Editor's Picks Life Stories Life

The good fortune of being a nobody

It was the 90’s and Brandon Lee, son of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee was sitting on the stage of the black box theater in my acting class. Milton, our teacher, had a tradition of having us cheer each other on when someone announced a big win. The theater echoed with applause as Brandon told us he had gotten a three-picture movie deal, but with each clap, envy dripped from my fingertips.  

I wondered when it would be my turn to sit on that stage and announce a big win. I was unconnected and unrelated, a “nobody” by Hollywood standards, and wondered if it was possible to ever breakthrough.  

Brandon never spoke of his famous father and we never asked about him. It seemed tasteless to do so. As if we cared about his celebrity (we did). He was brimming with talent and while we never knew this, was also a martial arts expert. Despite that, it was difficult not to think that Brandon had gotten his film deal because of who his father was.  

Bruce Lee with his son, Brandon Lee as an infant. Via Wikimedia Commons
[Image Description: Bruce Lee with his son, Brandon Lee as an infant. Via Wikimedia Commons]
I wanted a famous father, but instead, I got Irwin. A Jersey guy with an at-home business and the flexibility to take me and my brother to the orthodontist. He designed drugstores so there was the occasional ten percent off of a tube of toothpaste, but that was it in terms of any special treatment.  

My dad wanted to be a voiceover actor who took the stage name, Don Lyons. Broke and unconnected he gave it up. I always wondered if I inherited his unfinished desire to be in entertainment. He would end our frequent phone calls with, “show biz is my life!” 

It seemed easy for Brandon, who was about to kick off the first of his three movies. Hollywood stories were centered around men while casting calls for women consisted of “size 0 sexy woman” and “size 0 sexy best friend”.  I was neither of those, so my gigs were few and far between. While Brandon was probably sipping on an espresso, in his double-wide trailer, I was walking onto the set of a bizarre acting job that would change the trajectory of my career. The gig was for The Playboy Network. There was no script (the audition was an improv) I didn’t have to get naked and all I knew was that my part was “saleswoman”.  

I was told we would be filming sexy vignettes and met the “star”. She was a beautiful, blonde bombshell playing the bride to be and an older actor was playing her father. The set was a wedding dress store and my job was to convince the dad that his daughter picked the perfect gown for her special day. 

We start the scene with the bride showing her dress to her dad as we convince him to buy it. Just as he is about to pull out his credit card, the actress twirls around to reveal that there is no back to the dress. She’s butt naked except for a tiny string holding the two sides together. “Oh my” says the actor playing the dad and…cut! 

This was not a sexy vignette. This was a young woman who gets naked in front of her “father” and all of us in the “store” were supposed to pretend this was “normal”.  It felt gross and humiliating and my heart wouldn’t stop pounding. I was deeply uncomfortable and since there was no script, I had to “improv” my way through. It was all made worse by the  sound guy announcing loudly, “Hey, I can hear your heart beating!” 

After a few more takes, I was unconvincing, so they fired me and replaced me with…the sound guy. He stepped in as if he had been waiting all his life to convince the naked bride to buy that dress.  I was devastated. The years of rejection were taking their toll and it seemed like I would never have the chance to prove myself in any kind of role that I could sink my teeth into. Reluctantly, I decided to move behind the scenes and found some success writing and producing at E! 

If I wasn’t going to be a celebrity at least I could still be around them. The environment wasn’t much better. We worked fourteen-hour days (low pay and no overtime) and had to regurgitate the words sex, sexy and sexiest at every turn.  I followed the careers of my former classmates and even found myself interviewing them during my time at E! In 1993, news broke that Brandon Lee was dead. He had been killed on the set of The Crow when a gun, used in a stunt, shot the tip of a real bullet into his abdomen. Despite hours of surgery, the doctors couldn’t save him.  

I was stunned and thought back to the night in class when my jealousy got the best of me. Brandon was dead. Maybe he wouldn’t be if he too had been unconnected.  

Despite his famous family, he had to film in extreme conditions. Worst of all, there was no firearms expert on set the day of the shooting. I imagine Brandon didn’t want to complain and have those around him think he was only there because of his legendary last name. Perhaps the legacy of being Bruce Lee’s son simply made him a commodity for Hollywood to exploit. 

The truth is fame can be a curse and being ordinary can be an enormous blessing. Ordinary isn’t just mundane or conventional or dreary and predictable. Ordinary is the privilege of building a life with a loving partner, having kids who morph into terrific humans or bringing your mom to a  doctor’s appointment because she is older and needs to take your arm while she walks. 

Fame is an elusive path that has made so many feel unhappy, unfulfilled and incredibly lonely.  Perhaps I was the lucky one.  

This year marked twenty-eight years since Brandon died, exactly as many years as he was alive.

It feels like yesterday that we were in class together. It never mattered that he had a famous father and I didn’t, for a brief moment, he was my friend.

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Gender & Identity Life Stories Life

Modesty is used as an excuse to police women’s bodies, and it needs to stop

I was told that what I wore played an immense role in how I would be treated. Not only that, but I was told that what I wanted to wear was ‘immodest’. That term sounded sinful, dirty, and bad to my young ears. It seemed almost inconceivable that a young girl could be ‘immodest’ and be accepted by society. I was forced to police my  body and maintain constant vigilance, under the guise of ‘modesty’.

The thing about modesty is that it lies in the eyes of others. The understanding of modesty I grew up with is inherently tied to policing of bodies, to the fact that others could dictate who you are and how you can be perceived. 

The first use of modesty was associated with balance and moderation. It’s a term that arose out of the era of Enlightenment – it revolved around reason, restraint, and order. It’s turned from being about one’s attitude to being about one’s body; specifically the woman’s body. It’s gone from being humble and balanced to being conservative and narrow. Being modest is something that is ascribed to you, making it fickle, superficial, and difficult to attain. Since it depends on others’ perceptions, it becomes unattainable, a way for others to control you. 

Growing up, I was told that talking to boys, or spending time alone with male cousins, could be construed as ‘immodest’. I was told off for having male friends, for attending tutoring classes with boys, for hanging out with male family members! I’m not alone in this, and the Muslim community does have restricted, constraining ideas on modesty.

