This summer, after a long but not particularly alarming period of decreased appetite, I stopped being able to eat altogether. Who isn’t a little less hungry some days? I had been telling myself. I rationalized like a champion. I didn’t do much today anyway, it’s no big deal to skip dinner, I’m just not hungry!
What might have worried me then, if I’d taken the time to think of it, was that even in the lowest times of my adult life, my appetite had never been the thing to suffer. Years ago, when a long-term boyfriend dumped me unexpectedly and moved out of our shared apartment, I was devastated beyond measure, and crying from morning till night…into my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If I was ever stressed or anxious, I’d always been able to stop and eat an omelet before getting on with it.
But this time, several days passed where I wasn’t getting hungry, ever. Occasionally I had pangs of hunger, but the thought of food became suddenly repulsive. I started to get nauseous as soon as I woke up, and it wouldn’t subside for hours.
One morning before a scheduled dentist appointment with a new dentist (I had just broken up with my dentist of 15 years, because I hadn’t lived in Iowa for six of them), I woke up somewhat more anxious than usual and threw up for most of the morning. It scared me, and triggered my first panic attack in almost a year. Somehow I made it to the dentist, said nothing of the incident, had my teeth cleaned, and returned home. I wasn’t hungry for the rest of the day and night, but for the first time I was fully worried about what was going on. Did I have a stomach bug or strangely mild food poisoning? Was I pregnant?
I tried eating the next few days, small bland foods, things that I thought wouldn’t trigger my growing nausea. Nothing stayed down. When I tried to sleep, the combination of feeling starving and nauseous brought me to tears. It took hours to drift off because head rushes and vertigo made me get up and walk around the apartment until it passed, sometimes until early in the morning. My cat was freaked out by my behavior. I was too. I was developing a headache that just wouldn’t go away, and I felt like I might faint for most of my waking hours.
A doctor confirmed that I wasn’t pregnant, I didn’t have a stomach ulcer (yet), my blood work and liver/kidney function were normal, and it didn’t seem to be food poisoning or a viral infection of any kind. She asked if I had been stressed lately, to which I at first flippantly responded, Sure, aren’t we all! It’s 2017 in America and everything is in the toilet.
She was patient with me, and she asked again, "Have there been changes in your life recently? Do you feel worried about anything in particular?"
I told her that I guess I was. My cat had been sick, which was expensive and emotionally taxing. My partner was abroad for a writing residency, and much of my built-in support system gone with him. I hadn’t been able to turn my luxurious summer off from teaching into the miraculous output of writing I had originally imagined.
I didn’t say a lot of other things that ran through my head: I am often afraid to go places because about half the time, someone yells something racist at me on the street. This has only increased since Trump’s election. I am reliably mistaken for a student at my various teaching jobs because I’m not a white man in a tweed jacket. I am a good writer, but people tell me that my work gets published because writing about “identity” is hot right now. I so badly want to be taken seriously. People keep asking me where I’m “really” from.
My doctor assured me that given my history of anxiety and panic attacks, all of my physical symptoms were just being caused by underlying stress, and that I should try to relax. She prescribed me an anti-nausea pill and an anti-anxiety pill, to be taken as needed if I felt another panic attack coming on. I tried the anti-nausea medication, but it just made me constipated for three days (not ideal when your appetite is already out the window) and didn’t do much else.
My symptoms got worse. I was vomiting more and more, and only able to keep down a hundred or so calories a day. I was dizzy and nauseous all day long, reduced to watching Top Chef alone on my couch, secretly hoping that it would make me hungry. It had the opposite effect.
Friends checked in on me, but there wasn’t much they could do. They googled relaxation techniques, and kindly texted me the results. They offered to go with me to find the perfect food that would stimulate my appetite again. They took me to the grocery store to choose meal replacement shakes, hoping for a flavor that wouldn’t make me sick. They talked to me on the phone for hours while I was at my lowest, taking time away from their own plans to get me through a panic attack. I felt increasingly isolated and afraid. My partner stayed up late with me most nights, on account of the time difference, listening to me cry and talk about my symptoms on the phone. It all helped, but none of it slowed my deterioration. I had increasingly weird and disturbing thoughts, some of which I still haven’t told anyone about. Mostly, I worried over the same question. How could this be happening? All this, because I was anxious?
I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. It’s become a core part of my identity, and I tell people things like “Oh, I’m just a nervous person” or that I’m “type A.” Not that these are particularly untrue, or that at times the way I am doesn’t yield productive (“good”) results.
