By: Rebecca Le
I nod, confirming my diagnosis, as the woman in the waiting room explains how her daughter has “hai-polar” too.
“Hai” is the Vietnamese word for the number two. We were sitting in the waiting room of the MHMRA waiting to see the psychiatrist when I struck a conversation with her. She wasn’t the first Asian patient I’ve seen here. In fact, I’ve started noticing a lot more Asian patients come in and out of this clinic.
Bipolar disorder is more common than most people are aware of. What’s even more surprising is that a number of Asians suffer from bipolar too.
The Vietnamese are a particularly proud race. Growing up, my parents spent most of their conversations with other Vietnamese parents bragging about their children.
My daughter won the school spelling bee. Or, my son placed first at the state chess tournament. Or, my daughter was the best performer at the piano recital. Or, my son is valedictorian!
No parent ever brags about having a son or daughter with bipolar disorder. No one ever brags about having any abnormal mental condition.
I was diagnosed with bipolar type 1 disorder in 2006, shortly after graduating from high school as salutatorian. No one ever suspected there was something abnormal about my brain. My father even denied my illness upon first hearing my diagnosis. How could someone so smart, talented, and accomplished be diagnosed with such a crippling mental disorder?
But contrary to what my father believed, I have always been bipolar.
Ever since I was a child, I had many nights where I struggled to fall asleep. I remember having to get up to spin around and around until I could not help but fall onto my bed, too dizzy to stand any longer. There were times where I would just lie in bed thinking. I’d make up songs in my head, or I’d have long periods where my imagination would run wild. It was as if I was dreaming, but instead of being asleep, I was wide awake. Once my thoughts started racing, it was very hard to make them stop.
Yet day after day, my parents forced to wake, forced me to go to school, forced me to achieve more.
It wasn’t until I graduated high school that I experienced a strong and unsettling episode. The average age to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder is 18. My theory is because so many things happen once you turn 18. You graduate high school at 18, become legal and liable for any crimes as an adult, become old enough to leave your parent’s house… you become free in so many ways.
My mind was not prepared for this freedom. Instead of feeling excited for freedom, I became scared—paranoid even. I started to panic. There was absolutely no reason for me to be paranoid. Yet, the fear was there and I couldn’t control it. I became restless; I didn’t sleep for weeks. My mind was hysterical and my thoughts raced faster than ever before.
Eventually, I was involuntarily admitted into a mental hospital the summer of 2006. The experience was frightening to say the least—it scarred me for life.
There were patients in the hospital with very serious mental conditions. Victims of rape, abuse, domestic violence… Those who suffered from depression, borderline personality disorders, schizophrenia… Then there was me: straight A student, salutatorian, over accomplished…
What was I doing in a mental hospital?
Like all of the patients, I was mentally unstable, I was sick.
Long after my release from the mental hospital did my parents realize this illness ran in our family. My mother’s brother, my cousin in Australia, my aunt, my mother.
How did we not know about this before?
It’s true that we don’t brag about our weaknesses. As Vietnamese, we never talked about our shortcomings; instead, we swept them under the mat, never mentioning a thing.
But as we experienced with me, the more you hold up inside, the harder you fall when things explode. My family found this out the hard way.
Now, all I vow is to be open and honest about the illness that is becoming more prevalent in our race. I do this in hopes that one day the world will know what the face of bipolar looks like, and that though this illness cannot be cured, it can be controlled.
I am Vietnamese, and I have bipolar disorder.
[Rebecca Le is the Author of Sweet and Sour: The Life of a Bipolar Asian-American Woman. Her website sis found at www.rebeccale.com. She also kicks my butt regularly in tennis.]