonna accept the status quo. My friends are introverts and they’re just not available. I used to drive 3-4 places a day to see my clients, so to do everything through Telehealth now, I was like, how are we gonna be able to connect? Then, when I was finally able to connect and facilitate healing through Telehealth, I was like, well, what are the possibilities? I tried it with my own healing spaces through Zoom; I came out as an ADHD person when I was living in shame for so long. Then I realized, ADHD women are just brilliant, and they’re all over the place, and that’s beautiful.
I started connection groups and book clubs. I was like, oh my gosh! The possibilities of connecting with different people from Brazil, Australia, and India! We were all on a screen with all these beautiful boxes, and so I kind of learned early on in the pandemic that I was able to do that. I tested that out with all circles of my life: Christian sisters, ADHD, sexual trauma survivors, mental health webinars… having people from so many different places come… I had to adjust my role. But when I did that, I was just trying it everywhere because I needed that connection. That was one of the blessings of the pandemic: like wow, I’m becoming connected with people I never thought I’d meet! Like, what? I’m meeting someone named Cassie at 8? That’s so cool!
I’ve definitely seen that a lot of projects are becoming limitless. Another reason why I wanted to interview you is that one of my most recent articles is about shame culture. In many Asian cultures, the collective group is raised as higher than the individual, so we are just puzzle pieces of our family unit or even society as a whole. Therefore, things like mental illness that negatively impact our capacity to provide for our units are stigmatized. A lot of Asians, especially in older generations, don’t even wanna talk about mental health. Have you struggled, whether through your clients or yourself, with this kind of generational pattern? If so, then as a mental health professional, how can Asian Americans of all ages break through that?
I’ve used that collectivist framework to break the stigma. Right now, collectively we are all hurting because there’s so much violence. Whether it’s sexual assault or killings, or just us being targets, I’ve used that framework within my clinical spaces to say that collectively, we all need to heal. And part of that is speaking out. Part of that is in the family; family is so important to us, so why not use that to be real about what’s going on instead of doing it on our own? I’ve used that to my advantage. Not just Asian families—I know a lot of BIPOC families are like that: they’re from collectivist cultures. So the way I frame it, it really sounds like family is #1. We make decisions as a family, so why don’t we heal as a family? That kind of removes the stigma! Yeah, you would bat for each other. You would have each other’s back no matter what. Even if you were so mad at them, at the end of the day, you would do what it takes, right? That’s how I get their buy-in. They’re sometimes like, “Ew, mental health, no! I’m not the problem, this kid is the problem. Fix them, not me.” But that’s how I get them in these healing spaces.
I use that at the rallies, too. It’s not just about one group having to get it together. Can we look within our family system for things that are silenced, that we’re not speaking out about? There’s a reason why the rest of the world doesn’t know that we suffer. We don’t talk about it. We need to share it so they’re aware that we go through racial trauma from colonization up until now. Take that shame out so people are aware and take it seriously, so together we all need to heal within our families, our friendships, our marriages… I come at it from all angles. Those are all the things that are important to us.
Inspired by Emerald Rubio’s story, and interested in keeping up with her work? Follow her on Instagram: @healwithemerald!
If you’re interested in supporting more Asian mental health awareness projects, check out the 2021 Asian Mental Health Conference to be held from June 7 to June 9! You can RSVP here.