It became about one-sided restraint.

Women must be modest, must be covered, must be restrained. What would others think? The worst thing about modesty, in my opinion, is how it’s enforced – not by men, but by other women. My mother would tell me to be modest, women in my community lectured me about modesty, which went beyond attitudes to include behavior and actions.

I was asked to cover up and wear loose-fitting clothes (so no jeans), and I was not allowed to have male friends. I have a distinct memory of getting punished and called ‘shameless’ and ‘immodest’ when a boy I went to tutoring with called my house to ask my questions about the physics assignment that was due. It was confusing, and it angered me – I didn’t even see this boy as a friend, but the mere fact that he was a boy was grounds for punishment. It was my mother that lectured me, that watched what I wore and how I carried myself. She made sure I didn’t sit too close to male cousins, that my clothes weren’t too fitted, that I was quiet and not too opinionated.

My father may have been watching, but it was my mother that  enforced the rules. 

The phrase ‘people won’t take you seriously if you’re dressed immodestly’ is one I’ve heard far too often, and I hate it. I hate that my mind is somehow in second place to my body. It’s high time to recognize that women are more than their bodies; that I deserve respect even though I may not wear the hijab.

The fact that I was told off for spending time with a male cousin when I was 12 (we were the same age, by the way) is something that still annoys me. It made our relationship awkward, and it took years for that relationship to heal. Why are modesty and restraint a concern when I’m with family? Why must I restrict myself in front of someone I’ve grown up with?

 In terms of valuing women for their contributions to society, it’s high time to value women the way we value men – for their talents, for their skills, for their growth and for their capabilities as human beings, and not for their obedience to a system that tramples all and benefits none. It’s time we re-define modesty to its older meaning; to mean humbleness, reason, and balance. It’s time to bring modesty back to one’s attitude, not to one’s clothing.

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Life Stories Life

You shouldn’t pity me for my speech impairment

Speaking to people is one of the most uncomfortable, intimidating, and sometimes scary experiences for me. This is because I have a speech impairment, which is a type of stutter that significantly impacts the way that I speak. 

Although it may fluctuate at times, thanks to my generalized anxiety disorder which leaves me anxious almost all hours of the day, I constantly struggle to speak.

My speech impairment began in high school, Possibly due to a combination of my anxiety and natural shyness. 

Words are swallowed by my tongue before I can complete a sentence. I am out of breath in-between syllables. My vocal cords get tired and worn out quickly. It is aggravating and frustrating. All I want is to be able to speak fluently and easily, but I can’t. 

What doesn’t help are the responses I get from others. When I have to interact at a bank or a store, for example, people are quick to impatience and anger. This is something I’ve never understood. If anyone should be frustrated, it should be and is me. Imagine how I feel knowing exactly what I want to say in my mind but failing to communicate it every time. I remember a waitress who asked me if I was okay as she was taking my order. Although it was polite and concerning, it stung and immediately made me feel like my speech impairment meant there was something wrong with me.

My speech impairment influences my behavior. Often, I have just given up on trying to socialize and communicate with others. Which is isolating and lonely. I know that it is in our nature as social beings to need social connection to feel fulfilled. However, for me, that connection to others is severed because I struggle to interact. 

There are more understanding individuals who I think may pity me because of my speech impairment. I understand why they would feel sorry for me but I don’t believe my speech impairment should be seen negatively. There are so many difficult days. Days when the only comfort I have are my tears and I wish with all of me that I didn’t have a speech impairment. It has certainly affected my self-esteem and made me more withdrawn from engaging with others. 

But as I was writing this, I realized that what has become a big chunk of my identity shouldn’t be viewed with pity. Despite my challenges, my speech impairment made me braver and stronger. It helped to thicken my highly sensitive skin so I can better handle the sometimes cruel world. It has colored my life with obstacles that have only helped me grow as a person.

I am now kinder to others because I know how it feels to desire compassion but never receive it. I listen and observe more which in turn teaches me so much about the world. I struggle with accepting myself, but my speech impairment is a part of me. It deserves love too.

Having a speech impairment, a stutter, a disability or a mental illness shouldn’t warrant pity. Every human being deserves compassion and empathy no matter their circumstances. I think it’s demeaning to pity someone for their challenges. Everyone has their own unique challenges. It doesn’t make us more fragile or incapable. It simply makes us differently-challenged.

So please don’t pity me. Recognize my differences or my challenges but show me the same kindness we all deserve. 

I am learning to accept all the parts of me even my speech impairment which I have loathed for years. A lesson I have learned from this experience that I want to share is that I can’t expect compassion from others when I’m not extending it to myself. 

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Life Stories Life

The bullying I endured as a child has left me anxious as an adult

When I was about eight years old, I became the victim of childhood bullying. Two girls I had been friends with suddenly stopped talking to me. This was soon followed by other girls in their friend circle. Eventually, the rest of the class no longer spoke to me or wanted to be around me in any capacity. It was over twenty years ago now, but I still wonder, what did I do?

Was it because after some game that I couldn’t win I, in a moment of childish anger, grumbled how much I hated those two girls loudly enough for them to hear? Was it because sometimes I tended to absentmindedly roll my eyes at nothing in particular, and they took offense to that? Was it because they always thought I was annoying, with my crybaby tendencies, and decided they’d had enough of me?

Either way, what I did doesn’t matter.

That is something I have had to repeat to myself over the years because I get so caught up in what I possibly did to deserve being subject to bullying. I bought into this idea that they acted unkindly towards me because I was socially awkward or ugly. From my perspective, everyone sided with those girls because they were better-looking, or just better than me in general. I’ve often wondered if the bullying would have stopped if I stopped being difficult or weird.

For a long time, I also didn’t even register what had happened to me was childhood bullying. I came to look at the situation as those who alienated me simply exercising their right to choose who they wished to be friends with. I thought because I was awkward, didn’t have the same interests, and my personality clashed with theirs, that expecting decency was a burden to them.

