This year happens to be one of major milestones. I will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree after seven long years of undergraduate work that has been riddled with health setbacks. I will also be turning 25. It feels like a prime opportunity to reflect on my life journey and how it’s been shaped by living with bipolar disorder. While it certainly hasn’t been easy, I’ve grown in ways I likely never would have otherwise.
A developing diagnosis
When I began experiencing mood swings as a young teenager in high school, I would have never guessed their implications for the rest of my life. I was certainly moody in ways many teenagers experience, but it was when I began self harming and daydreaming about suicide that I knew something was very wrong.
I remember a fellow classmate pointing out the scabbed over cuts on my wrist and asking what happened. I quickly pulled my sleeve over the evidence of my tumultuous mind and blamed the cat. They didn’t seem convinced but didn’t push the issue further. That moment of fear, guilt, and shame at my actions was a clear sign to me that I was ill. However, it wasn’t until much later that I finally asked for help.
That moment was one of the scariest of my life. I knew once I told my parents about my cutting and suicidal thoughts that I couldn’t go back to normalcy. But at that point, normalcy was locking myself in my room anytime I wasn’t at school. It was sitting in the dark with sharp blades, crying for reasons unknown to me, trying to push out the intrusive thoughts that constantly berated me. Although I wasn’t fully conscious of it, I had reached the point where I couldn’t live that way any longer.
As I predicted, life changed drastically. I began seeing a therapist weekly and started medications. The initial diagnosis of depression didn’t seem to quite fit, but having a name for all of these unwelcome thoughts and feelings seemed to help. While this time of my life is extremely blurry, I know I struggled desperately to regain a foothold but the ground seemed to keep slipping out from under me.
The Wonder Woman I Knew–A Mother’s Day Poem (Lori)
I will start with Beauty, You always were that to me— Green eyes, copper hair, and long flowing dresses, The color of your lipstick and faint smell of hairspray, Fill my early childhood memories with good things.
Then there was the test of Strength, Mom, you got really sick. The doctors couldn’t figure it out, Some even believed you made it all up; But we found a doctor who helped us understand As you lived with a chronic health condition for many years. You kept on going, living your life and in that resilience Found a way to help others with similar conditions.
Ohh my dear mother, you were the Love. I rarely had reason to doubt it. You were constantly by my side, Through every up and down I faced. In my teen years you showed me that Love must sometimes be tough, But always believes and hopes for the best, In me—your only child.
The Grace and dignity you showed, You extended it to many others. No one was excluded from your circle Of friendship and loyalty. You laughed with others in times of joy, You held the hand of a friend suffering from terminal cancer. You taught me how to connect with people in meaningful ways.
I speak the Truth, I testify, To these things that you were and still are, Even though you have left this earth. You never wore a cape or carried a lasso, But you were a wonderful woman, A Wonder Woman to me.
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Quarantine Nail Party (Lori)
Those who keep in touch with me on social media know I enjoy giving myself manicures. Manicures (and occasionally pedicures) are fulfilling to me in two ways: self-care and to show my creative side. I am happy to share my most recent manicure in this entry.
Why nail polish? Isn’t it sticky, smelly, time-consuming, and troublesome? If I am being completely honest, it is all of those things. If you can pull off the perfect at-home manicure, it seems to start chipping or peeling off as soon as you get it done.
On March 19, 2020 California Governor Newsom announced a statewide stay-at-home order. Here is a screenshot from my phone:
Currently the lockdown continues until May 1st, although the Yolo County site says that an extension is forthcoming. With the president and some states now opening up the economy, there is a glimmer of hope the lockdown will let up even more so in California and Yolo County in the coming weeks.
Until then, Lori and I continue to post a weekly journal updated every day or two to mark thoughts, reflections, and news related to life sheltering-at-home.
This is week 6 of the lockdown.
Saturday, May 2, 2020
When Plans Change
“’Cause I told you my level of concern,
But you walked by like you never heard,
And you could bring down my level of concern,
Just need you to tell me we’re alright, tell me we’re okay.”
-twenty one pilots
I love Hawaii. And what’s not to love? Beaches, mountains carved from volcanoes, weather that changes from rain to sunshine in a moment, pineapple fields, the Aloha spirit of those who live there.
We are supposed to be in Hawaii right now. Celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary that was actually LAST August. We went to Honolulu for our honeymoon and have never been back.
