It's Jocelyn's birthday and she's turning 15. Her family has invited Liz and me for a small family dinner at Olive Garden to celebrate. At the table, I order the ravioli di portobello because I love mushrooms. My dish has seven raviolis coated in a whitish-pink sauce with tomatoes and chives. I gorge on one and then other. Once I eat a third, I let out a slight prrrrft. I tense up and think, Shit, I hope no one heard or smelt that and, Great, I'm going to worry nonstop about farting.
Anxiety has been my unwavering shadow for as long as I could remember. My fears include bed bugs attacking my ears, fear of wanting to have sex with the devil, and the fear of being gay. These fears came from watching the news or going through an uncomfortable experience. For instance, I developed a fear of bed bugs attacking my ears after I saw a news segment about their increase in population. These anxieties went away because I grew tired or I developed a new fear to obsess over. But my fear of farting was different because it made concentrating in my sophomore high school classes difficult, and it isolated me from my classmates.
I dreaded mornings due to my anxiety over farting. I'd get up, take a shower, eat breakfast, and tell myself, “Today will be a good day.” I'd actually believe it, too, until I left for school. A few minutes after my parents and I were on the road, my anxiety would surface.
Don't fart, don't fart, my thoughts reminded me. You'll be embarrassed and your classmates will laugh at you, it taunted me again. My chest would tighten and I'd feel light-headed. I scolded myself, Go away, go away. The funny thing is, I worried more about the actual fear of farting rather than the farting itself.
In school, my fear of farting would come randomly. It came when I was sitting in English class listening to my teacher talk about the novel we were analyzing or during math while my teacher was spewing thoughts on how math and God were connected (I went to a Catholic high school).
Some days I couldn't listen because anxiety racked my brain. All my teachers sounded like Charlie Brown's — wah wah wah wah. To counteract the fear that racked my brain, I'd scratch my wrists and the top of my thighs until they were red. Alongside that, I'd sometimes poke pencils into my wrists. Self-harm was my way of dealing because I needed something to distract me from the headache-inducing anxiety.
I told my parents about my fear of farting and begged them for therapy. They laughed at me and told me I should talk to them whenever my anxiety came up. My mom even bought me Extra Strength Gas-X, which helped a bit. They comforted me by telling me when they farted, which assuaged my fears for a short while, but the anxiety came back even more fiercely than before. Other times my parents were annoyed. One time I came and told my mom about my anxiety while she finished her bills. She replied in her thick Filipino accent, “Sam, you're too needy,” which made me feel more uneasy than before.
Underneath, my fear of farting was a manifestation of saving face, a highly held belief in my Asian family. Saving face meant attending relatives' parties, even if my parents weren't there, because I was the representative of my family. It meant swallowing my pride whenever my relatives told me that I was gaining weight because talking back implied my parents didn't raise me right. It also meant dressing up and looking pretty, whatever that means, so that my mom's friends can compliment her what on what a pretty daughter she has.
As much as I touted myself as someone who goes against the grain, I cared about how I was viewed by others because it's how I was raised. I was not only representing myself, but my family as well.
My need for help was answered on the day I unsuccessfully filmed an audition tape for Channel One, a news channel shown in schools, in the hallway of my journalism class. I stood next to my journalism teacher while my friend James, with a camera borrowed from the video class, filmed me. As I started to interview my teacher, I felt woozy from my anxiety due to my fear of farting and the amount of work I had to do for my classes.
I went to my school counselor, a person who was familiar with my anxiety, and explained to him my fainting incident.
He asked me, “What are you so anxious about?”
I paused. He's going to laugh at me if I say farting.
Out of fear and embarrassment, I replied, “Everything.”
That conversation promoted a call to my mom, who in returned call my pediatrician for a therapist referral. Finally, I was getting help.
I attended only three sessions of therapy, but those three sessions made me aware that it wasn't the end of the world if I farted in front of others, and if I did, who cares? Therapy helped me go deeper, and I realized that I am not my parents; I may be born from them, but I'm my own individual person who has her own thoughts and actions. It also taught me self-soothing exercises such as tensing every limb in my body and then relaxing each one individually, and to focus on myself rather than compare myself to my peers.
In hindsight, I know now it was the beginning of learning how to accept my quirks, a journey I'm still on.