When the fog lifts in Rwanda

If I had to choose one word to describe my short time in Rwanda, it is “healing.”

September 2017, my last month in Kabul, was “traumatic,” as several of my friends had summed up my final three months in Afghanistan. Many people had let me down; I didn’t trust anyone, not even myself. My job ended, long-term plans changed, and I questioned my career once again. I felt completely out of control of everything. Several people encouraged me to write and submit an article about my experiences in Afghanistan, but I’m not ready yet–perhaps not for many years. This blog post (and this paragraph alone) is the most I will disclose at this time.

In October, even though I was back in the states, I continued to walk through a hazy fog. Surrounding myself with friends and family helped tremendously. I focused the little energy I had into my job search. By November, the fog had started to lift and I felt more and more like myself again. Thirty-six hours after booking two trips around the Thanksgiving holiday, a friend and former colleague offered me a 4-week consultant position in Kigali which required me to depart in five days. I immediately accepted and cancelled my personal travel.

Rwanda was the best bookend to the recovery process I didn’t even realize I had needed. Here, I returned to a function that’s inherent to my personality: question everything and be curious.

Through the work assignment, I received a crash course on Rwanda post-1994. I returned to my roots as a researcher. I was able to use my graduate coursework on transitional justice and reconciliation. I met with ministry members and CSOs that work on GBV, gender mainstreaming, children’s rights, youth, etc. It was so refreshing to work in a country with gender-sensitive legislation and a lot of desire by the younger generations to ensure progress.

I made the most of my last weekend in Rwanda by taking a trip out to the countryside–touring a cooperative farm that was managed by a majority of women farmers, a coffee washing station, and Akagera National Park. The weather was volatile and I experienced everything from warm and sunny afternoons to torrential downpours to chilly evenings. I was mesmerized by the fog that hung low over the thousand hills throughout the country, but once the fog lifts, everything–even foliage that’s miles away–is crystal clear.


Akagera National Park after a heavy rainstorm that lasted over an hour (November 2017)


A few days ago, my boss jokingly said to me that his oldest daughter claims that the worst day of her life was when her younger sister was born. I told him that the day my mom went into labor with my brother was the first vivid memory I had as a kid. I was two-and-a-half years old and we were living in an old brownstone with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Brooklyn. I remember my parents running out the door one day. I don’t remember if they had said anything to me before they rushed out. I only remember curling up in an armchair in the living room, feeling a strong sense of abandonment. I refused to go to bed because I wanted my mom. I remember feeling scared.

Tonight, while I was meditating, that memory crept back in, but this time I let it flow. There was a detail from that memory I had long forgotten–I wasn’t alone. All of a sudden, I heard my Uncle Jon’s voice next to my ear, telling me I didn’t have to be scared, that my parents will be home soon, and that I was getting a little brother. I remember him trying to convince me to go to bed, but I stubbornly refused. I remember crying a lot. I remember him sitting on the couch next to the armchair until I fell asleep. Most of all, I remember his comforting presence. My father was never able to provide that same level of comfort, warmth, stability, and protection that my uncle did (his older brother). 

I am still in tears, 30 minutes later, as I’m writing this. How could I forget my Uncle Jon on that lonely day in September 1986? I have so many other fond memories of him… Now I have one more to add to the files.

Today, and on many days, I regret not spending more time with my uncle before his sudden, unexpected passing in October 2013. He was in his late 50s. I was so blessed to have him in my life. He showed me what a real father was–how to treat people with kindness, even if they mistreat me. I hope he knows how grateful I am and how much we all miss him.

With my Uncle Jon in front of my parents’ first restaurant in Brooklyn (circa 1988). From left to right: me (age 4), cousin Sandy (age 4), Uncle Jon, and cousin Benny (age 2).


At the end of every summer, while my friends get excited about sweater weather, fall foliage, pumpkin-picking, baking/eating pies, skiing, and the holidays, I am filled with a sense of dread. Aside from my dislike of cold weather, the autumn means despair and pain for me, and the feelings come and go unpredictably. But that is depression.

Although I was never formally diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, one of my former therapists suggested that the fall and winter months might trigger my depression due to the short daylight hours. As I had written before, my other main trigger is stress, so the two combined makes life harder for me.

Years later, now that I have a better understanding of my condition, I can recognize and manage my symptoms better. As the sun sets earlier and earlier, I can feel the coldness creep into my bones.

  • I have very low energy.
  • I isolate myself.
  • My anxiety gets worse.
  • I can’t concentrate on work or any task that requires a long attention span.
  • My sleep schedule gets screwed up. I either don’t sleep at all or I sleep for 10-12 hours—every day, not just on the weekends.
  • I don’t have an appetite. During my depressive episodes, I can lose anywhere from 5 to 20 lbs. depending on the severity and length of the episode.
  • I skip out on activities I normally enjoy (i.e. food).

