My Journey

 

 

 

Before everything, there was a little girl standing on a mat looking at a girl she didn’t know play kitchen, and all she had in her heart was a bright, open, friendly desire to go over and make friends. This is the girl I’ve always been. This is the girl I am today.

Growing up, I was surrounded with love. My twin, Joe, was my part-time-enemy, part-time-glorious-partner-in-crime. My parents were generous and joyful. I’d run out of the house to jump into my dad’s arms when he got home from work. Home for me, though, wasn’t only limited to our house. It also lived in our church.

Before my brother and I were born, my parents split from their church in New York, moved to suburban New Jersey, and created a church of their own with other Chinese Americans. They all had kids of their own. Together, we became a family in Christ.

We kids grew up together, between Sunday service, Tuesday night prayer group, Friday night kids’ programs, holiday parties, sleepovers, potlucks, cell group meetings, revival nights, summer VBS, and winter retreats. We weren’t just friends, we were brothers and sisters in Christ and called our parents “Aunties” and “Uncles.”

I loved our church because I would always and deeply belong with them. They were my people. My family. They were lovable, silly, and derpy like only our church could be. But most powerfully, we were united by a faith that swore to transform us through a personal relationship with the Creator of C minor and the scent of cedar. We were called together to do good. To show others the unconditional love, forgiveness, peace, and joy that only our God could bring. To serve him with all we had.

I still remember the feel of the carpet beneath my fingers as we played in the sanctuary, the soft blue glow of worship service… even the odor of those accursed stinkbugs our church building just couldn’t quit. My life was in this place. Belonging came with these people.

Lovely people who’d grill you a hot dog at the cookout, help paint your bedroom, laugh hysterically with you at inside jokes… and also happen to believe that the world was ending any day now.

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My faith left me flush and breathless with purpose. It was supposed to be a transformative force of love. But my church taught other things, too. Without God, the Bible said, I could do nothing good. My desires, intuition, and plans in life were arrogant and would lead me astray; I should joyfully submit to God’s will for my life. Worst of all, I didn’t belong to myself. I was bought by God, and he was the authority over who I could be. I didn’t have the right to be myself. In fact, I needed to “die to myself.” Everything I was before I gave myself to Christ should be put to death so God could mold a new person out of me.

I was also afraid of “the world.” My mom didn’t like mainstream music, so we only listened to 2 Christian radio stations growing up. Like every all-American kid, we handed out Jesus pamphlets in the mall, filled out workbooks on how to refute evolution, and pledged allegiance to the Bible before memorising Scripture on Friday nights. Uncomfortable with my body, which belonged to my future husband, I even refused to pay attention in Sex Ed. (Miracle of Life who?)

To make matters worse, I started developing a problem I couldn’t explain. Sometimes, I felt like I couldn’t talk to people. I wanted to so badly, but I physically felt like I could not speak, or even smile, raise my hand, make eye contact, etc. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I found out that this was a severe social anxiety disorder, situational mutism (SM), but all I could think then was that I was responsible for my own misery.

Things at home were also hard. To cope with the chaos and surveillance intensifying at home, I began to gorge myself on food, then see how low I could hunger my weight away. I struggled with depression and dissociation. Desperate to escape this world where I felt unseen, outlawed from being myself, and so very lonely, I also retreated into daydreams that lasted hours on end.

And so, in between a religion that taught me I didn’t belong to myself and that the outside world was dangerous, a disorder that confined me, and a home that policed me, I became deeply estranged from my true inner self. I echoed my religious teaching. I turned away from her. That little girl who was outgoing and curious went into hiding. In doing so, I lost my inner voice, my confidence, and my power.

But she never lost sight of me.

 

Closet Life

All my life, I believed I was one of the “chosen ones.” Lucky me, I was born and raised into the right faith, and I dedicated and rededicated my heart to following God with all I had. My plan was to go to the Word of Life Bible Institute, then Liberty University, and I felt that God was calling me to be a missionary (even though the thought terrified me.) I hated the me that I presented to everyone else — timid and boring — but I clung to the hope-giving teaching that God would transform me.

