All that is left besides her pain is her anger. She reaches up to touch her hair. She feels the patches of her dark locks that have been cut short, right up to the roots.
Tina Cho feels less than whole.
The white walls of the hospital mock her with their purity, so clean and pain-free. The air around her feels heavy and exhausting.
Tina turns slowly as the doctor calls out her Korean name.
She looks at him. The pain in her eyes cannot be masked. Her tears should be gone by now. She should be empty. But there they are, threatening to fall all the same.
“I am sorry,” he says. His voice breaks with emotion. The doctor told her he would find out what was wrong with her. “I am sorry I couldn't figure it out.”
On January 1, 2006, Tina woke up in pain.
The pain in her stomach was so sharp, she could barely swallow the dduk-gook, Korean dumpling soup, which she had for breakfast.
Throughout the day, the pain in her stomach worsened.
“It was so intolerable and sharp that my parents rushed me to the emergency room. The doctors couldn't really figure out what was wrong,” Tina remembers.
She thought, her brother thought, her parents thought that if she just ate jook, or Korean porridge, for a few days, the pain would go away.
But it didn’t.
Two weeks of eating jook three times a day passed and whispers started filling the hallways of Seoul Foreign School, where Tina was a senior in high school.
Have you seen how much weight Tina’s lost?
Is Tina anorexic?
I heard Tina has cancer.
Tina heard every whisper. She felt every stare.
As spring approached at the international school, Tina's friends started receiving acceptance letters into their top-choice universities. Tina, on the other hand, received a steady stream of rejection letters. She worked hard, and she did really well in school. Yet, it seemed as if no university in the U.S. wanted her.
During lunch, Tina sat with her friends, watching them eat a variety of food while she ate jook day after day. She listened to them talk excitedly about going to Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. They would ask if she was okay, but Tina didn't like to talk about her illness, a sickness the doctors still could not diagnose. Tina grew bitter. Depression rolled over her in blankets of thick darkness.
“I had a constant shadow over my face,” Tina remembers.
Tina walked into the front lobby of her school. A large banner greeted her, saying, “Tina, smile because it is your day!”
Her friends dubbed this random day in March as “Tina Appreciation Day”.
Everyone who appreciated Tina wore a sticker of a heart on his or her shirt. Her friends came to school with care packages full of presents and food that Tina could eat.
“She was really down because of her sickness,” remembers Katie, one of Tina's best friends since middle school, “and we wanted to show her our support.”
Tina vividly remembers that day.
“It was God's way from the get-go to say, ‘I'm still here, I'm still here...’” Tina says. “But I was so hardened and so hurt. And because I didn't get better, I think around the summer, my parents took me back to the hospital, we went through the entire check-up, but the doctors were like, ‘We can’t figure out what’s wrong.’”
The doctors assumed Tina was stressed, so maybe with a new environment, she would get better. Clinging onto that hope, Tina moved from Seoul, South Korea to California, where she began her college career at the University of California, San Diego, one of the universities she actually got accepted to.
Building friendships was hard. Tina found that people bonded over food. And San Diego being the land of late-night Mexican feasts, Tina would often join her classmates, watching them eat just to be there.
Since she couldn’t eat, Tina threw herself into her studies. She couldn’t control what she ate, so she controlled her education. Tina never received a grade lower than an “A”.
Cutting her diet down to vegetables, fruit, rice, and jook did not make the pain go away. It just made it more bearable. If she tried to eat bread or meat, anything spicy or fried, anything with flour, the pain would inflame and be unendurable. Soon, Tina had to start eating baby food. She barely consumed 200 calories a day.
At 5 feet 4 inches, Tina saw her weight drop to 90 pounds. The rumors flared up around her again.
Does Tina have an eating disorder?
Why can’t she eat anything?
Tina talked about her illness less and less. She wished for a permanent sign around her neck that said all of her usual lines: “I am sick but the doctors don’t know what is wrong with me”, “I am sick, but I haven’t been diagnosed yet”, “I am sick, but I have no idea why”, “I am sick. I am sick. I am sick...” But these words felt empty to her over time. What kind of illness cannot be diagnosed? In a world where labels mean everything, why does her illness have no name?
After her first semester of school, Tina flew back to Seoul for winter break. Stepping off the airplane, she immediately collapsed into her parents’ arms. They took her straight to the hospital.