I’m always on time to the airport, often hours before departure, so that I have time to sit at the gate and run through my list of reasons that the flight is going to be perfectly fine and safe. I have a meticulously organized calendar, and I double- then triple-check everything from movie times to the confirmation number after I make an online purchase. Things I’ve planned out usually go well, if only because I’ve run through the situation a hundred times in my mind the night before, at the cost of a few hours' sleep. Well worth it, I’ve always thought. My apartment is spotless, because I can’t relax in it until I’ve finished another round of deep cleaning. At my job teaching poetry to graduate and undergraduate students, I have perfectly timed (and color-coordinated) lesson plans, thoughtfully written and prepped. None of this is bad. I am organized, ambitious, and always prepared.
I’m also an immigrant, the older of two kids. My parents and I came to the United States from Shandong, China, in 1989, my mother and I following my father, who came to pursue a PhD in molecular biology at Cornell University. My father, who had prepared (and hoped) to move to the US for many years, had learned English from an early age and was welcomed into a graduate studies department headed by a Chinese-American scientist who would become like a second father to him. My mother had a tougher time. She didn’t speak any English, couldn’t work until she did, and was taking care of me alone in Ithaca, New York. She eventually took evening English classes. She was lonely beyond measure, but she was strong for me and eventually for both me and my sister, who was born here in 1993.
My mother eventually picked up work at an all-women garment factory sewing dresses and was paid per completed garment, which meant that each day she would push herself to the absolute maximum of productivity. It took its toll on her body and her spirit. It wouldn’t be until decades later that any of us would say aloud that the conditions and pay at that place made it a virtual sweatshop.
We eventually moved to Iowa, where my father had gotten an entry-level job in his field, and my sister and I started school. Growing up in an almost all-white suburb brought with it the racism you might imagine. In middle school, kids who knew my name would choose not to use it, instead calling out to me as “Hey, Chinese!” when I passed them in the hallway. There was no need for an explicit insult to follow. Being Chinese was enough. Plenty of people in my life have called me a chink, it’s just that for a while nobody knew to use the word. It’s simpler that way, when you’re a kid. The observation of fact is all you need: “Your face is flat!” “Your eyes are tiny.” It didn’t help that we were struggling desperately with money, and in an affluent suburb this was impossible to hide. Once a boy came up to me at my locker and sneered, “Hey, Chinese, do you only have like two shirts???” before laughing uproariously and walking away.
Did he know that it was true?
For a few years, I loved participating in my school’s show choir (if you’ve watched Glee, you understand the popularity of show choir/glee club in the American Midwest). It made me feel talented, special, and accepted. You had to audition to be in it, and it involved being able to dance and sing with some proficiency. There were overnight trips and rehearsals, where for hours I felt normal, the same, and included.
But thinking back on it now, I and the only other student of color in the choir (out of 30 or so of us) never made it out of the back row for a performance. It was competitive, waiting for the choir director to post the standing arrangement for each new number. Who would be front row AND center? Who would be barely noticeable there in the back? All the other students got turns in the front or second row, while I spent my entire time there in the very back. I thought it was because I was tall, but there were tall girls up front too. I didn’t dwell on it, because I was just happy to be there.
I hid all this expertly from my parents — or even if I hid it sloppily, my parents’ own desire for everything to be OK closed the circle of belief. I told them that everyone treated me kindly at school, and “never made me feel different from them.” I told them I was loved (I was, by some precious few friends) and that I was never subjected to racism. I lied to get out of things I didn’t want to do, for fear of ridicule, and for the most part my parents believed the lie.
This lie of well-being is something at which, over the years, I’ve become a bit of an expert. It comes naturally to me now.
I broke down and called my parents on a Wednesday night, after about a week of not being able to eat at all. All my life, hiding my suffering from them had seemed like the logical choice. But I was too exhausted to be logical anymore, and maybe that helped me finally pick up the phone. I was crying in my bathtub, which is the place I’ve always gone when nowhere else feels safe enough to exist.
My mother answered, and though I tried to insist I was just calling to chat, I couldn’t hide the pain in my voice. I told her everything, and I apologized for waiting until it had to come in such a desperate and startling way. I didn’t have any defenses left, and I bought a plane ticket that night to come home, leaving the next afternoon. I threw up for the last time in the bathroom at LaGuardia Airport, and my father picked me up in his minivan as soon as I landed in Iowa.
I fell asleep against the window within minutes. The first real sleep I’d gotten in over a week.
The refrain of my existence in this country comes from my mother, how she would tell me over and over that in this life you will always have to “work twice as hard as them to be taken half as seriously.” And of course she didn’t just mean this life; she meant this life in this country. This life away from the life that almost was. This life that you did not choose, here, in this new and dangerous place. I don’t fault or resent her for telling me this, for making me believe it. I don’t fault my parents for wanting me to know the truth of their life, which was also quickly becoming the truth of mine, though I hid it the best I could.
