In Honor of AAPI Heritage Month: Without Guilt or Shame...Using my Voice and Building Community in Eating Disorder Recovery
The following quote is not the experience of every Asian American; but it definitely rings true for me.
“Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to take actions on their mental health and are more likely to reach out to friends and family. However, not all AAPIs have a strong support system and can have difficulty expressing their challenges due to guilt, shame, or even not being able to speak the same language.” - Mental Health America
As a child, holding difficult emotions, such as embarrassment, shame or guilt, was hard but not unfamiliar. However, processing these emotions often felt unbearable. Whether I knew it or not, my way of “processing” these feelings was basically burying them deep and finding (often negative) ways to cope. And growing up in my family made things even more difficult, because we never talked about feelings or emotions, which left me with very few healthy outlets.
On top of this, for the longest time, my family, whether they were close relatives or not, always commented on my body. As a child in an Asian household, I was always told to ‘go on a diet' and that I didn’t look good the way I was; so I always felt self-conscious about my body.
I understood it to be a cultural norm for relatives to not hold back comments on body image and food; but at the time, no one realized the impact this would have on the development of my eating disorder. I used to dread going to dinners with my relatives and would use eating disorder behaviors to cope with negative thoughts and difficult emotions.
Eventually the weight loss associated with my eating disorder caused my family to begin commenting on how I needed to eat more and how I looked sick. As I look back, I see that the behaviors I was using to cope with the distress of my families’ comments was making things worse for me both physically and mentally.
Over time, I was able to find a healthy outlet for my emotions and even my own voice. Fast forward a few years, and my journey moved me to join a small support group in college. My upbringing had made it hard for me to speak on my experience, so I started out observing more than speaking. But, just listening helped me articulate some of the root causes of my eating disorder, and challenge the beliefs that I needed those behaviors to cope with my negative feelings and anxiety. The support group also helped me develop the confidence to speak to my sister, the only member of my family who knows about my eating disorder, and allow her the opportunity to give me the support I needed to negate the urges that were continuously arising.
Recovery was/is a hard process, one full of learning and unlearning. However, it has all been worth it and has given me a chance to use my story and voice to support others with similar experiences as my own. It has also taught me that I am not alone. In fact, rates of eating disorders have grown in the past few decades in Asians and Asian-Americans. Also, according to an article published by Medium.com, “Many Asian children in America seek independence, but views of the patriarchy and hierarchy have made going against family wishes a shameful act. [And] In turn, some Asian-Americans seek to suppress their feelings through engaging in eating disorder behaviors". - An experience I knew very well.
My journey as an advocate and peer supporter began when I was presented with an opportunity to be a support group facilitator with Project HEAL’s Communities of HEALing program. At the time, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would be a good fit because my experience, as an Asian man, seemed like it might not be relatable. But with the support of my sister and the staff at Project HEAL, I was able to realize that while our experiences are all personal and unique, they can be helpful to others in direct and indirect ways. Even now, as I reflect on my time in that college support group, and how the stories I heard weren’t expressly related to my experience, they still helped me find my voice, express my feelings and cope during difficult moments.
Using my story to help others was amazing and honestly, I feel like I took a lot more out of it than I was able to give. The support group was as much an outlet for me as it was for other members, and I cherish all the time I was able to spend in the group. When the time came for me to step away from facilitating, I really couldn’t have been prouder of the time I was able to share experiences we were all able to connect with. And in the end, I’ve learned, and now help others learn, that in the words of Naomi Osaka, “It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to talk about it.”
Vanson works in Finance in New York where he was born and raised. In his off-time, he enjoys spending time with his son, who always keeps him on his toes, and acting in small productions.