Belly of the beast

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APRIL 28, 2017

When their darkest nightmares come to life, my friends confide in me the monsters that prowl their minds and the scars that etch their breaths. I want to be present for those stories that make them who they are, that cloud over their familiar smiles.

If they have gifted me with their vulnerability, it’s only natural that I would return with my own vulnerability as a sign of my mutual trust. But when my friends hand me the mic, they are met with radio silence.

I want them to know why I am the way I am, just as I know the memories that map their being, but my fear seals my secrets. I’m afraid of their pity, terrified by the possibility that they’ll perceive my experiences in familial violence and poverty as cracks in the facade of normality that I had been pressured to maintain.

I was ashamed and scared of my memories because no one I knew had ever made mention of anything similar. My high school wore purple and fundraised for Love Shouldn’t Hurt Week, but no one stepped up to start a conversation about domestic violence. The preoccupation with seeming flawlessly ordinary had solved the existence of “abnormalities.” We nodded off a friend’s declaration that depression had become irrelevant in 2012.

By shielding the less savory flavors of myself from my friends, I made them inaccessible to myself, skirting around any acknowledgement of their actuality or repercussions in my life. I spent my days in silence to keep away the questions that I knew would follow, questions that would force me to confront things I’d rather forget.

When I began this column, I set out with the complex of an enlightened savior. I was going to unearth issues that people generally avoided talking about and present them on a somewhat-national stage. I was going to start conversations, rip security blankets out of people’s hands, lead the charge against the comfort of ignorance.

But to write for others, I had to write to myself. I dusted off memories I had tucked away, opening old wounds and reliving the sting to capture it in a few paragraphs. I recorded the way the bruises faded through quiet apologies and magnificent growth. Even though I had embarked to dissect uncomfortable situations for others, I found myself squirming at my own identity. Released after a lifetime of confinement, my experiences ran rampant, and I wished for the comfort of feigned ignorance more than ever.

And despite the viscerality of my memories, I didn’t always get my columns right. Sometimes, I said too much, leaving me naked like plucked chicken. I had nothing to brave the frigid winds of pity and awkward condolences, or worse, the questions of confirmation.

That exposure was my greatest fear. Everything I had smothered and shoved under the rug was now accessible in the condensed form of 750 to 850 words per week to my friends, my family and condescending strangers. My security blanket had been ripped out of my hands by my own doing; a quest to feed my superiority complex had turned on me to dismantle every moment of silence that I built up over the years to protect me from myself.

I clenched my eyes shut and waited, waited for my friends to riot over the stories I had unfairly kept from them, for my family to ­­ostracize me for telling secrets that weren’t just mine. The storm never came. They waited for me to step up to the mic on my own terms, giving me solitude when I grappled the experiences I wanted to face alone, standing by me when I was ready to share what I lost and what I gained.

Questioning the passivity of the injustices around me began with peering into the belly of my own beast and finding security in the reality of my fears, not in my ignorance of them.

On the rare nights my mother was home from work before I fell asleep, she would read to me from “The Kissing Hand” in her unwavering whisper:

“Sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to. Even if they seem strange and scary at first.”

Contact Sarah Heo at 


APRIL 27, 2017