Our destination this time was supposed to be Maui. We’ve heard wonderful things about Maui from friends who have visited. I can remember how excited I felt when Howard booked the plane tickets. I thought, “Wow. This will be a time to really celebrate all we’ve been through together the past 25 years—to reminisce and enjoy time together in a blissful tropical location. Just the two of us.”
Now I am writing from shelter-in-place at home. After plane tickets and hotel reservations were cancelled. After the return home I thought I would be enthusiastically showing off my tropical tan, telling tales of snorkeling with fish, and boring friends and family with pictures. Lots of pictures. Proudly on display on my Facebook account.
Instead I’m rolling out of bed close to noon these days and wondering what to make for lunch. I’ve made so many lunches at home now—I don’t know anymore. Where is the lunch menu at the local Hawaiian barbeque place where I can just order from?
The main thing I know during this time is that it’s okay to mourn the loss of this trip. It’s okay to realize flying off to Hawaii and basking in the sunshine would have been really good for my physical, emotional and mental health. It’s also okay to know that I had pumped up this trip in my mind as a “trip of a lifetime,” and none of those expectations were met. At all.
The main thing I know during this time is that it’s okay to mourn the loss of this trip.
But my life in quarantine? It’s really good, actually. I have my husband at my side for most of the time. We pray together, we talk together, we roast and drink coffee together. I tend to my garden—it is probably the best Spring I’ve had in my garden. Ever.
We have our son at home with us for now, and just knowing he is here doing his own thing and feeling healthy is a big deal. Seeing our daughters on FaceTime at least once a week and their smiling faces is huge. We have our dog and our kitten to look after and enjoy their company.
And really—when it comes down to it, I wouldn’t want to be in Hawaii by myself. I know that wherever I am with Howard is truly home.
Friday, May 1, 2020
Read the Bible in a Year (Howard)
Each year I attempt to read through the Bible in a year. This year, with a four-month break from work, and now shelter-at-home orders, I feel more confident I can accomplish it.
Here is a scan of the Bible reading plan I adopted some years ago with this year’s progress so far:
I know there are some great online/electronic Bible reading plans out there, but I like the simplicity and variety of this plan. Each day of the week focuses on a part of the Bible such as New Testament letters, prophets, and Gospels/Acts. I still need to catch up on the second half of Isaiah, but decided to keep going.
The best part of following a reading plan is staying in the Word each day. Over the weeks I’ve struggled with various moods and feelings related to the lockdown. Whether it is feeling sad, anxious, lethargic, fearful, or restless it seems like something I read each day helps me face the challenges of that time.
The best part of following a reading Whether it is feeling sad, anxious, lethargic, fearful, or restless it seems like something I read each day helps me face the challenges of that time.
I also enjoy sharing about what I read with Lori. Every day we spend a few moments reading Scriptures, singing praise songs, and praying. I like to reflect on highlights from my daily reading during that time.
I hope I can keep up my reading and meditation time after the lockdown ends and I’m back at work. For now it’s a needed and welcome activity that helps me through this scary and uncertain time.
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
A Day at the Zoo (Lori)
There’s a lot of attention around “Tiger King,” which is arguably a very popular coronavirus pandemic viewing experience. Meanwhile, we’ve been managing our own small menagerie at home.
When our kids were growing up and living at home with us, our youngest always wanted to try owning new pets. She would visit her friends’ houses and then want a similar pet to what she saw there; and, yes, some of them were definitely exotic.
Geckos, chameleons, turtles, snakes, fish, etc. were all requests that were presented to us with the pleading, “Please, Mom!”, “Please Dad!” I honestly didn’t know the first thing about caring for a chameleon, so we deftly talked her into fish and hamsters.
We’ve had hamsters rolling across the living room floor in their balls and knocking into furniture. Fish had their water changed from their tanks at the sink in the laundry room.
These days, we have only our dog, Teddy, and our kitten, Pippin. It’s been fairly quiet until this last week. To be honest, I was so preoccupied with meal planning and preparation I didn’t even really notice they were in the house.
Then we observed Teddy getting really tired on short walks to the park and shaking his head from side to side.
So, I asked Howard to check his left ear and it seems his previously diagnosed condition at the vet office flared up again. Thankfully we still have the ointment we purchased.
Then I suddenly noticed Teddy was chewing his paws again until they were red and sore. I don’t know if this is from stress about his ear condition or plain boredom, but I made him wear a cone until his feet and ear started to heal.
Pippin the Little Tiger
Pippin is a wild one. She came to our yard about a year ago as a feral kitten. We have domesticated her somewhat but she still climbs trees, onto the roof, and hunts all kinds of creatures—from pigeons to lizards to insects.
