I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions because I pretty much give up after January is over. I find New Year’s resolutions fleeting and hard to follow through with. I try to set a yearly benchmark for myself instead, and I keep it as a reference point as I go about the year. Last year, my goal was to get off medication and focus on psychotherapy to address my mental health. During that time, I was able to explore alternative ways of treating my mental illness, and in my journey and grow closer to the roots of my heritage.
There are many ways to treat mental health symptoms — I’ve tried traditional methods like psychotherapy and psychiatry as well as homeopathic methods like acupuncture, medication, and even spiritual guides. Mental health treatment varies greatly from person to person, which can make it hard to find what works for you.
Growing up, my family brewed herbal teas and burned incense whenever I was sick. I never took Advil or Ibuprofen, so my relationship with pills and medication has always been rocky. I wanted to try medication the summer after my first year of college because I was starting to experience psychosis to the point of being too scared to leave my bed. I would hallucinate and see holes in the floor and the walls waving around me. The medication itself spurred intense side effects. I had vivid nightmares and night terrors, my anxiety heightened to an unbearable degree, and my self-harm and paranoia increased. After trying several common antidepressants, my psychiatrist suggested that my depression was treatment-resistant, and we’d likely have to try a new class or even combination of medications.
In the two years I was on medication, I tried over ten kinds of pills, ranging from antidepressants, SNRIs, antipsychotics, sleeping pills, and mood stabilizers. I was on particularly high dosages for most of my pills, and oftentimes, I was on multiple medications at one time. The only combination that seemed to work for all of my symptoms required taking four different kinds of pills throughout the course of the day, but in doing so, I no longer felt like myself. I kept trying because I felt like I was hanging on for dear life.
Mental health is often taboo in Asian culture. When my family found out I was taking medication, they threw my pills away and cut off my insurance. I was no longer able to afford consistent therapy or psychiatry, but I paid as much as I could out of pocket because I felt like I had no options left. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now, I wasn’t taking my medication as regularly as I should have; the comedown definitely threw me off balance and exacerbated my symptoms. It took over a year of secretly taking pills on and off before I decided to just quit cold turkey and start treatment from scratch. The comedown took months of readjustment, and the whole time, my moods and thoughts were consistently unstable.
My family could see that I was physically deteriorating, so they offered me their own treatment options: acupuncture and spirituality. I decided that any treatment was better than none at all, so I gave it a shot.
In Chinese medicine, emotions are strongly connected to physical health. The energy flow within our bodies is strongly correlated to how our organs function. The Chinese believe that when we feel certain emotions in excess, our bodies are indicating to us that we need to replenish the organ associated with that emotion. For example, the liver is associated with anger, and an upset liver can lead to excessive anger and irritation. When my acupuncturist first explained it to me, it was difficult for me to understand, but I soon found that acupuncture helped address physical symptoms such as muscle tension and organ dysfunction. It improved my posture, straightening my spine, and strengthened the rest of my body as well. I also slowly felt the source of my energy return to my body, so I was able to stay awake throughout the day. With that came my ability to exercise again and an increased appetite, which significantly improved my mood.
My mother is a devout Buddhist. Her particular branch of Buddhism, known as Shinnyo Buddhism, is derived from Mahayana Buddhism. Shinnyo Buddhists believe in cultivating buddhanature, the seed of awakening, through altruistic practices. Shinnyo Buddhists believe that the Buddha is ever present, transcending time and cosmic reality to help us reach spiritual enlightenment. I wear my mother’s necklace: a dharma protector. It is shaped like a wheel with a flower in the center, denoting a wheel of fortune and a symbol of life. It signifies that my ancestors live through me and are always protecting me.
Shinnyo Buddhism incorporates the idea that our ancestors, like the Buddha, are present around us. When I was growing up, I always thought of it as almost…pagan, so I recoiled whenever my mother tried to take me to the temple for service with her. My father had raised me to be agnostic, and I didn’t like the idea of Buddha being treated as a godlike figure. But even so, I have found spiritual practices, such as deep meditation, grounding techniques, and guiding principles to be useful in my everyday life. Furthermore, going to temple has provided me with the opportunity to learn more about my ancestry.
At the end of service, we have the opportunity to attend sesshin training. When I was a kid, I hated it because it meant sitting still for a long period of time, but now I find it to be a brief moment of peace and quiet to introspect. While we meditate, spiritual guides, who have trained for decades to sever worldly ties, go into communion and give us guidance to understand ourselves and continue our practice. It was during sesshin meditation training that I learned about an ancestor on my mother’s side who suffered from severe mental illness. She committed suicide, and supposedly, her burden was passed down to me. The spiritual guide told me that she saw me stranded in the middle of a foggy lake, and I had lost my oar. I had no way of getting back to shore in the thickening fog. I remember I felt tears prick in the corners of my eyes, because that’s exactly how waking up every morning felt. Even though our eyes were closed in communion, I felt seen.
I remember my mother cried when she learned about the sesshin training. I remember I cried sitting in the car next to her, and we wept together. Perhaps spirituality is bullshit, but I felt that establishing the connection to my ancestors’ strife and suffering helped me understand a little more about my own. Through shared practice, I was finally able to convey to my family how much I really needed help.
While my family still does not believe in medication, they’ve become more accepting of my therapy. Though I’m still not able to go as regularly as I used to, I now cherish the sessions I have with my therapist more, and I’ve begun to take more initiative in understanding the roots of my mental illnesses, the traumas that led to their development, and healthier ways to address my symptoms.
I decided not to pursue medication again, not just because it’s expensive but also because it was so difficult to find a combination that worked for me. I have also learned that medication, like acupuncture, treats physical symptoms of mental illness, like the visceral breathlessness of anxiety, the gut-wrenching pain of depression, or the severe mood swings from BPD. But most of all, I’ve learned that to truly address mental illness, we must look within ourselves to understand exactly where it falls within our lives.
While I do believe that medication helps ease symptoms, I am a strong proponent of coupling it with therapy. The skills and coping mechanisms I’ve learned in therapy will stay with me for the rest of my life, just as my diagnoses will be with me for years. But medication can be a powerful step in the process of healing ourselves.
I’ve learned a lot about myself, my family, and my culture in my search for consistent treatment. And so I hope you can see from my journey, that even when everything is falling apart, there will always, always be another option along the way.
Happy 2021! Here’s to understanding ourselves, our bodies, and our minds a little more this year.
Take care until next time!
Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.