Keeping up appearances matters a lot in Asian families like Amanda Rosenberg’s, and that delayed getting help for her bipolar II disorder.
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.
“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.
“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
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