A Haunting of the Mind
by Frances Lee
Photos by Larissa Bahr

It was only three years ago in 2007 when I was sitting across a desk at a psychiatrist’s office that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something that suddenly defined and ruined me.

Across from me, behind an abnormally large and disorganized desk, the psychiatrist rambled on with a long monologue about the definition of, history of, and options for dealing with this disorder. I felt like I was in a courtroom and she was the judge reading my fate.

Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder characterized by episodes of mania and depression. The “mood swings” between these emotional mountains can be very abrupt and the exact causes are unknown. For me, the diagnosis finally gave me an explanation to my silent and unending suffering that had haunted me throughout my lonely existence. At her wits end, my mother dragged me to this renowned psychiatrist that she heard of on the radio as a last resort to a series of problems that followed me throughout my life. Skeptical and bored, I filled out the 100-question quiz on my feelings and then walked into the psychiatrist’s office. She said later that she knew my diagnosis within seconds of looking at me; it was that obvious.

After years of working her residency at psychiatric hospitals and jails, my psychiatrist knew the symptoms inside and out. Somehow simply through my demeanor, she diagnosed me and unlocked a treasure trove of answers to questions that I had never settled within myself.

I cried the entire way home. I do not believe in public displays of emotion. My parents had taught me to remain composed and ladylike. Tears were not allowed because it showed weakness. At that moment, however, I was weak. I felt the entire 21 years of my life melt down my face and neck. All of the sadness and pain that I had carried on my back since I could remember were slowly becoming lighter. Within this hurricane of confusion, I felt a strange calm.

Until that moment, I had blamed things like culture and evil parents for my misery. I blamed the alcoholics and chain-smokers in my family. I thought that I had an illness or was suffering from an unreasonably long and rough awkward stage. On the contrary, bipolar is a genetically transferred disorder and was the one to blame for the eight pills that I now had to take at night including a delightful cocktail of Klonapin, Lamictal, Abilify and Lorazepam for sudden anxiety attacks.

Before the diagnosis, I had spent my entire life on a rollercoaster of chaos, alienation and pain without any idea of what was wrong with me. During my youth I was kicked out of classrooms for “disruptive behavior” but was also sent home with academic achievement awards. In adolescence I furiously ran away from home every day for weeks until the police found me hitchhiking or trying to board a train and then returned me home with a chuckle.

After that, I was forced by my parents to attend school, piano classes, and family functions with a smile on my face as if nothing had happened. I learned very quickly how to lie and put up a façade to get through the day; habits that I’m just now learning to break.

I grew up in a very strict Korean household with my parents, who are third generation Korean-American, in a beautiful home in Sunny Hills, Calif., a neighborhood nestled by a private golf course and lush parks. I attended school with the smartest and wealthiest students in the county and had to compete with near-perfect grades. My parents and I had a tumultuous relationship. I had to battle for my identity apart from being a model Korean daughter, a very daunting task that had no end.

I didn’t identify with the Asians because they were so conservative. The other kids didn’t like me because I had crazy parents who never let me out. I was buried underneath a pile of school work on top of music lessons, dance and art classes in addition to Korean history classes where I learned how to read and write in my language. I was never allowed to go to the mall with my girlfriends or go to the movies. I had to constantly make up lies because I was too embarrassed to always reply, “I can’t go because my mom won’t let me.”

To begin with, friends were hard to make because of my mood swings. I would share my crayons gladly, but when someone broke one I would become violently enraged. I was smart but I thought the public education system was bullshit, so I never took it seriously, a common indicator of bipolar disorder.

There were, of course, a few teachers that saw a diamond within me and nurtured me purely out of passion and love for teaching. Only then did I flourish.

Things at home became increasingly tense as I grew older and realized how ridiculous my parents’ old ways were. My retaliation only caused more friction and my pain became more magnified with the presence of the bipolar disorder. My parents tried everything to break me: strikes against my body with a thin rod, taking away everything that gave me any pleasure, forcing me to sit at a desk and stare at homework or textbooks until the sun came up.

I will never forget the rainy and thunderous night my dad kept me up until 5 a.m. repeating chapters of algebra while he drank whiskey and growled about what a failure I was because I couldn’t understand math. Little did he know that one of the signs of bipolar disorder is a short attention span, which was why I was slower at learning math. To this day, I will never look at math the same way again because it makes me think of that night. I still remember the exact blouse, shorts, socks and shoes that I wore as I stood outside in the rain where my father had sent me as punishment. My tears trickled down my turquoise sequined top and blended with the rain. It was at that moment that I decided I would never be subject to emotional or physical abuse again, regardless if I thought I deserved it because I had bipolar disorder.

