In high school, friends knew me as someone who gave good advice. In fact, one day, on a whim, I created the AOL instant messenger screen name “Advisor Roop.” Thereafter I signed online periodically to advise my peers on their high school woes. “The doctor is in!” friends joked whenever my screen name popped online.
My role as a dependable advisor and friend has been one that I’ve been proud of in adulthood. I listen with patience and make myself available when loved ones are nursing wounds.
I’m not good at asking for help.
Last year challenged my well-accustomed process of doling out advice to others and coping with my own struggles through self-reflection. Marked by unfamiliar landscapes, conversations that disoriented, and emotions previously unexplored, the tumultuous nature of 2010 opened me to realize I needed to venture outside of my head in order to make sense of the string of challenges I faced. Being self-reflective and proactive was no longer enough.
Help trickled towards me in unconventional streams.
I applied for my first intensive writing workshop in the early spring. My stomach twisted into a pretzel when I was accepted a month later. I was nervous. VONA (Voices of Our Nation) is a writing workshop for writers of color that attracts a fierce collective of artists every year. Writers who have attended playfully joked to me, “VONA will break you down.” That is the nature of all-day workshopping.
The bluntness of their words terrified me. I was skilled at hiding behind a mask of sarcastic one-liners. Was I ready for a writing space that could so swiftly see through this screen?
The seriousness of what I was trying to write would also require me to unveil inner vulnerability. For the memoir class I was enrolled in, I worked on a personal essay about my decade-long struggle with dieting and body image issues. It was the first time I dared to write about a battle so personal. Furthermore, writing about my relationship to weight required me to revisit a dark, prickly corner of my past, buried under memories of graduation ceremonies and milestone birthdays: my adolescence. A fragile phase that started with unhappiness over a set of chubby thighs and butterball checks and ended with the neurosis of calorie counting, it was years of valuing myself by the fluctuating pin of a weighing scale.
The pain of writing about my past was sharpest when I realized just how present certain complexes of my adolescent still are: a residual fear of oil and butter, avoidance of eating out to maintain control over how my food is prepared, and an addiction to comforting sugary desserts. The psychological and emotional components around my relationship to food were layered.
I decided to lean into my fear and attend VONA. The experience, which was in fact as emotionally loaded as I was warned, introduced me to a compassionate community of writers and an angel of a writing instructor who, collectively, embraced my story and affirmed my journey. From their encouragement, I gained the courage to seek professional help to explore my lingering food-related struggles and evolve my process of healing.
On the four day of VONA, I skittered off University of San Francisco’s campus to walk into the open arms of a warm, bright-eyed blond woman for nutritional counseling. In something of a therapy session, I poured out my history to her, along with a litany residual hang-ups around food. I wanted quick-fix answers from her. How do I crave sugar less? How do I snack less? How do I get over a phobia of oil?
Ninety minutes of counseling opened me to realize that the process of unpacking our long-ingrained habits is much more complex than the “eat 4-6 meals” self-help tips we read in healthy living magazines.
From working with her, I came to see how rigid my rules around food were: Spinach, yes; egg yolks, no. Having come-to-age during the fat-free diet era of the 1990s and the carb-free craze of the early 2000s, I realized that my training around food was one of constant deprivation. I strived to eat minimal fat and carbohydrates, and in the process, I was stripping my body of receiving proper, satiating meals.
Acknowledging this reality wasn’t easy, but if I wanted to help myself, I needed to be self-critical as well.
Forking over more than three twenty-dollar bills when our session was up was difficult. It was the first time I paid for a one-on-one counseling service; I wasn’t accustomed to my wallet feeling so empty after an hour and a half of…talking. As South Asian Americans, we are raised to value services like tutoring, which we know will tangibly grow our skills. With counseling or therapy, for example, we can’t quantify our growth (and thereby justify our spent money) in an easy-to-measure way.
Those trained in this line of work, like the nutritional counselor I worked with, dare to ask us questions that challenge our framework of thought and behavior. They do not feed us what we want to hear, like our loyal friends will often do, and as a result, this kind of truth telling can cajole us to extrapolate what we have not wanted to admit to ourselves.
Paying for a counselor, therapist, or a healer, is the acknowledgement that we cannot figure everything out on our own and sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to ask for help.
Working with a nutritional counselor began the slow process of unlearning my training around food habits, and growing my lens to see food as a source of nourishment, joy, and healing—not something in need of constant management. I took two cooking classes with her and discovered the pleasure of experimenting with cooking foods with ingredients new to me. In fact, I have evolved into something of an ardent home cook ever since.
When the fall and wintertime rolled around, both seasons folding into each other, a number of my close friends—younger, older, male, female—encountered emotionally trying situations: health scares, heart aches, work stress, financial burdens, mourning, and more. Together, we experienced pain that sat with us and lingered in our heads and hearts for longer than we anticipated. It rattled our spirits and bodies, and we didn’t know when we’d feel whole again.
In conversation, some of us decided to we needed more help.
One of my roommates suggested we form a small women’s group to explore new ways to support each other. While munching on pot stickers and quinoa on a crisp December evening, we held our first convening with a hint of trepidation. We went around the room, one-by-one, and shared how we were feeling and what we were wrestling with. With respect we gave each other permission to unload, without judgment, the heaviness that overwhelmed us.
Though we all knew each other well, the process of creating an intentional space to reveal our vulnerabilities introduced new energy to the room. Our guards were down; we were sitting at the table out of acknowledgement of struggle. What ensued was a conversation so raw that we came to understand each other most deeply during that formative convening.
From my women’s group, I have come to accept that even if I feel well today, I may not tomorrow, and that reality is very human. We cannot always feel “happy,” contrary to what self-help books profess. But, there are ways to find beauty even when we feel broken down. I discovered the euphoria of the sunset at Ocean Beach: a rustic haze of burnt orange and electric red hues layered behind a bed of silver tinted low clouds. Or the luscious greenery and stillness of walking up Bernal Heights hill to savor a magnificent panoramic view of San Francisco.
From despair, we find the seeds of growth. I have emerged today a more resilient and humbled person because I could share the pain and joy that simmered in me last year.
Rupa Dev works for New America Media and lives in San Francisco. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org