Shame and stigma made me keep my mental health diagnosis a secret

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  • I struggled with depression, but kept it a secret because that’s what my family taught me to do.
  • At 30, I was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar disorder.
  • For another 30 years, I parked a few blocks from my therapist so no one could see me.

It was late afternoon, and I needed to study for final exams for my freshman year of high school in Michigan, but I couldn’t muster the energy to study French conjugations. or plant life cycles. Instead, I found myself curled up in a fetal position, my pillow over my head. I soon fell into a deep sleep.

Fourteen hours later, I woke up and rubbed my eyes. I could do it, I assured myself. I forced myself to get back to work and succeed.

My parents and I never talked about these episodes. As in many Asian families, we treated psychological problems as a taboo subject.

It wasn’t until 16 years later that I was diagnosed with a mood disorder. It made me realize that I needed help, but I still tried to keep my diagnosis a secret because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

In my family, mental illness was a sign of weakness

Growing up, I saw my mother try to kill herself twice, and my aunt try once too. Embarrassment and lack of access to Chinese-speaking psychiatrists and counselors prevented them from receiving the treatment they needed.

My family and I have subscribed to a traditional cultural belief that mental illness is a sign of weakness that people should keep hidden.

Three years ago, the parents of a Chinese-American friend took him to the emergency room for extreme anxiety. Still, he balked when the doctor referred him to a psychiatrist, saying, “I’m not crazy.”

Asian Americans seek professional mental health services at the lowest rate of all other races and ethnicities in the country.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I sometimes felt like running away and hiding. Abandoned as a newborn in Hong Kong, I lived in an orphanage for 15 months before my future parents adopted me. While I felt gratitude to my adoptive parents for choosing me, my mother was a paranoid borderline narcissist and my father often went on a physical binge.

Yet, I persevered just like my adoptive father, despite his own ongoing issues with depression.

I had to pretend to be OK

Even before society bestowed the nickname “model minority” on Asian Americans, my family’s goal was to portray the image of successful immigrants. Above all, it was necessary to save face.

I worked tirelessly to graduate valedictorian from high school, rack up honors in college, and earn an MBA in a top-tier program. I even married a nice Chinese boy. Still, life was a roller coaster, high for a few days, basking in success, then crashing down.

At 30, a diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent treatment scuttled my career as a marketing manager. The emotional and physical effects of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy made my mood swings worse. Finally, my worried husband pulled me aside and said, “You’ll survive cancer, but I don’t know if you’ll survive depression.

It never occurred to me that I needed help. I made appointments with a husband-wife psychiatrist-counsellor team. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with cyclothymia, a mood disorder often considered a milder form of bipolar disorder.

Yet, because of the stigma, I parked away from my therapist’s home office for the next three decades. After remote dates, I placed a check for her in an envelope but did not include my return address in case the check was misdelivered.

I used the pharmacy drive-thru window to pick up my mood disorder medication.

During the pandemic, I joined AAPI’s Facebook groups for people struggling with similar challenges and attended online meetings where we shared our mental health journeys. I realized that I was not alone and there was nothing to be ashamed of.

I wish my loved ones had received the help they needed. I’m so glad I did.

Yvonne Liu is a writer living in Los Angeles who writes a memoir on mental health, adoption and childhood trauma.

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