Excerpted from Leave Society available in Forever Mag Issue II
In 2001, when Li was a senior in high school in Florida, his right lung collapsed three times. The first time, he was in his room above a three-car garage. He went downstairs and told his mom his chest hurt. She said to lie down. He returned to his room.
At the hospital, a nurse said he had a “lung scrape,” which happened after colds. Li hadn’t had a cold. Flu? No. A nurse listened to his breath with a stethoscope and walked away. A third nurse approached and said Li had pneumothorax—a spontaneously collapsed lung—and would need a chest tube.
Li was wheeled behind curtains. He asked if anyone had done the chest-tube procedure before. A nurse had seen it done once, but no one had done it before. Li’s mom was told not to watch. The tube’s position needed to be gauged by pain, so only local anesthesia, for slitting Li’s side, would be used.
A nurse asked Li if “a few” interns could watch. He said yes, thinking the nurses would be more careful if watched. A nurse arrived with a plastic-wrapped package that seemed bought from Walmart. Inside was a sharp-tipped tube that looked stiff and thick as a garden hose and was attached to a suction machine
Li was surprised this was the solution. He lifted his head. Past seven or eight interns and a half-closed curtain, his seated mom was weeping. He focused away from the scalpel, toward a nurse holding his left hand, and felt a searing, raking pain. The tube had to be shoved in gradually.
After, Li’s mom entered with a wet face, as if her pores had opened like tiny faucets. Li had never seen her like that. She held his hand. Li’s own wet face felt peaceful and warm and alert. Normally he looked and felt troubled, aggrieved, or tensely self-conscious.
That night, the tube seemed to expand in his chest as he lay in a hospital bed on intravenous painkillers. He propped his body with pillows in slight variations, hoping to reduce the severe pain. Over hours, he found a bearable position, but then the pain returned. He tried to show no reaction because his mom was seated by him.
After a while, he said he needed more painkillers. His mom left the room. A nurse entered with two needles and injected both into Li’s IV. The pain didn’t decrease, so the nurse brought pills. The suction machine gurgled, filling with frothy, bloody fluid.
For a week, Li lay in bed, eating, sleeping, watching TV, and listening to his CDs, most of which were by punk bands who criticized corporations, governments, inequality, and war while promoting creativity and nature.
The day the tube was supposed to be removed, Li and his mom learned their doctor, whom they’d met once, was in Hawaii.
The doctor appeared three days later, said he’d pull out the tube on the count of three, yanked it out on “one,” and tossed a large jumble of tubing, stitches, tape, and suction machine into an uncovered trash can.
Li walked out of the room, aware that he didn’t feel any happier.
At home in their large, sunny house, Li stood at the door way to his parents’ bedroom, or a few feet inside, two to four times a week, blaming his mom for his unhappiness as she lay in bed trying to sleep. She’d spoiled him too much, he said, parroting his brother, who was at grad school, and his dad, who was rarely home that year.
Sometimes Li stressed it wasn’t her fault, that he knew she loved him and only did things for his benefit. Sometimes she seemed afraid of what they’d become. Sometimes she apologized—usually with sarcasm but also, a few times, while crying and seeming devastated—for being a bad mother.
Sometimes as Li tried to involve her in his tortured reasoning (she could fix him, he felt, by disciplining and punishing him) she became unresponsive with closed eyes, supine with the blanket up to her neck, and Li, usually already crying, would get louder.
Finally, she’d say in a blunt voice that she was exhausted and wanted to sleep. Li would stand there weeping with a swollen face and numb throat, nose dripping snot, then wan der back to his room, bleary and confused.
Sometimes he’d return to her, blubbering, and say he was wrong and sorry and didn’t know what to do, and she’d tell him to lie down in his room, and he would.
At school, Li wanted to be in the hospital, where the problem had seemed simple and clear. He was in cooking class when his lung collapsed again.
In the hospital, a nurse opened a package containing a tube that seemed half the circumference of the first tube, making Li think the first tube had been the wrong size.
To avoid slicing scar tissue, the slit was made between different ribs that time. The tube somehow wouldn’t go in, even after the slit was enlarged.
Li was held down, and the tube was shouldered in with shockingly hard thrusts, jolting his body. He anticipated the tube piercing his heart. The pain felt disturbing.
When it was done, he still felt the same level of pain. A refrigerator-sized X-ray machine was wheeled in, used on him, and wheeled away.
An hour later, a nurse said the tube was in too far. After two more adjustments and X-rays, Li got IV morphine and was wheeled to the second floor, where a nurse asked if he wanted to watch Survivor or Friends.
His mom was in his hospital room so much, seated in a chair against the wall, that Li felt claustrophobic and annoyed. He asked her to go home. She said no. Someone needed to be there for emergencies.
He said breathing and talking hurt, as she knew, and that being loud was making things worse. He shouted to please give him privacy. She became unresponsive, looking straight ahead.
He began crying. He yelled that if he kept yelling his lung would recollapse (stress, nurses had said, was a big fac tor) and that it would be her fault. He yelled louder, almost shrieking.
Two days later, they met their new doctor, who said Li’s lung had “relapsed,” which shouldn’t have happened. He looked at Li with a face that seemed to say, “You are a terrible person. There is something deeply wrong with you.”
