Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Irene Goddard

Content note: This piece contains depictions of sexual assault.

My relationship to my body has been unequivocally affected by trauma. Complicating things is my lived experience as a visibly Southeast Asian woman in predominantly white settings. The unspoken societal (and social) expectations I grew up under dictated that I was to follow the rules at all times, that my needs did not exist, that I was to take up as little space as possible.

Boundaries? What are those? Moving through the world with a solid sense of who I am? What’s that?

For years, I was repulsed by the very smell of alcohol, my entire body revolting upon consumption. I would gag as it burned its way down my throat. My face flushed red as my eyes became bloodshot and swollen. My heart would feel like it was pounding out of my chest, triggering my anxiety and asthma instead of slowing to unwind.

Finally, I’d get nauseous, maybe throw up, and be left with a headache as I sobered up within the hour. That would just be the first drink. And the day after, I would wake up sore and tense, completely drained and exhausted.

As a Filipino-Canadian woman, I have a genetic mutation known as “alcohol flush syndrome,” or, more colloquially, “Asian glow.” About 36 to 50 percent of East Asians experience AFS, meaning we lack one of the enzymes responsible for breaking down alcohol upon consumption.

This missing enzyme causes a buildup of a carcinogen called acetaldehyde in our bloodstream, triggering the release of histamines, not unlike an allergic reaction.

Flushing, heart palpitations, dizziness, and nausea are all common symptoms of AFS, which are actually biological markers of a far more significant risk of harm when consuming alcohol.

One cocktail was simply not worth it, but in a culture that heavily normalizes drinking, the idea of outright rejecting alcohol didn’t occur to me then. But when it finally did, the experience was a big breakthrough in learning how to give myself permission to set boundaries.

I was about 13 when I first made a conscious decision to drink, wanting to fit in with my predominantly white classmates. I was binge-watching The O.C. and couldn’t help but fantasize about finally letting loose and becoming a beloved, popular party girl like my problematic fave Marissa Cooper (rest in peace).

Drinking seemed like a stylish marker of coolness and good taste.

One of my friends often bragged about sneaking swigs of whiskey when her parents left her home alone, so I decided to follow her example. While my parents were away, I poured myself a drink in between episodes, eyeballing some orange juice and vodka before wrinkling my nose in disgust. Instead of the wildly glamorous and fun time promised, I became feverish and passed out on my couch in the middle of the afternoon.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised at my body’s reaction. Growing up, I watched my dad’s face become redder and redder with every beer he knocked back at family parties. By the end of the night, my mom would cackle as she heard his loud snores from his bedroom. It became a running joke in our family, my dad’s bright red face as part of our family’s holiday ritual. Like many Asian people, my dad simply ignored his AFS and kept drinking anyway.

Just before he ended our 8-year relationship, my high school sweetheart became a career bartender. From my perspective, my inability to drink was a dealbreaker to him. Instead of respecting the limitations of my body, I internalized my alcohol intolerance as a character flaw and kept drinking even though I hated it. I told myself I had to push through, trying to build my tolerance bit by bit.

My ex manipulated me into staying friends, stringing me along for 4 more years with the prospect of getting back together. Throughout those 4 years, I tried desperately to demonstrate that I was different from the girl he broke up with — cooler, more independent, enjoyed drinking.

We would hang out weekly, and he would spend hundreds of dollars on alcohol, either at the liquor store for his “lab” or having a cocktail to accompany each course at dinner. He insisted I sample his creations to validate his exquisite taste. He waxed poetic about the different flavors coming together in a cocktail, but all I could taste was poison and red flags. I nodded in agreement anyway.

This created a cycle of being unable to prioritize my body over external expectations.

In 2015, a senior male co-worker sexually assaulted me on our way home from the office. To avoid a long commute home in the dead of winter, I agreed to carpool with him. Nearly every night after work, he insisted on stopping for drinks with our colleagues. A part of me knew what he was trying to do, but I didn’t have the confidence in myself nor the social justice language to call him out on it.

One Friday night, we were at a bar with our teammates. I forced a shot down in the spirit of camaraderie, gagging at the taste. When I finished my mojito, I remember my coworker making eye contact with me from across our table, indignant. It was clear he wanted me to drink more.

Despite his best efforts, I was sober when he assaulted me almost an hour later. He insisted on removing the condom I specifically asked him to wear, and despite saying “no” multiple times, clearly and loudly, he forced himself on me anyway — and later tried to lie and discredit me on public record.

When given the opportunity to question my account of that night, my rapist asked me, “How many drinks did you consume? Were you on drugs?”

According to RAINN, perpetrators commonly take advantage of a victim’s voluntary consumption of alcohol, in what’s known as drug-facilitated sexual assault. From the jump, my coworker was preying on me. He relied on my alcohol consumption as a failsafe to gaslight me. His understanding of consent as a white European man was that I, an Asian girl about 4 years his junior, would eventually submit to him if he were to just loosen me up a bit.

To be clear, that is coercion, and coercion is not consent.

With so much Earth energy in my birth chart, my relationship with my body is tantamount to my well-being. The assault turned my body into a hostile environment, leaving shame and self-doubt to infect and make it unsafe for me to simply exist. On top of feeling abandoned after the breakup, the trauma made me despise my body to the point of suicidal ideation.

I knew if I wanted to survive, I needed to connect with my body again.

When I began counseling to treat my post-traumatic stress disorder, my recovery plan centered broadly on self-care. My social worker helped me develop grounding techniques for when flashbacks and anxiety threatened to overwhelm me. I read Kate Harding’s 2015 book, Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture, and as I applied her concepts to my experience, I better understood the socio-political context of sexual violence.

I talked through the emotional breakthroughs I had while meditating in my hot yoga classes, where I learned to focus on being in my body instead of trying to mimic how the person next to me looked in a particular posture. After years of people pleasing, shifting parts of myself to accommodate others, I was finally learning how to decipher between what parts of myself were me, and what parts of me I’d simply internalized from others.

But it wasn’t until early 2018, when I was scrolling through Twitter and saw an NBC article with the headline “Alcohol may cause more DNA damage to those with ‘Asian glow’,” I finally said “f*ck it, I quit” and vowed never to drink again. The report detailed how a new study on mice suggested alcohol was far more harmful to those with AFS. Without the enzyme to break it down into acetate, acetaldehyde builds up in our bloodstream, causing DNA damage and increasing the risk of cancer. People sometimes take antihistamines to counter it or simply ignore the symptoms altogether, like my dad.

But AFS is our body’s way of saying we’re putting it in danger.

There was no way I could justify effectively risking cancer to satisfy some arbitrary social norm. Learning to love and respect my body has been absolutely critical to my recovery process in the aftermath of sexual violence. The report made it clear that forcing myself to drink was antithetical to all the work I put into surviving my trauma, and created the space for me to finally prioritize my well-being over external expectations.

Alcohol should be understood as optional, never mandatory, especially considering how harmful it can be. Finally coming to this realization has made me feel absolutely liberated. I no longer need to contort my spirit and personality to fit in. I finally feel safe to exist as myself.

Roslyn Talusan is a Filipina-Canadian culture writer and anti-rape activist. She is a regular contributor for Wear Your Voice Magazine, and you can find her work featured in Bitch Magazine, Flare Canada, and Playboy.