Her parents knew they couldn’t let Tina go back to school. They had to figure out what was wrong with their daughter. When they told her this, she wept. Her studies were all she had left. She didn't want to fall behind. But what Tina needed more than anything was her family, so she agreed to stay in Korea.
For the next five months, hospital and treatment center walls surrounded Tina. She went to Western hospitals in the morning and to two, sometimes three, treatment centers every afternoon. Her parents became desperate, telling everyone they knew of Tina’s condition and asking for advice. They tried Western medicine, Eastern medicine, Chinese medicine...Tina’s body became a pin cushion as she traveled all over Korea seeking a diagnosis.
Lying on the bed as an Eastern medicine man reached for his foot-long needles, Tina prepared to be stabbed over and over again in her stomach...for the next three hours.
“I wanted to dissipate into thin air,” Tina explains of the treatments. “It was so hard. I wanted to disappear, but I couldn’t stand hurting my parents and my brother. I knew the pain was hard for them as well, but they didn’t flinch. If I had an especially emotionally hard day, they would go out of their way, make a fool out of themselves, drag me to a [karaoke room] and seriously make a fool out of themselves while I pouted. They tried to get one smile out of me. And seeing that, I was like, ‘I can’t hurt them. I can’t.’”
As she lay on the hospital bed with her mother by her side, Tina thought about how lucky she was to have her. Her mother was strong, Tina’s rock. Tina needed her, and she was there. Tina turned her head to the side so that her mom couldn’t see the tears that silently slid down her cheeks as the pain only increased.
In the spring of 2007, Tina convinced her parents to let her go back to California. She was lonely and depressed, and after five months, the doctors still had no idea why she was in pain every day.
But switching from full-time patient to full-time student was too much for her to bear. She cried after every class during her first week back.
“It’s so difficult to hold in the pain, and to act like I am okay, and to go about my schedule with these kids,” she says.
Before her first week of classes were over, Tina had almost given up on her schooling. She met up with Leanne, a high school friend who also studied at UCSD. As Tina shared her struggles, she admitted that she didn’t have the confidence to stay in San Diego. She wanted to go back to Korea.
Leanne looked at Tina and said, “I know it’s hard, but I have seen you get so depressed and lonely in Korea by yourself. I will take care of you, I promise.”
And with that, Tina made it through another semester.
Back in Korea for the summer of 2007, Tina continued to try different painful treatments that tried to make her whole. Again, nothing worked. It proved to be the most painful duration of her sickness so far. Yet, it was also when Tina found God again.
God showed Himself to her through the people who refused to leave her side. Her family was unshakeable. They were there for Tina every day to pull her out of her depression, to remind her of how much they loved her.
Her friends constantly sent care packages and even created a website, where they all posted videos, trying to get her to laugh and smile. Their theme message was always the same. You will get better.
“They were like, ‘We can’t wait to eat good food with you,’” Tina says. “So, I couldn’t deny that there was a God that loved me when the people that were loving me didn’t make any sense whatsoever. I felt like I had nothing to offer them. It’s not like there was a give-and-take. I was a complete mess, but they just kept pouring and pouring and pouring, and I was like, ‘Man, there must be this God that loves me if He is showering me with people like this.’”
Tina’s life became two identities: student and patient. She would fly to Korea during every break from school for more tests and treatments. The longest amount of time Tina went without pain was three days.
Tina began mistreating her body at school, studying past her limit, pushing through the pain. Her eating pattern changed. She started to starve herself for no reason, and then she ate more than she needed at one sitting. She was not anorexic. She was not bulimic. Even her eating disorder had no name.
After four years of studying Psychology, she graduated with high honors in June 2010. She moved back to Korea.
Tina went through more treatments and prepared to apply to PhD programs for Psychology. She applied to the top five schools in the States, confident in her academic ability. She was certain that she would be accepted into all five.
But just like her senior year of high school, the rejection letters came, one by one.
Her top choice—Stanford University—had not yet responded, so Tina remained hopeful. The other rejections didn’t matter as long as she got Stanford. She wanted Stanford.
Tina sat on the floor in her room in Seoul. She stared at her packed bag. She had been too anxious to wait for the letter, so she had called them herself. An acceptance is all she needed to hear. After a brief conversation, she hung up the phone.
Tina silently picked up her bag and headed out the door. Her friend was visiting from Japan and had invited her to a church retreat. Desiring only to hang out with an old high school friend, Tina reluctantly agreed to go.
