It’s a nice, warm Sunday here in California. Too hot, if you ask me. I was hanging out with my husband and my boys in my air conditioned house when I suddenly felt this “pang” to write something deeply personal. I told Sam (that’s my husband’s name), “I need to go to Starbucks and write.” Of course, my concerned husband asked me, “What do you want to share?” I told him that it was about my mother’s suicide, which happened exactly 20 years ago this year. (She was 47-year-old when she took her own life.) I’m probably going to cry as I type this, tears started to well up even as I told Sam the general outline of the story. But that’s ok. (I brought a whole box of tissue paper with me.)
So, I’ve made it to Starbucks, paid for my cold brew and am now ready to process the gamut of emotions that will follow.
Her name was Nanju but she would go by the “American” name Nancy. She was an RN (registered nurse) and often worked night shifts at the hospital. My grandmother, her mom, also lived with us and she sort of acted like my mother because my mom was too busy, always trying to put food on the table. We grew up in Wilmington, which as anyone will tell you, isn’t the safest neighborhood in America. We had metal bars on our windows and a long hallway made of metal that greeted guests before they even got to the door.
Growing up, my mom was volatile. I can’t remember hugging her and we never said, “I love you” to each other. Mostly she was all rage. “Why didn’t you do that better”, “Use your head!” These were just some of the phrases she would yell at us. Perhaps it’s because of the Korean culture that one doesn’t verbalize “I love you”, instead, you show it through action. Can’t you see that I love you through my hard work?
We were not close, I just sort of admired her from afar. She wrote poetry that got published in newspapers, she was head of the Korean nurses association, after the LA riots she helped Koreans get back on their feet. She even got an award from the President of Korea for her help in the Korean community.
In fifth grade, we moved to Oregon and started a new life. Our house was huge, we had a pool. I guess we were moving up? We only stayed there for a year and during that time, I got a real glimpse into who my mother was. One day, my mother just up and disappeared. The next time I saw her she was at a mental hospital, strapped in a straight jacket. It was there that she was diagnosed bipolar. I couldn’t process it at the time. I was too young. Had she gone crazy? Who was this woman? I was scared of her.
Fast forward a few years. As the third child of four (I have two older sisters and one younger brother), I was told to just follow in the footsteps of Carol (my second sister). So I did. I went to UCLA with a major in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. Was that my passion? Absolutely not. I had no idea what that even meant. I wasn’t brought up to speak my mind, I was directed to follow.
Carol and I would live together at UCLA and it was there that we formed a strong bond. My mom would call us, yelling at us to come home and we dutifully would, scared sh**less that she would beat us up. She had no problem whacking us with a fly swatter or a plastic hanger. The hits would burn and the bruises would slowly fade. The trauma? Well, that would stay with us forever.
It was spring break in my sophomore year at college when I decided to go home, back to Orange County, to see my grandmother, mother, father and brother. I’ll never forget that day. I knew my mom was deeply depressed, she had tried a few times to kill herself, one time by downing a whole bottle of vodka. I went to the gym to work out. When I returned I heard wailing. My grandmother was in the closet and she told me to call 911. I panicked. I couldn’t get into the closet, it was jammed, so I couldn’t see what was happening, or maybe I did go in but my head just won’t let me remember. All I know is that my mother had killed herself. Suicide. Death by hanging.
One of the worst parts of this experience was hearing my grandmother wail. She wouldn’t stop. She beat her chest till it went black and blue. We had to put her into a hospital to get her to calm down. Looking back, I realize that she had lost her last living child, her daughter, and that there would be no greater pain than that.
For the next ten years, I could not open up about my mom. Someone would bring her up and I would just bawl. Not a single tear, literally bawl. I would tell the person to stop, that it was just too much to bear.
Then, two things happened. I became a mother myself and I got diagnosed with bipolar. These events would change my view of my mother forever.
When you become a mom, you realize what unconditional love is. By this I mean, love with no strings attached. You care for your children because of the immense love you have for them. So, it dawned on me, if my mother loved us, as she biologically should, how could she just up and leave us? How could she leave her own mother as well as her four children? How could she be so selfish? Did she not realize that we all needed her? I got angry. I resented her. I especially resented her for leaving my grandmother behind. My grandmother no longer had a home, she would bounce from nursing home to nursing home for the last 10 years of her life.
I’ll wrap this up by sharing with you my first experience of mania. I started to feel as though the government was watching me, I started noticing signs all around me, my brain had literally been taken over. Reason flew out the window. Sam knew something was wrong but couldn’t pinpoint the problem. We decided to get away, so we packed our bags and went up to downtown LA. There’s a lot to this story but I’ll just tell you that it culminated in me wandering the streets of LA at 2am, then blindly crossing a busy street. God wouldn’t let me die, I told myself. He would watch over me. I had lost it. I could easily have caused a major car accident. Not only could I have been killed, I could have killed the people swerving around to miss me.
Sam didn’t know what to do with me. He called my sister and a good doctor friend and they all decided the best place for me to go would be to the UCLA psych ward. I have no memory of what happened during the next ten hours. All I remember is waking up at the pysch ward, alone, with a note next to my bed. Scribbled in my sisters’ and husband’s handwriting were words that shockingly said that they were sorry that they had me put me there, that there was no other choice. Next to the note was a big bag of quarters, my only way to talk to them would be by a pay phone at the end of a long hallway. I ended up staying there for six weeks, until they could figure out what combination of medications would work on me. I couldn’t leave the psych ward, I could only see visitors. Though traumatic, I learned an important lesson: that the brain was immensely powerful.
It’s now been three years. I try not to let being bipolar define me. It’s just a part of who I am. Tying this back to my mother, I now realize how depressed she was when she took her life. For those people who have never experienced depression or a mental illness, you may not be able to understand how you can’t just “snap” out of it. The bad thoughts overwhelm you. It’s nearly impossible to function in society. When I’m depressed, it feels like I’m in a deep hole I can’t climb out of. My life is great, why aren’t I happy?
I’ve learned to forgive my mom. It’s not like she was making a deliberate, calculated decision to commit suicide, she felt as though she had no other choice. I think she was so sad, she thought this was the only way out. Her suicide would bring the family closer, she had once told me. It was a completely irrational thought but she wasn’t of sane mind.
So, I have come to understand her. I wish she could have been around to see her grandchildren. It would have been nice to have her teach me how to do something as simple as change a diaper. I’ve been blessed with amazing in-laws, and though, they’ll never replace my own parents, I am supremely grateful for the grandmother/grandfather relationship they have with our children.
I opened up a lot today and it felt very cathartic. If there’s even one person who read this and now has a better understanding of a family member or friend who’s going through a mental illness, than this post was all worth it.
Note: Instead of donating a portion of all sales of Skylar Yoo to raising the awareness of mental illness, I want it to go towards funding the research of mental illness. There’s still so much we do not know about it. I hope that we can all learn more.