When is it time to be happy?

{The following is a deeply personal reflection on my battle with my mental and physical health, and the way the two relate.}

When is it time to be happy?

For as long as I remember, I’ve struggled with severe depression and anxiety. Since I was a child, the state of the world and the well-being of the sentient life upon it has always weighed unbearably on my mind. A difficult home life in a fundamentalist household darkened my view of the world and crushed my self-image. As an adolescent, I began having disabling panic attacks that caused me unspeakable trauma and left me shaking and vomiting. I often missed school.

There is so much pain and wrong in the world, and I constantly absorbed it all like a deluge crashing down upon me. And in fact, I felt it almost a moral duty to do so. I knew there was little I could do to change most of the wrong in the world – but I could feel. I could cry for the wrong, the lives lost, the people unjustly maligned and misunderstood. Someone should. And so as an adolescent I broke down often and fell into depression over tragedies I read in the newspaper, consumed for days or weeks or months with the unjust, senseless loss of a stranger who was murdered, or a bus of children that crashed. I sometimes had a sense that these things were all somehow my fault, that if I were a better person, I would change them. The sheer devastation and awfulness of any wrong or any evil in the world was so vast I could not support its weight. A God I had once loved and trusted became a monster.

Eventually, this constant, disabling anxiety and panic that had coursed through me for so long began to eat at my body. I started getting serious pain in my jaw, neck, and shoulders along with awful headaches. I went through a lot of high school in a daze of constant pain. I started getting treatments from a local dentist who thought he could fix my jaw problems. His treatments were painful and involved wearing large orthotic devices in my mouth every day. It took years to realize what was happening, but but his treatments ended up injuring me seriously, which necessitated a surgery in which my face was cut into seven pieces and reassembled with titanium plating.

The pain continued afterwards. I felt so lost and upset at the world. I could see no lesson or silver lining in the trauma – no sense in the pain I went through and the medical malpractice that put me through even more horror and helplessness.

***

I don’t think my musculoskeletal dysfunction – or any subsequent illness – was directly caused by my anxiety, but I understand now that it contributed to its progression. Most of all, it contributed to the way I reacted emotionally to it: I was deeply unhappy and in a constant state of fear. How could I be happy when I was in constant pain, and had no friends of my own age who could relate? When I had been through so much because of a doctor who messed up, with no recourse as a 16-year-old to get compensation? I did not have the mental resources to cope with this, along with all the other traumatic emotional baggage related to my family and religion.

I struggled with the idea of getting through life with constant pain, uncertain what the future held. I woke up in terror every night sweating and heart racing. There was no escape from this feeling of panic, whether waking or sleeping. I prayed to my body and mind, “Please, heal yourself. I will never take you for granted if I can just get some relief.”

The pain never went away. I just had to live with it – I didn’t have a choice. And I spent about 10 years deeply depressed and often suicidal. Years of therapy and psychiatric care helped minimally.

Near the end of college, I developed chronic inflammation of the stomach lining along with other mysterious gastrointestinal issues. I lost 20 pounds and could not eat without feeling nauseous. This feeling of being trapped in my own body was all too familiar. Again I desperately longed for a miracle. I regretted not enjoying food and eating more when I could. I started meditating and taking long walks. This was the only thing that helped, but it was no cure. I still was wasting away. Anxiety gnawed at me, flooding my stomach with harmful acid and making everything worse. But I had moments of clarity while walking or meditating that gave me some hope of another way of seeing things.

Over the next years I had multiple other illnesses, including chronic bronchitis, serious ear infections, asthma, scabies, chronic tonsillitis, a dangerous abscess that required hospitalization and surgery, etc. I never had a year without some kind of medical emergency, and I always struggled concurrently with my mental health and chronic pain. With each bout of illness, I struggled emotionally as much as I did physically. Each time, I wanted nothing more to be rid of it. Each time, I regretted that I had not enjoyed the bodily functions I had before the illness, and swore that if I recovered, I would learn to savor life. Without fail, every time I healed enough to escape crisis mode, I fell back into depression.

***

This year, I’ve gone through the biggest trial on my health I have had thus far. In February, I started having unexplained asthma symptoms. I increased the inhaled steroids I was already dependent on to no avail. Over the next months, my lungs constricted more and more. The doctors increased my medications and added new ones until I was in a haze of awful side effects and could no longer leave my house, yet my lungs continued to worsen. I flew to the US to stay with my parents, who were better equipped to take care of me while I was ill.

Eventually, after several months of agony, the doctors diagnosed me with a severe allergic reaction to mold, which had been present in my apartment unbeknownst to me. The diagnosis was like a fresh of breath air – finally there was some explanation. Bad news, yet welcome all the same. I could finally start on the path of recovery. It took a couple months, but my lungs started to heal.

