The Ground Beneath Me

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Sahara Dance Studio’s 16th Annual Under the Desert Moon Gala (April 28, 2018)

Music and dance have always been a part of my life; these are the few constants in my life regardless of where I am in the world. Especially over the past year as I’ve bounced around from job to job, ended a marriage, survived another tumultuous relationship, and (consequently) dealt with terrible bouts of anxiety and depressive episodes, dance was the only thing that kept me grounded and sane. My classes, group practices, and rehearsals required me to be fully present, committed, and dedicated.

Middle Eastern and Turkish dance has been my longest ongoing passion. In my 16 years of training, performing, and teaching, I normally prefer to do solo performances. But on April 28, 2018, I performed in my third group performance ever, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself.

When I perform solo, the choreography is my own and I don’t have to worry about others; it’s just me and the music. If I mess up, only I would know. If I don’t like a particular step, I can change it. However, performing as part of a group is the same as working on a team–each person has a role to play. If someone is missing from practice or goes out of sync, the void or error is glaringly obvious. There could be moves and steps that I don’t enjoy, but I still have to do them.

Between January and April of this year, as my anxiety and depression repeatedly flared up, there were many days when all I wanted to do was hide away from the world. I was often completely emotionally drained which means I was also physically exhausted. But knowing that there was a group of women who were counting on me, it got me out of bed on Saturdays and it gave me something to look forward to for several hours each week. I had to bring my A-game each time because I didn’t want to let down the team.

As the weeks went by and I got to know each group member better, I discovered a sisterhood and support network. This came at a crucial period as I was recovering from the shock of an emotionally abusive relationship. (I recently learned from a counselor and another survivor that shock is a common effect of emotional abuse.) Each woman shared with me their own stories of abusive relationships, divorces, and starting over. Their courage, strength, words of comfort, and hugs helped lift me up when I was struggling to stand up on my own.

As my self-growth and self-care progressed over the last few months, so did my performance level and technique. Dance was a huge part of my healing and recovery because it helped me reclaim my body; feeling the ground beneath my feet and trusting my legs to carry me with the music reminded me that no one else has control over me. I AM FREE. Most importantly, and the greatest surprise of all, dance provided me a support network, sisterhood, and friends when I needed them the most.

Related post: Istanbul Dreams

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Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Violence and Emotional Abuse

I didn’t intend to write a follow-up post to my last one, “A Million Reasons.” After receiving feedback about the relationship, I realized there were far darker issues. Terms such as “trauma” and “emotional abuse” came up. These conversations prompted me to do some research which ultimately led me to the National Domestic Hotline. When I typed in “emotional abuse” in Google, the hotline’s website is the very first result on the list, followed by a litany of articles and resources.

For the first time in my life, I called the National Domestic Hotline solely for myself and not for someone else. In the past, I had called the police on my father for physically abusing my mom, my brother, and me. Growing up witnessing domestic violence and also having suffered various forms of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my own parents, I had vowed to never allow myself to end up in these situations again. In my teenage years and throughout my 20’s, as soon as a boyfriend exhibited uncontrollable rage or said something to put me down, I ended the relationship. Yet, in my 30’s, I had ended up in a marriage that was emotionally abusive and then followed it up with a relationship that was far worse.

Here I am, a women’s rights advocate and researcher, someone who has written extensively on gender-based violence, turns out to be a victim herself. Irony aside, I was in a lot of denial throughout the relationship. I’m still recovering from the shock and I’m still reeling from the entire experience. How did I allow it to get this far? I was unable to even identify the relationship as an abusive one until two weeks after it ended when I caught him in yet another lie.

I had made so many excuses for him. He went through a lot of trauma in his formative years. He fought in a war without formal military training. He suffers from PTSD. Upon closer retrospection, I realize I have many friends from his country with similar stories. Yet, they don’t take out their rage on others.

