Meet Katie Han, a strong woman who is overcoming her incredible traumas every day. She suffered through childhood abuse and sexual harassment which led to her mood disorders. She shares her insights of how she has learned to love herself, heal, and cope with her past.
1. Can you tell us a little bit more about your mood disorder?
Although I didn’t really understand it (and still sort of don’t), my mood disorder can be best described as an overall “flat affect.” It was explained to me that I didn’t receive a depression diagnosis despite experiencing several symptoms (apathy, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, etc.) because I had some sort of motivation that made me appear high-functioning to others. Mostly, I felt numb and wondered if that’s how other people felt.
I’m not sure if I still have a mood disorder. When I took an abnormal psychology class in college, my professor asked how we know when behavior is considered abnormal, because these criteria are oftentimes subjective, but behavior becomes abnormal when it interferes with our daily functioning. For that reason, I don’t think I still have a mood disorder but at the same time, I don’t think it completely went away, either. There are days when I have bouts and want to hide all day and don’t know why I’m crying; the outside world doesn’t feel safe; and the numbness returns. For the most part though, I am happy that I am okay.
2. What was it about Psychology that you enjoyed?
I like that it helps explain why we are the way we are. My Introduction to Psychology class was eye-opening because it gave me a different perspective than what I had been told by my parents my whole life; it provided a “baseline” clarity and, in a lot of ways, served as a sort of self-therapy because I wasn’t allowed to get help. I think it’s especially interesting now that I have that knowledge because when I do get anxious or go through a hard time, I reason with myself and try to figure out the root of my behavior/feelings so that I can properly address it and grow.
3. Can you tell us how therapy helped/didn't help? Would you recommend therapy to others?
I always recommend that people go to therapy even if they don’t have a mental illness because it’s a great way to get to know/understand yourself. Even though we may not see physical evidence of hurt or we may not make much of something, so much how we behave is impacted by our experiences, and in order to understand yourself, you have to be willing to take a hard look at yourself, and no one has those answers except for you.
At the same time, therapy can be frustrating and impersonal because not only are you barring your soul to a complete stranger hoping that they’ll make sense of your situation, but you also have to figure out what works for you in terms of treatment and fit. The very strong possibility that you won’t connect with your therapist and have to start over can be overwhelming when you are emotionally fragile like I was, and, because these issues are unseen, you could spend years in therapy and still not get what you need out of it.
In my experience, I sought therapy at NYU and saw 3-4 different therapists – I didn’t have one assigned to me, which was emotionally terrifying – before being told that NYU didn’t offer long-term therapy. I immediately sought a private clinic and went with the first therapist assigned to me because I craved emotional stability. Although I stopped seeing her because she wasn’t particularly helpful, I did have a space to finally open up about my past and learn that I prefer healing/growing with actionable steps rather than just talking through issues. I wound up with an amazing therapist when I was in Texas, and I’d totally go back just for her because she provided exercises for whatever issues I presented her with.
4. How has your past affected where you are at today?
What a loaded question – where to begin?! My past has affected me in every way possible – mentally, socially, financially, physically – and it still does. As a result of my trauma, I saw the world through anxiety/fear-colored lenses and let them drive my decisions during and after college: I had my first sexual encounter with someone I wasn’t attracted to, but went along with it simply because I thought that no one else would like me; I had trouble connecting with people because I didn’t know how to talk to them and would panic when I ran out of canned responses to ask/say, because I was told my whole life that this is just the way I am. However, the most prominent impact thus far has been my constant self-doubt in whatever I do because I automatically think I’m not good enough before I even try, because that’s what I’ve been told for the majority of my life. At the same time, it’s made me work very hard to achieve the goals I set for myself, because I know that I don’t have anyone to depend on except for myself – I am very much independent in that way and refuse to depend on someone financially because I’ve been in that situation, and I won’t let anyone control me in that manner again.
5. Do you think self-care is important? What do you do for self-care?
Absolutely. I didn’t really know what caring for myself meant until I moved to Texas after college for my first job. I didn’t know anyone there and was miserable at my job so I had to figure out what comforted me and made me happy. In doing so, I realized that for me, self-care is the little things: I like climbing into bed with comfy pajamas binge watching a new favorite show, a luxurious body oil, painting my nails, café-dwelling, and writing – literally hashing out why I am down/having a hard time – and of course, retail therapy always helps. Ultimately, I think that we place so much emphasis on what we’ve accomplished right here, right now that we forget that it’s okay to take a break and rest for a while.