Sadly, after taking high doses of steroids to quell the inflammation raging in my lungs, when I started trying to taper off, I had extreme withdrawal symptoms. The doctors told me this sometimes happened when someone became steroid dependent, and that I would have to just tough it out and wean very slowly. At the same time, my muscles and tendons started to atrophy due to being on steroids. Though on some days I felt hopeless, I kept my resolve. I wanted my life back.

At the end of very long months of weaning, I was ready to come off, and got a blood test to determine if I was ready. I came to the endocrinologist’s office hoping for good news. Instead, I got the news that I had developed a rare, life-threatening disease of the endocrine system called secondary adrenal insufficiency. I would not be able to come off steroids yet after all – instead I would need to take steroid replacement until my test results improved. They expected this not to take too long.

In order to improve my chances of recovery, I was switched to a different type of steroid. Unfortunately, it also did not provide me with coverage as well, meaning I suddenly felt even worse – constant headaches, fatigue, low energy, tremors, dizziness, nausea, and pain.

Fast-forward a month. I was tested again, and this time the test results were even worse. My adrenal glands were producing barely detectable levels of cortisol. I would need to continue taking steroids. The doctor said it was unknown how long I would have to do this. It is unclear whether I will ever regain normal function.

In the meantime, I am in a precarious position where I need to take steroids multiple times per day in order to survive. If I fail to take my medications or do not take extra during stress such as a flu or serious emotional stress, I will enter an adrenal crisis in which my blood pressure would drop severely and I could enter a coma. Most of the time, I feel unwell because it is difficult to precisely match my dosing to my steroid needs, which fluctuate with daily stress levels.

As someone who suffered from panic disorder most of my life, the irony does not escape me – my life now literally depends on me avoiding the fight-or-flight reaction that my brain has been activating constantly since childhood.

***

These days, I am rarely able to leave the house and barely have energy to do easy things such as hold a phone conversation or wash the dishes. I need crutches to walk due to tendon atrophy, and I cannot go outside during the day because I will faint in heat over 75 degrees. I’ve been unable to work or go to school for six months, interrupting the course of the Master’s degree I was completing. This has become my new normal. Yet again, I struggle on many days to keep a positive outlook. Many days I cry and feel so lonely and hopeless. Every cell in my body begs the universe to just let me have my old body back – the one I’ve cursed so many times.

And this is why I ask myself the question, when is finally the time to be happy?

Many people have experienced far worse, but still, I’ve been through some crazy things. Not many 27-year-olds could boast the list of medical traumas that I can. But I’m just so tired of the cycle, and realize that the emotional side of it is just as bad as the physical suffering.

Is there a way out of half of my suffering? Why do I do this to myself?

After so many of these experience, I see with clarity, if I can’t find happiness now, in the midst of disease and all the other awful crap in this world, I never will. There is no use in waiting for the day when I’m “healthy”, when things in life are “good.” Because what does that mean? I’ve always been fighting one disease or another – that’s just how my life is.

When I started having chronic pain, I felt disabled, like I’d lost my health forever. Then when I had GI issues, I realized how “good” I’d had it before – at least I could eat and nourish myself. When I couldn’t breathe, I thought, surely this is the worst thing – I will never take things for granted if I can just survive this. I did survive it, but now have an even more disabling condition.

This is a test. How can I break out of this cycle?

When you live life constantly depressed and consumed with anxiety, nothing can make you happy. There are things you wish you had, things in the world you wish you could change, and you think if only that thing would change, you could be happy. But it’s not true. It’s an illusion your disorder sells to you in order to keep you miserable – the myth of a happy life outside of your reach for one reason or another. The truth is that we are all our own worst enemies, and we have a better chance of bringing a little bit of goodness to this world if we don’t paralyze ourselves to begin with.

So here’s some real talk: I can’t walk very well at the moment, but I can walk. A few months ago I struggled to get air in and out of my lungs, but as I write this, my chest rises and falls effortlessly. I don’t feel good and take lots of pills to survive – but I’m surviving.  My hands shake too much to play the piano the way I used to – but I can hear and enjoy music. I can’t go outside and enjoy the sun during the daytime, but I can sometimes enjoy the outdoors in the evening. I miss my boyfriend, my dog, my friends, the city of Berlin I call my home – but they are still there waiting for me. I can’t attend school but I can read books and expand my mind. I have healthcare, food, and a solid roof over my head. I actually have so many things at this very moment, and I want to love and value what I have now. I might not always have these things.  Everything changes.

I’ve been told many times, “It’s okay, you have a right to be depressed, you have been through a lot.” And I think it’s right to allow people their sadness – after all, we all need to cope with life’s cruelties in different ways. And I still think the world is largely dark, cruel, unjust, and unfair. There are as many reasons to be depressed as there are tragedies and injustices on this blue planet. But I also think, what good does it do me to be depressed? All it does is tear what is left of me down further until there’s nothing left and I’m no good for anything at all.