One day I noticed she pounced on—and killed—a bee that was buzzing near my budding lemon tree. I was momentarily concerned but then relieved that she didn’t get stung by the bee.
In this guest post my wife Lori discusses how seeing a musical on our trip to NYC led her to reflect on her own parenting and mental health journey.
Warning: Spoilers for the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and sensitive content are included in this blog post. Please read at your own discretion.
Howard and I had an opportunity to see the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway in New York just a couple of weeks ago. Our youngest daughter highly recommended it to us—having seen it herself at the Music Box Theater the previous year. It was an incredible choice.
I was drawn in from the first minute until the very end. I want to talk about the musical through the lens of a parent as well as my personal experience with depression/suicide as a young person many years ago.
I Need a Parenting Map
The musical opens with Evan and his mom. It’s the first day of senior year of high school. Evan is nervous about it, but so is Mom. She chatters on, gives him a rousing pep talk, asks about his homework assignment from his psychiatrist, and anxiously hovers over him. Meanwhile we get a peek into Connor Murphy’s morning with his family. Mom is trying to push him to attend the first day of school while Dad and sister Zoe make snide remarks about Connor at the breakfast table.
I was drawn in from the first minute until the very end. I want to talk about the musical through the lens of a parent as well as my personal experience with depression/suicide as a young person many years ago.
I could relate to the poor moms in this first scene and the opening song, “Anybody Have A Map?” They are trying so hard to keep their sons going—really pushing them through life even though the boys are both struggling with deep emotional issues. It is scary and confusing. They are trying, but at a loss as to how to truly connect with their children. I can relate. Both my daughters have struggled with depression and anxiety.
As a mother, I desperately rooted around and grasped onto the familiar and found comfort in a daily routine. If my girls could just make it through school that day, then they could build on that day after day and everything would be okay, right? Life works itself out and my kids are gonna be part of that. They are gonna love high school and even thrive there. They are going to overcome personal obstacles and soar above it all.
A big happy Valentine’s Day to my wife of over 25 years, Lori. I’m grateful for not just the quarter century together, but more importantly all the ways we’ve grown personally and relationally since those early days of college.
It was love at first talk. When Lori and I met in our last year at college, we connected immediately. Sure, there was a physical attraction — and we joined the same Christian group at the University of California in Davis. But the ability to talk openly about living with chronic health conditions bonded us from day one.
We still care for each other through the health ups and downs with listening ears and helping hands. I wouldn’t have wanted to share my life with anyone else.
For this our 28th Valentine’s Day together I would like to share a short letter to my best friend:
Happy Lunar New Year 2019! this year is my year, the Year of the Pig.
Happy Lunar New Year! Last week my family celebrated Chinese New Year with a family dinner and red envelopes filled with money from my parents. My mom gave clear instructions to place the red envelopes under our pillows on Monday evening. If we didn’t the money would not be lucky.
I looked forward to this year for many reasons, including being born in the year of Pig along with my firstborn daughter. If you can do simple math you can figure out how old I am (there are 12 years in the Chinese zodiac) and how old my daughter is. Someone wrongly said that I was twelve when I had my daughter (umm, add another cycle of the zodiac please).
It’s a year of milestones for the Chang family.
Four Decades with Psoriasis
Forty years with psoriasis. I’m trying to let that sink in for a minute. I know it’s not a world record for longevity with this autoimmune condition. Yet, the weight of almost 15,000 days with itchy, scaly skin feels heavy on my mind and heart. So many of those days I felt depressed, beaten, and lost. Some days felt extremely long, like a week or month in itself.
I’m grateful today, though, for much better treatments and control. I’m glad for opportunities to write and advocate for others living with psoriasis for just a few days or years, to those who endured more decades than one can count on a hand.
I also see that life marched on with psoriasis. I graduated from high school 30 years ago. I got married 25 years ago, and began pastoring churches 20 years ago. My youngest turns 18 in a few weeks, while my oldest turns 24 in a few months. These round numbers represent the passage of a significant amount of time and markers that beg notice as the days whiz by.
Most of all, I survived. At times I even achieved goals and thrived. Through it all my faith sustained me. I’m not an overly demonstrative person, but this year it’s time to celebrate making it this far and all that is to come.
Fuller Theological Seminary Doctor of Ministry Commencement, 2016
Calendar of Milestones
In looking forward to this year, 2019 and the Year of the Boar, here are some upcoming events we are all excited about.
