My heart does not run the way it should.
When I was seven, the pediatrician caught an irregular heartbeat thumping in my chest. Further testing revealed I had second-degree heart block, which later progressed into complete heart block. Heart blocks are conduction disorders where an interruption—a block—in the heart’s electrical system affects how it beats. Growing up, what I understood about my condition was that it made my heart slow. My resting heart rate, at around 44 beats per minute, was closer to a polar bear’s resting heart rate than to an average adult’s. I felt both special and not very special at all—my heart was my normal. I had never experienced anything else.
My first foray into romance began just before Valentine’s Day in my second year of college. I wasn’t looking for a relationship at the time; I’d always considered love and relationships as something for the future. Something I’d fall into naturally if only given the opportunity.
We knew each other from anime club. He took the train to campus, and my dorm was across from the station. When club activities ended for the evening, we would walk together down the dimly lit paths, passing by the campus murals and bantering about our favorite shows. One night, as we reached the station, he asked if I would like to get a drink sometime.
“I’m underage,” I deadpanned. I’d thought it an odd question.
Perhaps he didn’t expect my reaction. He started to backtrack. We didn’t have to get alcohol; he just wanted to do something together.
I don’t remember exactly how I responded to that. Even without the element of drinking, the invitation felt strangely sudden.
Our goodbyes were more awkward that night. Only after the moment passed did I pause to consider that “drink” might be code for “date.”
The two of us began hanging out more often. He would visit my dorm sometimes on Friday nights, and we’d watch anime on his laptop from the couch in the common room. Eventually, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I had begun to suspect his interest in me, but the confession nevertheless sent me into a nervous fluster. At the same time, though, I felt a tiny trill of excitement at the thought of finally trying out dating.
In a moment I still struggle to forgive myself for, I told him, “I’ve never been in a relationship, so I don’t know how love works. But if it’s okay with you, I’d like to try.”
He pulled me in for a hug before he left. His embrace was big and warm, and it made my cheeks heat with blood gushing from my beating heart.
That warm feeling stayed with me as I rode up the elevator, returned to my room, and stepped into the shower. But as I stood bare underneath the shower’s spray, the euphoria of “somebody likes me” washed with the water down the drain. Butterflies dropped with surprising weight into the pit of my stomach. I wondered and dreaded what I had gotten myself into.
My heart condition is invisible to most outside my family because my case is largely asymptomatic. Severe heart block left untreated can lead to fainting or even cardiac arrest. My own heart block manifests as poor circulation and low exercise tolerance. I get easily winded or sometimes lightheaded when working out because my heart rate, capping at a maximum of 120 beats per minute, limits blood and oxygen flow to the muscles and brain.
When I was in high school, Saturday afternoons were reserved for modern dance classes at my local studio. As part of our warm-up routine, we’d line up for stag leaps across the floor and back to the four-minute-and-forty-five-second Skrillex song, “Weekends!!!” When our class divided into three lines, the break between passes felt almost nonexistent. I didn’t usually have trouble keeping up in class, yet this exercise had me bent over, panting.
I always felt guilty for ushering others ahead of me while I caught my breath—my classmates would have shorter breaks because I needed a longer one. My teacher might have arranged accommodation for me had I come out to her with my heart condition, but I was never brave enough to ask. I didn’t want to be different.
The brain and body are connected in such a way that strong emotions can have physiological effects. When confronted with someone attractive, your brain sends signals to the adrenal gland to gear up the body’s fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline and noradrenaline make the heart beat harder and faster. You might get sweaty palms or weak knees.
Sometimes people misattribute the sensations of physiological arousal for attraction. In certain situations, a heart beating hard from exercise or anxiety might be mistaken for signs of love.
Sometimes my boyfriend made my heart skip, like when he dressed up in a light blue collared shirt, or on a snowy winter night when he said, “come closer,” and instead of whispering into my ear as I expected, he pressed warm lips to my cold cheek. I wanted to attribute my heart pounding as attraction to him, but somewhere I knew my heart was beating for what he had done, not the person he was.
I never wanted to be the kind of girl who breaks up via text message. But I sent a letter with my reasons over Facebook Messenger.
A few months earlier, I had begun seriously questioning my sexual and romantic orientations. Since the day we’d started dating, I had waited with bated breath for some kind of feeling to take over and change how I saw him. A year had passed and I had yet to breathe. I wasn’t sure if a relationship was supposed to be so exhausting.
“Jadey,” my best friend gently nudged, “have you ever thought you might not be straight?”
In trying to sort out my feelings, I wrote out in sterile bullet points answers to some hard questions: what I liked, what I wanted, why I thought it wasn’t working. I had struggled with my non-attraction to my boyfriend for the entirety of our relationship. I liked how nice he was. I thought he was funny. I liked how small I felt in his embrace and the feeling of his hand holding mine. I wanted to give him more chances to win me over. I thought my standards were too high. I thought maybe I was just embarrassed or anxious about committing. Even though he never pushed me, I was deathly afraid he would ask me for sex.
