Essays & Rants:
Twenty Years to Cope
It's Taken Twenty Years to Learn
To Cope As Manic-Depressive
Published by THE TORONTO STAR
On February 7, 2000
Caroline Fei-Yeng Kwok
I am a woman of Chinese origin who was diagnosed as having Bipolar Mood Disorder some 20 years ago. In layman's terms, I am a manic-depressive.
In short, I am a psychiatric patient.
Although English literature was my major when I studied at the University of Minnesota, English is my second language. There were many medical terms that I did not know in English back then.
Even the word "manic" puzzled me. What is its equivalent in Chinese? I did not know. And what is a depressive anyway? I did not know that, either. I just knew that I had to take lithium and would probably need to do so for the rest of my life.
As well as lithium, I had to take other kinds of drugs. I did not know what the side-effects of the drugs would be. Little information was given to me.
And of course, I was unfamiliar with the hospital system in Canada, being a new Canadian. I did not know what the role of a social worker was or what to talk to the psychiatrists about.
Over the past 20 years, I have been hospitalized several times. Experience has taught me how to survive these "manic episodes."
To me, being accepted by one's friends is very important. Nobody wants to be rejected, especially a mentally ill person, who is emotionally fragile during an episode.
I do realize, however, that there is a general tendency within the Chinese community to put "labels" on the mentally ill. Yet, to me, if my close friends and relatives accept me and see that it is the illness and not me that forces me to be hospitalized, then I would be happy and content.
The next step for my survival was to educate myself on the nature of my illness. I found out that manic-depression is a hereditary disease and is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. I discovered that some symptoms of mania include feeling unusually "high," need little sleep, talking very fast and having poor judgment.
Once I knew these symptoms, I would try to watch out for them before the episode became full-blown. Now I know that sleep is very important for me. Disruption in sleep, even for one night, can cause biochemical changes and increased symptoms.
Another survival skill is to read books written by other manic-depressives or books related to this topic. Two recent books are A BRILLIANT MADNESS, by Patty Duke, and HELPING SOMEONE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS, by Rosalyn Carter. Reading books of this nature can help one see the authors as role models.
Knowing the required drugs, as well as their side effects and the dosages, is extremely important. A wrong combination of drugs can lead to coma or even death. My long-term use of lithium has caused kidney problems as well as skin pigmentation.
Thanks to modern medical research, I am now taking Epival instead and I am, so far, surviving well. Since each person's body is different, one has to be extremely careful in the choice of medication and the decision should be made in consultation with one's doctor.
Maintaining a positive attitude and an inner strength are very important for psychiatric patients such as me. These two qualities are important for fighting against the social stigma psychiatric patients sometimes face.
It has taken me more than 20 years to learn how to survive with my manic-depression. Looking back, it has not been an easy task. Yet, I think I have achieved a major step from the days when I did not know anything about medical terms and did not know anything about the hospital system.
In the new millennium, I want to get involved, through my writings, in raising people's awareness of the problems psychiatric patients face, so that somehow, there will be more social acceptance and understanding.
Written by Caroline Fei-Yeng Kwok
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Modified June 26, 2006