So I ask myself, when is it time to finally be happy? When will I finally learn that out of the many battles I’m fighting, anxiety and depression are the most urgent?

It seems like an impossible task most days. But I’m trying. I’m taking concrete steps to change my the way my mind works. That gives me a measure of hope.

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What it’s like to live with chronic pain and illness

Sickness and pain are universal experiences that are part of being human. But most people experience them as something passing that happens every now and then over a lifetime. But others like myself experience it as a daily fact of life that changes in degree but is always present. Among the challenges that plague those of us who live with chronic pain and illness, one of the most soul crushing is the pressure to stay silent and not express the suffering we feel. Social norms and responsibilities, the desire to be useful and productive, to have fun and be positive around others — these pressures cause us to practice a brutal yet banally systematic suppression of negative emotion. It’s accepted to complain to your friends when you break your leg or get the flu. But when you are suffering every day, you cannot complain out of fear of burdening people, casting a shadow over their happiness. No one wants to be seen as broken. This emotional self-mutilation hurts, too, so this is my attempt to practice openness.

Like anyone else, chronically ill people have good days and bad days. But when you have chronic pain or illness, “good” days are better described as “less bad” days. This means that if you ask a chronically ill person if they are feeling better, and they say “yes, thank you,” this doesn’t mean they are feeling healthy or well in the sense that you understand it. In most cases, it means they are back to some kind of status quo where they are somewhat able to continue managing their daily life. They are at a point where they can muster the strength to hide their pain (again).  They may be feeling better, but they are still hurting.

The longer a person suffers, the longer they practice emotional self-suppression. It’s a refined art and an expertise that is completely invisible to the outside world. In fact, sometimes chronic pain sufferers may be accused of being weak or overly sensitive: we might sometimes have more trouble coping with physical or emotional stress than the average person. However, this is because getting up in the morning and going about simple daily activities can be a monumental challenge in itself. That’s why it is so hurtful and depressing when loved ones or doctors are frustrated and disappointed with us: we wish our daily triumphs were recognized, but usually it’s a saga that plays out privately in our own minds.

While a lifetime of suffering trains chronic patients to become experts in hiding pain and acting as if nothing is wrong, no length of illness enables us to feel the pain less or to get used to it. Pain is pain, and the body hurts whether you experience it for a moment or for a decade.

Chronic pain and illness often means having a tumultuous love/hate relationship with life. My bad days often lead me to question the value of living, but my good days fill me with a kind of hope and joy that I think it’s hard to understand if you are not constantly in pain. It’s hard to describe the glorious feeling that comes on days when we can think, I’m hurting like hell, but today it’s okay, I can get through this. We appreciate the little things in life very deeply because they are often fleeting — here now and gone in a flash. Simple things like breathing, moving, hugging, become precious. Pain is our enemy, but also our teacher, our secret self, lodged in a corner of our heart like sand in an oyster.

Death may often be on our minds, and we may refuse to live and work as though it were a distant fiction that only the elderly need consider. If this is the case, please accept our choices. Not everyone is cut out for the 9 to 5 corporate job; the spouse, two kids, financial responsibility; — nor is everyone cut out to party all night, jump out of airplanes, go hike across a continent. Not everyone can muster the will and energy to live the life that seems normal, healthy, meaningful, and respectable to those around them.

Instead, sometimes we have to cry, let you down, break plans and promises; make unexpected choices, say socially inappropriate things at the moment the feeling rises; sometimes we have to live a life that looks a bit ugly and haphazard from the outside, but if you are flexible and open, listen and accept whatever we need to do to get through the pain and come out on the other side, you help us to live authentically: a fully, simply human spirit, who conquers the world on good days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faithless.

terrible lie.
my head is filled with disease.
my skin is begging you please.
i’m on my hands and knees.
i want so much to believe.

-Nine Inch Nails

I was inspired by a friend’s writing about the development of her faith to write about the loss of my own.

At age 12, I was a devout believer and child of God. My belief in Christianity was like my belief in the air I breathed – I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there, truth as solid as the ground I walked on. I prayed constantly, read scripture, and every time I looked at the sky I saw heaven. With all that came a strict lifestyle and frame of mind – wholehearted pledges of womanly modesty and grace until the day I die, and total chastity until I married the God-fearing man that had he had already chosen for me the day I was born. And of course, unwavering fealty to the Republican party – which I knew nothing about, except it was the right one and the godly one. I believed it all like I believed in gravity.

At age 26, all that is simply gone. A gaping hole that’s been filled with odds and ends that keep the weather out until I hardly notice it’s there. I don’t think about God or Jesus very often – this thing, this person who used to be my daily companion, friend, father, disciplinarian, punisher, captor, savior. I loved him back them, but after all these years, I don’t miss him very much.

