Greetings from the Grand Canyon! My family and I are thankful to be wrapping up 2019 in the beauty of nature:
My 2019 was quite different than my 2018. 2018 brought a lot of change, and 2019 was spent settling into that change. Superficially, 2019 was quite exciting! Some highlights include: visiting Lisbon, Portugal for Cosyne 2019 (and eating my weight in pastéis de nata), attending the wedding of two close friends, watching Yuja Wang perform with the BSO (twice!), visiting friends in the Bay Area, joining a scotch club, spending a month on the Cape for the 2019 CBMM Summer School, and running my first half-marathon.
But putting aside the intellectually-rich, travel-filled, and goal-achieving life I seek to create for myself, I must admit that most of 2019 felt like a deep tissue massage: painful at first; then, tender. And so this year, instead of the checklist-y reflections I tend to write, I wanted to share a more personal and vulnerable story:
This past January, I started going to therapy. When my friend first suggested it to me about a year ago, I was skeptical about whether it would be worth my time, whether my issues were significant enough, and whether therapy could even offer anything that friends or family couldn’t. But a year later, I can confidently say that it has been one of the best personal investments I’ve ever made.
One of the (many) painful, but necessary lessons that I learned in therapy was the importance of acknowledging feelings. While this may sound obvious to some, I had deeply internalized the opposite. Growing up, I was taught that negative emotions did not matter; that they were a waste of time. As a child, every time I cried my father would harshly reprimand me in Mandarin: “你哭什么?” (“What are you crying for?!”). I learned quickly from the negative reinforcement. Crying was not allowed, so tears flowed only behind closed doors and into pillows.
Perhaps I learned this emotional compartmentalization too well: after my lupus diagnosis in my teenage years, I would lie to my teachers about my butterfly rash and pop up to 8 Tylenols a day just to get through school, refusing to show signs of weakness and ignoring my parents’ plea to take a medical leave-of-absence.
When my piano teacher passed away unexpectedly and cancer ravaged a friend’s lungs, I found myself numb and unable to properly grieve. Then, last October, when my mom called to tell me that the lump in her breast was indeed cancerous, I met her sobs with silence.
My therapist and I explored all these past wounds together, and much more. I didn’t realize that emotions buried years in the past could be dug up in the present day, and was initially very resistant to digging them up in the first place. Why try to feel something I should have felt years ago?
But this, I slowly learned, was not an exercise in rumination, but rather, a lesson in emotional balance.
And so in 2019, I learned to feel again. I explored and expressed joy, sadness, surprise, rage, anticipation, shame, love, betrayal, serenity. I not only found that others’ emotions were worth my time, but that my emotions were also worth my time. For the first time in years, I cried in front of my father and explained why I was talking to a complete stranger about my emotions. I allowed myself to grieve my mother’s cancer and the pain of her radiation treatments, even though it triggered agonizing memories of my own hospitalizations.
What I gained in therapy this past year is so much more than what I originally went for. While I have spared many details, I remain quite open about my experience and am very willing to talk more about it offline. I know that therapy tends to be a highly sensitive and personal topic and sadly, remains somewhat stigmatized. Yet, I believe a proper awareness of it (and mental health in general), can slowly change both cultural and social attitudes towards it. I highly recommend therapy to anyone who is considering it 🙂
Several times this year, I have felt many growing pains without perceiving much growth. But then I remembered that I had it all wrong, and that growth is not always tangible, and progress, seldom linear. It is with this perspective that I remain eager for what 2020 brings, and for the learning that lies ahead.
Happy New Year, friends! Cheers to a new decade.