As part of the Psychology Essay Contest, hosted by RVU’s Mental Health and Wellness Counselors, students were given several questions to answer in an essay format. One of the winning essays, written by second-year osteopathic medical student Miryam Ha, delves into how a family member’s mental illness impacted her growing up.
There were many nights when I awoke to the sound of the fridge door creaking open as my grandmother scavenged for a late-night snack. On other nights, I heard the muffled sounds of Korean sermons echoing through the hallway. Most days, she would sleep through the afternoon well into the evening, but there were other times when she would spend hours at the mall, buying clothes that our family could not afford.
The things I do remember the most are: the assortment of pink, white, and blue pain tablets in her purple pill container, the earthy smell of Chinese herbs tucked away in her cabinets, heated words exchanged between her and my parents, and the waft of mint from the Salonpas patches that covered her body. She was in constant pain. It wasn’t until recently that I realized her pain emanated from something much deeper– a place of trauma and deep sadness as a woman trying to survive during wartime and, years later, as an immigrant.
My grandmother, Soon-He Song, was born in Manchuria to Korean Nationalist refugees during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Once the occupation ended, she and her family moved back to their hometown in North Korea. However, rising tensions between North and South Korea and the stark oppression of human rights led her to flee to South Korea with her mother and two younger sisters.
As the oldest daughter, she faced a lot of pressure to find work, get married, and provide financial stability for the rest of her family. When her youngest sister became involved in various scams and altercations with the police, my grandmother began experiencing fainting spells, headaches, and insomnia. Several years later, these symptoms worsened after she immigrated to California with my grandpa, father, aunt, and uncle. Having to adjust to a new life in a foreign country, learn a completely different language, and assimilate to a different culture took a heavy toll on her, leading her to isolate herself. She was eventually diagnosed with depression and anxiety, received Nortriptyline for her insomnia, and instructed to go out for walks to clear her mind. Nevertheless, her struggle with these problems did not subside and had lasting impacts on not only herself but also on the rest of our family.
Growing up, I wrestled with confusion and frustration watching my grandmother’s actions. I struggled to understand why my parents didn’t address them. I felt helpless as I watched my mother shoulder the burden of caring for my grandmother when her somatic symptoms arose or when she withdrew and felt helpless. There is no right way to come to terms with the impact of a family member with mental illness. My experience with my grandmother’s depression and anxiety was something that I didn’t acknowledge for a long time. Partly due to the pain, but also due to my culture. In my own family, words such as “refugee,” “trauma,” “depression,” and “anxiety” were not used, especially when it came to describing my grandmother’s experiences. I didn’t want to say anything that would portray my grandmother in a negative or disrespectful way. It felt easier to focus on her somatic symptoms and say that she was feeling tired, had body aches, or had trouble sleeping.
It took years to parse through the different aspects of my grandmother’s life. Healing and understanding didn’t come until I found myself facing my own challenges with identity, responsibility, and change. Identity, culture, and environment make up the fabric of a person’s experience. These are the same facets that affect mental illness. It would be remiss to not acknowledge or think about how interwoven mental health is among these aspects.
There will be many patients in the future who are impacted by mental illness in the family and who are struggling silently and trying to put their experiences into words. One way that I will strive to treat these specific patients is to hold space for them to share– to listen and to ask questions. I believe that there is healing and acceptance that comes from telling a story of trauma and reframing it in a way that highlights the strength and resilience of those who suffered. Although my grandmother is no longer here with me, I choose to share her story to further heal. I also hope that her story brings to light the subtle impacts of how mental illness can invade and affect a person and their family, especially within the Asian and Asian American community.