How does something so important, so central to a person’s identity and worldview just disappear? Do you just wake up one day and it’s gone, and you simply go on living your life as a smug, enlightened, well-adjusted nonbeliever without missing a beat?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for me and for many others with similar upbringings, losing your faith isn’t like getting a tooth pulled. It’s like someone reaching into your chest and cutting out a piece of your still-beating heart, you grasp and flail and struggle, you almost bleed to death but somehow you survive and bit by bit, day by day, you fight pain and sickness until one day you are whole again.

When I was 12, my grandfather suddenly got very ill with pancreatic cancer.

I often stayed with my grandparents during school vacations or on weekends. He was a Korean War veteran and didn’t talk too much, but used to read the comics — or the “funnies” as we called them — every Sunday morning with a cup of black coffee. Although he was quiet and reserved, my grandfather volunteered as an usher for his church; he wore a big smile with his brown tweed suit as he greeted the churchgoers at the door with a welcoming handshake and a pamphlet for the day’s message.

When he got ill, I was thrown into a mire of anxiety and confusion. I thought maybe God made a mistake, since my grandfather wasn’t old enough to die, or that’s what I thought anyways. Or maybe God was just testing to see how hard I would pray. I decided it was the latter: God definitely wanted me to pray. So pray I did, from sunup to sunset, while I went to school, while I did my homework. I scribbled hundreds of little prayers in my notebook. But there he was still in the hospital, yellow with jaundice. I hardly recognized him.

So I prayed harder. Perhaps this case was too great for me to handle on my own. It required Prayer 2.0. I headed to the World Wide Web and found a Christian forum for prayer requests. There I told the Christian netizens about my grandfather’s plight and requested prayers. I collected hundreds of them and bound them into a little book. My grandfather smiled. I wonder if he believed as strongly as I did that this book would save him. I thought, if God wouldn’t grant the prayer of just one person maybe he would listen to hundreds praying for the same thing.

At the funeral, I felt very hollow and old. I couldn’t understand why God would let my grandfather die like that. Deep inside I was angry. It was the first major crack in my unwavering faith in Jesus, but I still believed. In the end I thought, only God knows why he did that, and it’s not for me to judge. After all, death comes to everyone in its time.

***

One crack down. A million little cracks were to come. A few stand out in my memory.

1. A torrent of books.

As a child I devoured books with the same enthusiasm that my grandfather ate apple pie, and once I got started with any series, topic, or philosophical line of reasoning, I couldn’t stop. My best friend had the same thirst for the printed page and we exchanged endless texts and thoughts about life, the universe, and everything.

There are enough atheist blogs discussing the philosophical problems of Christianity and I don’t want this to be one of them.

Suffice it to say, after reading hundreds of books including the holy books of several different religions, I became very, very confused and lost. The preacher’s words coming from the pulpit no longer sounded so sound. It seemed to me that he was corralling the congregation into a boat full of holes and pretending they weren’t there. I talked to the pastor often about these holes, hoping desperately he had the answers, but I was never satisfied.

2. My father’s repeated vacations from sanity; my parents’ tight ship.

I told this story in detail in another post. My father suffers from bipolar disorder and there were a number of very traumatic experiences in which he developed psychotic delusions that he was a prophet sent by god and the end times were near. During these times, he poured obsessively over scripture, not sleeping day or night, finding patterns, commands, and prophesies. He attempted to execute these in his own life as literally as possible. This resulted in doing a lot of things to terrify me and put himself and others in danger. My days were filled with anxiety – what would he find in the Bible next?

After all this, I became even more sensitive to the literal word of scripture. If my father could interpret it in such awful and terrifying ways, what would I find in my own examination? How was it possible to know what “literal” meant? I dissected scripture myself to the point that seeing it produced deep anxiety and fear. All sureness, confidence, and sense of security in the Word had vanished.

Furthermore, my parents ruled their household strictly based on fundamentalist biblical principles – or at least those they got from their Church and the Republican party. The books they read advocated strict traditional parenting: no boys, parties, rock music, R-rated movies, etc etc. Of course, as a normal teenager, I felt oppressed and restricted. My violations of their rules were never treated as normal trespasses borne out of human curiosity, but rather as moral failures: they cried, screamed at me, warned me of God’s wrath. They saw me as lost and under the hand of the Devil. And I believed it.

3. My abominable sexuality.

I’m bisexual: I am attracted to both women and men. Discovering this fact about myself as a conservative, fundamentalist Christian teenager was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to live through, and it really shouldn’t have been.

Now I look back in sadness about the torture I went through and put myself through. Most of that is gone – I don’t sit in the bathroom punishing myself anymore for impure thoughts about women. I don’t think homosexuality is a sickness or an abomination anymore.

