My Recovery

Safety, freedom and friends

Caroline Fei-Yeng Kwok

Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(3), pp. 26-27

stock photoAs a Chinese woman who suffers from manic-depression (bipolar disorder), I feel that there is a strong social stigma around mental illness within the Chinese community. Often, mental illness is considered a taboo, a family shame that is better to be kept within the family. Together with the lack of knowledge of and education about the different kinds of medications, the family may not give the right support to the ill person.

I come from a traditional Chinese family with over-protective parents and had my high school education in a girls' school in Hong Kong where academic excellence was highly valued. In 1972, I returned to Hong Kong after studying English literature at the University of Minnesota and after travelling to Europe for two months on my own. I took the Diploma of Education Course at the University of Hong Kong while, at the same time, I worked as an English teacher at the Language Centre of the same university.

I faced many cultural adjustments coming back to the city of my birth. At that time, my friends in Hong Kong had never been abroad. My parents could not understand that I had changed. They could not accept that I had grown up and become independent.

At the time, I was totally ignorant of sex, relationships and marriage. I naively believed that I should marry my first boyfriend, whom I met after I returned to Hong Kong. In April 1973, when I was about to take the examination for my diploma course, I had a minor fight with him. A doctor at the university's health centre prescribed some pills for me and I was able to sleep and concentrate on my studies.

However, not knowing much about medication, my mother snatched away the pills and would not let me take them. After that, I could not sleep and I lost my temper, yelling in English. My mother called a Chinese psychiatrist who could not communicate well in English.

Against my will, I was sent to the psychiatric ward of a general hospital for a two-week observation period. My telephone line was cut. My constant visitors were my boyfriend, my parents and my nanny. My friends were told by my mother not to interfere.

After my hospitalization, my mother went to see the psychiatrist on my behalf. At the time, the medications were necessary; however, after my immigration to Toronto in 1974, I was able to survive very well without them.

My next episode occurred in 1978, when I had emotional trouble with my boyfriend, who by now had become my husband. Being new to Canada, holding down two teaching jobs, and taking a graduate course at the same time, I did not have any friends to confide in. It was during this 1978 episode that a psychiatrist gave me a diagnosis of manic-depression and prescribed lithium for me.

Another episode occurred in 1980 after a trip to Hong Kong. After having conflicts with my parents and my husband, I decided to come back to Toronto by myself and signed myself into the North York General Hospital. A psychiatrist there gave me lithium, methotrimeprazine, sodium amytal, haloperidol, and chlor- promazine. Yet he wrote that my "behaviour remained very active, uncooperative, and demanding," that I had a good relationship with my parents, and that my husband appeared to be extremely tolerant and supportive. He did not notice that I was unhappy in my marriage, friendless and alienated from my family. I divorced my husband in 1982.

My next major episode occurred in 1992, when my intimate relationship with a coloured colleague ended abruptly - a relationship that my mother had disapproved of all along. At that time, I was hospitalized at Mount Sinai Hospital and given heavy tranquilizers and, after discharge, was essentially deserted by my mother. I had a brother in Toronto, but there was not much support from him either. I was left in the hands of the Public Trustee after my brother refused to be my Power of Attorney.

In 1999, I was in a coma for two weeks as a result of receiving the wrong combination of neuroleptic medications from a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai. I recovered with no brain damage, except that my handwriting has become illegible.

In August 2002, I faced a tremendous emotional trauma, yet I survived very well without having to take any tranquilizers. I was receiving a minimum dosage of divalproex (600 mg. a day). I functioned well, continued teaching part-time, traveled to Hong Kong alone, and did not lose any sleep. At present, I am only taking 250 mg. of divalproex a day as a preventative against any further hospitalization.

Why the change? Why is it that I do not have to take so many psychiatric medications now and am able to survive so well? There are several reasons for this change. They are what Professor John Nash is reputed to have attributed his own recovery to in the biography written about him, A Beautiful Mind. They are: 'safety, freedom and friends.' Safety, freedom and friends have made a lot of my dreams come true.

I have an understanding psychiatrist, Dr. John Klukach at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, whom I see regularly. He appreciates my creativity and is encouraging and supportive. My family physician is equally understanding. I go to the gym and am vigilant about my diet, especially since I am also a diabetic.

My memoir, The Tormented Mind, was self-published in 2000, describing my experience as a Chinese woman who has survived mental illness. This memoir has opened many avenues for me. All my friends have accepted me once again. I am also making new friends - including understanding psychiatrists, social workers and survivors - who have provided me with positive emotional support and understanding.

Three universities in Toronto have used my book as their course text in social work and disability courses. The Director of Asian American Studies at the University of California at Davis has also used the book in his clinical psychology course. This year, I will be giving presentations to psychiatrists and mental health workers in the cultural training program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

My attitude to life events has changed for the better in that, since my coma and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I am more mindful of the unpredictability of life and treasure it to the fullest. I enjoy going to operas and concerts once again - a passion that I had lost as a result of heavy tranquilizers and my misconceived notion that my contacts with the arts would worsen my illness. I have also become a member of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum and I have traveled to Montreal and Cuba on my own.

Had there been more education about mental illness and the different kinds of medication available, my family would have shown more understanding of my illness. My recovery would have been less painful.

Thus, it is my hope that this article will make families or friends realize the importance of giving positive support to psychiatric consumers/survivors in helping them to recover and function well in society again.

About the author

Caroline was born in Hong Kong. Her education includes a degree in English from the University of Minnesota, a Master's degree in Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and studies in creative writing at Yale University. She has published a memoir, The Tormented Mind, and is currently teaching English as a Second Language and literacy to immigrant psychiatric survivors at Across Boundaries in Toronto. Caroline was awarded the 2001 Courage to Come Back award by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto