the anniversary effect

It still feels like summer.

 

I’m walking down Marine at Balboa Island, savoring new flavors with old friends. Frozen bananas with other confused postgrads.

It is October, but it still feels like summer.

A new season, but still tinged with things of the past. The air is light and brisk, filled with small talks and old inside jokes.

Spirits are merry and things feel almost “just right”,
when all of the sudden, a small party of pigeons flies out of nowhere and swooshes right in front of our party of friends.

I freeze in my steps.
The muscles in my body clench, and my heart races, as if trying to outrun danger.

Time glitches, and for that moment, 2 seconds become 2 minutes, 2 minutes become 8,261 miles, and now, the pigeons are already long gone.

What.

“Hey catch up, dude! We’re gonna check out this shop!”

My head snaps back to the present, and I realize that I am alone,
standing in the middle of the sidewalk.

It still feels like summer.

We are standing outside the shop, the small talk and inside jokes continue, but all I can think about are pigeons.

I thought things like this only happened in movies.

“I need to go.”
Take my mind off things.

I get to my friend’s apartment. It’s been almost a year since the last time I stayed the night here. I turn on Netflix and pick my poison – Stranger Things Season 2, which, while we’re on the topic of trauma victims, couldn’t have been more fitting.

Episode 3 or 4 finishes – I’m all Netflix-drunk now and headed for the bathroom. My friend is already asleep so I sneak out with toothbrush in hand.

I open the bathroom door, turn on the lights, and it happens again.

I freeze.

My momentum dies completely, like a car running through caltrops. My left hand tenses up, my heart races to outrun danger, and two seconds feels like two minutes, because the earth just stopped spinning.

It’s only two seconds,
but time is glitching and I’m sucked deep into a memory I’ve thought a lot about, but not in a long time,
when I was staring down at the same white sink bowl, but it was filled with a pool of my own blood,
draining dark red from a finger I almost cut off by accident,
draining colors from my vision and looking at my fading reflection before everything got quiet and dark,
and i wake up next to a car escorting me to the hospital.

Another second passes,
and memory becomes feelings instead of visuals,
and the feeling of the times was sickening to the point where I wanted to cut myself again and create another little “accident”,
because I was alive but life was draining and draining away from me
and everything in life had lost its colors,
except maybe dark red.

Another second passes,
and the sink is empty now. My finger is still attached.

Time resumes at its ordinary tempo,
but now I am brushing my teeth
very, very slowly.

I thought that stuff like this only happens in movies, but now I’m not so sure, so I google away and find some theories and best guesses, which is basically all what the study of psychology is anyways. I have my own suspicions, which PsychologyToday – and even Teen Vogue – more or less confirms, so I decide, “Okay, maybe this is a thing.”

It just might make sense.

It just might make sense of why earlier today, I was hanging out with friends when a flock of pigeons glitched me back in time –

and all of the sudden, I’m thinking about street vendors, and honking tuk tuks,
walking the busy streets of Bangkok, tasting familiar flavors with new friends,
the air is thick with humidity, small talk, and future inside jokes,
and a new friend grasps onto my arm when pigeons fly by because she has a paralyzing fear of birds.

Another second passed,
and the memory became emotion instead of visuals, and the feeling of the times was sickening to the point where
I wanted to throw up from street food poisoning and an abusive relationship I felt trapped in,
and my will to live was draining and draining away from me,
like dark red funneling into a whirlpool down a white sink bowl.

Another second passed,
and my friends are telling me to catch up,
but I cannot because for the rest of the day, my mind is stuck in a memory, thinking about pigeons.

It just might make some sense of why,
it’s already October but it still feels like summer.

I’m brushing my teeth slowly and thinking about how pigeons, bathroom sink bowls, and a character in Stranger Things I can very loosely relate to all acted as triggers within a span of the last 24 hours, and I think I get it now.

It’s about that time of the year.

mister deludo

There once was a man named Mr. Deludo who kept a monster hidden in his basement.

No one really knows where the Monster came from.

But then again, no one had been able to get a good read on Mr. Deludo as of late. Mr. Deludo was a family man but even his closest friends and neighbors started to suspect that something was dangerously wrong at home.

Some of the townsfolk noticed him making frequent late-night strolls to the local graveyard.

Each time he came home, he would be startled to see his wife sitting in the living room, waiting for him.

“Oh hiya, honey.
Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

After a while, people suspected that the Monster must have followed him home after one of his cemetery visitations.

For some time, no one knew about the Monster, not even Mr. Deludo himself. But each and every night, he woke up while the world was sleeping to go downstairs and feed the Monster.

By morning, Mr. Deludo would remember none of it and resume his normal life. His eyes drooped from restless nights as he drove his two children to school on the way to work each day.

Weeks passed and the neighbors caught on. They could hear the Monster’s rumbling at night, when the air was still enough. But whenever they tried to bring it up, Mr. Deludo would simply deny it, because even he did not know the truth.

This went on for months and months and the Monster continued to grow and grow.

Eventually, the Monster grew so big that Mr. Deludo could not deny it any longer that something was lurking beneath the floorboards.

One day, his wife caught him in the act of his nightly clandestine activities.

“Oh hiya, honey. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“We need to talk.”

Mrs. Deludo sobbed as she blubbered her way through the messy and tear-soaked intervention.

“How could you do this to us??
Think about the family… Think of our children.”

And Mr. Deludo sobbed with her, as he finally confronted the harrowing truth about himself.

“You have to get rid of the Monster.”
Mrs. Deludo managed to mumble through the tissues.

“And no more walks to the graveyard.”

The next day, Mr. Deludo bought a gun.

At this point, the Monster had already grown so big and so strong that Mr. Deludo wondered if a gun would get the job done. Not to mention that the Monster was cunning, perhaps more deceiving than its master.

None of that really mattered though because each night, Mr. Deludo still found himself helplessly opening the door to the basement and feeding the Monster.

He knew what he was doing and he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he simply could not help it. Because though he hated the awful beast, he had grown a strange affinity for it.

So he fed the Monster, night after night.
Like a slave to his own conscience.

A week had gone by, then two, and the Monster grew bigger still. Excuses were running out and so was his time.

“You need to kill the Monster.”
Mrs. Deludo demanded.

“If you kill me, I’ll kill your wife and kids.”
The Monster counterattacked.

Mr. Deludo’s heart was torn and any more of this agony, he felt his life would split into two.

Finally, Mrs. Deludo could take it no longer. Her patience had burned out and she issued her ultimatum, threatening to leave the house and take the kids with her.

“Kill the Monster!”
She screamed in crazed desperation.

“I.. I- I can’t.”

A look of horror spread across her tear-stained face.

“You what??”

“I just.. can’t.”

More blubbering.

“It’s either us”, she said, grasping their two kids in her trembling arms, “or the Monster.”

That night, Mr. Deludo loaded his gun and went downstairs into the basement.

The Monster died a long and stubborn death. Multiple gunshots pierced the night and echoed throughout all of town, and when the bullets ran out, Mr. Deludo resorted to makeshift means of murder. The townsfolk shuddered at the sounds of Mr. Deludo’s deranged screaming, the Monster’s wailing, and the thought that they couldn’t always differentiate between the two.

Until finally, the house was silent again.
The neighbors went to bed, knowing that the belated deed of riddance was done.

Mr. Deludo carried the Monster’s still-twitching body out of his empty house and walked over to the local graveyard.

He strolled through the rows and rows of gravestones he knew so well, until he reached the cemetery’s edge. His pace slowed as he walked down the final row, grasping the Monster in his trembling arms.

Finally, he stopped and stood in front of three tombstones with the names of his wife and two kids engraved in them.

The Monster breathed its last.

It was the longest walk home that night.

As he trudged back home, Mr. Deludo replayed the murder scene over and over in his mind. But it was not the piercing gunshots, nor the Monster’s howling, nor even his own screams that still rang in his ears, but the ensuing silence.

It was too quiet.

When he got back home, he closed the door behind him and was startled to hear the voice of his wife echoing from the living room.

“Oh hiya, honey.
Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

 

“grounding” || the art of presence

“I’m in a third-wave coffee shop, drinking dope-ass coffee with Paul and it’s a fuckin awesome time right now. I’m so productive.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 14th, 2016]

“Walking is controlled falling.”

Why am I running?

I’ve forgotten the way back home. I’ve wandered around for so long and I’m having one of those “how-did-I-get-here” moments. Retracing my steps won’t be as easy as it once was.

It seems that I can navigate through the past and the future with ease, with finesse, but I can’t do anything in between. Like a space explorer who’s lost his way in his travels. Too many wormholes. I’ve gone astray and forgotten my way back to the present.

Granted, the journey has been rocky, to put it lightly. We did go through black holes, after all.

The turbulence was disorienting – it will take time to regain my bearings on reality and… well, everything else. Our compasses don’t work the same anymore.

“When the memories you’ve tried your hardest to bury begin to surface, you run. The places we run to may differ but we all run somewhere.”

For me, it was time.
I ran to the past. I escaped to my fantasy of the future.

I crafted a future I could imagine myself actually living in. It was fucking gorgeous. When I had no other place or time to run to, I would invent one myself. I designed my own world in this invisible pocket of space-time, making frequent excuses to visit. Each time I went, I would paint in more details. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes I would stay the night. Or a couple.

I recount writing semi-sarcastically in a previous, un-published post, “Maybe my new canine companion will be some sort of remedy for my heart’s agonies. I set my heart on the days ahead when midnight strolls on Telegraph Avenue with Husky Doge will somehow seal and consummate all the difficult heart change I’ve been enduring for the past five-plus months.” –Operation Husky Doge, December 24th, 2016

I held onto memories of better times. Past joys, past friendships, past romances, past dreams, even past sorrows. But the harder I clung to this past life, the deeper the sinking feeling when I found the only truth I wanted to forget. That the past life was nothing but that. Past.

Alas, our avenues of escapism can only serve us for so long before they inevitably betray us. They stab us in the back, like love affairs. We somehow already knew of their disloyalties, that they would become traitors – yet we still befriended them.

Every drug carries its side effects. Every substance has a backlash.
Even time travel.

I ran to the past and the future because the present was unbearable. I could not stand living in the present any longer. So I left.

I’d become more familiar with who I was and who I could be than who I am. I’d become so afraid that I covered my footprints.

It dawned on me that the more I fantasized about my future, the more I fabricated a time that the present could never dream of becoming. It was like a treasure that only went deeper into the earth the more I dug. It was like chasing after a mirage.

The more I hid in my memories, the fewer memories I would have because I was always absent from the true atelier of memories: the present. It was not just nostalgia. It was poison.

How does one find his way back into the present?
I’m no expert but I suspect it to resemble something a little like falling. Surrendering to the gravity you’ve tried so hard to defy.

Scary as hell, but I suppose you can’t travel in space forever.

Praying that the parachutes work, I’m currently trying to figure out this whole ‘controlled-falling’ thing.

I’m plummeting hard in this nauseating nose-dive back down to the earth.

To real time. Whatever that means.

“I am spending my Friday morning writing some genius insight into my new Canson notebook at The Night Owl, a humble coffeeshop in Downtown Fullerton that plays classic hip hop beats. I indulge in my particularly strong macchiato and the company of an old friend.

I am here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 23rd, 2016]

fight fire with fire

Last week was deep emotional pain. This week, I nearly cut two of my fingers off with a chef knife.

Losing consciousness is terrifying. As much as I love the ocean, I can’t stand swimming in it, especially when I have to stare down into the seemingly bottomless abyss. As my friends hastily carried my limp body outside, my mind struggled to stay afloat, but my attempts to tread water were futile. As much as I thrashed, I really had no control over the waves. They would wash over me, envelop me, and the frantic soundtrack playing in the background would grow disturbingly silent, save some muffled voices. The world would turn eerily dim. No goggles.

Is this what it feels like to die?

 

The hospital visit was one of the best workouts of my life. One of the first questions the nurse inquired of me was this: “Intentional or unintentional?”

What the hell..?

“Unintentional”, I responded.

I think my grip strength is getting pretty good by now. The best types of exercise involve not only all of your body, but all of your mind and soul. So much of it is a game that is played mentally. How much can you take? Where do your limits lie and do you have the strength and willpower to trespass them?

Fighting pain is exhausting.

One of the most memorable highlights in our workout routine was when my doctor shot anesthetics into my finger. As soon as the word “stitches” was mentioned, I entered an episode of internal frenzy. Mental game level up. Boss level. I could hardly stutter through the pain but in my mind, I frantically demanded, Just give me the damn anesthetics.

Getting the anesthetics into my finger was ironically the most painful part of the process but the payoff was well worth it. Man. The things you do and say when you’re in pain amaze me. When you’re hurting that much, the mere absence of pain can feel like pleasure. Yet my body did not receive even that degree of relief. I was still very much in pain but it felt like euphoria and I was content with it. It strikes me how when one is in agony, he will settle for lesser agony, rather than actual healing.

But what happens when the anesthetic begins to fade away? Apart from passing out, feeling the painkillers wear off was one of the most fear-inducing moments of the day. Wait. Can you give me more? I’m not ready to go back there.

It has been a rough week, being limited in my activity and having the rhythm of my life forcibly hindered behind everyone else’s. But when I come to think about it, it wasn’t all that bad. At least I didn’t have to think about all of the heavy pain weighing on my heart from the previous week. I only had so much energy and mental capacity and I spent all of it on my lacerated fingers. I didn’t have enough space to even think about other scars.

I think I understand why people cut themselves now. It distracts them from deeper pains, the pains of the heart. And I can now attest, it is surprisingly effective. In fact, it works like magic. (Great. Now my heart is breaking for more people.) Sometimes, the emotional suffering is so unimaginable that it only makes sense for someone to resort to physical self-harm. Sometimes, the pain is so unbearable that the greatest anesthetic to pain, it would seem, is pain itself.

But alas, like all anesthetics, pain inevitably subsides and wears off. And the scars of the body usually heal faster than the scars of the soul. My stitches get removed this upcoming week. Panic. Internal frenzy. Doctor, I need more anesthetics. Please. Can you give me more? I’m not ready to go back there. I can already feel the sting of my deeper wounds slowly creeping back. Oh God. I’m scared. What do I do? Need I apply more anesthetics?

 

Fight fire with fire.

the Kid, pt. 1

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

There is this phenomenon studied in Community Psychology known as the “expert mentality”. An expert figure administers what he believes is professional help to a recipient based off of what the expert perceives as the recipient’s needs and deficits. But in doing so, the expert unintentionally creates more deficits that necessitate more “professional help”. The expert consequentially responds to the newly created needs by prescribing another treatment, which would only give rise to yet another deficit, requiring another treatment. A detrimental, crippling cycle is inadvertently manufactured in an attempt to provide help.

Think of a doctor who attempts to cure his patient’s disease by prescribing a medicine. The patient faithfully takes his pill daily but the pill produces some deleterious side effects. So what does he do? He goes back to the doctor, of course. Aha, the doctor knows exactly what to do: prescribe him a new pill to take care of the first pill’s side effects. The patient diligently takes both pills but to his surprise, this new pill spawns its own side effects. So the doctor prescribes yet another pill (with more side effects!) to treat the second pill’s side effects. You get the idea.

In an attempt to address the patient’s deficits, the professional creates new ones, further harming the patient and digging him deeper into a well of cyclical dependency. In the end, the solution to the problem the medication was made to solve is to get rid of the medication itself.

We see this all the time in social work and non-profit attempts to aid underprivileged communities. “Professional”, college degree-brandishing outsiders come into these communities and start implementing programs (often without the people’s consent/cooperation) that they believe will be the solution to the community’s problems.

We, psychologists, have this strange obsession of pathologizing everything, especially things we see as deviant. We have a keen awareness of people’s life problems and we subconsciously start diagnosing their ish, even if we don’t know them too well. (Guilty). And as with individuals, we do same with communities. But there is something fundamentally wrong and unhelpful in our thinking. The problem is that we are viewing people by their deficits and needs, rather than their strengths and assets. Why is it that we let people’s deficits be more definitive of who they are than their strengths?

To take it a step deeper, the lenses by which we view their deficits are easily susceptible to cultural, gender, and worldview biases. For all we know, what we think are “needs” in other communities may not actually be real problems. Often times, these communities don’t actually think they need our help. Go figure.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

Any community psychologist knows that the ultimate goal is empowerment. But we will never empower individuals and communities if we see them by their deficits. When we see them by their deficits and interact with them as such, we instill a debilitating belief in them that there’s something wrong with them. And the potent self-fulfilling prophecy does the rest.

God has long been at work remodeling my heart to love the socially-marginalized but I’ve always thought that I have a special place in my heart for that inner-city kid who struggles with school. The ex-gang member teenager. The father living on the street. As I digested these new concepts in my Community Psychology class last semester, I felt a deep sense of compassion for those who felt identified by their weaknesses rather than by who they fully were. And even more so for those who weren’t aware that this was happening to them.