But at the time, that was my reality: a reality fed to me from my church, my parents’ homophobic rants, high school bullies, and conservative talk radio. I woke up every morning to disgust with myself, I dreamed only of torture and death, and knew I deserved it. I tried to pray and follow god and carry my cross honorably, but the gap kept widening. God became at best far and impersonal, at worst an evil sadist.

4. Physical and mental suffering.

A combination of genes and experience ensured that I grew up neurotic, anxious, and depressed, sometimes so severely I was unable to leave the house.

But on top of this, I developed serious issues with chronic pain due to a skeletal abnormality that left me in pain day and night despite the doctors’ attempts to help me. Sometimes I could hardly think, but also couldn’t sleep either. It was a like a constant drip in the back of my mind so everything was fuzzy. It was hard to connect to friends let alone God.

I tried with all my might to believe it was a part of God’s plan. Or to have faith that he could make me well. A pastor at a friend’s church poured oil on my head while praying for me, hands shaking, voice trembling. I felt nothing. The pain continued. I felt abandoned.

5. Open arms of secular people in college.

After I entered college, I met people that gradually helped me lift a lot of these burdens from my heart – kind, open secular people who weren’t afraid to admit they didn’t believe. Some of them had been raised without religion, but others had lost theirs. Being around them and treated like a respectable, valuable, intelligent person despite my sexuality and my loss of faith opened my eyes. It was the final nail in the coffin: there was love and openness here in my new community. I could see for the first time with clarity how bereft of love and compassion the Christian community I had left had been. I couldn’t go back because I would never survive, so I left, I went forward.

***

Since that time I have identified as an atheist or a person without religion. I’ve been presented with definitions of God that I could say I believe in, but never found any reason to name these concepts “God”, and so I remain atheist.

Although I don’t believe anymore, my upbringing left a “God-shaped hole” in my heart. It’s something I was taught about as a child – that all nonbelievers have a God-shaped hole in their hearts until they fill it with Jesus. But now, I don’t think that’s true at all, except for some ex-Christians like myself. When you are nurtured on something from an early age and your identity forms around it, it can leave a hole when it’s gone. For a while, I struggled with finding meaning in anything. I deeply resented religion for everything I felt it had done to me. Gradually I filled the hole with other things: friendship, love, music, the awe of nature.

I’m not proud of the hatred of religion that I carried with me for years after I became an atheist. It imbued my heart with a prejudice that limited my ability to connect with religious friends and family and was hard to break free from. Through many experiences with truly kind and open religious people since then, I’ve slowly but surely gained a new perspective. I know now that not all religious communities are stifling and punitive like the one I grew up in; there are those that allow people to thrive, create, and grow without shame or fear. And I know, too, that atheism is no panacea for the ills of the world; societal problems like racism and sexism don’t originate in religion, but in the human heart – and man created religion in his own image.

Despite this long journey from a person of religion to a person completely without it, some things haven’t changed. Something I never got rid of, and probably never will, is the never-ending weight of right and wrong, and punishment and sacrifice. It stems from years of obsession over sin and atonement. No matter what I do in life and what ideologies I might subscribe to, I obsess about my own wrongdoing and reflexively try to atone for my sins. I dream of terror and judgement.

My life may be happier now, but deep down, tenets of Christianity are lodged deep inside me like shrapnel covered in thick scar tissue. It’s in my nature.

It’s not leaving me anytime soon.

Mixed Baby

“What are you?”

This question is so familiar to me that I have a mental trove of stock answers, ready for every occasion. Sometimes it is politely prefaced with a “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but…” or a “I’m sure you get this all the time, but I was wondering…” but no matter how it’s phrased, I recognize the question from a mile away and have an answer ready before the end of my interlocutor’s sentence.

What this question means is something like this: “Your appearance doesn’t conform perfectly to any of the (scientifically unfounded) racial groups that humans feel compelled to sort each other by. Please explain.”

Depending on how I feel and who I’m talking to, my answer could be something like “I’m American”, “I’m a teacher”, “Do you mean my parents? Well…”, “I’m multiracial”, “I’m Asian American”, or “That’s complicated.”

Before I go further, I’d like to state that if you’ve ever inquired curiously about my heritage, I probably didn’t mind. I am lucky to say that seriously unpleasant experiences surrounding this question have been few and far between.

Of all the people who have interrogated me about my identity, I am by far the worst offender. In this article, I’ll share a bit about this experience of trying to find myself in a reality where racial categories are everywhere. I hope it provide some fuel for important discussions about race and emphasizes the importance of multiracial voices in these conversations.

Growing up with mixed parentage means asking yourself this question from day one: What am I? I learned early on that there are many words available to describe me and that my identity was not a simple thing: biracial, multiracial, half-Asian, half-white, half-breed, mutt, mongrel, hapa, mestiza, exotic, East meets West, Eurasian, the best of both worlds, genetic jackpot, mixed baby.

