I flew back to Hong Kong on Jan. 12. It was a Sunday. I had brought in five different bags with me — and I knew I was bound to have a hard time hauling all of those on the bus back to our shared flat in Kowloon.
Upon arriving in the city, my aunt messaged me to have lunch with her amigas in Central. I had half-a-mind to go because I knew what began at 11 a.m. would end at 9 p.m. It was simply the way of life of a kunyang, the pejorative term taken back by domestic helpers lounging on the streets on their only day off.
I dumped all but one of my bags when I headed to SoHo swathed in a sweater and a letterman jacket. I didn’t even break a sweat when I walked uphill to the restaurant. It was that cold.
The restaurant was serving unlimited antipasto, on top of a variety of pizza and pasta. It was on the tab of my aunt’s friend, who was celebrating her birthday by treating 11 of her closest friends in the city.
The wine came out at around 1 p.m., They were having a party. My bag was heavy, and they were about to pour me a glass. Anni e bicchieri di vino non si contano mai, the Italians would say. You never count years or glasses of wine.
“Why?” one of my aunt’s friend asks.
It would cause such a mess to unpack a bag’s contents before a table of people.
“I’m on medication,” I said, hoping that would suffice. But it didn’t. So I had to explain the entire thing starting from three months ago.
Sometime during the peak of the Hong Kong protests in November 2019, I called the Samaritan Befrienders Hotline at 4 a.m. because I could not sleep. My nose was snotty, my cheeks were wet, and there was this invisible belt across my chest. I kept telling the social worker on the other line, “I just want to go home.”
“You will, wouldn’t you?” I remember her saying.
I did go home on Dec. 11, 2019. My boyfriend picked me up at the airport and he brought home with him from our shared flat in Marikina City, Manila. There were no remaining seats on the airport bus back to our place so we sat on the floor which much pride. The way of the kunyang, I thought.
I also thought I was going to be okay. But I wasn’t. While my boyfriend worked in the day, I was left to my own thoughts in the flat, which was erected quite close to a dormant fault line. Scientists have estimated that fault line to move roughly every 400 years, and its last movement was recorded in 1658. The tremors the fault line could produce may flatten skyscrapers. The tremors it sent through me broke my body clock.
The fault line had a history, and so did I. Back in college, I did multiple tests and endoscopies and biopsies and electrocardiograms for something doctors could not pinpoint. I have made countless trips to the emergency room since I was 16, only for doctors to detect nothing in all of my exams. It had gotten so bad that while I wasn’t a high-risk individual for colon cancer, my gastroenterologist wanted a colonoscopy because I was shitting blood. And yet he found nothing.
It was an emergency room scenario with an A&E cardiologist that turned everything on its head. After ruling out fatal causes of chest pains and shortness of breath, she looked me in the eye and said: “You can’t go back to the ER all the time. Have you considered going to a psychiatrist?”
I wanted to. My dad said I should not because doctors are apparently scammers. My mom just said a very motherly thing: “You’re not sick.” My boyfriend stayed resplendently neutral, saying if I felt like going to, I should.
On Dec. 2019, more than 10 years since I first went to the A&E for an invisible disease, I went to a shrink.
Before the diagnosis, I was pacing with my mom and Omar outside the doctor’s office. We were the last appointment of the day.
I was apologizing through my tears. “Sorry Ma, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I told her.
She was wiping my face just like you’d see it in the movies. “Nothing’s wrong with you, anak.”
It felt like another coming out moment. And when we did step out of the doctor’s office, I felt like a brand new person.
The invisible yet perfectly perceptible thing now had a name, and it was something I’d have to lug with me every day until it gets better. The doctor assured me that it would, but made proper warnings that it will only happen if I wanted to.
I was on a daily dose of escitalopram for six months, on top of alprazolam which I had to take just in case the bag I was carrying got too heavy for me to handle.
Days after the diagnosis, my mom and I went out to celebrate the birthday of our grandmother from our father’s side. We were having samgyeopsal when I blurted out that I’ve seen a shrink.
My uncle, who footed the bill, then recounted his own struggles with undiagnosed ailments. He had shied away from pork and beef because he thought it would kill him, especially with an invisible belt surrounding his chest. Yet there he was, in a Korean BBQ restaurant, roasting and gobbling slabs of pork.
My psychiatrist had said it could be genetic — and I could only support her claim with my own findings after that conversation: my grandmother, my uncle, and my dad were also diagnosed with similar mental disorders years prior.
No one wanted to talk about it, and that was why I suffered by myself for more than 10 years.
“I’m on medication,” I said, hoping that would suffice.
For what, they ask. It was a simple question, really. But it had so much to unpack. I did not want to ruin Italian dining by bringing up something so grim before a birthday celebrant.
At the same time, there’s an Italian proverb that says bad food can never be masked even with too much sauce. There was no point in hiding it. Troppe salse vivande false.
With a wry smile, I said, “For panic disorder.”
The bag was gone.