My brother was 29 when he was first sent to a mental hospital and was diagnosed as bipolar. The police had found him outside NASA in Houston, disoriented and barefoot, pretending to be an astronaut.
While the news of my brother being hospitalized was shocking, it also put me in a strange kind of ease. Finally, he was getting psychiatric help and my parents, Korean immigrants, had to accept the fact that he was sick.
Ever since I was eight years old, I sensed that something was troubling my older brother. He was sleeping about twelve hours a day, an inordinate amount for an otherwise healthy teenager. He gained weight, his face became bloated like a full moon, and he seemed to live in a perpetual groggy haze.
When he was awake, he was quick to get angry. Big fights happened about things like peanut butter. He didn’t like the smell of peanut butter, and once when he detected it on my breath, he went into an ugly tirade and knocked my head against a door.
Our parents weren’t fully aware of what was happening. My dad worked in Korea, and my mom, a doctor, spent long hours at the hospital, often staying overnight. We never had any babysitters, because my brother, who is six years older than I am, was trusted to take care of things around the house, me included.
One day, when my mother and I were alone, I told her that my brother should see a psychiatrist.
“Your brother’s not crazy,” my mother said. “He’s just going through a phase. He’ll be okay when he gets older.”
“No, I think he really needs a psychiatrist,” I said.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” my mother said. “If he sees a psychiatrist, it goes on record forever and everyone will know. He’ll have trouble getting a job later.”
I’d seen Oprah Winfrey on TV introduce psychiatrists and psychologists to couples having marital problems, to pregnant teens, to a crying woman mourning the death of her cat. To me, it seemed like half of America was getting psychiatric help. But then again, maybe my mother was right. What did I know? I was only eight.
As my brother’s problems grew, my mother remained silent. Being proud and reserved, she kept our domestic problems hidden, even from my dad, who received only good news during short, long-distance phone calls.
After a while, my mother and I forgave my brother for his violent episodes and tacitly accepted the sight of him sleeping in the middle of the day.
Years later, I would marvel at how my mother, a medical doctor, had such a backward view on psychiatry. But research shows that our story is not unusual. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the least likely of ethnic groups to seek help for mental disorders, because of cultural values of reservation and fear or shame. When Asian Americans do use mental-health services, they display more severe symptoms than other groups, precisely because they’ve delayed seeking treatment. Despite being viewed as a “model minority,” APIs face many of the same mental health problems as other groups, with high rates of addiction, gambling, and family violence.
As an OB-GYN, my mother viewed psychiatry as soft science. The health of the mind was obvious to her. Her own life had proven that if you studied and worked hard, you’d attain wealth and success. And naturally, those things would lead to happiness. Or do they?
My mother’s fear that my brother would have trouble getting a job came to be true. Not because he finally saw a psychiatrist, but because he doesn’t get the treatment he needs. He’s not a criminal, and he doesn’t own a gun, but he gets into all sorts of trouble with the police because of his manic, violent episodes.
I wish my brother would see his bipolar illness for what it is. I asked him, “If you had cancer, you would take medication, and you would do something about it, wouldn’t you?”
He replied that he doesn’t have cancer and that the analogy is stupid.
In spite of all the fights we’ve had throughout the years, I know he has a good heart. One day, close to the holidays, my brother showed me a pickle jar filled with coins amassed from previous months.
“Guess how much I got?” he asked excitedly.
“Come on, guess,” he said. “It’s more than you’d think.”
“I don’t know. Twenty dollars?” I said.
“Forty-seven dollars!” he said.
“Wow,” I said, trying to match his cheerful tone.
That forty-seven dollars was all my brother had. His disability check wouldn’t come for six more days. But that night, despite my protests, my brother took me to a restaurant and bought me a burger and fries. I wanted to pay, but he’s my big brother, and it didn’t matter that he’s poor or sick. He’s my big brother, and he wanted to treat me. He insisted I get dessert.