There came a point I thought of my childhood bullying as simply a response to my own bad behavior. I was not within what I perceived to be the popular social circle at my school, and I didn’t receive the same romantic attention from my peers as those girls did. So I thought being ostracized, mocked, and receiving verbal abuse from my classmates was justified because it was only my jealousy that caused me to view them poorly.

As a result of all this, I don’t look at my childhood fondly. Rather, when I think of being a child again, I think of being powerless and subject to the whims of others. When I have reflected back on those times in the past, I would ruminate on all the ways I could have defended myself because of a harmful myth that surrounded childhood bullying: bullying would stop when the victim stood up for themselves. But victims of bullying are not equipped to defend themselves because our society does not teach children the necessary skills to do so. Even most adults don’t know how to properly defend themselves or others.

Correspondingly, I think the adults involved at the time didn’t even recognize the situation as childhood bullying. I remember when my third-grade teacher gathered the other girls and me outside of our classroom. She tried to talk out the issues between us in an attempt at conflict mediation. However, the problem with her approach is I was then treated as having the same level of culpability as those girls, despite them being a collective and me being by myself. What’s more, the teacher seemed to view the issue as simply a disagreement between friends rather than what it was: a group of friends against one kid, which was an inherent power imbalance, making it bullying.

Consequently, because no one named my experience childhood bullying, I didn’t realize it was until adulthood. I had a preconceived notion of bullying, thinking it was limited to physical assault. However, according to the CDC, different types of bullying can include relational or social bullying, such as deliberate ostracization of the victim.

I also didn’t recognize my experiences as being traumatic until conversations around mental health on social media got me reflecting on my own struggles, and what they may be linked to. Childhood bullying is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a potentially traumatic incident that can have negative, lasting consequences on a person.

One such effect is children can experience feelings of shame or anxiety or have difficulty concentrating. I recall when the bullying reached its peak in severity, my grades dropped significantly. In addition, I generally lost all motivation for engaging in school activities. Kids who are bullied may also experience depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties that can persist into adulthood. I resorted to self-harm as a teenager in response to stress, I struggle with insomnia as an adult, and I have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. In the worst-case scenarios, such problems can lead to suicide.

So what can be done to recover from the trauma of bullying? For me, acknowledging that yes, I was bullied, and yes, it does still affect me was a start. Treating trauma from bullying as a serious mental health issue also allows victims to take the steps to seek treatment through a doctor or counseling. Just because the experience happened as a child, between other children, does not mean it should be regarded as trivial or something to be dismissed. Because of the bullying, my childhood was often painful and traumatic. I’m not wrong for feeling bad for how I was treated as a kid as an adult.

However, at least I’ve come to understandI didn’t deserve it. All this blame I put on myself throughout the years has caused me to develop severely low self-esteem and alleviate the burden of responsibility from those who hurt me. In adulthood, I’m deciding I don’t deserve to continue suffering for what happened to me as a child. What’s more, no child ever deserves to be treated in a way that is harmful or traumatizing. And I hope as the conversations around bullying improve over time, bullying against children will be never be normalized again. 

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Mental Health Life Stories Life

I used to love myself until I fell into toxic corners on the internet

People love to talk about how the internet has ruined the lives of Millennials and Gen-Zers. They’ll go on about how social media has lowered our self-esteem. They’re right in some ways, but for all the wrong reasons. I’ve always been extremely confident. I have never had any of the insecurities kids in my school would talk about, I simply didn’t care what others thought. Some might say I was too confident, but my family happily encouraged it. I know I’m privileged in that sense, so it hurts even more that I let myself fall apart like this. 

I was 14-years-old when I really got involved with internet communities. I started out on fanfiction sites, and my time there was pretty tame compared to the stories I’ve heard. In fact, I would say the first nearly six years of my time on the internet were totally safe and friendly. When most people talk about social media and its effects on self-esteem they tend to imply it starts young, in your teenage years for example. But I was older and not new to social media or the internet when it impacted my self-esteem. So I felt as though I should have known better than to let internet standards manipulate me. And sometimes that thought hurts the most.

Things went downhill right before I turned 20 and by 22 years old I was in the worst place I had ever been in my entire life. It started on Discord with a group of friends who all gathered around a niche anime series. Most of these people weren’t bad people. In fact, I’m still friends with a handful of them and I’d even consider them my best friends. It started with small things: jokes, usually self-deprecating ones, everyone would toss around. It seemed odd at first but they were just jokes, right? I learned to play along with their humor, send knife emojis or jump in whenever someone was putting themselves down or jokingly call all my friends a bitch.

Then came the comparisons. There was one friend in the group that everyone looked up to. She and I were very similar; the same zodiac sign, Hogwarts house, and MBTI plus a handful of shared interests. That was all it took for everyone to start joking that we were the same person. And it was flattering until it wasn’t. She left the group for a while and I became her replacement. But I was never enough. No one ever treated me the same way they did her, with such joy and enthusiasm. I was ignored if I talked about a topic other than the same three we always discussed. I felt like I should be the one carrying the conversations the way she used to. But instead, I bored them all constantly. It hurt and I tried to compensate by adopting more of her personality and interests, or at least faking I did.

Between all this, I got on Instagram. I kept my following small, only classmates and family, but it soon became apparent no one was their real selves on the app. Everything on Instagram was through this rose-tinted view of life. I knew it was normal to fake things for social media, but my self-esteem still took the hit. I was left wondering if I was the only one so boring I never had anything to post about. Then I saw all my classmates graduate college in 2019, so hated myself because I knew it would take me another two years to graduate, and I was missing out on this moment. Adding insult to injury, several people who I thought of as friends didn’t even tell me they were graduating. I only found out because they posted it.

When Discord and Instagram got too stifling, I fled to Tumblr and Twitter. But those were worse in a way. Many people romanticized the idea of mental illness. It was treated as a quirky personality trait to talk about but not something many people ever encouraged each other to get help for. Instead, people on Twitter would often double down on bad behaviors and self-destructive habits, and I did the same. I threw myself into lots of drama and several of my friends encouraged it, gave me attention even. I think none of us realized the kind of damage we were doing by putting ourselves in such stressful situations when we could have easily walked away.

