Our thoughts have the power to either uplift us or upend our inner lives, says Joan Lee, who wrestled with two schizophrenic episodes and major depressive disorder in her late 20s. Positive self-talk, along with psychiatric and psychological treatment, was one critical tool that helped Joan walk through these trying times.
While hunkering down during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chicago-based professional translated her experiences into a mini-guide entitled How We Talk To Ourselves. She collaborated with New York City-based artist Connie Van on the book.
Tell us more about your journey with mental health.
I’m a Korean-American, born and raised in Chicago, and I basically grew up with the same “golden child script” as many Asian Americans. I studied well and was super achievement-oriented. It felt like everything was always going on that well-trodden path – study engineering, go into consulting, go to business school, then move to New York.
And I did live in New York for a couple of years. And while I was at the so-called height of my career, just as I felt like I had built up something me and my parents could be proud of, I actually experienced a paranoid schizophrenic episode. That happened in 2014 and brought me back to Chicago without a job, unemployed. I started to become isolated from everyone.
Just to share a bit about the condition – people with schizophrenia sometimes have auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and sometimes they’d have paranoid thoughts, like thoughts that people were going to hurt them.
Somehow, I managed to weasel myself out of my particular brand of schizophrenia, and I rejoined the workforce back in 2016. I was pretty stable for a year or so, and then I decided to get back on that “path”, do what my friends were doing, and try to keep living that dream. I went to San Francisco to get a job, but there I experienced another schizophrenic episode again.
So, round two, another year down the drain – or at least that was how I felt.
As a hangover from all that has happened, I later developed social anxiety and major depressive disorder. To be honest, of all the mental health challenges I’d been confronted with, depression was the most difficult, because it’s sort of like a pain that sits in your chest and immobilises you. It can be accompanied by perpetual negative thoughts, you devalue yourself and you’re on guard against others. You constantly anticipate negative outcomes from other people and your situation.
And one of the things that kicked off my recovery from depression was positive self-talk.
And that was what started the book?
I wrote the book as a quarantine project (during the Covid-19 crisis) and then I found Connie, my illustrator, through a friend of a friend. So we decided to launch it as a fundraiser, but it’s going to be free for students or anyone unemployed. We have also gotten in touch with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Asian Mental Health Collective, and other organizations.
There’s always value hearing from someone who has walked the path you’re wrestling through right now, lived the experience and shown that it is survivable. So I hope this can be a helpful resource to others.
How do you believe yourself, though, when you try talking to yourself positively?
So I was in a funk when I started thinking very negatively about myself, others, and my situation. But what positive self-talk can help you do – even if you don’t believe it at first – is to transform your core beliefs. It tells you “I am worthy of good things,” “I am worthy of love,” “I am loved,” and stuff like that.
As you increase your extent of positive self-talk, you’ll notice that because you’re trying to give yourself a boost, your attitude changes a little bit. It might be imperceptible, but you’ll get positive reinforcement from others that will kind of bring you back up as well.
A lot of people don’t want to change until things get so bad – and I was like this myself. There were a couple of months when I was just in bed and couldn’t do anything, and I told myself this is bad, this isn’t how my brain used to work. And I wanted to fix it in a constructive way.
Life comes with a lot of challenges, you know. There’s always going to be the possibility of disappointment, and if you don’t know how to talk to yourself, it can be very painful.
Did you get support from your network of friends and family?
Some people’s initial reactions were quite hurtful to me, actually. Some started to shy away, not wanting to talk or spend too much time with me. There were others who stuck by me, but I knew it was difficult for them too. It affected their social capital and all that.
It’s interesting to see how people sometimes decide to shy away from someone with a mental condition, at precisely a time when the support can be very helpful, even necessary, for the sufferer. Some people have subconscious biases or think it’s “unlucky” to be associated with someone who is mentally unwell. Some even think it’s contagious, etc.
Based on your observations and personal experiences over the years, how have people’s mindsets around mental health changed?
So I think mental health is pretty “trendy” right now, and it’s a good thing. People are thinking about how they can accept and evaluate themselves and others, and that’s good. But for the older generation, it still is quite a “taboo” issue to talk about. A lot of people wouldn’t like to go into too much detail when sharing about their struggles with mental health.
The younger generation may be kind of familiar with talking about emotional health, especially with the pandemic and everything, but they are just getting started.
Do you think there is a cultural aspect as well? Some people say that Asian cultures tend to stigmatize mental health.
My parents understand now because they were forced to live it (with me). They had a hard time and may have seen me as “defective” for a while, as someone who went from golden child to black sheep. I was the person that they were like, you know, so disappointed and heartbroken over for a while. I didn’t trust them either, at that time. We had a lot of hard moments. But they stood by me, and through the slow healing process, we’re now a lot closer than we ever have been.
But then I do remember people around me, including those at church talking behind my back. Even my mom would tell me how they’d refer to me as “the crazy one”. I remember desperately wanting friendships but not quite finding them. I would say that these experiences could be true outside the Asian cultures as well, though.
Where are you now in this healing journey? Do you have plans for the future?
I don’t identify with schizophrenia anymore. I haven’t had any episode since, like, October of 2018.
I started a non-profit a couple of months ago, providing virtual SAT prep for students in the Chicagoland area. And I’d like for that to grow into a sustainable non-profit. We crowdfunded this year, but I hope we can get grants going forward, to do that for a larger group of students.
After tumbling from this “normal path” and being way off course from where I thought I would be, I have kind of reframed everything. I am very fulfilled in my current job in the healthcare technology sector, but what’s more important for me now is to learn as much as I can. I don’t know if I’ll be in a position where I can help fix anything related to healthcare, but that is kind of in the back of my mind.