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DISRUPTING MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA WITH AMANDA ROSENBERG

Both Tauruses, Amanda Rosenberg and I are no stranger to attempting to cure our mental illness by bulldozing our way through it.

CW: This story mentions sexual violence and suicide.

My vocal self-advocacy after surviving sexual violence has more often than not put me at odds with my parents. In the immediate aftermath of the first assault, my instinct was to keep my mouth shut and pretend that nothing happened. As a first-generation Filipino-Canadian woman, the stigma and shame I internalized discouraged me from seeking support even as my post-traumatic symptoms began to manifest. I told myself I was strong, that I could handle everything on my own. The truth is that I was trying to take the easy way out, denying and minimizing the gravity of what I survived.

While I have a mostly healthy relationship with my parents, they still struggle to navigate their way around my C-PTSD. They sometimes make my symptoms worse, harming me despite their best intentions. I know in my heart that my parents love and support me no matter what. It’s not that they don’t want to help, it’s that they don’t know how. While it doesn’t ever excuse their violating my boundaries, at the end of the day, I love them and I know they try their best (I also rely on them for food and shelter while my human rights cases float in bureaucratic purgatory). With two generations between us, they grew up with the understanding that mental illness is something to be pushed through and laughed at.

My friend and colleague Amanda Rosenberg, a brilliant Chinese-British comedy writer, has a book out called That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill. Part-handbook, part-memoir, she writes candidly and critically about her experience with Bipolar II Disorder and how she’s navigated mental illness within the Chinese side of her family. As I devoured the book, I laughed, cried, and felt seen. 

In a 2018 essay for Vox, Rosenbergs writes, “At no point did any of my relatives tell me having a mental disorder… was unacceptable — I could tell by their hushed tones, and their quick dismissals, that mental illness was not an option.” According to her research, Asian Americans are three times less likely than white people to seek support for mental illness, often because we fear the accompanying shame of acknowledging it.

Indeed, as I read a certain passage in That’s Mental, my heart broke as every reason why it took me a year to tell my parents about my first assault came flooding into my memory. Rosenberg recalls being in a psychiatric hospital after her first suicide attempt and calling her mother to discuss her upcoming visit over the holidays. Initially confused at her mother’s cold tone, she soon understood what was going on. “She talked about my suicide attempt and how she didn’t want that kind of thing in her house,” she writes. “If I wanted to try that kind of thing again, then I should stay in a hotel.” They wouldn’t speak again for years, but that phone call would go on to inspire her commitment to be open about her mental health.

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When asked about how this conversation sparked that decision, Rosenberg tells Wear Your Voice in a Skype interview, “The guilt and shame and repression got me institutionalized. So I figured that the opposite of that was actually better.” By that time in her life, she had come to terms with her mental illness, and understood that there was nothing she could do to change the minds of those who couldn’t accept that part of her, even her mother. The only thing she could do was help other people in the same situation by sharing her experiences.

Though they’ve been estranged ever since, Rosenberg has been clear that she doesn’t entirely blame her family for their inability to handle mental illness. “This was handed down to my mother,” she tells me. “[She] did not make this up and decide this was the way the world works.” In her book, she describes it as the “heirloom quilt of repression”: there are so many factors at play; deeply ingrained behaviours that have been passed down between generations. But ultimately, it’s up to our generation to finally start dismantling the stigma, and set that quilt on fire.

Since the book’s publication, Rosenberg has written essays detailing her experience managing her mental illness while raising her infant daughter, now an adorable toddler. Though she and her therapist prepared for the inevitability of postpartum depression, they didn’t realize that postpartum psychosis was a possibility. In an essay for Betches, Rosenberg shares the story of the seven months she spent being gaslit by doctors as she searched for the reason why she felt so different after giving birth. “I knew this wasn’t postpartum depression and I knew it wasn’t my mental illness,” she writes. “But I also knew this birth had changed me on a cellular level.” 

Rosenberg tells me that reading about other folks’ experience with postpartum mental health helped her through that time, which is why she decided to write about her own. “I [wasn’t] getting the same sort of understanding from doctors at the time,” she says. “The only thing that really helped me was [finding] little morsels of other people’s experiences.” In her piece, she calls for medical professionals to provide people with more comprehensive information on postpartum recovery. “When we tell them we’re unwell, we need them to believe us.” 

In a recent essay for the New York Times, Rosenberg shares how she felt pressured to push through her depression for the sake of her child. “I was so wracked with guilt about being a bad mom that acknowledging my mental state felt like an indulgence,” she writes. 

Both Tauruses, Rosenberg and I are no stranger to attempting to cure our mental illness by bulldozing our way through it. I asked her what she thinks drives us to do that, and she reminded me that our cultures often imply that “working hard” will fix everything. “I don’t want to put everything on our culture,” she stresses. “I tried so hard to get better instantly… because [I thought if I] work hard, good things will come, and [it] would cure [me].” Thankfully, we both now recognize the importance of tamping our trademark impatience and stubbornness so that we can be present with our mental illness, even if it’s painful.

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For Rosenberg, she’s ultimately trying to do right by her daughter. “I’m just trying to make sure that my daughter’s life is different to mine,” she says. She hopes to build a relationship that’s open and healthy, where they can have honest communication about their feelings. As I get to a point in my life where the thought of starting my own family is closer to reality than fantasy, I’m grateful to have colleagues like Rosenberg sharing their experiences so openly and vulnerably. I can only hope that our generation paves the way for a future where we no longer have to fight the stigma around mental health and we can all feel supported by our loved ones in times of illness.

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Roslyn Talusan is a Toronto-based culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing critiques media to dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. Dig into more of her work at her website or follow her on Twitter.

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