get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
-Ocean Vuong

The most ugly conversation I had about mental health work would be with my mother.

My family had always assumed that when I talked about psychiatry as a career interest that I had been joking. This time coming back to Toronto for electives, my mother sensed my sincerity and unprompted one evening, erupted.


you’re dealing with abnormal people


those people aren’t so easy to deal with

“这个科到底有设么好的 你弄久了也会不正常”

what’s so good about this speciality if you stay in it too long you’ll also become abnormal

“你一生就毁了 人家听了你搞这行的还有谁会敢接近你”

your entire life will be ruined when other people hear this is what you do who will dare get close to you

I had nothing to say in reply.

You may think I was rational enough to see these comments as they are: fear-driven, catastrophizing, dehumanizing, a chilling ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. But I was not. Each wave of her monologue wrecked my defences as I began to doubt my judgment and tried hard not to cry.

mental health asian community

If this is the kind of stigma facing people who are contemplating about working in mental health, I cannot imagine the stigma mental health patients live every single day. I recalled the image of Su’s husband leaving after his usual visit, tears in his eyes because she had called out to him to take care of the kids and move them from their infiltrated house. Would Su be considered an abnormal? Was she less worthy of medical care because she has bipolar disorder and not hypertension? What about the clinic patient who told me Carrie Underwood sang her to sleep? Or the one who thought she was Buddha during her last hospitalization? Why are these experiences considered outside of normal human experience, when a frozen shoulder or a 28 week pregnancy is not?   

There is such a fear that we may be susceptible to mental illness by association or proximity. The disease is not infectious, but fear and stigma is. Building a wall hasn’t worked for anyone else yet, and it certainly doesn’t provide immunity to something at the end of the day we are all susceptible to. If the day comes that I need to see a psychiatrist or any other kind of physician, I only hope to be treated with the same respect, perceptiveness, and professionalism that I am working towards.

On the occasion that I talk to my peers about psychiatry, the response has generally been supportive. One friend currently doing her Masters took the chance to tell me about her own struggles with anxiety (was she abnormal?). Another friend told me that there was a guy she wanted me to meet, nice, wanted to do internal medicine, but if I was going into psychiatry maybe he wouldn’t be interested.

I relayed this strange conversation to a third friend, who promptly said, “Emily, think of it as a stupid filter. If they don’t want to meet you because of psychiatry, you probably don’t want to meet them either.”


your father and I don’t want you to have to deal with the vulgarities of society every day

“这个专业然我最反感的 你搞设么其他的都比这个好”

any other specialty would be better

“洋洋 你设么时候听过我”

when have you ever listened to me Emily


can you think about this some more

It breaks my heart that she wants the best for me, which is not the best I want for myself. It hurts me that she thinks this is about her, about me not listening to her. What she wants is for me to reconsider. Two mutual languages between us and yet there are parts of me and what I do that are inaccessible to her, that I have yet to find the words to convey.

My mother calls me a week later to ask if I had eaten. She apologizes for her anger and asks me to please think about things some more.

When the careers counsellor asked me what percentage I was set on psychiatry, I misunderstood him and said 80%. When asked about the remaining 20%, I attributed it to external barriers. What he meant was any other specialty. And the answer is, there isn’t any. By all counts, I should be 100% in, but why do I waver? It’s true that psychiatry was not what I imagined for myself when I first entered medical school. How much of my waffling is my own indecisiveness and how much is what I want affected by other people? How are my own biases swayed by those around me? I’m trying to tease apart these jumbled ends. Somewhere in my mind, there is a room with everyone in it.

Last night I dreamt of the ends of long bones getting smashed off by a hammer, which is, by the way, what happens in knee replacement surgery. On waking, I could still hear the banging and feel the force of it reverberating. I wish I could process the events of my waking hours without having them seep into my sleep.

It is early enough that the night crowd has gone home but the first morning bus has yet to arrive. I bike down a deserted, carless street to the hospital in the dark.

Author’s Note:

In a spasm of indecision, I thought about publishing this series a) after I graduated or b) anonymously. There is something imperative about telling the story now, and that I take responsibility for its telling. Thank you to the colleagues who read and critiqued my drafts. To protect confidentiality I have altered identifying details. All names have been changed, but people are more than their story and any error or misrepresentation is my own.