As a child, I went through phases of preference among this dazzling array of descriptors that I had heard used about me. One week I’d try on “half-Asian” for size, then the next week I’d learn a shiny new one like “mestiza” and wonder if that fit me better. No matter how I sometimes enjoyed these odd words, there was one thing I was always sure about: being “half” of two things doesn’t buy you group membership into either one. I felt like a perpetual in-betweener.

The fascinating thing about conceptions of race in human society is how much confusion, suffering, and general mayhem can be caused by something that has no scientific biological basis. Sociologists recognize race as a political and social concept. It is only related to physical appearance insofar as societies that create it choose to delineate difference. Yet this illusory thing shapes our world in so many ways. In my case, it created two half-people out of one whole person, and as it turns out, “white me” didn’t always coexist peacefully with “Asian me”. The global hallucination of race and the resulting interpersonal conflicts have been the subject of many a treatise, but the intrapersonal struggles often faced by “mixed” people are just as strange.

I grew up in a conservative, evangelical Christian environment where most of my playmates from an early age–with the exception of my cousins–were white. Despite living in a diverse multicultural community, the white, middle-class evangelical family still represented the standard American experience to me. My first “best friend” I can remember was a skinny, athletic girl named Josie. She was funny and confident, and I followed her everywhere loyally. We played whatever games she wanted to play, and usually I was the loser. But I lost gladly: I was proud to be Josie’s Best Friend. Even at that age, I remember admiring her long blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and complexion so pale you could see her veins. Everyone in school thought she was pretty like a princess, and it made total sense to me. After all, Sleeping Beauty–a common little girl definition of fairy tale beauty–looked a hell of a lot like her. This sense was underscored by my annual visits to Asia, where pervasive heat, dirt, poverty and disease contrasted starkly with the white upper-middle class lifestyle permeating my American childhood. Sleeping Beauty and her white ilk were like royalty to me, and I knew I wasn’t like them. But even at that age, I sensed I was a step closer to that privilege than my cousins. And like many little girls, I too wanted to be a princess.

I set out to engineer myself into a pretty girl. The most crucial thing to be remedied was my nose. At that time I was convinced that it was big and flat, which from my point of view was clearly ugly. Lacking people of color as role models I saw this fact as self-evident, and sat for hours perusing old photos of my parents and making bizarre genetic predictions about how my nose might turn out when I was older. I knew what I wanted, and that was Josie’s nose, a “white” nose. A world of confidence and popularity awaited me upon achievement of such a prize. Not having the patience to see if nature would bless me by “improving” my features with age, I decided to give it a little help the only way I could think of: clothespins. When the grownups were out, I’d sit at home with a book of old photos and several clothespins on my nose. The bone and cartilage ached (my nose is still sensitive from the abuse), but I had heard pain was the price of beauty. Despite my efforts, the kids made fun of me when I tried to be Rapunzel for Halloween. “It looks stupid on you.” So I stuck with Esmeralda and Pocahontas in the following years.

As I grew older and my social experiences broadened, my single-minded admiration for whiteness dissipated. I have to admit that Disney princesses like Pocahontas, Esmeralda, and Mulan had a positive effect on me. And once I arrived in middle school, I found for the first time in my life that Asian American girls were at the top of the social hierarchy in my California city where almost forty percent of the population is Asian. Kim Tran, a Vietnamese American girl with a perfect sheet of shiny black hair, was the girl every 7th grade boy at my school dreamed of dating. She wore cute girl-next-door clothes in pastel colors and had the perfect bubbly handwriting to match her personality. And then there was Anna Gonzalez. She was a bossy, tan Filipino American girl who wore short shorts, platform shoes and form-fitting shirts in loud colors. Her hobby was getting sent to the principal’s office for breaking dress code and apologizing with a wicked smirk. It was then that my social standards of beauty were exchanged and I felt an enticing pull towards Asian-ness. After my failure to pass as a normal little white girl, I determined to find acceptance as an Asian Girl.

Operation Asian Girl was as misguided as the first. I agonized about how my hair wasn’t black and wasn’t perfectly straight. I saved up pocket money to go to the Japanese stationary store and buy mechanical pencils and gel pens with cute little animal characters and erasers shaped like food items: all the cute Asian girls had those. I practiced handwriting for hours on end to transform my jagged psycho scrawl into loud, bubbly characters. Finally, after much drafting, I adopted a cute nickname ending in -y (or -ie, depending on my mood). To this day it amazes me what my concept of ideal Asian-ness was back then: a superficial, essentialized mish-mash of Japanese and Korean media and culture that could be encapsulated by a perfectly straight black hair and Anime-style cuteness. All of us Asians and part-Asians in the middle school aspired to this regardless of heritage; I was vaguely aware that my Southeast Asian origins were not the coolest on the Asian hierarchy, but tried to capitalize on them during this phase in what ways I could. In the end, I still felt like a impostor, someone trying to be something I was not. A Chinese boy I had a crush on–who was good friends with popular girl Kim Tran–took to making fun of me at every chance he got. “It’s funny how ugly you are,” he said. “If you were a whore, I bet no one would fuck you even for a nickel.” Kim would glare at him and fake-punch his arm. “Oh stop it, Alex.” Then they would laugh and go on with their day. His words hurt, but I still had a crush on him. He was cute and funny, and I let him convince me it was all a big joke. It took me a while, but I eventually realized I’d never be a part of this group.

