Attempts at Being Healthy

1.

At 10 years old I’m constantly teased for being short. This of course doesn’t bother me now, but at that age it’s an earth-shattering, hide-under-the-sheets kind of shame. My mother finds me sulking in a corner one summer afternoon. Most probably she had seen my cousins teasing me, a situation I had extricated myself from in order to emotionally regroup. Drink some milk, then, so you’ll grow taller, she tells me. 

I take this to heart. Milk, then. Ten is an impressionable, malleable age, and I’m not equipped with either the discipline or the smarts to curb this piece of information into something helpful. That same evening, I fix myself a glass of milk. The scene is still vivid, as is the sentiment of false fullness: popping open that giant can of powdered milk, mixing it with water, and glugging it down. And then sneaking back upstairs, settling back in bed, willing my legs to lengthen. 

It goes on for some time. An eternity, it feels, as does time in youth. Two glasses, the next night. And then soon, three. The glasses I choose get bigger in size. I am able to spoon powdered milk in the dark, expertly, without spillage. Illuminated only by faint lights: the refrigerator door, the garden light, Christmas lights; it becomes a ritual, each more solemn than the last. I close my eyes and don’t taste anything. It is a matter of getting it down, and keeping it down.

Eventually, I get caught out. I’m on my fourth glass when our house helper walks into the kitchen. We both jump, scaring the shit out of each other. She takes in the empty glasses, the open can of milk, the used spoon. She only says, “You’re the one who’s been drinking all the milk; that’s enough now,” and takes the glass from my hand and steers me by the small of my back towards the stairs. More than shame, I feel lost.

Manang Linda never told my mother, although I suspect the latter had an inkling of what I was doing. Like everything in my family, issues were mostly ignored, brushed under the carpet, and hinted at with passive-aggressive side comments. In the end, it wasn’t about height, health, or teasing. It had just become something that was mine. 


2.

A few years after this I develop allergies. Pink, raised patches overtake my body at an alarming rate after consuming an egg, milk (oh, the irony), shrimp, a bar of chocolate. My mother notes everything that prompts an attack on a piece of paper which she attaches to our fridge door with a magnet. The list gets longer with each day, with each meal. Fish. Peanuts. Beefsteak. Chicken. Mangoes. Cake.

First, the flesh feels warm to the touch. Then, an apparition of raised dots slowly spread in size to join each other, my body’s very own attempt at Pangaea. I balloon to twice my size. It distorts my face. They randomly start appearing on my neck, between my toes, and once, inside my ear.  

The itch is unbearable. They rub calamine lotion over me, and I cry while I wait for the itching to subside. It dries up and I could pass for a pink impasto abstract, the ugliest fucking painting in a museum. The hardened thin film of lotion cracks at the joints with each attempt to move. My siblings come to watch, yelling at me when I try to scratch: once again I’m a pariah. Once again, different.

No attempt was made to bring me to a doctor (It’ll calm down eventually, was my family’s prognosis. Ah, the ‘80s) until a particularly bad attack closes up my throat. In the doctor’s office, a nurse lines drops of liquid along the inside of my arm, in two neat rows. When she runs out of space I’m asked to hold out the other arm. They prick each drop with a needle. And then I’m sent home to await the results. 

I am allergic to nothing, apparently. Psychological, says my father, and it sounds cruel to my ears. Manang Linda puts a plate of omelette, rice and ham in front of me for lunch. My sister smiles at me encouragingly. Don’t be afraid, she says kindly. I look at my food, and it overwhelms me. I eat and eat.


3.

In my first year of college, our diet consists of pure street food. Between classes we consume fish balls, squid balls, and kikiam from the makeshift pushcart stationed loyally in front of our building, come rain or shine. We slather them in dipping sauces of dubious origins, as soon as they’re lifted from the cloudy vat of boiling oil. Everything is washed down with bottles of Coke or Fanta, then appeased by a cigarette. We hardly drink any water. At 16, we’re invincible: our metabolisms are fast, and pulling an all-nighter needs nothing more than a cup of coffee to be fully functional.

It happens one afternoon, a mere two months into that first year. I get a fever, which climbs and climbs until my vision is vignetted by sharp greens and reds and blues. Apparently, I become delirious, then lose consciousness. They tell me I was dumped in a tub of ice water at the hospital to bring my temperature down. I don’t remember much, only that I miss an entire month of school to recover.


4.

Pilates is an attempt to bring some activity into my life. Low-impact effort agrees with me. Cardio does not. 

Every Monday morning Ginny guides me into poses, stretches, and lunges. She orders me to extend my toes, to exhale upon release, and to hold on, for just ten more seconds. 

Week after week, she helps me onto the Reformer, a monster of a machine with elastics and sliding panels. On other days she straps weights on my wrists or ankles and instructs me through a set of focused movements, first on the left side then the right. She presents special cushions which I use to balance and roll various body parts around in. She says, as always, Hold that pose for ten, nine, eight… and I do everything I’m asked to, badly and awkwardly, trembling from the burn. She teaches me how to breathe, digging her hands sharply under my ribs to demonstrate how to truly empty myself of air. Stomach into spine. Curl your back. Reach farther. Just ten more seconds. Now, the other side. 

And then our schedules couldn’t align; work piles up on my end, and she can’t make it on the days I can. And then the lockdowns start rolling in. It’s with chagrin that I realise that abandoning it was easier than expected. 

Currently listening to:
Weyes Blood
Titanic Rising

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