For some reason, this time was different. I didn’t just feel sorry for them. It was a profound feeling of identification, as if I was sharing in their suffering. It didn’t take long for God to reveal to me the reason for my empathy: “That’s you, Justin”. This struggle I was discovering in underprivileged communities was a struggle I had already gone through. I felt for the inner-city kid because we had matching scars.

How could one from a stereotypical Asian-American, middle class suburb relate to the good Kid of the Maad City? I wrote an article titled “Memoirs of a Racially Confused Blogger” in my latter years of high school (roughly four years ago). Crawling out of a turbulent year of academic failure, my disillusioned self released a 3,000+ word, messy tirade on my scarring experience of Asian culture. I recently revisited this piece and thought about editing it to make it more cohesive but decided against it; I was angry and wounded and this rant captured my raw emotions while they were still fresh. I did not plan it but this article became my unofficial self-declaration of divorce from my own culture and people.

Rant TL;DR – I was not Asian enough. I was left to navigate the brutally competitive, cut-throat environment of highly-comparative hyper-Asians and everything in my environment was affirming my non-Asian-ness. Everything and everyone was a constant reminder that I was not enough.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had trouble reading.  I still have vivid memories of my mom dedicating extra time to me to help me read quicker and more efficiently. I have a particular way of learning that is slower than others. But all the attention was given to the slowness. From the third grade until my senior year in high school, my parents sent me to more tutors and after-school programs than I can remember. To be quite frank, it made me feel like shit.

 I was confused. “Why didn’t my friends have tutors? How come my siblings don’t have to go to this after-school program? Why aren’t they coming with me this time? (Why are you spending so much money on me?)” As I grew older, I began to catch on. I’m the problem child of the family. They were trying to fix me.

After years of tutoring, I can say with confidence that I learned nothing. Four years later and I don’t remember the Pre-Calculus. I don’t remember the SAT grammar rules. What I do remember is the insecurity and the pain of knowing that I was not good enough. In my parents’ attempt to “educate” me, my years of being tutored have only taught me one lesson: that there is something wrong with me.

Such is the nature of institutionalization. When a child grows up in a reality in which everything in his environment is reinforcing the fact that there’s something wrong with him, he will start to believe it. When someone’s neighborhood is saturated with outsider organizations (non-profits) attempting to “fix” his people/community, a great debilitating work is done on the soul. Good intentions are not enough.

Once it dawned on me that people were trying to fix me, the seed of bitterness was sown. Am I not enough for you? Do you not want me? Fine. I don’t need you. I’m done being your slave. And in one final act of defiance, my soul beat its chest and gave a last “fuck you” as it raised the double middle-finger to my own culture and people, once and for all.

I am unashamedly ashamed to be Asian American.

Yes, God has got a lot of work to do with me. I know. Save the rebuking comments. I’ve got quite a distance to cover before my heart learns how to forgive my culture. Jesus calls us into multiethnic community but He doesn’t call us to forsake our own culture in the process. Our pursuit towards multiethnic community cannot be an escape from our own personal cultural identities. But I’m currently in a place where I just don’t want to own my cultural identity because of how much pain it has caused me. I want to escape.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that Jesus brought me outside of my suburban hometown and exposed me to the inner city in such a time as this (college) so that the good Kid of the Maad City could show me that his scars were much like mine. I needed the Kid. I had to enter his story and decipher his struggle if I was to understand my own pain. God created us such that we, an unlikely duo, would live a symbiotic relationship with one another. The Kid and I must depend on each other to see God’s redemption in our identities and in our Maad Cities.

Who would have thought that our stories could be so intertwined?

“We cannot view them as deficits.

Rather than seeing them for what they don’t have, we must see them for what they do have, for what they are capable of.

They are not deficits. They have assets and strengths. They are valuable.

They may be broke, but they are not broken down.

After trying to find the solution to the community’s needs, we completely miss the solution that is right in front of us: the people themselves.” 

–excerpted from my Community Psychology lecture notes [October 8th, 2015]

Update 1/6/2017 – This is part one of the Kid, a series recounting my story as an ethnically-confused (and slightly jaded) 2nd-generation Asian American. After much soul surgery, bloodshed, and cussing at the gods, I wrote a sequel 10 months later. You can continue the story here: the Kid, pt. 2.