Michelle Yang is on a personal mission to show the world one can live well with bipolar disorder
Michelle Yang is a writer, speaker, and mental health advocate. While navigating her mental health journey, Michelle Yang, MBA, noticed a lack of stories told by women of color struggling with a bipolar diagnosis. Her determination to change led her to leave her established career in corporate America to become a writer and advocate. Michelle’s story is one of triumph and resilience, assuring audiences that you can still strive for your wildest dreams while managing a chronic mental health condition. Her writing has been featured in NBC News, CNN, InStyle, Reader’s Digest, HuffPost, Shondaland, Temper, and more. Michelle is also busy at work on her memoir, Phoenix Girl: How a Fat Asian with Bipolar Found Love.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your story? What made you want to start your path as a writer, speaker, and mental health advocate?
I’m a mental health advocate speaking and writing about the intersection of Asian American identity, feminism, and mental health. My mental health struggles started when I immigrated at the age of 9. The trauma of immigration isn’t discussed much in most societies. And as pressures mounted to learn English quickly and adapt and thrive immediately, I struggled with severe anxiety, depression, and insomnia, but help was inaccessible. This was because, on paper, I was a star student, very involved in school and working full-time at my parents’ takeout restaurant. This did not fit the narrative most people held for someone living with mental health struggles. Therefore, I wasn’t diagnosed with my bipolar 1 disorder until college, when I was studying abroad in China. I’m so grateful I was diagnosed at 20, which is still relatively early. I found my medication that works and began therapy. And I’ve been doing well for almost 2 decades now. But up until 2019, my secret was eating me alive. I kept my diagnosis from most people I know – even though I was doing everything right, I was allowing the shame to put up a wall in my relationships and keep me from feeling confident. That’s when I decided I couldn’t take it anymore – I realized I couldn’t advocate for myself or anyone if I didn’t admit my own struggles. That’s when I wrote my first essay and started speaking out – and I’ve finally been able to set myself free and live as my whole self. At age 40, I realized that I’ve proven to my 20-year-old self that all my dreams were still within reach. So I quit my established corporate career to share my story because I want my younger self and all those others there like me to know, that life gets better.
This is a battle for our humanity. Please stand with us.” – Michelle Yang
What do you love the most about your life and job?
My current career has given me a sense of purpose like never before. I’ve found my calling and my work is incredibly rewarding. But what I love most about my life is being a partner and a mom. This was something I worried was out of reach once I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I worried I wasn’t thin enough, demure enough, or sane enough to be worthy of love and happiness. But I was wrong. I’m a good person with so much to give and receive. I’m proud of the partner and the parent that I am. I love that I was able to change my career and strive for my wildest dreams, that it wasn’t too late, and that now, I have so much flexibility for my family.
Were you surprised by the violence and hate speech against Asian Americans?
Yes and no. When news of COVID-19 first hit the US, my first worry was the racism that might come out of the woodwork. I went into denial about the dangers of the virus itself because I was less afraid of this sickness then, than of the racism that Asian Americans would face. But I was naïve because of course, COVID-19 became a full-fledged pandemic that changed all our lives –and- we’ve witnessed heinous violence and hate speech all across the world against Asian Americans.
Unfortunately, it was validating in a way. Being Asian Americans, we tend to downplay our suffering. We are taught to look on the bright side and deny the racism that we’ve experienced. Now, there is irrefutable proof of the racism we live with. It both makes me furious and feel validated that now it is brought into the light, we can do something about it.
Born ethnic Chinese in South Korea, is a proud immigrant “takeout kid” who grew up working in her family’s Chinese restaurant.
Kids encounter discrimination experience at school and on the playground. Mental health should be a big part of the education system. What do you think about that? Do you think it should be mandatory in schools?
I took psychology as an elective in high school and it perhaps saved my life. Even though I didn’t get proper help until several years later, that high school psychology course gave me a baseline understanding and the language to describe my symptoms. I’m not an education expert, but I can say from personal experience how impactful it was for me. I wish I had more courses available to me and been taught it earlier because my struggles started earlier.