This past week the pain in my shoulder landed on the chart somewhere between five and seven out of ten. I injured it in my exuberance to load my daughter’s new bicycle into the back of the CR-V. It’s nothing critical, but annoying enough that I can’t lift at certain angles or rotate in a full range of motion.
The primary impact of this pain in the shoulder is my inability to reach the upper middle part of my back. I normally stretch my arm to apply topical medications and moisturizers to those harder to reach spots. The psoriasis doesn’t pop out there as much, but recently my atopic dermatitis flared everywhere with the cold, winter-like weather here in Northern California.
Each morning and evening when I apply topicals I need to decide whether I will try to reach those spots myself or not.
I’m Going to Do it Myself
My attitude the entire week is to take care of myself—injury or not. In fact, I don’t want, or need, help. The first couple times I tried to reach my upper back I winced. The next time, after sleeping on that shoulder, I yelped. I exacerbated the injury each time, too, which made me feel stupid and foolish.
One time I felt so much agony that I did ask my wife to apply moisturizer to my back. As she pulled her hand out of the jar of Cetaphil cream I immediately knew she had too much. Decades of applying creams trained me to extract just the right amount of cream or ointment for the skin surface area in question.
As an amateur she could not possibly know how much the skin on my back needed. But that was way too much. I thanked Lori. Then, once she left the room, quickly grabbed a towel to wipe off the excess moisturizer. My skin still felt greasy and uncomfortable after toweling it off a few times.
I determined to not ask her again.
Is There Another Way?
Last night my back became quite itchy with eczema rashes. I longed for a back scratcher but could not find one. I figured the primates at the zoo scratch each other’s backs, so I should at least see if Lori would scratch my back. But, alas, she fell fast asleep on the couch. I desperately needed to improvise.
The thirty-gram tube of hydrocortisone looked enticing. It gave me an extra few inches reach and had a not-too-sharp edge at the bottom. Like Job from the Bible scraping his boils with pottery shards, I soothed the itch on my upper back with that corner edge. Looking around to see if anyone observed my crude scratching technique, I put it down pretending like nothing happened.
My mind them began to brainstorm ways I could put medication and moisturizers on my back. I wondered aloud if anyone invented such a tool, and that if they had not, that maybe I could invent it. I thought, even without an injured shoulder, some people might not have the necessary flexibility and reach.
I’m still working on the perfect invention. If you know of some similar contraption let me know!
My Independent Streak Begins
Hurting my shoulder made it clear to me why I hate asking for help: pride and independence. I help others for a living as a pastor, husband, father, and friend. People message or call me to talk about or help solve problems. Mutual support is okay, but I believe that if you can do something yourself, then you absolutely should.
My streak of independence no doubt comes partly from necessity and parental training. My parents literally worked night and day to make ends meet as immigrants from China/Taiwan. My dad worked as an engineer in the day, then went to my mom’s small retail gift boutique in the evening to help with the family business. Mom worked seven days a week at “the store” for the better part of a decade after I started kindergarten.
As a latchkey kid I largely took care of myself, including applying my own medications. Back then, as an elementary student, I applied mild topical steroids and 2% LCD coal tar in Aquaphor on my psoriasis. My dad even taught me how to order medication by calling the pharmacy, and let me pick them up at the counter as he stood by to pay.
My strong sense of pride also derived from my desire to prove to others and myself that, despite having chronic illnesses, I could achieve great things with minimal support. I pride myself in hard work and perseverance no matter the obstacle. I earned good grades, and later advanced degrees, through consistency and determination.
This bum left shoulder, though, humbles me every time I need to reach those few square inches on my back.
Fine, I’ll Ask for Help
Now I’m determined to stop reinjuring my shoulder by overstretching its current limits. It needs rest, and it needs to heal. So, somewhat less reluctantly, I will ask my wife again for help after I take my shower.
The pain in my shoulder is a metaphor for life. Asking for help often connotes weakness, and no one wants to admit they are weak. Knowing when I need help, however, is true wisdom. Asking for support, while humbling, can lead to the greater good of intimacy through vulnerability. Reciprocity, when not demanded, becomes mutual care.
I also recognize I lose something when I don’t ask for help when I really do need it: the opportunity to connect on a deeper level with others. Sure I can do a lot by myself. But I lose out on sharing moments of triumph and loss, of joy and sorrow, and of journeyingup the tall mountain of life’s challenging peaks with friends who care.
Inspirational Verse: Galatians 6:2
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.