In March 2021, CandleX director Xiaojie interviewed Kelly Yang on her experience with bipolar disorder. A year later, CandleX decided to present this interview in five chapters to commemorate World Bipolar Day. This is Chapter 3 of the interview. Check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 if you haven’t already!
In Chapter 3, Kelly shares her experience living in the psychiatry department of a hospital in Beijing. Before hospitalization, it was difficult for her and her family to accept that Kelly really had a mental illness, so it was a plan that dragged on for a while. Once she was hospitalized, she started taking medicines and receiving electroconvulsive therapy (mECT). This treatment resulted in short-term memory loss, so she couldn’t exactly recall some things that happened during the time, but she explained how it proved to be effective for her. In Chapter 4, they will give more insight on suggestions for people who are well-achieved yet mentally unstable.
Interviewer: Xiaojie | Director of CandleX
Time of interview: 2021
Xiaojie: Did you receive treatment in a fixed-point mental hospital in Beijing? What was the process like?
Kelly: To be honest, seeking medical treatment was quite a rocky journey for me. My parents had no experience with this, and neither did I.So, in the beginning, they brought me to the sleep department in a traditional Chinese medicine hospital because I wasn't sleeping at first. While I was there, I tried acupuncture and eating Chinese medicine, but it wasn't really working for me. Then, I went to Peking Union Medial College Hospital's psychology department, where I started using Western medicine.
Xiaojie: You already started using psychotropic drugs. Were you diagnosed there?
Kelly: I completed assessment forms for each hospital I went to, and the results all pointed to a major depressive disorder state. So I started taking medicine, but since I-
Xiaojie: Sorry to interrupt, but I forgot to ask this: is it correct that ou went to see the doctor after your last bipolar episode?
Kelly: Correct. The episodes before the last one were more like points, where I overcame the emotions after I validated myself. The previous two episodes' symptoms were also not as severe as the last. In this last episode, I couldn't even function normally. As I was saying, I first tried treatment using Chinese medicine, then I went to public hospitals where I used psychotropic drugs. But, at the time, my parents couldn't accept that I may actually have a mental illness. That's why they weren't really strict on me to take the medicines. People who have taken psychotropic drugs probably know that the side effects are very obvious in the beginning. So the strong side effects of the drugs added to my already low state worsened my condition. I felt that I was already bad enough, and I would be even worse after taking the medicines. So, at first, there were quite a few twists and turns.
Xiaojie: You were only seeing the doctor and not hospitalized yet, right?
Kelly: Right, but I also stopped working and seeing other people. I would stay home with my parents every day.
Xiaojie: From the doctor making suggestions to you being hospitalized, was there perhaps a process in the middle?
Kelly: Yes, I dragged on the plan to go to a specialized hospital for two months.
Xiaojie: It seems you were avoiding and avoiding the hospital until many people couldn't hold you back and you really needed to go. This is commonly seen in China because it's very hard for us to admit that we have psychological and mental problems that need other to help us with. So what was this entire journey like for you? How did you view your own mental problems and seeing the doctor? What were you feeling? Personally, during periods of illness and before I was hospitalized, I was extremely against seeing the doctor. A signature feature of bipolar disorder is patients would think they're completely fine and there's no need to see the doctor.
Xiaojie: Especially during manic phases?
Kelly: Yes. "Why are you taking me to this place? Why are you controlling me? Why do I need to eat medicine?" I had this sense of resistance. So, taking drugs and seeing the doctor in these two months were pretty tough. I was resisting up until I was hospitalized and received some treatment. Only when my emotions and my senses slowly returned, I could truly accept being in the hospital, taking medicines, and the possibility of long-term drug use.
Xiaojie: Alright. Let's talk a bit about when you entered the inpatient room. Many people may have lots of imagination, fear, and curiosity about living in a mental hospital. So, when you entered the inpatient department, what did the doctor do and what did you do? Can you briefly share that?
Kelly: I need to first clarify something. No matter my treatment or the drugs I took, they actually all damaged my memory a bit. So, some things that happened during this time are blurry and missing in my memory. I would feel blankness for certain things. For some things, I can only remember bits and pieces. Well, living in the mental department of a hospital was not that scary. It was lights out at 9PM, and we would wake up at 5AM to line up to get our blood drawn. A doctor would visit me every day to adjust my drug dosage. I did a treatment that, for me in my stage of illness, was quite useful. It was electroconvulsive therapy (mECT). This treatment method is considered pretty common in China.
Xiaojie: Can you briefly introduce this treatment method to us?
Kelly: I actually didn't do any research on what this method really is, so I'll just share my personal experience with it. I would just lay on the hospital bed, and they would make my whole body numb. I've seen fully-numb patients being sent in, then connected to electricity, and constantly twitching on the bed. It was basically electric shock.
Xiaojie: What you just described was you looking at others. Did you have memory or any feelings during the treatment on yourself?
Kelly: All I remember is the doctor calling for a group of patients and taking us to another treatment room. We would wear an armband, connect to a tube, and when they called your name, you would go lie on the bed. We had all kinds of pads for electric shock stuck onto us, and the tube would connect to a needle that injects anesthetic, which makes me lose consciousness. When I awake, I would be in another room. They would observe my heart rate, blood pressure, and these basic values. After I go back, my head would throb and I would just sleep. I did this every day for four days. It was the same process every day. After these four days, I could feel an obvious erase of previous memories. I didn't know why I was there, why everyone cared about me so much, because I thought I was fine. It suddenly pulled me back to the state I was in before, and it was like the memories in between were gone.
Xiaojie: How much of your memory was erased?
Kelly: Just the memories from the previous two months of being bipolar.
Xiaojie: Memories from two months ago were already blurry?
Kelly: It's just like, "Wait, what did I do that day? And the other day?" Later, when I talked to my father, he would ask me if I remembered what happened or what I did, and I would say no. Now it's getting better, though. I can slowly start remembering things again. But back then, even my doctor told my father that this treatment will result in short-term memory loss, but it will get better later on. After those four days, I experienced a strong feeling. Before, my logic was messy, which is a symptom of bipolar disorder and depression. Basically, it's this confused, messy thinking with no logic. That time, I was in chaos. I didn't have any logic, which was very different from how I normally act. A saying I really like is: I pressed "Restart" after the treatment. It's as if I didn't experience the entire episode, and I could restart. This was the feeling I had during the time. I recovered my clear thinking. My manic emotions before and after the electric shocks were different. Before the electric shocks, my mind was in a state of chaos, so I had some crazy behaviors during that manic phase. But during the manic phase after starting treatment, I thought life was beautiful and I couldn't be happier. I felt like I could do anything.
Xiaojie: You felt confident, capable, and hopeful for the future.
Kelly: So I personally think my manic phase before treatment was a more intense mania, while the manic phase after treatment was less mania in general. I've told people around me who feel depressed or have depressed family members that from personal experience, even if you haven't experienced severe physiological symptoms, like just sinking in depressed emotions and not being able to come out, still go see a reliable psychologist to receive some psychological guidance. But if you already have physical symptoms like depressive facial numbness or long-period insomnia, I think it's best for them to accept professional treatment from specialized hospitals and use medicine to adjust their state. This is usually the advice I give them.
Xiaojie: Right. This is similar to WHO's basic advocacy for depression, which is what we call mild depression. Counseling is most effective during mild depression because patients still have the ability to think logically. Plus, after taking drugs, everyone reacts differently; there may also be side effects. During this period, they can try to get medicine from a psychiatrist, but counseling also plays a very important role. During severe illness stages, it's necessary to use both.