I was standing there, head lowered down as low as it could possibly go. The bailiff had just told me to rise as some honorable judge made his way through the courtroom and took a seat on his iron throne. Not a single fuck was given. That day as the antipsychotic medication I’d been forcibly given over the past few weeks had finally started to take effect, all I could think about was how I got here. Not just the local county court in San Jose that day, but at 30, hitting the lowest of the low and achieving almost nothing in my life. I was a failure, simple as that. And I didn’t know how to dig my way out. There was no road map I could ask for directions; it seemed like no one knew anything about mental illness. I’d have to do it alone and I was scared shitless.
When I was first diagnosed in 2002 with bipolar disorder (well, the shrink called it manic depression at the time), I didn’t know how to feel. There I was in the psych hospital and this old doctor told me I had manic depression.
“Excuse me, what? What’s manic depression?” I asked
“Well, people call it bipolar disorder these days.” he replied.
“Wtf is that?” still confused as hell.
After informing me about it being a mood condition and that I’d temporarily (hah!) need to take three types of medications including an antipsychotic, mood stabilizer, and antidepressant, I’d be okay. Quite the cocktail, but do what the doctor orders, I guess. So I was released from the hospital and had a treatment plan: take my meds and continually see a psychiatrist and therapist. Over the next few months, things did begin to look up. I was able to get a cushy job at a hi-tech company through a college buddy and thought I was well on my way to living a normal life, whatever the hell that meant. No one had to know about my stint in the psych hospital and definitely not my manic bipolar whatever it was called diagnosis. Secrecy was my motto and I made damn sure I kept it.
So there I am, living the dream kinda sorta. Somehow, I miraculously by the grace of God was able to save enough money to afford buying a new condo in the Bay Area four years after my hospitalization. That meant I was cured, right? I hadn’t been on meds and seen anyone for therapy for a long time prior. Buying a house was the ultimate definition of adulting, and I can’t adult if I’m crazy. I was no doctor, but I was cured. It was a gut feeling and that intuition is never, ever wrong.
Now I have this new place with a fat mortgage and stupid HOA payments. Welcome to adulthood also known as land of unbearable stress and lack of proper coping mechanisms. How did I deal with the unwelcome triggers to a mood disorder? By responsibly checking up with a psychiatrist or therapist and telling them exactly what I was experiencing? Absolutely not. I’m not crazy and I’m not seeing a shrink again. I’m just going to do what every other red-blooded (Asian) American would do: seek solace with my best friend, Jack Daniel’s. It was that only form of medication that worked, temporarily or not.
That year in 2006, I would again return to the psych hospital. This time was much different than the first though. I owned a home, had a decent paying job, and had great people around me. Life was good. So when I eventually hospitalized for a manic episode, I was beyond devastated. The embarrassment of people finally knowing I was crazy was too much to bear. The depression sunk into this black pit where I saw absolutely no glimpse light. I tried to take my life, not once but twice. I obviously failed at that, so now I’m this super-duper failure that can’t do anything right.
I wish I could tell you I had an epiphany after my two attempts, but I can’t. Unfortunately, the entirety of my twenties can be summed up in one word: shame. And that day when I was in court, I never felt any lower. For most people living with bipolar disorder and don’t take the necessary steps for treatment, each manic/depressive episode gets worse and worse. Four months prior to my infamous day in court, I was sober, taking classes at a local community college, and as stable as I’d ever been before. I was even at my peak physically and just finished my first half-marathon in 1 hr 51 min and 4 secs. But the night I turned 30, I went to Vegas to celebrate, foolishly thinking I was strong enough to avoid the temptation of my biggest trigger, Mr. JD.
I took a shot of the dark stuff and it triggered my Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas moment for four long months. This episode was different. Instead of being the annoying douche with an abundance of energy and crazy (sometimes incredible) ideas, I was psychotic. Remember 2007 Britney? Well I was a few notches above that. One of the delusions I experienced was hearing voices. Those whispers in my ears were so vivid, so real, that I thought there was no way they weren’t. These voices had some serious mind control abilities and told me race cars on the highway, that I’d graduated from law school, and to go steal things. Normally, my episodes lasted a few short weeks, but this went on for what seemed like forever. And like Winona Ryder knows, once you start stealing things, you’re bound to get caught. I did and that’s how I landed in court.
That day, when I was at my absolute lowest of the low sitting in court listening to other cases involving dui’s and assaults, I was a shell of whoever my former self was. I didn’t know who the fuck I was, but there was one thing for sure – I was crazy. No ifs, ands, or buts. None. No worse feeling than coming out of that cloudy, post-psychosis haze and becoming self-aware that I was a loser, especially in the courtroom.
I sat there with my mom who dealt with the hospitalizations and arrests like a champion, as she had the entirety of my life. When Captain Cool becomes Captain Crazy, people start to distance themselves from your life real quick. Not my gangster mom though, who’s dealt with the loss of two husbands and her own life tragedies. With my head down on the verge of tears, she put her hand on mine and said, “Huy (my Vietnamese name), whatever you do, no matter how many times you think you’ve failed, I will always love you.”
Heart officially broken.
Sounds light some cliche Nicholas Sparks movie shit, right? It does, I know. But that’s what fueled my recovery with bipolar disorder and alcoholism. I haven’t had a drop to drink since February 24, 2010 and though I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs along this journey, I’m still fighting. For me, for my community with Break Yo Stigma, and especially for my mama.
But if research determines mental illness is hereditary, I’m definitely blaming her.
Brandon Ha is the Creative Director at Break Yo Stigma, a social mediacampaign focused on breaking the shameful stigma of mental illness. Inspired to create change in the mental health community from his own personal experience living with bipolar disorder, he seeks to end the shame preventing many people all over the world from seeking proper mental health care. Brandon currently collaborates with Bay Area mental health organizations including NAMI Santa Clara County and Stanford Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
Wow! Great read. Well written. Vulnerable. Facing addiction and mental illness like a boss. Brandon, you rock!! STIGMA FIGHTER!
Oh, I do what I do! I’m jk, but thanks so much for the kind words and support. Definitely feel more comfortable with my writing chops, so your praise means a lot. To our stigma fightin’ community, it’s time to kick so ass!!
Love your last sentence. Your love for and from your mother and your sense of humor shine through. Humor is a great coping mechanism.
Powerfully told, Brandon. You’ve got the gift, for sure. I agree with Dan the Story Man. While it’s easier said than done, my notion is that if you keep at it — both the self-improvement and the writing — Stigmas Are Gonna Fall. Thanks for sharing….