Eventually, my friend who had briefly left our group on Discord started coming back, but she was a different person. She would put others down for not agreeing with her, but she claimed it was because she knew better. She said she had fought her own battles with mental illnesses and came out better for it. That left me unable to speak up for a long time because if she was happier then what could I say? Besides, everyone else still loved her and supported her behavior, even if it was slightly problematic.

So I took to hiding my feelings about everything. To her face, I would agree with things and then backstab her anyways. I would rant constantly about her on a private account hidden away from others. My frustrations with her made me an ugly and twisted version of myself. I had other friends, people who knew nothing of this group, who constantly encouraged me to just walk out on her. But I kept justifying it by claiming she still saw me as a friend and I wanted to support her. In reality, I was terrified of losing all our mutual friends and thought I could keep up acting because she wasn’t around consistently.

Then she started lying, and I called her out on it once and I saw her true colors. She didn’t want friends, she wanted cheerleaders who never spoke against her. And finally, I put my foot down. I cut her out the next time she disappeared, and when she tried to come back I told my friends I refused to have her around, but they were free to do whatever. And in spite of all my fears, they agreed gracefully and several also drew away from her.

That was six months ago. For nearly three years I’ve been sinking in depression and swimming in self-doubt the likes which would leave me on edge for months. It was debilitating and I remember a point in which I couldn’t bring myself to leave my house, as if all these problems I faced online would start to haunt me in the real world as well. There are a lot of details that are still very fuzzy. It’s like my mind just decided I would be better off not remembering things. But I remember breaking down and thinking everyone I cared for hated me. I remember losing three different birthdays, first to internet drama and then to toxic friendships. I remember my mother coming to me when things were at their worst and telling me to eat because that’s her way of saying she’s worried.

It’s been three very tumultuous years on the internet. Three years of ripping my self-esteem apart to fit in on social media and not realizing that was what I was doing. I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of the girl I was before it happened. It’s slow work but every day I’m learning to love myself the way I used to.

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Family Life Stories Life

Children don’t owe their abusive parents forgiveness

My brother texted me recently asking if I had ever gotten in contact with a woman living in the city I had moved back to a few years ago. The woman in question had been friends with my stepmother when I was a child. Her daughter used to babysit my brother and me, and sometimes we would spend the night hanging out at their place. I enjoyed their company well enough but when my brother asked about contacting her, I hesitated to reach out. I eventually decided I wouldn’t. Not because I have a personal problem with that woman or her daughter. But because of her connection to my stepmother, who was emotionally abusive.

Last year, my previous therapist had come to the conclusion my issues with depression and anxiety can be partially attributed to my separation from my biological mother when I was six years old. My dad had to put a restraining order on my mother because she was violent towards him, my stepmother, my brother, and me. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since childhood. My therapist suggested I should try to reconnect with her; however, I expressed my hesitance because of her abuse. My therapist noted that my mother had been a practicing addict when I was younger. She felt there was a possibility that in the twenty or so years since we spoke, my mother could have gotten sober and changed for the better.

The thing is, while I believe society should be more empathetic towards people struggling with addiction, I don’t believe victims of child abuse should have to be among those to extend that sympathy or understanding to their abusers. In the past year, I have re-evaluated many of my relationships. And I took a certain level of satisfaction in cutting out people I had long maintained a connection with, simply because I had felt obligated to due to family history. While there are people in my life I know I need to work on forgiving, there comes a point when some relationships do need to be severed permanently.

Making the decision to block my stepmother on Facebook was an example of having reached this point. After she and my dad divorced when we were children, my brother and I put on a show of missing her and being devastated by the separation. I don’t think we knew that was what we were doing; but at least on my part, demonstrating some grief felt obligatory. When my stepmother’s aforementioned friend asked my brother and me how we felt about the divorce, we claimed to be upset about it. However, when my dad asked if we wanted her back, we told him no.

My brother and I actually kept in contact with my stepmother for a few years after the divorce. It wasn’t until we got older that we started to distance ourselves from her. This came as a result of coming to understand that we had, in fact, been abused. As adults, we had come to reassess the experiences we had as children from a more informed perspective, now truly understanding what constitutes abuse.

We didn’t understand what we had experienced from my step-mother was abuse partially because we compared it to our biological mother’s physical abuse and neglect. So our stepmother’s behavior in comparison seemed like normal parenting. I had grown up believing that I was a bad child because my stepmother would find something to yell at us about, bringing me to tears daily. I thought we deserved her wrath, and that her constant outrage towards us, for every minor thing, was justified.

And because conversations about child abuse and mental health were practically non-existent when I was growing up, no one called my stepmother’s behavior out for what it was. As a result, the abuse was normalized. I even thought it was simply how parents disciplined their kids. Emotional abuse is insidious that way though. There don’t seem to be well-defined laws in place that outline what it is. So when there are no specific societal rules outlawing emotionally abusing minors, it is therefore perceived to be legal, and thus normal and acceptable.

This normalcy and consistency of abuse have had consequences for me. I grew up being bullied at home and at school, which left me feeling as if there was something wrong with me. In conflicts, I always assumed I was the one in the wrong. When I am hurt or angry, I invalidate my own feelings. I tell myself that my feelings are not justified. I am being oversensitive, and I shouldn’t feel the way I do. I am uncomfortable with expressing myself emotionally for fear of being shamed. I don’t handle criticism well because my stepmother’s voice lingers in my head, berating me for every mistake I make.

Yes, my stepmother is only human. She was also recovering from addiction, and it’s possible she was raising my brother and me the only way she knew how. It’s also possible she has grown and changed as a person in the many years since she was an active part of my life. However, the biggest benefit to me being an adult is I can control who I keep in my life and who I don’t. I had no such control of my life as a child; rather, I grew up with a constant feeling of helplessness.

All relationships should be beneficial to everybody involved. Keeping people in my life or maintaining a connection with those who have caused me harm does not benefit me. In the years leading up to me blocking her, I had barely concealed my rage anytime my stepmother spoke to me, and only because I thought I owed her that grace. But I’m tired of feeling like I owe my abusers my time, my energy, and my forgiveness. This is my life; ultimately, I decide who I keep in it. And I do not owe anyone who doesn’t or hasn’t served a positive purpose in my life a single damn thing.

