I found her outside in the cold rain, standing in the driveway with an umbrella in one hand and a rolling suitcase in the other, waiting to be picked up by an unidentified driver for a secret meeting. “You’re not my daughter anymore, and I’m not your mother,” she insisted, as I begged her to come inside. She pushed back my hair to check for the mole on my right cheek, just in case, because apparently if “The Program” were to create an android of me, they would forget that little detail.
It began as paranoia, a feeling that she was being watched and monitored by an entity that seemed similar to the military of her childhood in Taiwan after the war. But as she stopped eating and sleeping, she started calling 911 in the middle of the night to report cries for help that no one else could hear. Most days she believed that school was canceled and rarely left her bedroom, as my sisters, then 10 and 16 years-old, cooked their own meals and woke each other up to catch the bus.
My immigrant mother was raised in a culture that quietly overlooked mental illness. Facing stigma and shame, she refused to acknowledge her psychosis, much less receive treatment. In the wake of her deepening mental health crisis, I left my job in Boston to move back in with my family. At the age of 23, I became the primary caregiver for my mom and two sisters.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I share my family’s story with the hope that other families won’t feel alone and invisible as we did.
Today as a Boston city councilor, I see the stress of mental health challenges across our city, in the stories of constituents who reach out and those who struggle silently. I catch glimpses of my mother in Bostonians experiencing homelessness and self-medicating for trauma through substance use. I know the resilience of students in our city who are raising themselves while a parent or guardian suffers. I am painfully familiar with the impossible juggle for caretakers trying to navigate language and cultural barriers, insurance pitfalls, and their own unyielding work schedules — only to be heartbroken by the limits of medical treatment.
The first time my mom was hospitalized, she was forcibly sedated before I was admitted to see her. When I arrived, someone handed me a plastic bag containing her belongings: the ruined clothes that had been cut off her body with scissors. Mom told me in Mandarin that she hadn’t wanted to undress in front of a male attendant; that bag also contained the last bits of her dignity shredded up inside. But unfortunately that wouldn’t be the last time I would stay overnight with her in an ER room, waiting for a mental health bed to open up, and it wasn’t the last time I shook with anger at a system that dehumanized her.
Through years of treatment and patience, my mom has stabilized and today lives downstairs on the first floor of our two-family home. She delights in spending time with her two grandsons every day and giving treats to every dog passing by on a walk around our neighborhood. Although ongoing mental health challenges have kept her from weddings, graduations, inaugurations, and other family milestones over the years, we are happy to have a strong support network for her as my siblings have blossomed into wise, caring adults.
The coronavirus pandemic has been emotionally taxing for all families, and this time is especially disruptive for those relying on carefully built routines and support systems. Trying to stop mom from making her usual frequent trips to the grocery store has been exhausting and stressful for the whole family. And we all know that if she were to need medical care for the coronavirus, it would be an incredible struggle to administer treatment.
Mental health awareness means ending the stigma of mental illness by sharing the complexities of our stories and fighting to make care accessible to every family. As we reshape society for public health during and after this global pandemic, let us lift up mental health so every family is seen, supported, and celebrated in our city.
Michelle Wu is a Boston city councilor.