Antibiotics were injected into his chest one day to obliterate his pleural space so that his lung would adhere to his chest wall. He couldn’t breathe that night. His torso and neck, then parts of his limbs and face, felt both numb and smoldering. He didn’t sleep. Air trickled in somehow.
He was alone one day after the pleurodesis. His mom was feeding the dogs or buying food. He carried the suction machine like a briefcase into the bathroom, looked at his reflection, and thought he looked handsome.
Three years later, when he wrote about his lung collapses in an unpublished short story, he couldn’t remember the one or more times when his dad visited. He remembered liking his dad’s absence. It was one less thing to worry about.
In his room above the three-car garage, he threw his electric pencil sharpener and other things at his walls. He did it in the dark, somewhat experimentally, with irregular pauses. He tossed a splash cymbal at a wall. It bounced off, onto the carpet. Li’s dad knocked on Li’s locked door.
“Li,” he said meekly.
Li stopped moving. He imagined entering one of the holes he’d made in his walls. His things—his drum set, computer, books, CDs—seemed to be watching him. His dad knocked again, then went downstairs.
Li lay on the floor until he felt cold, then moved to his bed. He wrapped his blanket around his head and squeezed it with both hands until he was tired.
He felt like a heavy, dirty towel was trying to get somewhere and he was in the way.
He had no friends. He couldn’t stop being debilitatingly shy. His awkwardness and gloominess, his inability to speak and be normal, annoyed people and made people uncomfortable—he could see it on their faces—which made him want to be alone.
Sometimes he thought he could be okay, even happy, as a mute hermit, eating and sleeping and doing small, private things related to art and fantasy, but this didn’t seem like an option because he felt that his mom wouldn’t believe he was fulfilled.
The third time his lung collapsed, he was showering before school. His mom was in bed. Her head, nested in dark hair, looked like a strange, egg-shaped organism. She seemed asleep. She got up.
They tried to talk the nurses out of a chest tube. After the tube was inserted, Li was wheeled to the second floor. Instead of staying in his room this time, his mom wandered the halls. She saw a lung doctor she’d gone to once for a cough. The doctor said Li should get surgery.
Happy the new solution didn’t involve pain (he’d be unconscious), Li became talkative. He and his mom discussed how no one else had mentioned surgery. They criticized the other doctors and praised the new one. They became quiet. News was reporting on a school shooting in California.
Li’s mom asked Li what he wanted to eat. Li said he’d think about it. After a while, he said a McDonald’s fish sand wich and strawberry milkshake. When his mom returned with the food, they continued reveling in how good it was that she’d encountered the lung doctor in the hallway.
Li felt happy that he was happy and that it was making his mom happy. He’d stopped being talkative with her when he was eleven or twelve, except when lecturing and blaming her, but now he was smiling and there was an eagerness to his voice.
Home after the surgery, Li and his mom began to communicate via handwritten notes, which at first seemed better than their verbal arguments, with clearer language, less recursion, and no yelling, but quickly became just as despair drenched. In writing, Li’s blame-based logic often reached its dubious endpoint: To fix him, she had to force him into difficult situations, and she had to do it convincingly of her own volition. She had to factor in everything he’d said about what to do, then do something transcending all that, something surprising.
Li felt more doomed than ever. He wrote with angry, vexed, and worried expressions, usually through tears. He dramatically slammed down the paper next to his mom, then walked away to wait for a reply. It continued all day and night sometimes. They used notepad paper, writing replies below replies, filling many pages, which Li stapled and referenced and began to tape on doors and in drawers. The notes embarrassed him. He feared other people seeing them.
He increasingly wrote notes to himself. He wrote that he should never blame anyone again. He quickly realized that change was a nonlinear process, destined to fail repeatedly, but he didn’t give up. He wrote more notes, telling himself what he should do, and began to feel empowered to not be a helpless, unhappy, unknown recluse.
A month after the surgery, they visited the lung doctor, who showed them a jar of cloudy liquid and said it contained “blebs,” which he’d excised from Li, creating holes that he’d stapled shut. Li wondered what blebs were—weak areas on the delicate membrane covering the lungs, he’d learn years later—and if he needed them.
At college, the lung collapsed around seven more times. Li felt very worried the first two times, imagining dying alone in bed, not wanting to go to a hospital for a chest tube, which had been the worst pain he’d ever felt, but each time his body healed itself over weeks to months, during which he couldn’t sate his breath.
He began to trust doctors less, and to want to strengthen himself. While searching online for ways to independently reduce depression and anxiety, he learned of “natural health,” which focused on preventing and curing disease through ancient, DIY methods, like food and exercise, instead of on relieving symptoms with expensive surgery and drugs, as in Western medicine. He started to realize his body wasn’t defective; rather, his society was damaging.
For three or four years after college, he had bolts of pain in and around his heart that made him stop moving and stay still for minutes, afraid to rupture, tear, or puncture some thing. Whatever the problem was (the pain was in his left chest, away from the collapses, pleurodesis, surgery, scars, and staples) also healed on its own.
By late 2015, the heart pain became motion-stoppingly severe only around once a year, when it would remind him in a humbling way that his chest problems used to be much worse. Usually, it manifested as a mild, not-unpleasant ache, lasting seconds to hours. He sometimes couldn’t tell if he felt pain, despair, restlessness, or loneliness.