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Family Life Stories Life

Years after my Dad’s death, I still feel the guilt in my grief

In December of 2016, my brothers and I made the decision to change my Dad’s status to Do Not Resuscitate. He was in the ICU, he had gone into cardiac arrest twice, both times for over twenty minutes. The doctors had told us that he had endocarditis, a bacterial infection that had deteriorated his cardiac valve to the point where it was leaking and because he had gone untreated for too long, it was inoperable. They told us in no uncertain terms that his condition was hopeless, and that should he survive there was only a twenty percent chance he would not be in a vegetative state. They insisted we change his status to DNR. Despite all that, I still feel the guilt in my grief. I still have not forgiven myself for letting him die.

It’s more than that though, I also feel the guilt for changing after his death. I am not the person he knew, maybe not the person he expected me to be. My values and my ideologies have gradually shifted away from his and what I grew up with. I frequently wonder if he was alive, would we clash? I am proud of my growth as a person, but I hate thinking that part of that change can be attributed to his loss, to my resulting independence. I don’t want there to be a silver lining in his death at all.

And I get that healing is non-linear, and my personal development is part of that healing, while my guilt is a normal phase experienced by the bereaved. Even as I have fluctuated in facing the other stages of anger, denial, depression, acceptance, and bargaining, the guilt in my grief has stayed with me. It has been with me since I went to bed the night he died, vividly remembering his guileless eyes as I left him in the hospital the previous evening after the doctor ordered him to stay the night.

Even as I have fluctuated in facing the other stages of anger, denial, depression, acceptance, and bargaining, the guilt in my grief has stayed with me.

He had been asked by the nurse what he wanted to drink with his meal and he asked me what I wanted, thinking I was going to stay with him. I told him Sprite but soon informed him that I needed to leave because it was getting late and I was tired and there wasn’t much to do just hanging out at the hospital. He seemed okay with that and told me that he loved me and that he would see me tomorrow when my brother and I came back and told me to thank my brother for driving him to the emergency room. I’m glad the last thing I said to him was that I love him. But I have never gotten over the feeling that he had wanted me to stay, and that I should have.

This isn’t unusual. Guilt in grief often sinks in as we recall events surrounding the death of those we lost and we envision how things might have gone differently. My Dad had been severely ill in the month before he died. He vomited for the first time in twenty years and blacked out, and couldn’t stand up without feeling dizzy. He was coughing up phlegm that we later found out was due to pneumonia filling his entire right lung.

I was living alone with him and we were both up until dawn waiting to see if I should drive him to the hospital. He insisted he didn’t need to go, and while it’s easy for me to attribute this to his stubborn nature, part of me worries he simply didn’t want to go because he knew I had severe driving anxiety and the hospital we would go to was further away than I was used to driving. I worry that he was acting out of concern for me and that it cost him his life, as his illness had been left to fester for too long as a result. When I expressed this concern to my brother later, he, perhaps in a moment of absentminded insensitivity, simply responded that maybe that should motivate me to try to get over my driving anxiety. As if to confirm that yes, it was my fault. This is known as causation guilt when people feel guilty that they are responsible for the death because of something they did or didn’t do.

I also feel guilt for the way our relationship had changed in the year prior to his death. I had finished an abroad internship and it was my first time traveling to another country and it sparked the change that led me to who I am today. Before I had gone, I ached at the idea of leaving him since it was my first time living without him. He had been proud of me for landing the internship but was wary of my traveling because he feared for my safety. When I came back, I found myself distancing from him and wanting to move out and find my own place. Sometimes, in my lowest points of self-loathing, I think that him dying was the universe’s way of punishing me for leaving him and trying to strike out on my own. This is referred to as moral guilt when the bereaved party believes that the death of their loved one is a punishment for a previous act.

I’ve got multiple types of guilt in my grief that I’m dealing with, all tangled up in each other and the other feelings related to loss. But I know that it’s a normal part of grieving, and I know that identifying my feelings is one step to addressing the problem. I’m hoping by exploring and discussing these feelings, I can start on the path towards relieving myself of that particular burden, even as I know the grief will never go away because I will never stop loving him.

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Culture Family Life Stories Life

As a Brown girl, Western media warped my sense of beauty

I may find my childhood pictures embarrassing now, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when 10-year-old Izzah would confidently pose in whatever she was wearing. I was firm in my conviction that I could get whichever white boy band member I had a crush on at the time, to instantly fall head over heels for me.

If you lay out a timeline of all of my pictures ever taken -up until the one I took just before I sat here to write this down- they tell a story of how my confidence in my appearance ebbed and flowed. You would be able to pinpoint exactly when I started idolizing the western beauty ideals perpetuated by content I consumed and people around me.

When you are young and your perception of beauty has not yet been warped by mass media, you tend to primarily associate beauty with love. Your mother is beautiful when she fries a generous handful of samosas for you and asks how your day at school was. Your father is beautiful when he colorfully narrates his childhood to you over a cup of overly sweet chai and you are careful not to burn your tongue. Your Nana Abu is beautiful when he asks about your childhood friend every time you go visit him, you don’t talk to her anymore but hers is the only name he remembers so you tell him she’s doing well. Your brother is beautiful when he splits a Dairy Milk and gives you the bigger half. This innocuous perception of love intersecting with beauty is tarnished over time. The decay in our worldview begins when we are exposed to media telling us beauty can only look a certain way.

The earliest memory I have of not feeling pretty is when I would read about female protagonists who were described as effortlessly gorgeous, with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slender figure. I would contrast it to the description of the frumpy side character who was short, chubby, dark-haired, with glasses and crooked teeth. The latter would closely match how I would describe myself as a character in a novel. The awkward-looking side characters would never go on adventures or fall in love or have a compelling personality. They existed solely to make the lead look even better by comparison, and for the longest time as we consumed western media, my friends and I felt like the side characters of our own stories. There were countless movies and TV shows revolving around a predominantly white, conventionally attractive cast. I have vivid memories of sitting in groups at lunchtime, as early as seventh grade, lamenting our heritage. No “oceanic depths” in our eyes and no “golden halos” in our hair, we would talk about the parts of ourselves we would love to change.

