On Being Loved: A Theological Reflection on Identity in the Midst of Mental Illness

I feel different. For the first time in years, I’m no longer drowning in my sorrow, treading through intense emotional pain. Although most of the time I am relieved that I am currently living a season full of confidence, resilience, and joy, there is a part of me that misses the dark seasons. I’m not sure anyone finds sadness, irritability, and anxiety enjoyable. But I do know something about the way those deep emotions shape so much of who we are that perhaps some of us begin to identify with those emotions.

I want to reflect on this topic because the month of May is both AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. As an Asian American with mental health struggles, I am challenged to look deep within myself this month and attempt a journey to discover who I’ve become as a result of my experiences. I have often wondered if my Asian American culture caused my mental health issues. Or perhaps the American need to label “deviant” behavior (i.e mental illnesses) skewed my understanding of my dual culture. Maybe Asian American culture normalizes abuse. Maybe mental illness is genetic. Maybe mental health symptoms are displayed differently among Asian Americans. Maybe Asian Americans don’t reach out for help.

Maybe, all these factors are correct.

The truth is nobody knows, and the answers are found in the gray. Mental health is not an identity, but it often feels so much like one because emotions are embedded into the core of humanity. The fact that humans can express feelings with words, music, art, etc is absolutely incredible and so essential to the way we live and understand life. Just think about any personality test. It is no surprise that when someone loses the ability to feel, or feels too much, can experience an identity crisis as a result.

Some weeks, I struggled to feel anything at all. Other times, I felt so much I thought I was going to explode. This constant battle between the ups and the downs felt like I was riding a roller coaster I couldn’t get off of. I had no stability, no way of predicting where or when my mood might swing. When I realized that I did not have control, I started expecting the unpredictable nature of my life. More than that, I began living around the roller coaster. In other words, I let the roller coaster design my life. That was the moment I no longer knew who I was.

But do I really know who I am now? How is it that I miss feeling out of control? How can it be that I feel a little emptier now that life is more set on solid ground? I think it’s because I’m living outside of my “new normal.” I’m just back to the normal kind of up and down. No more dramatic turns and upside down twists; no more screaming on the top of my lungs during the drop. This season feels manageable, and that feels weird after three years of constant craziness.

Because I placed so much of my identity in my emotions, coming off the roller coaster is like missing the thrill of exciting action. It seems terrible to crave that…but I want to verbalize it because I think at some level, each person knows something about that feeling. I crave action, not for action itself, but for attention. I crave attention, not for attention itself, but to prove to myself that I am loved. It’s no wonder I’ve experienced identity crisis; I let the fact that I am loved become dependent upon my fluctuating emotions.

It is important to believe that identity is rooted in being loved because that is the only thing that is always true about every human being. As an American, I sympathize how typical Westerners understand their identities as individuals in society. As an Asian, I emphasize the Eastern understanding of identity as relational. Of course, both perspectives are good and true, but they are incomplete without each other, and not the end of our understanding of identity. In fact, we must remember that no sociological, biological, political, or psychological explanation can fully grasp the depth of identity that a human has.

I come across no solid answers on what identity is in light of my mental health struggles and as an Asian American. But because of theology, I believe in a God who loves relentlessly, which changes and shapes my understanding of who I am, and who I am created to be. I can bring in my sociology, my psychoanalysis, and my physical body into the picture, and God is able to complete the picture of who I am by stamping upon me His seal of love. The fact that I am loved gives me meaning, creates my purpose, and sustains my life. Knowing I am loved has been the greatest insight into who I am, and has pushed me forward into mental health recovery like I’ve never experienced before. It can be for you too, knowing that you are not your pain, and that you are fully, truly, and always loved.

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