DiversifYA: Rae Chang

RaeToday, we welcome the wonderful Rae Chang to the blog! Rae is a YA writer (among other things of amazing YA fantasy that messes with your mind), freelance editor, blog assistant to Brenda Drake, composer, nerd, food blogger, youth mentor, to name just a few.

I met Rae over PitchWars — when we co-wrote a Diverse Perspective on the inbox — and she really is as awesome as she sounds. (Go follow!) So I’m delighted to have her here to talk about Asperger Syndrome and Bipolar Disorder. Take it away, Rae!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Well, for a while I would have said “secret Jedi,” but now I’m a bipolar Aspie with a ton of chronic health issues — including endometriosis and fibroids — but I don’t let that stop me. 🙂  I’m a writer, editor, public speaker, teen mentor, and soon to be graduate of BYU after plowing through 11 majors and minors. I’m also half-Argentinean — my mom’s an immigrant — and I’m married to a half-North Korean. So diversity all around!

2. What did it feel like growing up with Asperger Syndrome and Bipolar Disorder?

To be honest, confusing, lonely, and frustrating. I wasn’t diagnosed with either until I was 19, so I spent most of my life wondering what was wrong with me. People just didn’t like me or being around me for reasons I never understood. Turns out I talked endlessly about Star Wars and couldn’t read people’s faces and body language enough to know when to stop. So, instead of hanging out with friends, I spent all of my free time in high school in the basement composing and writing; luckily, I had siblings who loved to read and were also musicians. They were definitely my best friends — as well as the only people who never thought I was weird.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

Well, being an Aspie made me amazing at tests, so I never had to worry about my grades. But I had to put three times as much effort into my social skills. I couldn’t even make meaningful eye contact with strangers until I was 15 or 16! Eventually, my mom told me to watch what other people did. I decided to make it pull double duty; I’d take notes on people in a huge notebook for both behavioral notes and character notes for my books. Then I majored in anthropology and communications for a while to take my understanding of social dynamics up a notch.

As for being bipolar, while it made being a hormonal tween/teen twice as angsty —  spurned affections could devastate me for months — it also made my creativity skyrocket. To cope with the loneliness and angst, I wrote my first book at age 13 and started writing music at age 9. I  still write the orchestral scores and soundtracks to my books. I also did dance for 17 years, choir for 10 years, and piano for 15 years. The arts are my favorite way to both express my bipolarity and medicate it.

Lastly, one of the hardest things about having an “invisible illness” is that people sometimes think I’m faking, trying to get attention, or “not that bad.” In fact, I had one financial aid counselor try to deny me a disability scholarship because I “didn’t look sick enough.” (Then again, he was an all-around jerk; he told me I shouldn’t be in college since I was only going to be a mom because I’m a woman. HULKSMASH.) I reported him in a heartbeat; I’d never been so mad in my life. Luckily, the next counselor understood and got my full tuition covered 🙂

4. What do you wish people knew about having Asperger Syndrome and Bipolar Disorder?

Haha, I still get in trouble with my eye contact. I wish people understood that I’m not stalker staring at them or trying to avoid their eyes. Sometimes I just like to look at people, and sometimes I just can’t. Also, I don’t say no to social events because I don’t like you! Loud sounds, flashing lights, and people close together — while fine when I’m on stage dancing, performing, or speaking — are my idea of hell in a social situation. Believe me, you don’t want me sobbing and curled up into a ball in the corner — my panic attacks are NOT pretty. Also, if I sit in the back corner, it’s not because I’m not paying attention! That’s just where I feel safe.

As far as being bipolar, I wish people understood that I can’t just decide to be one way or the other. I don’t choose my manic spells. I don’t choose my depressive bouts. In other words, I can’t just “deal with it” or “snap out of it.” I’m part of the minority that can’t take medication for it, so I self-medicate with music, diet (cranberry juice = life), and as much exercise as my poor body can handle. It’s not perfect, but I try my best. (But seriously, guys, if you can take meds, and it’s right for you, DO IT.)

Most of all, I want people to understand that I am neither a freak nor less of a person. I’m was in the top 1% of students in the country even before I knew there was something wrong with me. I create art to help people understand how I see the world — how I see music in colors and people in music and the world in patterns. I talk to teens in hopes of helping them cope with their own difficulties as well as educating their peers about their struggles. Don’t assume I don’t want to talk about it; I LOVE to talk about it! I love answering questions and helping people!

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

I’ve seen a lot of people depict Aspies as “slow,” mentally challenged, or completely oblivious to everything but themselves. I’ve also seen depictions where Aspies think about ONE thing and ONE thing only. All day. Every day. While I do obsess about things, I can also balance a crazy work schedule — I’ve worked 1-4 jobs for 5 years WHILE going to school — and multiple interests. Lastly, we’re not all the same! If you’ve met one Aspie . . . you’ve met ONE Aspie.

I’ve seen bipolar people depicted as completely out of touch with reality and crazy violent. I daydream a lot and immerse myself in my art, but I am perfectly capable of being mentally present and understanding everything going on around me. Also, I’ve never hit a stranger in my life; I’ve hit my siblings as a child during fights after they hit me first. While violent outbursts can occur among bipolar people, it’s not a hard and fast rule or occurrence.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

When writing diverse characters, don’t try to make the illness what their life is all about. Although it’s part of us, it’s not what defines us. Don’t just have your characters achieve things in spite of or because of their illnesses. Plenty of them can achieve things just because they’re a hard worker or really good at something. Remember, disorders and race and ethnicity are just part of their life. They just grew up that way. It’s not anything earth-shattering to them. They’re people, just like you. They don’t view themselves as a stereotype or “just another one of THOSE people.” They’re not caricatures. They’re just themselves, and many of them are not ashamed of that; on the contrary, they’re proud to be who and what they are.

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