As the fog is clearing up, so many conversations and experiences are now emerging in my memory. Now I’m remembering the way he disrespected my feelings repeatedly, dismissed my ideas, made me lie for him, how easily he lied to others and to me, how his actions rarely matched up to his words… I spoke very candidly to the counselor on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, more candidly and comprehensively than I did with my therapist. I didn’t mean to be dishonest with my therapist; it was that I had pushed some of these memories to the deep recesses of my mind because of denial.

The counselor explained that the abuser had created a sense of co-dependency. He dangled the promise of a relationship in front of me while avoiding commitment. He spoke about us in the future–meeting his parents, taking more photos together, showing off those photos on social media, hinting at travel plans, etc. He kept asking me to give him more time, he said he “can’t change overnight,” leading me to believe that he was intent on changing for the better and that we were going to be in a real, public, committed relationship when enough time had passed. He kept reassuring me that his “intentions are good” and that he would never lie to me or hurt me.

He appears charming, reliable, and trustworthy to his friends, colleagues, and acquaintances because he wanted to make himself look good to others; it feeds his ego. When he spoke about himself, he was “a nice guy,” “a gentleman,” “an open book,” “a feminist,” and he had a strong “moral compass.” Now I realize this is exactly how he sees himself and how he wants others to view him, but in reality he’s the complete opposite.

He made comments about flirting with other women and recounted stories about his ex-girlfriends as a way to cut down on my self-esteem and confidence. He was never the bad guy in these stories; instead, the exes were the manipulative, crazy psychos. He never took responsibility for the endings of his previous relationships. He wanted me to believe that being with him was a highly coveted privilege.

His intermittent communications was another way he toyed with me. He created a power and control dynamic that put him in charge. It was psychological torment.

Even when things seemed to be on track with the relationship, I was in a perpetual state of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. Whenever we shared meals together, I could barely eat because my stomach was always in knots. I had chalked it up to other stress factors. Starting in February, I had recurring dreams about getting kidnapped, forced to do things against my will, and also very violent dreams about wars breaking out, witnessing a battle, shootouts, and getting chased. My instincts were telling me to run. I continue to have these dreams even though the relationship has ended. In fact, I had a dream last night about running from RPGs.

The counselor validated my experiences and her explanations were enlightening. She encouraged me to seek out a local domestic violence support group in addition to continuing my therapy; perhaps I needed to switch to a therapist who specializes in domestic violence. She reminded me that someone who truly cares about me and loves me would never, in any way, disregard my feelings and make me feel unsafe.

When I think of this man now, I feel nauseous. I’m angry and disappointed, but more so at myself than at him. Self-doubt creeps in. No matter how much effort I put in and how much I opened up to him, he rarely reciprocated. How did I allow this to happen? How could I have been so blind and naive?

Outside of my close friends, I find myself questioning everything everyone tells me. I question everyone’s motives. What do they want from me? How are they going to use me? My trust is completely broken. I feel like my spirit is completely shattered. The only thing I want right now is to move past this ordeal and to heal. I keep having to remind myself that drawing boundaries and standing up for myself finally drove him away. The next step is learning how to keep such monsters out of my life.

A Million Reasons

“Head stuck in a cycle, I look off and I stare
It’s like that I’ve stopped breathing, but completely aware
‘Cause you’re giving me a million reasons
Give me a million reasons
Givin’ me a million reasons
About a million reasons”

-Lady Gaga

Between August 2017 and April 2018, I had yet again trapped myself in a toxic relationship. I say “trapped myself” because I could have gotten out at any point, but I chose not to.

I had confided in some friends about this relationship, but for the most part, I kept it on the DL. Why? Because the guy told me to keep it a secret. That was a red flag that was blowing so hard in my face I was getting whiplash, but I chose to burn it down and bury the ashes. There were many red flags and I had ignored all of them. My friends were hitting me over the head with the flag poles, and I had continued to run from them.