Asian Americans who live in the United States have contributed so much to the country. Why many people don’t understand that when attacking Americans of Asian descent, they are attacking themselves and their own country?
The perpetual foreigner myth is a strong one in the US. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in place from 1882 to 1943, the Japanese internment camps during WWII, are some examples of how xenophobic sentiments led to policies that have impacted generations of Americans. I have many Asian friends who are fifth-generation Americans. I am a proud American too, through naturalization. It is unjust that we are viewed as outsiders and as scapegoats when problems arise. But I don’t have an answer for you on why people are racist and xenophobic. I understand it’s fear-based, but I wish this injustice did not exist. I think it is up to adults to educate themselves to unlearn the fear and ignorance, to not pass it on to the next generation.
From the outside, most would never know that I live with bipolar disorder and the baggage that comes with it. But this is not a sad story. It’s an uplifting one full of love, hope and successes, and all the things in between. This is my story.” – Michelle Yang
The new technologies help testifies hate events that previously could have been minimized by those who had not witnessed the facts. Are social media helping to create awareness about these problems?
The 1-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder just occurred. So many violent attacks and injustices are getting recorded and finding a platform. I do appreciate this and am heartbroken by how many of these incidents occurred in the past, before the time of cell phone cameras? So many injustices that so many people have endured over generations. When I go out now, I don’t leave without my cellphone, even when I’m checking the mail or walking the dog. I know it is my best weapon if I am attacked. Recording people’s behavior can de-escalate aggression by helping to hold people accountable.
What can families do when children witness anti-Asian racist attacks? What can help them the most to move forward?
My child is in first grade. We try to have as many healthy discussions as possible about racism. We also feel very fortunate that his public school curriculum has a strong social justice component woven throughout the year. The school’s student body is very diverse and his teacher is Asian American as well. I don’t have all the right answers, but we try to model and talk about what is right and wrong as parents. I take him to Black Lives Matter protests and explain racism against anyone is wrong. My partner and I both make ourselves available to answer questions and reinforce lessons talk in school. We read books about social justice and call it out when books and movies have racist or otherwise problematic depictions and themes. When family members say problematic things to our children, we make sure to interject that we disagree. But we’re still learning – it’s an ongoing process.
This situation has put several Asian Americans under continuous pressure and stress due to fear of physical attack. Many need to look for emotional healing. What’s one piece of advice that you wish you could give to them?
Don’t be afraid to seek help. Whether this is in the form of support from friends and loved ones or seeking therapy from a mental health provider, there is no shame in asking for help. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness. Everyone can benefit from therapy. So many of us live with intergenerational trauma as well. Processing this with a professional mental health provider, processing racist experiences can help us heal and be better equipped to deal with current events.
Michelle sharing her story in hopes that it may comfort others facing similar challenges.
It is a priority to keep talking about anti-Asian hate to create awareness. What do you hope haters will understand, and what changes do you hope to see?
I do think it is important to keep talking about racism. Our society has been in denial about it for so long. There’s this idea, linked to the model minority myth that Asian Americans do not suffer. There is so much wrong with this on so many levels. For once, we have the nation’s attention, so yes, I do think it is a priority to keep talking about injustice so that we can fix it. So we can unify and overcome. I want Asian Americans to be viewed as Americans, not as perpetual foreigners. I want Asian Americans to be viewed as diverse individuals and not a monolith, not a collection of stereotypes.
Photos courtesy of Michelle Yang
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Ciao! My name is Dominique. I’m Italian and I’m proud to be a mix. My father was an Italian chemical engineer and high school teacher, with Greek and Polish heritage. My mother is Haitian, she was high school language teacher, with Dominican, Spanish, French, Portuguese, African and Native American heritage. Being a mix makes me appreciate to want to understand different cultures and lifestyles. I grew up in Italy, lived few years in Haiti, travel around main European capitals, lived seven years in China, six in Spain and UK. Traveling makes me feel that we can learn something from every situation in every part of the world.