Most of all, I never, ever wanted to be one of those people who knew the Truth and inconceivably left it behind.

When the first tiny doubts crept in, I didn’t really notice them. After all, there will always be things we can’t understand. But over time, the questions began to snowball. And so began war in my mind. I was 15 and drowning in contradictions. With God I was never alone, and I was so lonely. My parents loved me and hurt me. I wanted to make friends and share in life with other people, and I couldn’t speak. I loved my faith, and I was starting to wonder if it was all wrong.

My true self was showing up here, but I didn’t know her yet. Curious, open-hearted, social, in touch with the emotions I couldn’t face, she was burning through the facade of my faith. My indoctrination tried to keep her at bay. In the space of a day, I’d swing from deciding to explore my questions to praying on the floor, begging God to forgive me for straying. But there came a day when the hell of living in denial of my true thoughts was worse than my fear of hell itself.

Once I opened the gates in my mind, it was over. The inconsistencies and inexcusable injustices of the Bible brought me to say, this is no longer a faith I can stand behind. Around the same time, I realised that I wasn’t straight. (My mom always said I make things harder than they need to be.)

The problem was that I could tell no one. 

My parents define love in terms of obedience, and the power of their love was terrifying. See, when you grow up in a culture with parents who hurt you to show you they love you and become enmeshed in a religion that reproduces that in the form of God himself, you’ll do anything to save your child’s soul. I was in high school and I knew that if my mom found out I was a queer nonbeliever, there’s no telling what she would do.

So I hid. We were still going to church every Sunday and Friday, and I felt like I was in a straitjacket. I needed to grieve the death of my faith and god, but to put up pretenses, I still had to worship him every Sunday. When you can’t be real with the people you love, you can’t really talk at all. And so my relationships with my uncles and aunts and childhood friends disintegrated. I lost my sense of safety, my sense of home, my family, my high-demand faith, and my god, which had always claimed they were the only true source of purpose and happiness in life. So what did I do?

Fuck it, I went to a liberal Jewish college and got the hell out of Dodge.

My heart had whittled itself down to fight-or-flight, die-or-live instinct, and I decided to survive, damnit. So I did. On the very first day of college, I introduced myself under a new name, a name I could breathe under, a name I chose for myself. And I was radiant. All those years, struggling under situational mutism and repressive religion and depression, I never gave up the belief that at heart I was completely different than the person everyone else saw. On that day, that person came bursting out of me. In a note, an Orientation Leader said, you seem like someone who’s bursting at the seams with light. You’re filled with something radiant.” 

So I ran with it. I majored in Psychology and Sociology, with a minor in the art of a double life. I made friends, got so involved in social justice leadership on campus that people I hadn’t met knew my name, and bloomed as best I could. But I also broke down. There was so much grief, indoctrination, abuse, mental health issues, and trauma I had been surviving, and now that I was free of it, the emotions were hitting me like a train. I started going to therapy and realising that my life wasn’t as typical as I thought.

But even distance couldn’t free me. On holiday breaks and in the summer, I still had to go back home and, of course, to church. The dissonance between who I was and who I needed to be to keep myself safe made me feel like I was going crazy.

On top of that, Google had outed me to my then-pastor in senior year of high school by total (and hilarious) coincidence. He kept my secret, but I was terrified that my parents could find out at any time too. So I needed to protect myself. I memorised the numbers of nearby shelters, planned a route to leave home if I ever needed it, researched how to apply for financial aid at college myself, got several jobs and saved all my money, and kept a go bag packed in my closet. Years of repressing who I truly was, and now daily fear of losing everything, took their toll on me. 

I didn’t have a plan. I thought I’d just keep pretending I believed until I graduated, and then who knew? I knew my parents would be devastated to know I was an atheist, because it meant they would be separated from me for eternity. I couldn’t imagine ever telling them, or surviving the consequences. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My mental health took a nose dive. I lost hope.