Fast-forward to adulthood. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not important whether or not I fit into any particular racial or ethnic group. I can fit into multiple groups, or into none at all. When it comes to the hallucinatory yet vital lived experience that is race, we have to allow for a bit of paradox to exist. After living abroad, I’ve also realized how people’s perceptions of my race (and race in general) differ dramatically depending on where I am, further underlining its unfixed nature. In some places, people identify me as white, in others as Asian, in others as mixed or ambiguous, and like anyone else, I gain or lose privileges depending on the situation. Although I don’t identify as white, I recognize that I benefit from white privilege insofar as some people identify me as white and accord me those privileges.

Despite being able to fit under multiple labels, no single label can capture my experience. What I think really distinguishes my multiracial experience from someone who identifies–or is largely identified by the world–as monoracial (whether it’s white, Black, Brown, Asian or whatever else) is that my identity is so frequently interrogated, discussed, and dissected. And although my identity can be fluid, I don’t get to choose how people view me, and oftentimes (although not always) white people mark me as non-white while non-white people mark me as white, creating a dizzying sense of perpetual non-belonging. Furthermore, people around me tend to have strong opinions about what I look like (i.e. what racial group I most clearly belong to) and assume that their perceptions are universal, making me feel pressured to accept or conform to identities I didn’t choose.

Ultimately, if you get nothing else out of my story, I want you to know that although “multiracial” people can end up categorized in one group or another at different times and places, the sum of their experiences can be quite different than “monoracial” people of those same groups. These terms, just like the concept of race itself, are mirages with no basis in science, but nevertheless shape our realities, and in mixed race people, these concepts can war within a single person. That is why I hope discussions of race in society will incorporate more thoughts from mixed race people, ultimately leading to a more nuanced understanding race for everyone.

I’ll close this post with the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage, by Dr. Maria Root, a clinical psychologist and educator of mixed Filipino-American heritage.

I have the right:
-not to justify my existence in this world
-not to keep the races separate within me
-not to be responsible for people's discomfort with my physical ambiguity
-not to justify my ethnic legitimacy

I have the right:
-to identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify
-to identify myself differently than how my parents identify me
-to identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters
-to identify myself different in different situations

I have the right:
-to create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial
-to change my identity over my lifetime - and more than once
-to have loyalties and identify with more than one group of people
-to freely choose whom I befriend and love

 

 

 

 

 

In My Father’s Shadow

I recently read this article in the Washington Post in which a woman talks about her father’s suicide and refuses to keep her own depression a secret as an adult no matter how scared she feels about talking. The traumatic descriptions of witnessing her father’s depression as a child reminded me of my own father’s struggle with mental illness and the parallels with my own experience. It’s something I’m scared of talking about even though I know how important it is. This is an attempt at writing about something honest in the hope that it will help someone else know they are not alone.

I did not lose my father to mental illness but I came very close. When I was 12 years old, my father had his first psychotic episode. In the year leading up to it, I can remember things got steadily worse. He didn’t sleep normally and yelled a lot, slammed doors and called me names. He was constantly nervous and agitated and his speech became increasingly paranoid, and started selling or giving away our family’s things because “we don’t need them anymore”. The fights between him and my mother were more than usual. At this time, he was at home most of the time writing his dissertation for his PhD. Now I can imagine how much stress he was under but at the time it was just terrifying for me as a child.

This culminated in a full-blown psychotic episode. The first sign I remember was when he was driving me on Tuesday from a piano lesson.  I thought everything was fine until I noticed his driving becoming more reckless than usual. I looked and saw that he was squeezing his eyes shut while driving full-speed with cars all around us. I yelled, “What are you doing?!” and his eyes flew open and we avoided a crash. He told me, “I had to do it. God wants me to prove my faith.” (I should mention that my father is a devout evangelical Christian who believes in the Bible literally, as was I at the time). But I knew at that moment that something was really wrong; this wasn’t normal for my father. My stomach somersaulted in fear the rest of the way home. Luckily we made it home without an accident but my fear of cars persists to this day.

