Hello everyone, my name is Irene Wei and it is my honor to be here sharing my journey to recovery.
To begin this story, I must first take you all back to when I was a sophomore in high school. My sophomore year of high school, I had taken 3 honor classes, an after school elective class for my continued interest in violin, as well an officer role in a club I was really passionate about. This would prove to be too much for me to handle, but I didn’t know it then. I was blinded by the mantra of overachievement as did all my peers in my circle of friends. We all had big dreams of going to UC Berkeley or an Ivy League University.
A few weeks into the first semester, I started realizing that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The amount of stress I was under was ridiculous for a 15 year old. Then the insomnia hit me. At first it was 1 night, then 2, then 3… and as the sleepless nights continued, my thoughts became more and more erratic. My attention had shifted from worrying about school to these thoughts so deep, it’s hard for me to describe in words even now. I distinctly remember locking myself in my room for a few days trying to figure out the meaning of life, but that’s a story for another time.
I knew something was wrong, but it was hard to tell what. The feverish dream that I was living in was my reality. I like to compare it to a dream because in dreams things can become so surreal and bizarre, but you believe it. On the fifth day of my insomnia, my mom called 911 on me as a psychiatric emergency. I was completely out of touch with the real world and I faintly remember the police officers coming into my room and convincing me to go to the ambulance. I was sent to the ER where they diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder and then placed on my first 5150. What followed was a hellish 5 months of the cycle repeating over and over. I was hospitalized a total of 4 times and placed on many different medications with awful side effects.
Following my last discharge from the hospital came an uphill battle. I was on so much medication that my movements were slowed, my thoughts numbed, and my energy depleted. I would spend more than half the day sleeping, rarely getting out of bed to eat and shower. Returning to school was out of the question for the remainder of that year and although things would slowly get better, it wasn’t until Junior year that I attempted to go back to high school.
One aspect of my life that this illness had hit particularly hard were my hobbies. I love playing music, drawing, and participating in various sports such as ping pong and figure skating. But the side effects of my new medications made it almost impossible for me to do things that I love to do. The side effects would make my hand so shaky I could barely write, let alone draw or play the violin. I had to relearn my hobbies from scratch and it took a huge toll on me mentally. I felt like a failure, that I was useless and just a burden on myself and everyone else. Those were some of the darkest moments of my life but still, I never gave up on the hope of recovery.
Seeking help wasn’t easy. Following the discharge, my mom did everything in her power for me to receive the care I needed. But I was in self-denial. I was convinced that I wasn’t Bipolar. I refused to take medication several times and even stopped it all together in secret for a few months. I would avoid therapy sessions and talking about the topic at home. I rarely talked to anyone outside of my family and made no effort in building a support system that I could rely on. I was lost, confused, and angry that this was the reality of my life now.
But I do want to take a moment to mention and thank my mom, because without her I may not be here right now giving this speech of recovery. She had recognized the warning signs early on and visited me every opportunity she could while I was hospitalized. She gave me the hope and strength even though she herself was devastated and terrified. I love her so much and everyday I feel lucky and blessed to be her daughter.
At the beginning of my Junior year, I attempted to go back to school. I was determined that I could catch up to my peers and return my life to “normal”. I took on a full load of classes, though strongly opposed by my IEP team, and I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t have this illness after all. A week or two went by it became obvious that this wasn’t the best decision. I racked up more and more absences and my GPA plummeted, from a 4.17 my freshman year to a low 2.2 for my first semester back. I ended up dropping half my classes but still rarely going to school. It also didn’t help that I was now a year behind my friends. We didn’t have any classes in common so it was hard to start conversations or talk to them.
Many of my past friends also didn’t understand my situation. During my manic episodes back in sophomore years I made posts of my absurd thoughts and feelings on Facebook, including a selfie I took in the ER. The posts worried a lot of people, but confused even more. I was labeled as a “drama queen” or “that crazy girl” and people didn’t try to ask or comprehend what I was going through. I lost contact with a large portion of my friends and often blamed myself for it. I felt as if I wasn’t trying hard enough.
However as time passed I noticed that I was making progress in my recovery. They were small steps at first, such as going to see my therapist every week, but gradually I was reclaiming more and more of myself that this disease had taken away from me. Through attending peer support groups, I came to terms with my illness and accepted it. I figured that if I couldn’t avoid it, I was gonna do my darn best to fight it. I began taking notes and observing symptoms along with my early warning signs and triggers. With each hypo-manic or depressive episode I got better and better at coping with it. By the end of my senior year, I was managing my disorder well enough to pass a special high school proficiency exam and graduate with all of my peers. Then, I enrolled in college and earned my driver’s license shortly after. Now, I’m on-track for graduation with a 4.0 GPA.
I’ve also started participating in more advocacy programs. I’m now a board member for the non-profit organization MHACC(Mental Health Association for Chinese Communities). Recently we hosted the first Chinese American Mental Health Awareness Day Event in the United States, with speakers and attendees from all over the country. I didn’t give up on my hobbies either, I launched my art-themed youtube channel in the fall of 2016 and began posting art on various social media sites again. Since then I’ve amassed a combined following of almost 10 thousand people and it is one of my proudest personal accomplishments so far.
If I could write a letter to my past self during those bleak nights filled with doubt and uncertainty, I’d tell her that it will be okay. That the recovery process is a slow and lengthy one but there is always a light waiting at the end of the tunnel. That she should be proud of how far she’s come and hopeful for how far she’ll go.