Amanda Rosenberg: Shaking Off Shame

Last Updated: 21 Oct 2020
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Keeping up appearances matters a lot in Asian families like Amanda Rosenberg’s, and that delayed getting help for her bipolar II disorder.

Amanda Rosenberg bipolar

Bipolar Disorder & Cultural Expectations

After an 18-month hiatus at home with her baby daughter, Amanda Rosenberg dove back into working with her sketch comedy group. Writing comedy has been a dream come true—and in a roundabout way, she can thank her bipolar diagnosis for shaking her free to follow her bliss.

“I found my people through this sketch group,” the 34-year-old San Francisco resident says of her creative comrades. “It was wonderful to feel like you’re part of something.… It made me feel alive.”

Rosenberg always wanted to be a writer, but in her maternal cultural background, that wasn’t seen as an acceptable profession. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and British father, she was governed by her mother’s traditional values even after the affluent family moved to the United Kingdom.

The same weight of expectations kept her from addressing her mental health issues. It wasn’t until age 27, after two psychiatric hospitalizations, that Rosenberg fully accepted her bipolar II disorder diagnosis.

She believes depression, anxiety, and other mood symptoms were running in the background as she grew up, but she didn’t understand what she was experiencing or have the vocabulary to explain it.

“It was just like trying to describe what you see in a kaleidoscope,” she says.

Bipolar Disorder Denial

Rosenberg got her first insight while studying communications at the University of Leeds in northern England. (Fun fact: She’d previously attended an elite prep school with the likes of Kate Middleton, aka Mrs. Prince Andrew, and Princess Eugenie, one of Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandchildren.) Feeling run down and burnt out, she decided to see a doctor. In her mind, those were physical conditions and thus a legitimate reason to seek health care.

During her appointment, she discussed how she was feeling physically and mentally. The doctor floated the idea of bipolar disorder and suggested she see a psychiatrist. She never returned.

Rosenberg was half-relieved to have a possible explanation for her loss of motivation, catastrophic thinking, and social withdrawal. Yet she was convinced that pursuing mental health treatment would ruin her life and bring shame on her mother.

In many Chinese families, accolades center on polished appearances, high-status relationships, and tangible achievements. Rosenberg recalls the disdain when her relatives “spoke of someone who was outside the norms of the family.… It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts.”

Add in the stigma attached to mental health conditions, particularly within Asian cultures, and she definitely didn’t want to be the focus of her relatives’ scornful gossip. She had internalized the message that a psychiatric diagnosis would become an unshakeable blot on her reputation.

Instead of seeking help, she reverted to old habits. She doubled-down on being a high achiever despite how she felt on the inside. After graduating from college in 2008, she went into marketing in the tech industry—a suitably “respectable” profession.

“Work was the only thing that made me feel like I was a functioning member of society,” she says. “As long as I was doing well at work, I could tell my mother and she would be proud of me.”

Overcoming Shame after Hospitalization

Eventually, she couldn’t keep going. She was hospitalized in 2013 after a particularly stressful period in her life, then again a year later.

Rosenberg had moved to California in 2012. After the first hospitalization, she made plans to go back home for the holidays. Her mother made excuses to put her off, and Rosenberg soon realized that was because of shame. Rosenberg stayed with a friend and didn’t see or speak with her family during her visit. She says she’s still estranged from her parents.

“I am fortunate to have an incredible chosen family around me of friends, and also friends of the family, who stood by me through a very difficult period,” she says. In addition, “I’m incredibly privileged and lucky to be able to afford therapy and medication.”

Rosenberg says discipline and structure also help her stay on track, something she embraced when reintegrating into life after her hospitalizations.

“It gave me the feeling of achievement and validation … even if it’s just making my bed or going and eating a meal,” she says. “Doing the small things every day, repeating the same things, and keeping the same routine until I was mentally strong enough to be able to adapt and be flexible with a routine was huge.”

Rosenberg now has a system in place for when she feels a mood shift coming on. She calls her psychiatrist to discuss adjusting her medication. She leans on her husband of three years. They started dating in her pre-diagnosis days, and sometimes he’s the one who picks up on early symptoms like talking too fast.

“We’ve learned together to identify the signs of bipolar,” she says. “It took a long time to get to this point.”

Strength & Support through Creativity

When her “suitable” life imploded, so did the barriers to chasing her writing dreams.

“After all the hospitalizations and coming to terms with my mental illness, coming through the other side, something freed me up. The shame I felt on the inside was now on the outside. I had nothing to lose,” she says.

In addition to comedy scripts, Rosenberg writes about mental health in a funny and accessible way. Her writing has been published in Vox, McSweeney’s, and the Washington Post offshoot The Lily.

In November 2019, she published an anecdotal memoir titled That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy about Being Mentally Ill. She’s working on a second book, about maternal mental health.

“I always want to write the book that I wish I had when I went through it,” she says.

