Coming Out as Myself: Thoughts on Being a Mentally Ill, Queer Asian Woman
Trigger Warning: mentions of abuse and suicidal thoughts.
Being a mentally ill, queer, Asian woman (in no particular order) is a lot. Some days I walk around with my middle fingers up in the air and some days I wear punching bags. Some days I do both, consecutively or simultaneously. Some days I don’t know who I am, so I don’t bother at all. Here’s the thing about feeling like a person one moment and then feeling empty the next: calling myself anything at all is pretty terrifying.
My identity disturbance comes from a lot of places, but it begins with the gaps in my memory, especially from before I was 12. I can describe my childhood as three things: patchy, hazy, and traumatic. I can remember very little of what I was like as a child, what my life was like, and the abuse I suffered, but even these recollections are incomplete. I’ve often told myself that without all of my memories, there is no possible way to know my real identity.
The few people I confided about my lack of self growing up always assured me that it wasn’t a big deal. I was too young, after all. You’re still figuring it all out. That’s fair. But people also said things like, just be yourself, and I didn’t understand how I was supposed to find myself and just be at the same time. Once, a girl I had a crush on joked that I was probably having an early midlife crisis. I scared her off by saying she was right because I didn’t plan on living that long anyway. Soon enough, just be yourself turned into just don’t be sad, and I didn’t know how to do that either.
I tried to analyze myself more deeply. Write down your strengths and your weaknesses. Your likes and your dislikes. What do you value? What do you believe in? What makes you who you are? Every answer I came up with never seemed to fit. But I went on. I looked for myself constantly by asking the people around me what they thought of me, taking personality tests and studying astrology—at least they gave me reference points. Looking back now, it’s obvious to me that I wasn’t just young with low self-esteem. I felt no real identity within me, and I showed it in a number of ways, including creating characters to act as my stand-ins.
I suppose my acting career started in elementary school when I was a witch named Jillian who paraded around the halls and schoolyard with a spell book. I made up rituals, formed a small following, and wrote up an extensive character bio for myself in case anyone tried to test me. Later in high school, I decided to start calling myself Qwyncee, the coolest name I could think of at the time and demanded others call me by that name as well. Impressively, it stuck for a while. Qwyncee was popular, outgoing, happier, and stronger than me—but she was empty too.
When I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a part of me felt relieved. I finally had a name, albeit a problematic one, for what was happening to me and a reason for why my sense of self was so distorted. I started going to therapy and taking medication. I wanted to reach out to people, and so I did. But here’s the thing about telling people I have BPD: stigma.
I’ve been called a lot of things over the years. Burden. Difficult. Liar. Manipulative. Psycho. Violent. On my worse days, I tend to call myself these things. I carry the words around as punishment and take them out to play. I use the words to silence myself and hide—two things I was born knowing how to do perfectly. In my close-knit Filipino family, you learn quickly that it is better to keep quiet about the things that bother you because to do otherwise is to show weakness. When I was 12, shortly after I reported the abuse, exposing and acknowledging the pain I was living in, I was shunned—seen as a traitor. Less and less people showed up for me and I was met with hostility from those who refused to hear my side.
When it comes to talking about mental illness, I hear a mixture of crickets and prejudice based on previous history. I suppose this is partly on me since I don’t tend to bring it up, especially in front of more problematic relatives—sometimes the hostility is mutual. Perhaps now that I’m older we can begin to have healthier conversations, but I am still unlearning the violence of silence.
Here’s the trick to figuring out who I am now: staying. Staying and forgiving and learning and talking. Talking especially when I feel like leaving. Things are definitely not perfect, but they’re better than how they used to be.
Last summer, I came out to my mother. Before that, I had pretty much come out to every other important person in my life and the conversations were easy—I wasn’t that worried. The idea of coming out to my mother, however, the person I consider to be my best friend and the woman who had once called me her burden, terrified me. As a queer person, no matter how much you think somebody will love you and accept you for who you are, there is always some doubt that they won’t. That conversation was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to initiate with her, but to my relief, she took it better than I expected with just a little bit of teasing: my crying was interrupted by laughter because she thought the talk was going to be about something bad, like shopping debt. I love you and there’s nothing wrong with you, she told me. You know I love gay people. I love Ellen DeGeneres! Obviously, we still have a lot to learn and talk about.
Now, when things get a little messier in my head and I forget who I am, when I get tired of holding my middle fingers up and wearing punching bags, I reach out and hold on to my anchors: the people and things that I love. I write lists because they help a lot. I see my therapist once a week. I take my medication. I fight when I need to fight and rest when I need to rest. I talk to myself constantly and remind myself that it’s okay not to always be okay.
I am a mentally ill, queer, Asian woman (in no particular order), and I have never been more proud to say it out loud.