 

Coming Out

So imagine my surprise when, on March 19, 2017, I heard the words “I don’t believe anymore… and I’m bisexual” come out of my mouth while on the phone with my parents.

Sometimes, in the space of a heartbeat, your soul suddenly and finally finds itself at a crossroads, and you are called upon to define the moment.

For my entire life, my true inner self — the little girl who wanted to live fully and open-heartedly, who asked questions and created and loved — was banished. I didn’t even know that she existed. But deep in my soul was a powerful and relentless hunger for freedom. For authenticity. For finally giving myself permission to become myself, for the first time in my life.

I had to save my own life. I had to tell the truth. So the words came blurting out of me.

In a dead calm voice, my dad informed me that he would no longer be paying tuition for my university and that I would come home and live with them until I chose a better… “major.” My mom cried, “why are you doing this to us?” And for the first time in forever, I felt like I could breathe again.

I made a different decision.

I didn’t go home. Home wasn’t my home anymore. Home isn’t supposed to be a place where you ever feel unsafe, and I wanted — needed — more. I didn’t know if it was even possible to support myself, but I was now ride-or-die going to try. So I did.

 

Today

On paper, this was the most difficult time in my life. But in reality, I had never, ever felt more at peace. I had no idea whether I would be homeless 2 months from now, if I could stay in college, or where in the country I would end up, but I was utterly and unshakably calm. I had myself. For the first time ever, I had chosen myself.

I felt like I had lost my family, but I quickly realised that I was surrounded by people who still loved me. Their love is the reason why my story turned out the way it has.

You know that scene in Tangled where Rapunzel has just left the tower and she’s charging across the grass shouting for joy one minute, then sobbing facedown the next? Yeah, that’s what it’s like.

There is so much to heal from, but all of it frees more of me to step further into life.

I have been out and independent for a little over a year now, and all this new space has showed me where I need to heal. The idea that everyone else but me was the authority over my life had sank into my blood. I was terrified and ashamed not just of being myself, but allowing myself to be a person with wants and rights and value.

So I set out on a mission: to get to know myself. I challenged myself to do one tiny thing that scared me a day, no matter how awkward it felt. I explored what I liked, trying a dozen items of clothes on every shopping trip and holding secret dance parties in my room. I insatiably researched every story of someone leaving a similar background that I could find, drinking in hope. I learned to take power back for my body through pole dancing and tai chi. I reflected for hours a day on all that had happened and went to therapy, healing one realisation at a time.

The last year has been one of really tender, transformative, heartbreaking, joy-filled healing and self-liberation. I am not just becoming who I want to be, but who I’ve always really been.

Every day, I wake up with a joy and gratefulness for the little things in life. I get to choose what I wear and what I eat, dance and drink how I want, choose my friends, get to know other people with an open heart, and try new things.

I’m currently in my 3rd year of college, studying abroad in New Zealand. I’m studying Psychology and Sociology and hope to become a clinical/community social worker, but as my blog has grown into a website, I also want to spend my time writing… and hopefully one day speaking!

After losing love and connection with the community I grew up with, I am learning to redefine love, feel it for my friends, and allow myself to trust in it.

After spending so long estranged from my true self, I am stepping fully into everything I always was, learning about who she is, and loving her best I can.

Instead of death, I found life, peace, love, home, healing, liberation, and empowerment beyond my wildest dreams.

I write about my lessons in authenticity, healing, liberation, and self-empowerment to be a lighthouse for everyone in a situation like mine. Over the years, I’ve gotten so many messages from people in similar circumstances saying, I thought I was alone, or I hope I can do that for myself one day. And you can. You can, you can.

Most of all, I write because, no matter who you are, we all want to be our most authentic selves, to let love in, to find the power in ourselves. I offer the lessons I’ve learned so that other humans out there might feel empowered too.