Let’s start from the beginning. Who was this guy? He was a friend who lived in the same compound as me in Kabul and we met in September 2016. As a friend, he was easy to talk to, fun, charming, hilarious, and very reliable. He was the type of friend you can call on no matter the time of day to help get you out of a bind. At the same time, he was very private. He made it clear that he was single and intended to stay that way (1st red flag). We started hooking up because I thought it was safe, knew it couldn’t lead to anything serious–it was all for fun and it was temporary. He was a self-proclaimed confirmed bachelor after all. As the days went on and we spent more time together, something shifted and I started to worry that I was getting too attached. One evening, without any prompts, he told me he had feelings for me.

I was surprised to hear him admit that since he was so guarded (2nd red flag). He told me he was still carrying emotional baggage from his previous relationship (3rd red flag). So where do we go from there? When I suggested we take a trip together to get out of the compound, to see what we were like outside of a confined living situation, he was hesitant and didn’t give me a straight answer (4th flag).

Shortly after that, my job ended and I left Kabul. Being away from him was painful. I felt like someone was chiseling off pieces of my heart with each mile that passed between us. At times, it was hard to breathe. In hindsight, I felt that way because I didn’t know if I would ever see him again. Before I left, he didn’t show any intentions of making plans for us to see each other in the near future (5th flag).

After I arrived home, I was going through a lot of transitions: my separation and pending divorce, looking for a new apartment, moving into the new apartment, job search, reconnecting with friends and family… Through all of that, I received very little emotional support from this guy (6th flag). I heard from him intermittently; communication was inconsistent (7th flag). When things were good, he would give me the play-by-play of his day without me asking and he would show interest in my life. I would hear from him almost on a daily basis, whether it was a text or call (sometimes a combination of both). Other times, weeks would go by of complete silence unless I reached out. Whenever I confronted him about his disappearing acts, he always had an excuse ready (8th flag): work was busy, he thought I was visiting family, he wanted to give me space to focus on my job search, etc. He was never apologetic and he never took responsibility for his odd behavior (9th flag).

When we did text or talk on the phone, he would sometimes say the sweetest things that demonstrated how much he missed me. And then sometimes he would make jokes about joining a dating app, hitting on girls, having sex with other women, etc. (10th flag). He loved retelling stories about his past paramours; sometimes I felt like I knew these women in person because he was so detailed in his descriptions about them. I analyzed this with a friend: Was he making these jokes and telling these stories to mask his real feelings about me? Was this his way of telling me that we’re not that serious and he’s still free to do as he pleases? Were these signs of his insecurity? Was he trying to get a reaction out of me? In hindsight, it didn’t matter what those reasons were; the clear fact is that he was completely disregarding my feelings and being extremely disrespectful (11th flag). When it was obvious that I was getting tired of these “jokes,” he would dismiss my feelings by saying “It was just a joke” or “I was just kidding.”

He would flirt with other women in front of me (12th flag). When confronted, he would deny it and call me jealous. The gaslighting was strong with this one (13th flag). I started wondering if, in fact, I was being insecure, possessive, and jealous.

In addition to keeping the relationship a secret from his coworkers , he didn’t want his friends and families to know about me either (14th flag). He flat out told me not to post photos of us together on social media. When we were in NY, he had the opportunity to introduce me to his mom and sister, but he was very careful about keeping us apart instead. He lied to his sister about his whereabouts and who he was with when we were together. In fact, he lied a lot (15th flag)–not just to me, but also his coworkers, friends, and family. He lied without batting an eye. Granted, even if there was no malicious intent, his behavior mad me question his integrity and honesty.

Whenever I asked where this was going, he said we were in a “long-distance relationship” and “we’re together,” but he refused to put any labels on it (16th flag). He told me he had commitment issues (17th flag), that he wanted to move slowly, to do this relationship differently from his previous ones. My friends theorized that he was probably married, hiding other girls behind my back, or hoping to get a green card (he’s not American). This demonstrated how opaque he was about his intentions and feelings towards me. The few friends who knew about him did not like him (18th flag). The consensus was: There’s something off about him, but we can’t put our fingers on it.

