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The holidays, mental health, and the gift of storytelling

Sam Choo

Sam Choo knows he’s not the only guy in the world whose holidays as a kid did not exactly usher in comfort and joy. But the Minnesota Public Radio producer and writer discovered early on that storytelling and humor helped him to cope with the disparity between what the season promised and what it delivered.

Choo, 35, grew up in Brooklyn Park to parents diagnosed with mental illnesses. As legal guardian and conservator, Choo still honors the protections around his mother’s privacy. But he can, and will, freely tell his own story and the story of his father, who is recently deceased. His hope, he said, is “to help people who are or have been in similar situations.”

As holidays approached, and as he watched his friends’ excitement build, Choo would try to engage his parents: He’d ask to buy special foods at the grocery store, drop hints about gift-giving or suggest ways to spend time together during the school break. His boyish efforts would hit a wall of disinterest time and again: “It played out for every major holiday,” he said. “I just would end up trying to make something happen that just wasn’t going to and never would.”

Dad’s delusions

Part of what stood in the way, Choo said, was his father’s paranoid delusional disorder (now known as delusional disorder), a condition in which the line between truth and reality is blurred with recurring “non-bizarre” delusions – ideas that, though false, are at least plausible.

Choo said his father believed that he was an inventor of many things, including front-wheel drive, electronic fuel injection, intermittent windshield wipers and anti-lock brakes. Behind these beliefs was a certain (and even inventive) logic: “He actually had been a mechanic at one point in his life, and he also was very intelligent, so he understood the physics and the engineering behind all these things he would work on,” Choo said. “But his illness twisted that understanding of an idea into literal ownership of an idea. For instance, his mother was diabetic, so he thought, oh, it would be great if my mom could enjoy a Coke beverage without its being bad for her – ergo he invented Diet Coke®. There was always a small basis of reality to these delusions, but they just ran far afield.”

Some people function normally with delusional disorder, others become preoccupied and overwhelmed by the delusions. In the Choo family, it definitely precluded any stuffing of the turkey or decking of the halls. As well, it strained relationships with relatives (who were willing to host holiday gatherings) to the breaking point.

Choo wears no mantel of self-pity, rather one of enduring love and compassion. His efforts to navigate on behalf of his Korean-American parents had not only to do with their mental-health issues but also with language and cultural barriers. If there was a form to fill out, an estate matter to resolve, some jargon to decipher, Choo was there for them.

The healing power of stories

When things were at their worst, Choo would resort to storytelling and humor among friends as a way of coping. He’ll do it again on Wednesday, Dec. 11, when MPR presents “Holiday on Our Minds,” a Story Forms series premiere that will explore the intersection of the holidays and mental health. “Hearing that there’s somebody out there going through something that you can really relate to is so important,” he said. “So you know that you are not actually alone, even though you feel completely isolated.”

From left: David Wellstone, Jon Hallberg, Maggie Ryan Sandford and Sun Mee Chomet

Besides Choo, the featured storytellers include David Wellstone, whose holidays are colored by the loss of his parents and sister; Jon Hallberg, M.D., who persevered through medical school in spite of debilitating panic attacks; Isabelle Smith, a young woman in recovery who found a soothing alternative to partying; Maggie Ryan Sandford, whose OCD didn’t mix well with a boyfriend’s bipolar disorder; Sun Mee Chomet, whose early Hanukkah celebrations led her on a search for identity; Mike Fotis, who explores the pressure of making someone happy with a gift; and Amy Salloway, who was forced one Thanksgiving to take another look at her mother.

Even the co-hosts, MPR news reporters Annie Baxter and Curtis Gilbert, will tell of a moment of comic relief against the backdrop of a personal tragedy during their first holiday season together as a married couple.

Baxter promises that, despite the heavy material, there will be plenty of laughs throughout the evening. “I want people to be moved, and I want them to laugh a lot,” she said. She spoke of being inspired by her mentor, Ira Glass, who “always wanted every story to really have human proportions – sad parts, funny parts – a story someone would tell you [in real life].” And one in which “you feel your humanity is opened up through the telling of that story.”

When: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 7 p.m.
Where: UBS Forum, MPR Headquarters, 480 Cedar St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $12 for MPR members, $15 general public.
Share your own two-minute tale: It could become part of the program.

Choo has fun over the holidays now with his “fantastic wife and two beautiful daughters.” He has generous in-laws who love to host, and he decorates with the kids. He still tries to engage his mom. He can’t change his story, but he can make a new one, especially for his daughters.

“It’s about the together time, and just having that emotional openness with them ... to let them know that they can be vulnerable with me and that I will be there for them.” 

Holiday lights photo by Flickr user Jack and used under Creative Commons license.

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