She sat on the bus next to her friend and started to cry. The phone call had finally hit her. Stanford University had rejected her application. For so long, the only thing she had control over was her schooling. Now, she had no idea what to do.
Tina walked into the church retreat hopeless. As her dejected mind wandered to the what-if's and why's, the attendees of New Philadelphia Church jumped around as they sang praise songs with arms raised high.
Throughout college, Tina attended a conservative church in which its members definitely did not jump around while singing songs. She was convinced that everyone at the retreat was crazy.
After the service, everyone split into a dozen or so small groups to get to know each other more intimately. All the groups were mixed-gendered except two. One group consisted only of men, and one group consisted only of women. Tina was in the latter.
The seven women sat in a circle on the fake wooden floor of a small square room with bed pads rolled up around them. Tina admitted to them that she was sick, and it sucked. Tina admitted that she was tired, and she felt like God would never answer her prayers. As she spoke, it felt as if the words escaped her mouth involuntarily.
Tina came to the retreat extremely skeptical about the kind of Christians who jump up and down during worship and lift their hands when they sing and pray. But by the third and final day, she fell in love with the community.
Still, she thought, this church isn’t for me.
Then, on Sunday morning at the retreat’s last meeting the head pastor, Christian Lee, called Tina by name to the front of the room to receive prayer from the pastors. Tina walked up, and her small group watched with big eyes, knowing the kind of prayer she needed.
How does he know my name? Her mind raced. Why am I receiving prayer?
What the pastors prayed overwhelmed her. “You are a warrior. You carry peace.”
Then, the retreat’s guest speaker, Pastor Benjamin Robinson, took the mic. His words pierced Tina’s heart like a sword.
“Tina, the word of the Lord is, ‘I am about to kill you.’ You are so deep, you are so deep, you found yourself so deep, and at first it was beautiful and it was amazing, but then you realized you were running out of air and you tried to swim up to the surface but you were so deep and you couldn’t get there.”
“And you were frantic, and you were crying out in your heart, ‘God save me’ but there was no god around to save you. And all of a sudden, water started to rush into your lungs, and in your mouth, and through your nostrils, and it was terrible.”
“You were shaking and grimacing, and you were drowning. And then you died. But all of a sudden, in that moment, when you were lifeless and dead, all of a sudden, from the top of your head down to the bottom of your feet, it was like a zipper that unzipped, and you burst...”
“And the Lord says there are places in your life where you feel like He is not answering, like He is letting you drown. And the Lord says, ‘Yes, I’m letting you drown there, but you are shaking off the old Tina and the new Tina is about to burst forth.’”
Pastor Benjamin continued, “The Lord says, ‘I am going to teach you how to breathe in the water but first, you’ve got to die.’ And there are some things in you that are dying. That are coming to an end. But the Lord says, ‘Don’t be afraid to lose your life. Because if you lose it for My sake, you’ll find it.’”
A few months after the retreat, Tina sat at a plastic table in New Philly’s sanctuary for membership class. She watched as the class broke for dinner and everyone enjoyed McDonald’s burgers and fries provided by the church. Pastor Christian sat down next to Tina and asked, “Why aren’t you eating McDonald’s?” Tina shared about her sickness.
“Tina, that’s not normal,” Pastor Christian told her. “It’s not normal to be in pain like that.”
His response was simple. But it changed Tina’s paradigm. All throughout college, as Tina grew closer to the Lord, she accepted her sickness. It was a thorn that she embraced. It was her reminder that she was living for Jesus, and she loved Him, and she wasn’t living for this world, but for a higher purpose.
“I tried to make up a redeeming story out of it,” Tina says. “And because I had come to terms with it, I was like, ‘Even if I am sick for life, God, I will worship You.’ When [Pastor Christian] said that to me, I was like, ‘Wait...what? I am not supposed to come to terms with it?’”
Her identity had become “Sick Tina”, a woman of perseverance. What would happen if she didn’t have that? Who would she be?
Soon, Tina realized she had to let go of her aspirations to study in the U.S. again. Tina applied to a masters program in Clinical and Counseling Psychology at Seoul National University, one of the top universities in Seoul.
Psychology at Seoul National University, one of the top universities in Seoul.
Her application was last minute and incomplete, but she made it through the first round and was called in for an interview. Not knowing the entire program was in Korean, Tina sat rigid in her chair, facing a panel of professors who seemed eager to throw hard academic questions at her in Korean. She answered all of their questions in English.