As I caught him in more lies and I grew absolutely exhausted with his push-and-pull communications, I woke up more and more. He had warned me early on that he had “issues” (19th flag), but I wonder if he is even aware of the extent of these issues. He had a problem with saying no to people; he wanted to please everyone so he over-extended himself professionally and personally. He was burned out at work, but he chose to overwork himself and to stay in Kabul so that he won’t have to confront the real problems in his life. He was literally reinforcing his own emotional walls with cement walls. Did he mislead me into thinking that he can change for me? Or did I allow myself to believe I would be the one to change him?

The entire relationship was the source of constant anxiety, panic attacks, and depressive episodes. From September to February, I contributed the emotional turmoil to all the changes in my life, and that was partly accurate. However, after all those events in my life were done and dusted, it became clear what the real source of my anxiety was. Through his actions and his silence, he told me exactly who he was. I tolerated the behaviors and maltreatment for as long as I did because 1) we had started off as friends and “a friend wouldn’t treat me this way” and 2) the “relationship” was a surprise to both of us. I was ready to commit to him and follow him to the ends of the earth if he asked me to, but he didn’t treat me as a priority. He told me he can’t change overnight, but he will prove me wrong. He asked for more time which I gave him. He asked me to trust him which I did. In return, I only asked for two things–communication and honesty, both of which he failed at. He also failed at proving me wrong.

The entire relationship was about control. He didn’t like it when I started drawing boundaries (20th flag). The relationship would stop and go as he called it, not me. It was not an equal partnership. In fact, it was not a partnership at all.

The nail on the coffin showed up last night in the form of a Facebook post; he had posted a photo of himself in Nepal. This was a trip that would have required 4-8 weeks of planning, including approval for the leave time. Throughout March and even on our last phone conversation on April 6th, he told me he was saving up all of his vacation time for June. We had even discussed the possibility of traveling to Nepal together in September. That means he was actively lying to me through March about his travel plans, across multiple conversations. I feel like I just walked away from a horrific car accident–I’m dazed, shaken up, in complete and utter shock… But I’m alive.

 

Homes

Have you ever sat back and thought, “What have I done with my life?” That question crosses my mind pretty often, but usually in the form of “What am I doing with my life?!?!” during times of intense exasperation.

Likewise, and as a response to those questions, I always like to remind myself 1) of my privilege of being able to travel relatively freely as an American and 2) to pat myself on the back for pursuing my dream of working in human rights and international development which has led to more opportunities to travel and live abroad.

Right around my 34th birthday in February, the questions resurfaced: “What have I done with my life? Where have I been? Where am I going?” So I jotted down the physical locations of all the places I’ve called home, and here were the results…

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Apologies to my design nerds. I only have access to Excel and Paint. Yes, the poor graphic hurts my eyes, too, so here’s a table:

Home Amount of Time
New York, NY 17.5 years
Baltimore, MD 9 years
Washington, DC 5 years
Kabul, Afghanistan 16 months
MV Explorer 6 months
Prishtina, Kosovo 3 months
Baghdad, Iraq 2 months
China 2 months
France, Spain, Puerto Rico, Ashgabat, Canada, Rwanda, Dubai, others 2+ weeks
Total 34 years

The Divorce Series – Part 3: You’re in my life not because I need you but because I want you

I was raised to be independent and self-sufficient. As the eldest and as a daughter in a Chinese household, I was prepped and trained to be a caregiver. A couple of recent therapists have told me that I need to learn to be taken care of; this is something I’m not familiar with and I’m still learning to recognize what it looks like. I’m so used to taking care of others and being the giver, which is why most of my relationships have been unbalanced.

One of the major lessons I learned from my marriage is that my happiness is my responsibility and my partner’s happiness is his responsibility. Yes, we can make each other happy, but we cannot rely on each other to fulfill all of the needs that make us whole as individuals. That’s why self-care is called SELF-care. Each party must be self-aware enough that they do not lean on their partner for every important aspect that makes a person whole.