The lack of South Asian representation on screen had desi girls trying to contort themselves to live up to white beauty standards. I saw my friends repeatedly give themselves chemical burns in efforts to dye their hair lighter, wear contacts that made their eyes water but their irises appear a stark icy blue, bleach their skin (which was often encouraged by a supportive mother or aunt), and even go as far as to try to lose their Pakistani accent when they conversed in English. Seeing my peers so viciously build barricades over all the roads that could link them to their birth culture and people instilled an inferiority complex in me about my heritage that I had to spend multiple years to unlearn.  I too once dreamed of cutting all ties with my country and for the longest time regretted not being born into a white family.

Body hair was another major facet in my journey of acceptance. Being South Asian I was genetically predisposed to a greater amount of darker, more visible body hair. I was subject to waxing since I was eleven, before which I remember thinking women don’t grow underarm hair, because I had spent all my life having never seen armpit hair on a woman anywhere, from animated characters in TV shows to movies of shipwrecked castaways where the female lead would always be hairless. Even women around me never let themselves wear anything that would show off their body hair in-between waxing sessions, lest they be thought of having “let themselves go”. All this because “log kia kahen gai?”

“What will people say?”

An avid propellant of this beauty ideal has been brown aunties with their unsolicited comments on our appearances, who instill the belief of our self-worth being inherently tied to our appearance from a very tender age. I have a vivid memory of being 10 years old and having a random auntie get in the elevator with me, and proceed to spend the duration of our descent from the 8th Floor of my apartment building asking me what those stains on my face were — freckles, auntie — and start listing off whitening creams with bleaching agents that would help “fix” my face. A 30-second interaction with a total stranger was all it took for me to gain a whole new insecurity.

Being portrayed as the side character and the second choice for decades of cinema really took a toll on the way people of color perceived themselves. Decolonizing my definition of beauty has not been easy, and there are days when I have to actively work to remind myself that my body is just a vessel and my “beauty ideals” are attained by millionaires and celebrities after copious amounts of Facetune and cosmetic surgery. Flaunting these images as normal to expect of puberty, down the throats of impressionable young children, gives girls and boys a warped expectation of what normal bodies and faces look like. Hiring twenty-something actors to play high school children may seem innocuous enough in the moment, but the lasting impact it could have on the body image of the target demographic of a show is often swept under the rug.

Our female ancestors were not able to inherit land, wealth or even pass on their last names to us. It would only take three generations for their ancestry and familial ties to be forgotten completely, their identities dissolved in their marital vows. All we have that ties us to the resolute, tenacious women that came before us, are our features. The pigment of our skin, the folds of our body. We wear our heritage on the crevices of our face, the least we can do is learn to wear it with unapologetic pride.

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Life Stories Life

It’s okay to feel angry that you’ve lost a year to the pandemic

In a year full of overwhelming sadness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I also feel an equal amount of overwhelming anger. I’m angry at the year (and counting) I’ve lost and the memories I haven’t made. I miss soaking up the final sun rays in the park as the sun sets for the day. I miss spontaneously saying yes to a great night out that no one had planned for. I grieve a whole year of belly laughs that still ache the next morning that never happened.

Mostly, I feel robbed of experiences that might have shaped me into a different person than who I currently am. 

I’m angry that I even feel angry about this because my emotions may seem hard to justify. How am I in any position to complain? Compared to others, I’ve endured the pandemic with minimal loss. Unlike many people I know, I haven’t lost any friends or relatives to the coronavirus.

So what gives me the right to be angry that I’ve lost a year of my life when others have lost so much more? In truth, I’m coming to understand that experiencing loss isn’t so black and white. It’s not relative. Just because my loss is different from others, doesn’t mean my grief is any less valid. 

It’s estimated young people have been hit the hardest by the pandemic in terms of its economic fallout and its impact on our mental health. In a time when we’re meant to be finding out who we are through new experiences, we had to hit pause and instead watch the year pass us by in constant fear that we’re missing out on what is considered some of the best years of our lives. In fact, many young people have watched two birthdays come and go under lockdown. 

Like many other young adults during lockdown, I went from living independently with friends while in college to moving back home with my parents. What’s more, I finished my four-year degree sitting in my childhood bedroom at 3:41 pm on a random Tuesday afternoon. I don’t even remember what the date was.  

After my time in college came to an end in the midst of a pandemic, the sudden collapse of the job market meant the only work I could find was as a part-time employee in a supermarket. Though a little disappointing, I was grateful for this job since so many other 2020 graduates couldn’t even get that.

However, this job didn’t come without its challenges. For instance, I would spend days getting verbally abused by customers, despite being considered an essential worker. So, in the evenings I would be constantly sending out job applications in the hopes of landing something with more opportunity and that was also less taxing on my mental health.

However, I wasn’t just competing with other graduates who were now looking for jobs after finishing their degrees. I was also up against people with ten years of experience that had been fired from their job and would take a demotion just to be hired again.

Moreover, living at home after the independence college provided me was challenging as well. After having realized in college that I wanted to date both men and women, I was excited to start a new chapter in my dating life post-university. Instead, I was forced back home where I hadn’t yet come out to my parents. 

All of this stress wasn’t bettered by the fact that everywhere I looked, young people were getting blamed for the spread of the virus. Despite many young people having hardly left their homes for the entire year, it was our fault for causing the second wave of the pandemic; never mind, the UK government urging people to go back to restaurants just to keep the economy afloat. 

The worst thing was, we were called selfish for even suggesting we felt at a loss too. What was one year of our lives worth anyway?

As I watched my best friend cry to me over Facetime about how she had applied for 95 jobs over the last two months and had been rejected from every single one of them, I realized we were stuck in a catch-22. 

Every day the news would highlight the horrendous numbers of lives lost from the pandemic. But at the same time, preach to viewers about how precious life was and how we shouldn’t waste it. Though, the only way we could make the most of life was by staying in until there was a solution to the virus.

Turns out, however, most of us were already drowning.

