HUFFPOST PERSONAL

My Mental Illness Did Not Prevent Me From Succeeding, But The Stigma Nearly Did

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a subheading that was not written by the author and did not represent her views or the article’s content; it has been removed.

The author at her MBA graduation ceremony.
The author at her MBA graduation ceremony.

My father drove us eight hours across state lines for a secret appointment in the dark of night. I was 16 years old when my symptoms could no longer be shrouded in denial. We arrived at the office of a handsome family doctor, the brother of a trusted friend, then waited until dark for the clinic to close so I could speak with him alone and off the record.  

For months, I had begged my parents for help, but as immigrants, they were distrustful of “the system.” They misguidedly feared a mental illness diagnosis would tarnish my permanent record, ruining my chances at college. Or worse, word would spread about my struggles and gone would be any prospects for marriage. To my parents, this was the kiss of death. This appointment needed to be in secret.  

Finally given the chance to talk to a professional, I detailed everything. I was deeply depressed, going weeks without sleep and hallucinating, believing movie plots were my life. The radio was speaking to me. I was so grateful to finally get help. Afterward, the doctor called my father back into the exam room and told him exactly what he wanted to hear: “Your daughter is fine. She just has an overactive imagination.”  

His words crushed me.  

―― 

My nickname in high school was not cute. It’s not something I can laugh about even today, some 20 years later. It was a name that stung, what people called me when my back was turned: “Psycho.”

I would show up at school crying nonstop, having gone weeks without sleep. I was a top student, yet I doodled on my final exams instead of answering questions. I screamed at my best friend during class with nonsense. The nickname cut deep because it was accurate. I was having a psychotic episode.

My family life was tough. I lived in a constant threat state. I sought help from my school counselor, teachers and parents, but no one in the late 1990s seemed to know what to do with a high-performing Asian American teenager with mental health challenges. My parents chose the narrative of me as the hardworking, overachieving daughter over that of one who struggled with serious depression, crippling anxiety and prolonged insomnia. Most people could not believe that the two narratives could live as one, though research has since shown high achievers are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. I had no awareness of the condition then, nor it seemed did those around me.

I sought help from my school counselor, teachers and parents, but no one seemed to know what to do with a high-performing Asian American teenager with mental health challenges.

I was labeled dramatic, angsty, over-imaginative. I was asked to keep my troubles to myself. This was because when I was well, which was most of the time, I had everything together. My grades always landed me at the very top, and I shined in many extracurricular activities. I worked tirelessly at my parents’ small restaurant. My future was bright. No one wanted to recognize that there was a problem, and as a result, help was inaccessible.

The school tended to overlook my struggles in the name of cultural sensitivity. My family and I had immigrated from Korea to the suburbs of Arizona. We did not fit in, and teachers assumed our differences would be too great for mutual understanding. Better to not make waves in the face of academic success.

College soon beckoned with a prestigious full scholarship. Finally in charge of my own medical care, I sought therapy and treatment. Again, because of my success, my troubles were dismissed as angst. I was prescribed a mild anxiety medication to use, as needed, for insomnia only.

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After arrival in China for a study-abroad program in 2001, my fellow American students and I found ourselves huddled around a dorm room television, watching passenger airplanes crash into the World Trade Center. As the towers crumbled, my insides followed suit. The pollution and the freezing winter was a harsh contrast to the sunny desert that was my home. My final exams and projects weighed on me far more than normal because I had slipped into deep depression, feeling friendless, cold and worthless.

In this state of mind, I received a call from my father demanding that I take an overnight train to a nearby province to run an errand for him. I pleaded, trying to explain I was in no condition. I was afraid of the world and could not fathom how I could fit this request into the remaining days I had left in China. My father did not understand and his voice boomed on the line, “You must do this for me.”

I remember willing myself with the words, “I must.” I felt myself break with reality, in my most severe episode to date, as I ran away from campus at 2 a.m. to catch the train, taking all the cash I had. It was a miracle I made my way back to campus. I was spewing only incoherence and believed myself part of some grandiose, otherworldly puzzle. Because I was living in a dorm and part of a small program, there was no hiding the psychosis. I was finally taken seriously. My father was told to catch the next available flight to Beijing to bring me back home. At 20, I finally began treatment, including hospitalization. Eventually, I found the right meds and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, though my recovery journey would be far from over.

I was so afraid, wondering how I was ever going to pick up the pieces of my high-performing life and put it back together. My future had been so bright. Is it extinguished in an instant with a “mentally ill” label? Will I drop out of college? Lose my scholarship? Am I doomed to an unstable, destructive, lonely mess of a life? I asked myself, “Who would want to date a fat Asian girl with bipolar disorder?” 

At 20, I finally began treatment, including hospitalization. Eventually, I found the right meds and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, though my recovery journey would be far from over.

I had gained 30 pounds as a side effect of my new medications, which added to my already larger frame. I would surely die jobless, penniless and alone. In that terrible, shellshocked state, I looked for role models, for anyone who was living well with bipolar disorder. I needed to find a life raft. Someone, anyone who I could hold up as proof that a normal and balanced life with this condition was possible.

I was thrilled to find Lizzie Simon’s book, ”Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4D,” but she was in her early 20s herself and still figuring things out. I craved someone to whom I could relate as an immigrant, with a cultural lens that was more relevant for people of color. For years after I had been hospitalized and diagnosed, my family tried to stop me from taking my medication. I did not find this type of struggle reflected in available writings and, as a result, the quest for self-assurance and healing was more difficult and lonely. 

――

Having experienced the cultural stigma firsthand, it is not surprising to know Asian Americans are reported to be three times less likely than white Americans to seek mental health services. Asian American college students are also more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than their white counterparts. In addition, the suicide rate for people with bipolar disorder is 20 times that of the general population. Twenty times.

 
I craved someone to whom I could relate as an immigrant, with a cultural lens that was more relevant for people of color.

Suffering in silence, it seemed hopeless. But decades later, I have earned an MBA in a top-ranking program and have managed a successful career in both nonprofit and private sectors. Several times I thought I would have no choice but to give up. Instead, I picked myself up and kept fighting. The life I strived for clicked in place in one other major aspect when I found love 11 years ago. My 20-year-old self could never believe life would actually working out.

After years of denial, my parents ultimately came to accept the reality of my condition. It has not been easy to draw boundaries, but I needed to create space for my own self to heal, grow and thrive. While in intensive talk therapy, there was over a year leading up to the birth of my child that I could not speak to my parents. For the first time, I was reliving my childhood through the filter of my grown-up American eyes, a soon-to-be mother’s eyes, and what I saw was too painful to bear. For my son’s sake, as well as my own, I worked through that pain. I needed my child to be proud of his culture and heritage. He would one day crave that connection to feel whole. I too needed my roots to stand firm. Through buckets of tears and with a vow to forever sever trauma from culture, I built relative peace.    

Over the years, I have learned that each person living with bipolar condition has a varied reaction to medication and environment. Mental health conditions must be managed like any other potentially life-threatening condition, with regular treatment and support. No amount of denial can make it go away on its own.

I have built up an arsenal of coping skills to protect myself, including a strict medication regimen, a sleep schedule and support groups. I can identify my triggers and know how to avoid or manage them. I practice self-care and volunteer regularly to advocate for compassion and understanding. By sharing my story and stepping out from the shadows, I want to do my part to remove stigma, shame and discrimination around mental illness, especially in the Asian community.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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