The professors discussed how she went to a really great school in the States with a strong psychology program and they wondered out loud why she applied for the program here in Korea. Explaining that while she was a great candidate, they were sorry but there was only one slot available. Tina left the interview feeling defeated.
A month later, she received her acceptance letter.
“I started doing therapy to students and just being able to connect with them because I know what pain is to my bone...I know what pain is. Even though our pain might not be the same, because I know it so well, God used me supernaturally in the therapy room,” Tina says.
Breakthrough after breakthrough came during Tina’s therapy sessions. People noticed. Her colleagues started asking Tina what her secret was. How could she explain the Holy Spirit to a secular school? Tina simply told them she prayed before each session.
Tina's face dug into her pillow, one hand secured in her mother’s grasp while the other banged against her bed. “They promised me, mom. They promised me, they promised me, they promised me.”
Another set of doctors, another hospital, another empty promise.
In the fall of 2012, Tina’s pain reached an all-time high. Every day she drove to school with her dad and one day she turned to him saying, ”I don’t know if I can keep doing this. The pain is too big. I think I need to give up my dreams in academia.”
January 1, 2013 marked seven years of Tina’s undiagnosed sickness. At the beginning of that year, Tina heard God speak to her. Tina, don’t forget who I am. Everything you are going through is bigger than you.
Early morning light streaked through the window as Tina’s mom stood at the kitchen counter cutting apples. She paused for a moment. Tina, I need to tell you something. Tina turned towards her mother, unsure of what her mom wanted to say.
”Yesterday, I was driving past Namsan Middle School and I remembered my sister...” Her mom’s eyes started to water. It was the first time Tina had ever seen her mother cry. She wanted to comfort her, but she had always been the one comforted.
Her mom moved to the table and Tina reached out to grasp her arm. Her mom began to talk about an aunt that Tina never knew existed, a younger sister that suffered from epilepsy. Because of the way mental illness is stigmatized in Korea, her mom’s sister had a rough childhood and jumped off the roof of her school when she was a young teenager.
The tears flowed freely down her mom’s face as she remembered her sister.
A week later, Tina sat in between her parents in a church pew for morning prayer.
prayer. As she prayed, she felt God reveal that there was a generational sickness on her mom’s side of the family.
Tina thought about her grandma, who struggled with clinical depression, and now suffers from Alzheimer's. She thought of the aunt who committed suicide, suffering from a mental illness that was not acceptable in Korean society. She remembered her mom’s oldest brother, who was an alcoholic and her mom’s younger brother, who has schizophrenia. She thought of her sickness. Her eating disorder. Her depression.
Tina had a clear revelation that the prayers of her dad’s side protected her. This resonated in Tina’s head. In her heart. In her being. She felt God say, this is why this is bigger than you. I am going to end what has affected generations of your family through you. Are you willing to take this on?
Tina pictured her brother and his wife. She saw their future children. She envisioned her future children. She thought of their grandchildren. If being in pain meant that they will not suffer, then she was willing.
“I am in pain, but at least I know now,” Tina explains. “Asking the question, ‘God, why?’ was so painful to me because I felt like He would never answer me. But I was like, ‘Wow, now I know.’ And it’s funny because I stopped asking Him why once 2013 started because all I did was sing praise songs. And once there was worship on my lips, He answered, ‘This is why.’ After that, I had so much peace, even though there was pain.”
On the morning of February 12, 2013, Tina woke up in excruciating pain. Her small group leader, Joo, invited her to her house that afternoon. Despite the pain, Tina went. She shared with Joo what God had spoken to her the week before about her family’s generational sickness. Immediately, Joo took this as the root to Tina’s sickness, a sickness that, in seven years, still had no name.
Joo led Tina into a prayer of confession and repentance on behalf of her family. They prayed for the illnesses that cursed generations of her family to be gone, and for generational blessings to replace them.
The next morning, Tina woke up for the first time in seven years...without pain.
Since then, the pain has not come back.
“I have never cried because of extreme happiness in my life before,” Joo remembers. “Yet I cried and cried when I heard that Tina was fully healed.”
At first, Tina was hesitant to believe the pain was gone for good. She kept waiting for the symptoms to return. When they didn’t, she started eating everything that she had been denied.
“Food is good,” Tina says, emphasizing the last word. She smiles.
At the end of the day she looks back on everything she’s been through, and thinks it was worth it.
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