Tea: A Forgiving and Soothing Coping Mechanism
Since starting on my journey as a tea enthusiast, I’ve found myself in a lot of periods of struggle when I’ve found comfort in drinking tea. Tea is soothing, nostalgic, and delicious. Sometimes it’s just what I need to calm myself down and let go of stress. Most of these periods of struggle are fleeting: Maybe I have a huge project coming up that I’m freaking out about, or maybe I’m homesick, or maybe I’m just feeling down. But there’s one struggle in my life that’s bigger than the rest, where I’ve found tea has been particularly helpful. I’m still in the middle of it right now. That is, coming to terms with my disabilities.
When I was a child, I was always weaker than my peers. Gym class was like a death sentence. I couldn’t lift many things, including my own schoolbag. I couldn’t walk for very long or very far. It was hard to catch my breath doing even simple forms of exercise. I was in pain a lot. I took dance classes, but I was the odd duckling there, too. And every day, I pushed my body through its pain as far as it could go, and then a little bit farther, believing that I wasn’t strong simply because I wasn’t trying hard enough. Believing that someday, I would be as strong as my classmates, and everything would be normal.
Well, that didn’t happen. I continued being in pain for years and years, until my lung spontaneously collapsed when I was 15, and I was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder.
In short, my connective tissue is stretchier and weaker than the average person’s. Imagine a lump of unbaked dough: The more you roll it out, the thinner it becomes, and the easier it becomes to tear a hole in the middle. Likewise, Marfan syndrome makes it more likely for something to go wrong with my heart, eyes, or lungs. And something has gone wrong with my lungs.
Despite how scary it was to learn about this disorder, I felt vindicated, too, because I finally had confirmation that I wasn’t just “not trying hard enough.” There was a real reason for my weakness. It was confirmation that for all the years of forcing myself to go past the limit of what I could do, my pain wasn’t evidence of me getting stronger. It was just pain.
For a long time, even after finding out about Marfan syndrome, I didn’t consider myself to be disabled, simply because I didn’t really know what being disabled meant. I didn’t know that it wasn’t “normal” to be in pain, to be exhausted, to struggle all the time even when I haven’t done anything. In fact, it didn’t really click for me that I’m disabled until I started college and suddenly found myself surrounded by dozens of disabled students with all kinds of disabilities affecting all different parts of the body and brain. It was when I met all of these people and saw myself in them that I finally started acknowledging and accepting the truth: I am disabled.
It’s been over five years since I was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, and I still don’t have a full grip on how it affects me. But since starting college, I’ve become more aware of how my physical condition impacts my life. I experience bodily pain daily, oftentimes for no reason. My fatigue/sleepiness is getting worse to the point that I’m forced to structure the rest of my life around it. I’ve had to get attendance accommodations for my classes in the event that I can’t make it out of bed. I’ve had to miss out on events for school clubs, friend group meetups, and other fun things because I’ve been too tired. It’s not uncommon for me to have to text my friends or roommates to ask them to help me get food or pick up a package or buy something from the school store. I really hate it because I don’t want to burden my loved ones. There’s also a small but ever-present part of me that insists I could do those things if I really, really tried. I’ve already gone 20 years of doing those things myself, after all, and all it cost was a little bit of excruciating pain. So why force others to do something I could do on my own?
I’ve spent the past two years slowly undoing that mindset, but it’s a hard task. Going from thinking that it’s my responsibility to do everything myself—no matter how painful it is—to accepting that I shouldn’t have to be in pain is like jumping into a cold pool on a hot summer day: It’s shocking and unfamiliar, and you kind of wish you hadn’t done it. But as you keep swimming around, you realize it’s actually quite nice, refreshing, and much more therapeutic than you imagined. It’s still stressful and scary at first, though, and when your disabilities are mostly invisible like mine, there’s always a cloud of anxiety overhead making you think disabled and able-bodied people alike will tell you that your disability isn’t real. And that’s a whole new layer of stress you don’t need.
There are many coping mechanisms I’ve been using to try and get through this—the experience of becoming “more disabled.” First, it really helps that most of my professors are entirely understanding of my disabilities and the fact that sometimes I’ll have to miss or not participate in class. I also cope by talking to my friends, disabled and able-bodied alike, or to my sister, who’s on her own path of self-discovery. And I write about it sometimes.
One of my biggest and most reliable coping mechanisms, though, is drinking tea. Making myself tea is a simple and solitary act. It requires no one else: just me and my teaware.
The soothing effect tea has on me definitely comes partly from nostalgia. In the summer after my lung collapsed, I started helping out at The Cultured Cup. It was then that my love for tea really blossomed, and drinking tea became a habit. Now, tea reminds me of the Saturdays I’ve spent at The Cultured Cup, chatting with customers and making tea for the employees when no one else is in the store. Maybe the world of tea acted as something stable I could hold onto while being bombarded with new information about my disorder, so something in my brain still equates tea with safety. While I was spending my days drinking and learning about tea at The Cultured Cup, I could forget about my health issues for a while and just be. Tea also reminds me of home and my parents, of course, which is always heartening.
All of these associations are soothing in and of themselves, but there’s something beyond nostalgia in the way a warm cup of tea calms me down. I could go deep into all the scientific or health-related reasons for why that may be the case, but ultimately, I think it’s simply because tea isn’t exceedingly sweet or rich like hot chocolate, doesn’t make me jittery like coffee, and has more flavor than plain water—a perfect medium. Tea is a comfort drink that I reach for on my bad days, when my brain fog is especially bad, or when I can’t bring myself to leave the house. It’s a forgiving beverage: It allows me to give my brain a break, and it almost seems to tell me that I’m safe to be disabled, that I don’t need to make myself do anything I’m unable to do, and that having brain fog or heavy fatigue or joint pain is okay. I mean, I’d like to live without those things, of course, but being disabled doesn’t make me any lesser. Tea is a respite. It’s an oasis. It makes me happy. And finding a speck of happiness when I’m stressed and feeling bad—mentally or physically—is always comforting.
No matter how much I try to describe how tea helps me cope with my disabilities, though, I don’t think I’d ever be able to fully capture it in words. It’s more of an experience than it is something I actively think about. I think a lot of tea-lovers of varying abilities can probably understand what I mean when I say that tea is a kind of comfort that seeps into you, calmly and easily. And when you struggle with fatigue and pain like I do, when doing just about anything feels hard and when even getting up from a chair takes a mountain of effort, it’s rewarding and reassuring to have something so kind for you to turn to. Something that offers you that nonjudgmental, soft, easy sort of respite.
While tea doesn’t necessarily make my pain go away, it helps me get through it a little better than I would otherwise. Because tea is so forgiving and soothing when my disabilities upend my life, I’m learning to be forgiving and soothing to myself, too, even though it can be really scary to see how my life is being turned upside down by my disabilities. It’s a hard road, to be sure, but one I’m walking down nonetheless, little by little.