More often than not, I wonder about what would have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Would I be traveling the world as I had originally planned to do after college? Would I have fallen in love somewhere with someone after finally accepting my sexuality? What would the dress I had already bought before my graduation was canceled look like without the tags on? 

Though we can’t change what’s already happened, we are still allowed to mourn for the year we have all lost. It’s okay to feel angry for what could have been. Ultimately, this year has been traumatic for all of us.

Even if you haven’t directly lost someone to the coronavirus, we have been inundated with images of people dying all around us. For example, we’ve watched in horror as India started to collapse under the second wave of the virus. And consequently, experts say we won’t see the true impact of this mass trauma for years to come.  

I’m well aware my loss is minimal in comparison to those who have lost loved ones to the disease. And I’m grateful I even had the privilege to safely lockdown when many didn’t even have that. But I want people to understand— young people have lost formative years of our lives, and we should be allowed to feel upset about it.

It’s more than okay to be angry about the year that could have been. Because remember: what you lost because of the pandemic might be different from someone else, but it’s still a loss nonetheless.

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Coronavirus Life Stories Life

What I learned living abroad with strangers during the COVID-19 pandemic

For the majority of my life, I had never had roommates. That is until I accepted an internship in New Zealand in the fall of 2019, and I discovered I was going to be moving in with four strangers. Notably, I was not thrilled about it. I am an introvert and I have social anxiety, so the thought of living abroad with strangers knotted my stomach with dread.

Initially, I had two sets of roommates. I moved to New Zealand in October while finishing my Master’s degree online while the other girls I first moved in with were also in university. They, however, were set at a different schedule than mine with their stay having started mid-summer and ending in November. Living with them was at times awkward and uncomfortable. I got on with them well enough, but I was in that awkward position of living abroad with strangers who all knew each other and had already formed a bond. I was the newcomer and I hated that.

So, we didn’t spend much time together. My first weekend there, one of the girls invited me to a nightclub and although I initially agreed, I didn’t leave with them to go out. Instead, I hoped they would forget about having invited me, which they did, so I got to spend the night alone to decompress.

Going forward, we did a few things together such as going for vegan burgers, grocery shopping, and going to the beach. However, those instances only happened on one occasion each. Whenever they had friends over, I would corner myself off in my room, turning my fan on its highest setting so I couldn’t overhear them.

I frequently feared that they all secretly hated me. So many of my feelings as an ostracized child came bubbling to the surface, making me distance myself from them even more. So when they all finally moved out, I was incredibly relieved. I had a five-bedroom apartment to myself and no one to avoid or fear for judgment. I thought I was finally comfortable in this new space. But after a few weeks of me not exploring Auckland, and instead just holing myself up at home, I realized I wasn’t doing okay living on my own. Rather, I was lonely.

January brought in a new semester for the Europeans and with that came a new set of roommates. The first roommate was a Dutch girl. She had also never lived on her own, so we bonded when I went with her to her internship orientation. Unlike my previous roommates, she was part of the same internship program as me, which lent itself to us spending more time together. I went grocery shopping with her to show her how the buses worked and where the store was. In my helping to acclimate her to New Zealand, we found we had many similar interests in Marvel, anime, leftist politics, and cats.

The second roommate to move in was another girl from Germany. She was a bit younger than my Dutch friend and me and didn’t have a lot of the same interests as we did. Nevertheless, she was also part of our internship program and she had a love for adventure, which prompted her to plan trips for all of us to go on. We went hiking and zip-lining together and these day trips not only brought us closer but also helped me make the most out of my trip. I’m certain without her initiative, I would not have been able to accomplish doing it alone.

For a while, it was just the three of us, something we had grown accustomed to. We all kind of dreaded the arrival of two new roommates: a woman and a man from Austria. They were not in our internship program; instead, they were just attending university, so we didn’t share schedules nor many activities. I realized the situation had become a reversal of where I started, my two friends and me being the established friendship and the two newcomers kind of relegated to being outsiders.

Then the pandemic hit. In March of 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced New Zealand would move to Alert Level Four, the strictest level of lockdown. As a result, everyone had to stay in New Zealand except for my female roommate from Austria.

This was when our friendship deepened more than it had throughout our entire stay there. The apartment manager had set up a contest for everybody in the building to decorate their windows, as a way to occupy us during the lockdown. So we sat around the living room table drawing, coloring, cutting out shapes, and taping our pictures to the window as if we were doing an elementary school project. Despite my anxiety being at its worst, this small project allowed me to engage in a creative activity that took my mind off of the world seemingly falling apart while also allowing me to effectively bond with my roommates.

Because of lockdown, we spent more time together than ever before. We set up a routine to do yoga stretches together in the afternoon. We had a Marvel movie marathon and watched numerous other movies and shows together. And we even held a couple of pity parties for ourselves with pizza, wine, and card games.

These were four people I knew less than six months in an entirely different country, and they were who I endured the pandemic with. A year later, we all still talk, though less often as we have all moved on with our lives in our own countries. However, I think the bond that formed between us differed from typical college roommate connections. Not just because of our varying nationalities and our abroad status, but because we found ourselves in a situation of surviving a disaster together.

My time living abroad with strangers, from an array of countries in an incredibly stressful time, taught me sometimes adversity really does have a way of forming unlikely friendships. Regardless of whether our relationships last, the uniqueness of our time together will always be cemented in our memories to connect us.

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Mind Life Stories Life

People don’t understand how debilitating perfectionism is

When most people hear the word perfection they think that it’s the gold standard, the best you can be. For me, it’s a word filled with shame, anger and pain.

Perfection is often seen as something to strive for in our society, but its damaging nature is not really understood. Perfectionism is not thinking you’re perfect at everything. It’s trying so hard to reach an impossible standard and having such unrealistic expectations that set yourself up to fail time and time again.

My perfectionism has changed over the years. It has morphed from being attached to school and good grades to affecting my ability to do new things and the way I see myself. I would get stuck writing a certain section because I couldn’t find the right words or the sentences weren’t coming out the way I had planned. I would panic and then freeze not being able to write anymore. I would make myself sick with thoughts of not being good enough, of being terrible in fact. Of being the worst. I would then have to talk myself down and try to get something written down to hand in. And the cycle would repeat over and over again.