As I grew even older life became an unending cycle of lies, deceit and abuse.

My strong will demanded freedom from my parents’ strict ways and lying was the only way to hang out with my friends. I became dishonest and deceitful with my parents, in exchange for a glimmer of life. The consequence was what modern day politicians would call “abuse.”

Twenty years in all went by and I woke up every day to an overwhelming weight of sadness that manifested itself in a physical pain, preventing me from getting out of bed. I’d look in the mirror with hate in my eyes, angry at the world for making me ugly and unable to fit into society’s neat definitions and unfair prejudices.

The days would pass as a whirlwind of anxiety, sadness and excitement. Some said I was going through growing pains. Others said I was just a problem child. But I spent my entire youth being punished for something I had no control over without any idea of why.

Now I look down every evening at the handful of medications that I must take and feel a rush of sadness and shame. I feel like I will never be a normal person because I am “tainted” with a disorder.

A lump forms in my throat and I want to scream “Why do I have to be the one to suffer? What did I do to deserve this? Why can’t I be normal and happy with supportive parents? Is that too much to ask for? Why can’t I hold a job or graduate college in less than five years? It’s not fair that all of the other girls I know are planning beautiful weddings and baby showers and moving forward in their lives and here I am holding a handful of pills to control my sanity, stuck in a rut without any help. And nobody can hear me!”

I never expect people to treat me differently or nicer because I have bipolar disorder. I actually never talk about it, other than to my parents and closest friends. I do not boast or ask for sympathy. When people find out about my disorder, they react one of two ways. The first being the most common — to judge me. They automatically label me with characteristics and traits of a mythical crazy person; an unstable out-of-control lunatic. I hear them mutter my way, “crazy bipolar bitch.” I don’t let it phase me, because they do not know who I am. It’s their loss.

The second reaction is to blame everything I do on the disorder. Every move that I make, every choice that I decide on whether it be good or bad, is blamed on my disorder. When I choose not to eat a meal because I’m not hungry, my colleagues assume it is because my bipolar symptoms affect my emotions toward food, or if I ever become upset or angry, there is a hush over the crowd because they think I am having a bipolar episode. “Just wait until it passes...it’s because she is sick.” To society, I can never make a mistake or be any way different from the norm or I will be labeled and defined by one single facet of my life. How sad it is that they will never know the truth about who I am.

I am Frances Lee, a 25-year-old college student with a dark sense of humor and a hunger for wisdom. I have never been in love. I love to read about women in different periods in history because I find passion in their tales. I bring home stray animals, rehabilitate them and find them homes. My favorite animal is the pit bull because they are so kind and gentle yet so powerful and strong at the same time. I relate to pit bulls because when people see them they automatically jump to conclusions, just as society does when they find out about my disorder. Understanding this disorder has changed my take on life. It isn’t about accomplishments and trophies anymore. Life isn’t about the bottom line. It is about the overall picture.

I was born with a disorder and it made me stronger as I grew older and wiser. When I take away society’s standards for a successful female, I become peaceful. I no longer worry about graduating in two, six or one hundred years as long as I get to read and be surrounded by intellectual and passionate people. My family and I have gone through some really bad times, but for some reason they still love me. We have become so much closer and that has taught me forgiveness and the idea of “letting go.” Yes, I lost many friends along the road, but I’ll make new ones. The only difference I can make in my life is how I deal with this diagnosis by using the knowledge that I have about myself. I realize that self pity only feeds my ego and depression. I realize that every person in this world has been dealt a hand of cards that are not ideal. I must accept and work with the hand I was dealt with. I realize that I am a very lucky person to have been diagnosed in the first place and that I can afford the medications to control my behavior.

One of the most important exercises I practice every day is to take everything one minute at a time. I try not to stress about the future or obsess about the past. I do everything individually to the best of my ability and hope that everything works out. I practice this because I know that if I do not, I will fall into a well of anxiety and depression that will make me act out impulsively.

It was hard to grow up like that. It’s still hard to live like that. However, I understand that life is a series of events and it is how we handle those events that distinguish us as an individual. I am still traveling this long journey of life, and in the face of challenges I act as true to myself as I can as an individual. I hope that I am, and will be, a good person.