When I first met Kyle, he had his own set of friends and aspirations, such as places to travel to and activities he enjoyed outside of our relationship. As time went on and our relationship got more serious, other parts of his life changed… His close friends started families and moved out of town. His father passed away. He finished grad school. He moved up in his career and received more responsibilities. Simply put, life was changing as it does. Instead of replacing the friendships he was losing, he looked to me to fill that void. Instead of going to therapy to cope with his grief from losing his father, he turned to alcohol. Instead of participating in healthy outlets to deal with stress, he used alcohol. His alcohol dependency, lack of self-care, and complete reliance on me ultimately led to the downfall of our marriage.

He needed me and I felt smothered. It was not love, it was selfishness; it was about control over me since he felt so out of control with other aspects of his life. I didn’t mind sharing my life with him (that’s what marriage is), but he did not allow me to maintain a balance between our relationship and the time that I needed for self-care. Towards the end, I felt more like his mother; I was constantly cleaning up after him and making sure he ate right, worked out, went to bed without blacking out… He took advantage of my tendency to be the caregiver and, over time, there was nothing left for me to give.

He was a sinking anchor pulling me down with him. My depression got worse. I was not comfortable in my own living space because of all the clutter he created. This physical clutter was symbolic of his emotional clutter. Over time, I found that I was happier being away from him than when I was with him. My conversations with acquaintances and friends were lighter when he was not around. While living and working in Kabul, I remember feeling at peace whenever I returned to my room because it was my space, albeit for the short-term. I was not responsible for anyone else after the work day ended. My whole being felt lighter.

Going into the relationship, six years ago, I didn’t need him but I wanted him in my life. I now apply this attitude to all the relationships in my life, including family and friends. Likewise, I hope that the next person I’m romantically involved with wants me in his life, not because he needs me there.

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The Divorce Series – Part 2: The Partner

My last post focused on the key points in my engagement and marriage that I should have seen as red flags. This post is more positive–it focuses on the things I’ve learned about myself as a partner. My relationship with Kyle started in January 2012 and ended in the summer of 2017 when we officially separated; altogether, that’s 5 and a half years (not counting the final 6 months until the divorce was finalized). It was my longest romantic relationship to date.

After all that time, I’ve learned that…

  1. I’m the partner who freezes up when you get mad, even if your anger is not directed at me. Because of traumas from my childhood, I might not know what to do initially and how to react. Once I get over my own fears, I am the partner who will calm you down and bring you into a hug.
  2. I’m the partner who will want to spend time with your friends and family, especially the people who are the most important to you, because I get to learn more about you and it makes me feel closer to you.
  3. I’m the partner who will cry with you when you lose someone you love. I’m also the partner who will celebrate with you when you get a promotion at work.
  4. I’m the partner who will put family first, and that means both yours and mine. That also means I expect the same from you. I will worry about your mom when she gets sick and I will do everything within my power to help her during her recovery. In return, I only ask that you will do the same for my mom.
  5. I’m the partner who has a huge heart and want to right all the wrongs in the world. Know when to hold me back, but don’t keep me from pursuing my dreams and passions.
  6. I’m the partner who will support you through hard times at work or a Master’s degree by taking on more responsibilities in the relationship and at home. In return, I only ask for gratitude and to know that you are willing to do the same if/when the roles are reversed.
  7. I’m the partner who can be insecure at times because that’s what anxiety does. What I need from you are occasional reminders that “we’re okay.”
  8. I’m the partner who doesn’t ask for material goods such as jewelry and flowers, but I will demand respect, honesty, effort, and appreciation.
  9. I’m the partner who doesn’t ask for gifts but will love you for the small things like helping to keep our home tidy and clean, taking care of our pets, and showing interest in my life.
  10. I’m the partner who is fully committed and will never give up on you… unless you give up on us.