Recently my partner and I thought it would be fun to learn to paint with watercolors. I had bought him a set for Christmas last year and we were finally getting around to trying it. Neither of us is visually artistic so we thought it would just be a fun activity to do to pass the time. My partner watched a YouTube video and was following along with the instructor. Me, being the stubborn one, decided to just freestyle it. Big mistake. As I painted I could see that what I had envisioned in my head was not translating to paper. I couldn’t figure out why it was so terrible and child-like. Or why I was so upset.

After we finished I had to couldn’t stop crying because I hated what I’d created so much. This might seem like an extreme reaction. And it was. But I couldn’t help it. I knew that I should give myself a break because this was the first time I was trying to paint. But my brain wouldn’t let me. I berated myself over and over again for being terrible at painting which then led to me feeling ridiculous for expecting perfection from myself. It spiraled pretty quickly and it completely ruined our day.

The unrealistic expectations I have for myself are so painful to deal with. On the one hand, I know logically I can’t be good at everything I try the first time but it doesn’t stop the negative self-talk from coming.

This has negatively impacted my life in so many ways. I find it extremely difficult to try new things I know I won’t be good at whether that’s arts and crafts or something else. What other people would see as a learning adventure I see as a nightmare. People don’t understand how painful it is when I make a mistake. They will try something new and laugh if they do it badly or wrong, chalking it up to being a beginner, while I sit and stew and how awful I am. They often don’t understand why I’m making such a big deal about things or why my reaction is so disproportionate to the event. It feels awful to be scared of trying new things for fear of my perfectionism spiraling out of control. It makes me feel isolated and misunderstood. Like a failure.

My perfectionism often leads me to procrastinate. My newly purchased guitar winks at me, daring me to pick it up. At the beginning of lockdown last year I bought it hoping to finally have time to learn properly. I downloaded an app and even had lessons over Skype. It was fun getting back into a hobby I had as a teenager. Until it wasn’t. If I was practicing and I couldn’t do the thing I needed to do I would put my guitar away for a day, a week or even a month. Because if I wasn’t practicing I couldn’t be terrible. I would have to psyche myself up to pick it up again even though it was something I found fun most of the time. The fear of ‘doing it wrong’ and getting upset put me off doing it at all.

I’m slowly learning to cope with it better now. I celebrate my achievements with my therapist when I do something new and push past my discomfort. I give myself time limits telling myself I only have to do something for ten minutes, an hour, however long and then I can stop. This helps.

It’s getting easier to be kinder to myself though it still feels like an uphill battle most days. And some days I can’t fight and I just have to let myself feel my feelings. I know my expectations are still unrealistic but I’m working through that. I’m putting one foot in front of the other and trying to accept myself as I am.

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Culture Life Stories Life

This is what Ramadan looks like while recovering from an eating disorder

Content warning: mentions of eating disorders

Since I was a young girl, I have had a fractured relationship with food and my body image. I have struggled with body dysmorphia for around five years and an eating disorder for two. Only in the past few months have I begun to recover and learn to love my body for all it does for me. 

Prior to this year, I associated Ramadan with food and only food. Typically, Ramadan is a month for Muslims to reflect on those who are less fortunate than us, expressing gratitude through fasting from food, and otherworldly desires such as music and shopping. It is also a month for repentance and forgiveness. However, instead of being a month for enhancing my spiritual connection to God, Ramadan was a time for me to see how much weight I could lose by not eating.

Often, I would skip suhoor, the meal in the early morning, to give my body a longer fast. Outside of Ramadan, it was an achievement if I went to bed feeling hungry. Despite any feelings of satisfaction I had, my eating habits resulted in numerous physical and mental health issues. My anxiety became extreme, and my periods were so affected that I was vomiting, passing out and experiencing unbearable pain each month; but I ignored all of that and focused on intensely working out without any food. 

Recovery is a difficult journey that does not happen overnight. I have found connecting to the spiritual aspect of Ramadan beneficial to my own recovery, using this as a month where my soul re-aligns with God’s endless mercy. It is a gift to be able to receive divine guidance, and through fasting, we are freed from the addictions and attachments of this world which enslave us in negative beliefs.

When our stomachs are empty, we surrender to God, delaying the gratification of food and entering a state of humility. It reminds me to eat intuitively in a way that honors my body, rather than forcing myself to stick to strict regimens or diets. Each person’s experience is unique and can strive to become better people in their own way. 

This month, I am grateful to be able to put my fixation on food behind me and focus on spiritual cleansing. It’s like a weight lifting from my shoulders to be able to appreciate the month for what it is, something holy and sacred, rather than be so consumed by how the lack of food is affecting me all day. 

Going through Ramadan whilst in recovery allows me to reflect back on unhealthy habits from the past, such as skipping meals or making myself throw up. As I reflect on my past habits, I feel remorseful for the way I used to treat my body but also an appreciation for everything we have gone through together. But most of all, Ramadan this year is all about acting intuitively and not forcing myself to stick to a particular routine. With what I choose to eat, with prayer and with how I look after my body. 

For me, the priority is to not fall back into old habits, no matter how tempting or easy it may seem. Skipping suhoor, or feeling guilty for eating during the end of the day because we think we ‘could have done another few hours is not healthy. Maintaining a strong mind-body relationship is crucial. A lot of these feelings would be heightened on Eid, where there are large celebrations involving lots of food. I used to be consumed with the thought of how Eid food celebrations are removing all the ‘hard work’ of fasting done prior to this, instead of enjoying myself with my friends and family. 

Ramadan can be a difficult month for many people. Some ways which I have found helped me to honor myself during times where I am struggling are: listening to affirmations, practicing yoga or pilates, doing my hair and makeup to boost my mood. We should all remind ourselves that it is equally as important to rest, and love our bodies as we take out time this month to go on a unique journey to discover divine love.

However, if you are struggling during Ramadan, know that it is okay. If you’re feeling anxious about fasting, are struggling with mental health issues and need to take a break, or relapse back into your eating disorder just remember that you don’t have to compare your spiritual journey to anyone else’s. There is no one set way to fast during the holy month, so be kind to yourself.

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