I remember wanting to sign up for a club when I was younger — soccer maybe, or dance, or ice skating lessons. My parents never stopped me. Instead, they agreed, and added that yes, of course I should go out for sports, and when I got there I should not let the other kids treat me as less than, not allow them to make me feel different or Chinese or Other and that I should play soccer (or whatever it was) with the confidence of a totally normal kid who has every right to be there.
I don’t blame them for saying any of this to me, either. They believed it to be necessary, honest, loving. They didn’t want me to believe the lie that life “here,” in this new place, would ever be so easy.
This is how I first learned to lie about my life and my health, and refined it into an art. I didn’t want any of my parents’ pessimism to come true, and I believed that I could spare them the pain of being exactly right about growing up in this country. I also believed that I could spare myself, that I could lie myself into something better. That this was fundamentally how hope worked: a truth you forced into being with sheer belief.
From then on, everything was OK, always. Nobody ever picked me last and told me it was because I was an ugly Chinese. Nobody ever copied my homework in class then called me a Communist. Nobody ever started a LiveJournal group dedicated to finding out if “Asians have sideways vaginas,” sending me links to the hurtful posts. Nobody ever pulled their eyes into slits when they passed me in the hallway, and nobody ever made me feel less than human just by looking me in the face and mouthing Chinese, exactly what I was, and could never escape.
When I stepped into my parents' house after a 45-minute car ride from the airport, it was filled with the smells of my mother’s cooking. Ginger, garlic, soy sauce, steamed breads. My mother put down a small bowl of congee in front of me, and when I began to cry, she motioned to remove it, afraid that I was responding to sudden nausea from the smell. I told her that no, I was starving. I wanted to eat, and I felt confident that I could. I ate the whole bowl, and then another.
My mother sat down next to me at the kitchen table. She brought out little bowls of sauces, condiments, and pickled vegetables from the fridge in case I wanted to add something to my bowl, offering me item after item in case it sounded appealing. Finally, she asked me, Cong Cong — my Chinese pet name — why didn’t you call us earlier?
Why do this all on your own until now?
The Chinese have a million and one remedies for physical ailments. Whether you’ve broken your leg or have a cold, there is an herbal concoction to drink and some combination of food and medicine that will fix you right up. Mental illness and depression are a different story. Illnesses “of the mind” are taboo, uncomfortable, and — worst of all — deeply shameful subjects for many Chinese and Chinese-American families, my own included. If you feel sad, go for a walk and visit a friend. But what if you feel sad, always, for weeks and months on end?
I keep going back to a question the doctor asked me, after I had described my symptoms and admitted that sure, I was probably anxious about a handful of things. “When did this all start?” she asked.
I understood the question. When did you first start feeling nauseous, anxious, what was the first day that you threw up? The short view is that at some point, worried about my cat and feeling a little out of sorts from my partner being gone, I ate a little bit less each day and things slid downhill from there. I panicked the first time I threw up, and that’s the little dot on the timeline of when this “anxiety episode” started.
The long view is one I’m still getting comfortable with, and it comes further into focus with each conversation I have with my parents, each meal where I’m able to eat a little bit more and open up to them about the lifetime of lies I’ve told. Does the long view start with that first lie? Does it start with that first inherited fear, the first decision to spare my parents the knowledge that my childhood was not free from the worst fears they had for me?
I’m beginning to understand that this country made me sick, and I, in trying to hide my pain, let it multiply.
The lie has unraveled quickly over the past few months. It hurts my parents to learn, years later, some of the cruelties they thought were unfamiliar to me. The ways I’ve had to learn, with varying degrees of success, to balance my health and my immigrant ambition, my desire to be seen as enough, productive, and worthy of love. My willingness, even now, to work twice as hard to be seen as some fraction of “as good.”
I’m beginning to experience a tenderness towards the limits of my body, and the limits of my ability to protect my parents from the trauma this country was always going to inflict on their children. I’m learning to let myself heal, to give up the belief that I’m not meaningful if I don’t succeed and look good doing it, and to be as truthful with my family as they have always been with me. My body and my mind are not my enemies, and the lie of assimilation and acceptance is not my savior. My country has never cared if I am well, but my parents always have. I do too. ●
Wendy Xu is most recently the author of the poetry collection Phrasis from Fence Books (2017), and her writing has appeared in The Best American Poetry, Boston Review, A Public Space, Poetry, and widely elsewhere. She is the poetry editor for Hyperallergic.
To learn more about anxiety disorders, check out the resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here.
And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.