In the following days, things only got worse. There was no more anger like in the months before. A frenetic, divine fervor took its place as my father was drawn deeper and deeper into a delusion that he was chosen as a prophet by god. He went about his divine duties with a sense of dogged purpose. He said with conviction that the apocalypse was coming and the rest of the world had been possessed by Satan. “When you go to school, please don’t make eye contact with anyone. Even the teachers,” he pleaded. “That’s how it spreads. Through the eyes.” One day, he unplugged our refrigerator and my mother couldn’t take it anymore. “You can sell our other things if you want,” she cried, “but don’t sell the refrigerator!” She added, “In case it takes Jesus longer than you think to come back.” He relented.

My grandmother was in the hospital at the time waiting for a hip surgery. We went to visit her and my dad told her, “Don’t get the surgery. Jesus is coming soon. Why bother when you’ll have a new hip in heaven anyways?” There was a look of sadness and confusion in her eyes. Soon after, he removed me from school and kept my mother and I inside the house. “Today Jesus is coming back,” he declared. He raced around the house frenetically in thought about how to prepare. I sat in my room with a hole of utter terror in my stomach. Praying. Could this be real? I was terrified of the End Times and the Final Judgement. How would Jesus judge me? What if he came and took my parents but left me here? And if this wasn’t real, was my dad crazy? Was my religion crazy?

My dad rushed into my room. “You have to come outside with me, now!” he said with a shaking voice. I can’t stand this anymore, I thought. I just can’t. “Why? I don’t want to! Just leave me alone!” I cried. He pulled me into his room and had me sit on his lap. I was angry with him until I saw tears running down his face. “Jesus is coming. Today. You have to believe me.” My mother was watching not knowing what to do. “Please. Just come outside with me. You don’t have to believe me but please do it.” By this time I was crying and filled with utter confusion. I didn’t want to go outside. His voice cracked and tears streamed down. “When Jesus comes, we’ll all go to heaven. And we have to be outside, or else, what if it misses us? I want us to all be together in heaven. Please.” I couldn’t refuse my father’s tearful face. My mother and I followed him outside into the garden.

We stood there. We sat. We paced. Waiting. Wondering if this could be true, or if my dad had lost it. Agonizing about both possibilities. After hours, Jesus still hadn’t come. My mother and I decided to go inside. “He’s not coming today,” we said. “But if he does, I’m sure he won’t forget us,” we reassured him. That day, my father went to our church and climbed to the top of a tower. He was going to jump to prove his faith, but the pastor saw him and called him down. My mother came and talked to the pastor. Together they finally convinced my father to get seen by a professional. “I know it doesn’t seem like you need help and maybe you don’t”, the pastor said. “But it can’t hurt, just in case. Just do it, to make your wife and daughter feel better. They don’t see the things you see, and it’s scaring them.”

So they went to the hospital. I don’t remember where I was at the time but my dad came home seeming a little bit calmer and more tired. They gave him an anti-psychotic medication at the hospital and he had started to question his delusions. They gave him a diagnosis and explained how what we had witnessed correlated with typical symptoms of the illness. I was relieved to have my father back, but an ache lodged itself in my stomach that has never really gone away. I have often wondered how our lives would have been different if he had jumped from the church tower that day.

After the initial episode, my father suffered more throughout the years, as he would periodically stop taking his medication. But these times my mother was prepared and it was never quite as bad or as long as the first one. They continued fighting and my mother often said she wanted a divorce, but my father always said it was against the Bible. I was forbidden to talk about my father’s illness and I was crushed in silent shame and anxiety. And as the traumas of puberty descended on me like an avalanche, I developed a lot of disturbing psychological symptoms myself. After being taken to the hospital for my first panic attack of hundreds, I saw many psychologists and received a variety of diagnoses, but it wasn’t until I was 21 that I was finally diagnosed with the same problem as my father. With the diagnosis came a feeling of relief that comes from knowing truth, but also a deep, cutting dread that I was like my father. After all I felt he put me through, I harbored so much anger and resentment towards him.

Through therapy I learned that I am not my father. My symptoms have never been like his. Although I may have gotten a genetic predisposition towards mental illness from him, how it manifests in me and how I choose to react is my own. Unlike he did, I am very lucky to have friends who I can talk to. Over the years my anger towards my father has softened. I can’t really imagine what it must have been like, being a lone warrior in God’s crusade against evil. Can’t imagine how he felt that day, trying to get us to come outside to wait for Jesus. But I do know that mental illness is very real and powerful.  Artists and musicians have been telling the world about this since forever. Cobain sang,

I’m so happy ’cause today
I’ve found my friends
They’re in my head
And I’m not scared
Light my candles, in a daze
‘Cause I’ve found god

But I hope for a day when not only world-weary artists but also teachers, doctors, stay-at-home moms, biology students, cashiers, waitresses, anyone can speak out about mental illness without fear of judgement and shame. Although I feel anxious even writing this, I’ll post it anyways, for myself and anyone else affected by mental illness. I just want to say: I see your struggle.