Most of all, I’ve learned that communication is truly the key to a successful relationship. Yes, it’s cliché but it’s also the truth. What we say, how we say it, and what we don’t say are crucial in intimate relationships.

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The Divorce Series – Part 1: My Happy Ending

I had always told myself, if I ever get married, it will be “’til death due us part.” I did not want to end up like my parents, divorced after 21 years of marriage. Then, after less than two years into my marriage, I decided I really don’t want to end up like my parents: staying together for all the wrong reasons until they realized too many years had passed of being unhappy.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the divorce rate is 3.2 per 1,000 (in a sample size of 45 states) (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm). I had never planned to be a part of this statistic. Despite the high divorce rate in the modern era, there continues to be a stigma on divorce. Even the discourse surrounding divorce condemns it: “They called it quits.” “It was a failed marriage.” “They couldn’t make it work.” I heard all of it. Each sentiment denounces the couple, even when the split is amicable, as though they both did something wrong.

As soon as I realized that my marriage was unhealthy, I started confiding in my close friends. Surprisingly, the most common questions I got were: “Why did you marry him? Did you know things would get this bad?” The reasons I gave were: he has good values, he’s hard working, he performed all the right gestures in the first two years of our relationship (i.e. planning dates and sending flowers), and he was safe.

That last reason was the primary reason as to why I married him–he was safe. Unlike many of the guys I’ve dated in the past, dating Kyle was easy. There were no games, no doubts, and no questions about his feelings. I always knew how he felt and where he stood. A month after our first date, he told me he didn’t want to see anyone else. Three months in, he introduced me to his friends. Seven months later, I met his father when he was in town for a visit. After a year of dating, I knew he would eventually propose. Throughout all of that, we talked about a timeline for moving in together, getting engaged, and then getting married.

Kyle was honest to a fault and he was predictable. Even when he didn’t verbalize something he was feeling, I could tell from his body language and his vibe. I knew he would be completely loyal and devoted, the type of man any woman would love to have for a long-term partner. But he wasn’t for me. He needed more than what I can offer, and I needed more as well. We needed to be different people if we were going to make the marriage work, and as I had learned from past relationships: you can’t change the person you’re with, but you can change the outcome by leaving.

We were unhappy together for a variety of reasons which I won’t get into here. In short, we wanted different things from life. I needed to get out of our marriage to save both of us. We both deserve to be happy. I appreciate Kyle for trying to love me, and I’ve only grown stronger and more resilient from all the emotional burdens of the marriage.

Coming out of this experience, I am more self-aware than ever before. I have learned to trust my instincts. My biggest mistake was not listening to my intuition. Kyle and I had a long engagement, almost two years. In those two years of our relationship, our disagreements increased. “It’s just the stress of wedding planning,” our friends said, “This is normal.”

One month before the wedding, I started getting panic attacks and I fell into a deep depression. I remember very vividly how one day, just a few weeks before the wedding after yet another argument, Kyle walked out and left me crying, curled up into a ball on the couch. I had been feeling suicidal for days and considered perhaps it was time to go to the emergency room, but I didn’t even have the energy to pick up the phone, much less execute a suicide. “It’s just cold feet,” my friends said. “It’s normal.”

On our wedding weekend, I went through the motions: greeting close friends and family as they arrived into town, rehearsal dinner, getting ready, ceremony, photos, first dance, speeches, last dance, day-after brunch… I did what I was supposed to do just like I have been doing my entire life.

Now? I refuse to pay attention to society’s expectations of me. I pay my taxes, I don’t litter, and I follow the law. Isn’t that enough?

I am more of a realist than ever before. I learned very early on that fairy tales aren’t real, and I accept that even more now. Relationships take a lot of work and issues arise in ebbs and flows, which means both partners need to put in an equal amount of effort to make it work. That’s in addition to other criteria: communication, honesty, physical attraction, compatibility, etc. If this means I don’t end up with someone to grow old with, that isn’t the worst thing in the world. I would rather be alone and happy than settle for someone and be miserable.

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