Kathy Khang’s Story: Having Depression & Growing Up in an Asian Family
July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Lately, I’ve been doing more interviews with people who bravely fight chronic illness like Rudy Caseres’ story of living with bipolar disorder. Now, I’m featuring Kathy Khang’s story. I’ve known Kathy for many years. When I was an undergraduate at Northwestern, she was the Director of Regional Multiethnic Diversity at Intervaristy Christian Fellowship/USA. Today, she is the Director of Campus Access Initiatives, a renowned writer, and speaker. Here is my interview with Kathy:
Jessica Gimeno: How old are you?
Kathy: I am 44 years old.
JG: What is your diagnosis, and how long did it take you to receive an accurate diagnosis?
KK: I have depression and mild anxiety, and I didn’t get a diagnosis until a few years ago (at 39 years old) when I couldn’t self-manage what turned out to be an anxiety attack.
JG: What symptoms were you experiencing that led to your diagnosis?
KK: For years I experienced bouts of “the blues” since childhood, and while those could very well have been normal experiences I had a difficult time after giving birth to my first child. I wasn’t the depressed person who was sad all the time. I was the depressed person who was always a bit on edge, quick to anger, and worked hard to numb the numbness. The months leading up to my diagnosis were emotionally and physically taxing, and one day I found myself crying at the thought of a work-related trip I was planning to take. I couldn’t stop the wave of emotions but I calmed the tears enough to call my doctor and tell her I thought I needed some help.
There is no attitude when you never talk about mental illness. I learned later in life that my mother had an older sister who died of sadness. Sadness. That is what my grandmother told me. Our family didn’t talk about mental illness because it would mean we would have to talk about things with deep stigma and pain.
JG: What was your family’s attitude towards mental illness growing up?
KK: What attitude? There is no attitude when you never talk about mental illness. I learned later in life that my mother had an older sister who died of sadness. Sadness. That is what my grandmother told me. Our family didn’t talk about mental illness because it would mean we would have to talk about things with deep stigma and pain. We also rarely, meaning never, speak of my cousin, who also died as a result of a suicide attempt.
There was no journey until adulthood, and I often wonder what life in my teens and 20s could have been like had I gotten therapy and medication earlier.
JG: How did the silence affect your mental health journey?
KK: There was no journey until adulthood, and I often wonder what life in my teens and 20s could have been like had I gotten therapy and medication earlier. It has also meant that my openness now is a bit shameful for the rest of the family that does not want to talk about personal issues.
JG: What can Asian Americans do to help our loved ones who have mental illness?
KK: We need to extend a great deal of grace and understanding in regards to the stigma. There are cultural and language barriers in explaining what mental illness and treatment options actually are, and if you are part of a religious family there are other layers of stigma and culture to talk about. I think information with honesty and openness is the best posture to take when sharing about our own experiences as well as trying to help our loved ones address their own.
JG: How do you talk to your children about mental illness?
KK: My three teenagers all know I am on medication for depression and carry meds for anxiety. I have talked with them at different times in different ways always taking into consideration their maturity and questions. When I first went on medication I let my oldest child know that I wasn’t going to be feeling well for a few weeks, and I also asked them if they were experiencing me any differently. They all are old enough to watch the commercials and the news, and they ask questions about my medication, my moods, etc.
JG: What is your everyday life like now?
KK: Life is full, and I’m more aware of how my environment and physical state impact my overall health, including my mental health.
JG: How do you manage anxiety and depression?
KK: I practice yoga and exercise as well as watching what, when, and how much I eat. I also take Lexapro and carry around Xanax, which I haven’t had to use in several months. The management is really a great deal of self-care, which is good for everyone!
Related: MSNBC did a documentary on Asian-American women and depression featuring my life: http://www.asamnews.com/2014/11/14/msnbc-asian-american-women-endure-high-rate-of-depression/
–Your Stylist, Jessica Gimeno
Follow @KathyKhang on Twitter
Check out her blog here!