6. What would you tell someone who is currently going through the things you've been through?
I would tell them to seek therapy and find a strong support system – people who will love and support all of you, even the deepest, darkest corners of you. Despite my journey, I’ve been extremely lucky to have found not only an amazing therapist but also an incredible support system that I now call my family. PTSD/domestic violence/sexual harassment can make you feel incredibly isolated and alone, especially when your parents are at the root of that trauma, so it’s helpful to seek different perspectives and talk about it, because healing begins when you tell your truth.
7. Why do you think it's important to break the stigma that surrounds mental illness?
It’s important to break the mental illness stigma because a huge part of healing involves voicing our pain. When you don’t talk about what’s bothering you or keeping you up at night, it begins to eat away at you until it controls you. For many people, especially those in collective cultures, mental illness/therapy signifies that something is “wrong” with you, but that’s not the case at all and, in a way, you’re signaling to them that they are of lesser value.
Everything that you experience becomes a part of you and manifests through your behavior, especially unhealthy experiences. When you don’t take the time to understand yourself – really digging through your depths to figure out why you are the way you are – you miss opportunities to grow, because the only way you can change and grow is by acknowledging that these behaviors/thoughts exist. And when we talk about it, we encourage others to heal with us and create change for the better.
8. Can you tell us more about where you are at now?
I am in a place of acceptance: acceptance that I allowed my anxiety/fear to drive my decisions in the past so I won’t make the same mistakes again; acceptance that because my mom emotionally abused me, I won’t know that kind of maternal love in my lifetime; acceptance that in that sense, I am alone. At the same time, I am so comfortable and happy with where I am now – and so incredibly proud of how far I’ve come, especially since I never thought I’d be where I am today.
The biggest step for me was realizing that in order to heal, I need to embrace my past; I thought that if I hid this part of myself and didn’t speak about it, then it wouldn’t be a part of me. But it is, and because I actively hid this side of me, it controlled me, and I couldn’t fully be myself with others. Now that I’ve realized and acknowledge that although this happened to me, it doesn’t define me, I feel a sense of peace that I haven’t felt before. I can’t describe the feeling other than feeling whole and so comfortable with myself, with the biggest changes being in the way that I interact with people. I no longer work through my canned responses when meeting new people – because I am no longer afraid to be vulnerable in making a connection. I’ve set boundaries for myself and learned to protect my time and space, because I come first. If someone doesn’t respect any of those values, then I move on, and that’s okay. When you learn to love yourself as I have, life feels so much more fulfilling and purposeful.
At the same time, I’ve only recently realized how my past influences my present and future; because my dad molested me and treated me as his wife emotionally, I don’t view the father-daughter relationship the same. I thought it was something that I would work through in therapy but I see how it’s still manifesting; for example, I reject guys I am genuinely interested in to ensure there is no future there, because the thought of my husband potentially favoring my daughter over me induces anxiety and makes my skin crawl. For that reason, I am unsure whether I have the capacity to have kids with a man I truly love or even get married. But, healing is an ongoing journey and if the time comes, I will, of course, return to therapy.
9. How do you help control your anxiety now?
Because the gears in my head are always turning, I write everything down so that these thoughts are no longer inside of me; I think I became more introspective after going to therapy because I am able to oscillate between the patient’s perspective – my perspective – as well as the therapist’s. When writing isn’t enough and I need to push myself to actually put thought into action, I remind myself something that my friend told me: “It takes great strength and courage to overcome what [I] have…everything else just follows.”
10. What would you change about how mental illness is seen?
I would change two misconceptions: 1) that mental illness automatically means that there’s something “wrong” with you, 2) that various mental illnesses look the same on everyone. Behavior is measured on a spectrum, so one person’s idea of “normal” may very well not be the same as another’s, especially since there are so many factors that affect how these symptoms manifest. Everyone has a story and experience, and it’s important to take those differences into account and not impose our own experiences on others. For example, despite my diagnoses, I think that from an outward appearance/on paper, I’ve been relatively high-functioning, but having one or the other doesn’t invalidate my experiences.