“I just want to be with you,” he said one time, when I asked what he wanted us to be. I couldn’t decipher what that meant. All the affection I had for him did not add up to the same compulsion to be by his side.
I knew I needed to break up with him. Dragging out the relationship wasn’t fair to him nor to me.
After ending it, I cried into my bedcovers. I cried because I’d hurt someone I cared about and I was heartbroken that instead of feeling heartbroken, I felt relieved. I wanted to feel empty, devastated, cut open; the fact that I didn’t made me feel self-centered and heartless.
In this moment when I had to wound someone else, I caught a glimpse of my own reflection. In acknowledging that I wasn’t attracted to him, I acknowledged that I had never truly been attracted to anybody. I grieved because I could no longer rely on the promise of falling in love the way everyone around me did.
Many people who don’t experience attraction say they feel like they’re broken. They think something must be wrong with them for not liking or wanting or feeling. I didn’t feel faulty, but I did feel at fault for not being able to reciprocate my boyfriend’s feelings. For potentially never being able to reciprocate anyone’s feelings. What would this mean for my future? For my family? It felt like giving up my fairytale ending.
In July 2020, at my first cardiologist appointment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nurse practitioner checked in with me before the doctor visited.
Sometime during the period of early COVID lockdowns, I started to feel dizzy, like the floor of my apartment had become a ship in a storm. Though tests showed no significant change in my heart function from the previous year, we discussed that changes in my health might precipitate the need for pacemaker intervention.
Thoughts of pacemaker surgery made me squeamish, and I said so to the nurse practitioner, who listened patiently. Then she asked, “Has anyone ever told you how your heart works?”
I shook my head no.
She grabbed a pen and started to draw on the paper adorning the exam bed. She drew a heart-shaped blob with a large dot on one top lobe and another dot in the middle. She circled the top half with the pen. “These are the atria, and these,” she circled the bottom, “are the ventricles.” The heart’s electrical system controls how it beats, I learned. Normally, the sinoatrial node, the top dot, sends signals to the atrioventricular node, the middle dot, telling the ventricles to contract. But in my heart, the signal was completely blocked.
My heart continued to beat, albeit slowly, because of the heart’s backup electrical system—the “escape rhythm” that the cardiologist would assure me on every visit was functioning.
The nurse practitioner handed me a flat metallic device, about two inches wide, with long wires poking out. I turned it over in my palm. “This is a pacemaker,” she said. It would read the signal from the sinoatrial node and tell the ventricles when to contract. A pacemaker would let me access higher maximum heart rates and give me more energy during exercise.
We decided I didn’t need a pacemaker just yet. But since then, I’ve thought a lot about the question the nurse practitioner asked. “Has anyone ever told you how your heart works?” I was twenty-two. I had been seeing the cardiologist for over a decade. But because I had been diagnosed as a child, the explanations had been addressed to my parents. Somehow, I was expected to piece together how my heart functioned based on what little I could glean from the doctors’ quick updates.
Attraction, to me, feels much the same way: It’s something other people understand, but I’ve been left out of the loop. Discovering how I functioned differently filled a need I didn’t know I had. I had always been waiting for someone to tell me how my heart worked.
I was visiting my university health office for a stomach bug when the doctor asked a three-word question that made my heart skip a beat. As the doctor raised her stethoscope, I warned her, “I have complete heart block, so my heart rate will be slow.”
Surprised, the doctor asked, “Are you sure?”
Any confidence I held as the person affected shattered. Was I sure? What if I was confusing terms? What if I was wrong?
“I don’t know,” I panicked. “Do you want to call my mom?”
I felt the same panic years later when I told a friend how I came to identify as asexual over the course of my first relationship. In her golden-brown eyes, I thought I saw a seed of doubt asking, “Are you sure?”
And suddenly, I doubted myself, too.
How could I be sure I was asexual? What if everyone felt this way? What if I simply hadn’t come across “the right person”?
The truth is there’s no certain way to prove one’s asexuality the same way heart block can be proven with objective tests. There’s no way to prove lack of attraction. There’s no way to tell if things might change.
But as I looked for reassurance via frantic Google searches, I started to recall the process it took to feel comfortable identifying as asexual. I needed two years of reading, listening, and struggling with my apprehensions, but I found a place where I felt seen.
My first relationship marked an inflection point, the point when I first admitted to myself I could be queer. But looking back, I remember other moments that now make sense considering my orientation.
I can’t know what the future holds. My heart’s condition might worsen. I might meet someone who makes my heart race in all the right ways.
Physically or emotionally, my heart doesn’t run the way it “should.”
My heart beats slow—still, it beats.
Image Source: Rosmarie Voegtli / Flickr Creative Commons