That’s also why she’s committed to shining a light on mental health in the Asian American community. When she first went public in an essay about her experiences, though, she dreaded how her relatives would react.

“The idea that I … was scared of what other people would think is part of what kept me from seeking help in the first place,” she reflects. “The fact that a lot of Asian women reached out to me saying that they felt the same, and this helped them, made it all worth it.”

Rosenberg says she is still figuring out how to manage her bipolar and doesn’t always have the healthiest coping mechanisms. But she’s working on it. She draws strength from the idea of a community with shared challenges.

“We’re all just trying,” she says. “We’re going around thinking, ‘Oh my god, you feel that way? I feel that way too.’”


• • • • •


Amanda Rosenberg’s Tips for Living Well with Bipolar

Puzzles: Doing jigsaw puzzles not only calms and focuses Rosenberg’s mind, but also gives her a sense of accomplishment. “That very small gesture of putting two pieces together is really satisfying to me,” she says.

Pathfinders: Rosenberg gains perspective by reading accounts from others who have experienced hard times and made it through. “It helps me realize I’m not the only one going through this,” she says.

Pillow Time: Sleep is a priority, so Rosenberg sticks with an early bedtime. When she can’t doze off, she takes sleep medication as prescribed by her health care provider. “I need to be kind of knocked out as soon as possible and get as much rest as I can. My mania is triggered by lack of sleep,” she says.


Printed as “My Story: Shaking Off Shame,” Summer 2020

About the author
Christine Yu is a freelance writer covering health, fitness, food and parenting. She’s written for The Washington Post, Runner’s World, and other publications.
7 Comments
  1. Although this comment is delayed, I was so moved by Amanda’s story. Overcoming the obstacles of coming out with bipolar disorder in a culture that is not as accepting of this diagnosis shows true bravery. I had a very different experience with bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed between junior and senior year of high school. I am now in mid life. My mother majored in biology in the early 60’s. She was a researcher by nature. When I first became manic her first impulse was to get me a psychiatrist while in crisis and to read everything she could about mental illness. She sought diagnosis and treatment for me. She taught me early on that it was biologically based disease and that I did not have total control over what was happening to my brain. She also and explained psychotherapy and medication would be the lifeline for maintaining my mental health and achieving my goals. Despite working with much effort on ensuring adequate sleep, frequent exercise, a nutritious diet and therapeutic interventions; I still also feel self imposed shame easily. Practicing yoga, mindfulness and positive affirmations helps to quell this shame. My close friends and family have always understood and supported me. I am so happy you have a good support system and I am inspired by your courage Amanda! In addition, employing your humor as a way of growing and coping is truly inspiring. I hope the next generation will be inspired by humor as well!

  2. Thank you so much for writing of Rosenberg’s story. I’m full Chinese with severe bipolar I and am currently in a depressive episode. I too have a very strict and traditional mother. I am so glad to know someone else out there had the same mental health experience and that we both found structure and chosen family of friends as a part of healing. I perform spoken word of my own poetry and continue to try my best to write, despite my brain fog, on Medium. I had no idea so many people would be so profoundly affected and reach out to thank me for sharing my story because of the huge stigma in our APIA community. Thank you for spotlighting Rosenberg’s journey here in this newsletter.

  3. I am 76 I found out I was bp when I was 57 I always knew there was mentally wrong with me. to keep the lid on I run an hour or so three times a week, watch what I eat and hopefully get enough sleep you are an inspiration for me.I really enjoyed your article doljay.

  4. Although I am not Asian, I can certainly relate to this story. Growing up, I had no idea that I had a mental illness, but obviously, I was different. My parents expected me to excel in school and I did. Between my sophomore and junior year in high school we moved from California to Connecticut. I had always expected to attend college in Arizona. As I approached my senior year, my mental state was very fragile, I was more than worried about moving away from my family, and I was becoming paranoid and irrational. No one caught on and when I reached out I was told that I was being ridiculous. So, I did the only thing I thought would keep me from having to move 3000 miles away, I got pregnant. I continued high school, I graduated 7th in my class. Nothing ever was good enough and now I was a disgrace to my family. The thinking was more, think of how much more you could have accomplished if you hadn’t gotten pregnant, than, wow, you graduated 7th in a class of almost 400 kids! Needless to say, I made several bad choices in my life prior to being diagnosed in my 30’s, in 2004. Now I am 54, I have been married to my wonderful husband for 32 years, he is my rock. My beautiful daughter is 36 now, and she is awesome. Her life was tough, but so is she. I pray we can break the stigma across all cultures. The sooner we can recognize and treat mental illness, the better the quality of life for those who must live with the diagnosis and those that live with them.

  5. I want to compliment you Christine. It is so often that we must overcome the stigma of having a mental illness, especially when our family is not accepting of it. It takes courage and being brave to recognize you have to do all to keep yourself well. Congratulations!

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