People who don’t understand would say things like, “Why are you always so tired?” and “You’re probably not eating because of stress.” I’ve learned to just nod and smile and agree, knowing fully that they’re all wrong. Yes, stress is a huge factor for those of us who live with depression, but stress affects us differently than “normal people.” Sometimes, I feel bad even when I’m not feeling stressed.

So what do I do?

  • I check in with myself throughout the day. How am I feeling when I first wake up? In the middle of the work day? In the evening? While I’m getting ready for bed?
  • I try to sit outside and feel the sun on my face for at least 15 minutes.
  • My energy reserve for people (and socializing in general) gets very low so I’m extra picky about who I spend time with. I stay away from toxic people. I know I have a tendency of attracting narcissistic personalities so I avoid such people as much as possible. If it’s someone I work with, I keep it strictly professional and I don’t spend time with them outside of work hours.
  • Likewise, I surround myself with positive people. Talking to friends who understand what I’m going through is extremely helpful, and (thankfully) I’ve had two friends who have filled that role and continue to.
  • Although I have people to lean on, I know that my happiness doesn’t depend on one person and neither should another person’s happiness depend on me.
  • I give myself time to feel the emotions and wait for them to pass. Sometimes that means calling out sick from work. If someone with a physical illness can do that, why should it be different for a mental illness?

Ever since I was diagnosed with clinical depression 10 years ago, I noticed that I suffer 2-4 depressive episodes each year. On my best days, I feel normal. I’m energetic, I have an appetite, and I am my usual, extroverted self. On my worst days, I have a hard time getting out of bed, I can’t talk to anyone, I can feel the pain of the world on my shoulders, and there’s a heaviness in my heart. On most days, I can honestly say I’m doing fine. During the winter months, I do struggle to have better days. I spend all of my energy putting on a smile and just to… function.

I’m hoping this winter will be different because I have become more self-aware. I had a long depressive episode earlier this year that started in January and didn’t end until early July. In those months, I had lost two friends unexpectedly, I was working under a narcissistic boss, and I spent all of my remaining energy on finding a new job. Today, I’m no longer working in a hostile work environment and I have my new job, but that doesn’t mean the self-doubt, negativity, and heartache doesn’t creep in.

No Turning Back


My first 4th of July in Washington, DC (July 4, 2011)

Today marks my five-year anniversary of being a DC resident. On May 28, 2011, I moved to Washington, DC from Brooklyn, NY with a couple of suitcases. Two weeks later, a moving truck with the rest of my belongs and a long drive with two unhappy cats (and my unhappy mom) in the backseat made the transition final. There was no turning back. I had no job and just enough savings to barely get me by for the summer.

For the first month, I spent most of my days searching for a job: sending out applications, attending networking events, doing informational interviews, and meeting with temp agencies. I took breaks by wandering around my new city, getting lost downtown and using the White House, Washington Memorial, museums, and myriad equestrian statues as landmarks to learn my way around. I loved the heat and humidity of that first DC summer. I remember the quiet and stillness of the city, two qualities that were completely new to me. For the first time in my life, despite all of the uncertainties that came with not having a job, I felt at peace. As I had written before, I felt free.

The physical act of moving from one city to another was only one of two transitions that I was undergoing at the time. I was also transitioning careers. After six years in marketing, I was entering a completely new field: international affairs. Although I was unemployed, I felt optimistic. I was happy with the direction I had taken because I was entering a new career that would make positive impacts on people’s lives.

In the past five years since I first arrived in DC, I’ve had to overcome many hurdles, both personally and professionally: multiple job searches, a couple of awful bosses, making new friends and developing new friendships, losing several family members and friends unexpectedly (each under different circumstances)… I’ve grieved and mourned, but I’ve also celebrated achievements and milestones, including new jobs, new births, and weddings, including my own. I’m finally living.

In DC, I very quickly found a tight knit community of like-minded people working in foreign policy, international affairs, and international development. It was very different from the two major moves in my life (Brooklyn to Baltimore and then Baltimore to Brooklyn) when I struggled for years to find a place to fit in. Although most of the community are transplants like myself, many of my DC friends don’t call DC their home. Instead, home is where their parents or families live. Over the past five years, some of those friends have moved, either back to their hometowns or to other places. For me, I still consider New York and Baltimore as my two former hometowns (I still love and root for the New York Mets and Baltimore Ravens), but DC became my home on May 28, 2011, and I never looked back.


I have 1,204 friends on Facebook, and my guess is that at least half of them are females. On average, I see one post a week from a female friend sharing an experience with street harassment. These have ranged from sexist comments, to verbal assaults, to unwelcomed touching and physical assault.

I’m glad my friends are sharing their experiences even though reading these posts make me upset. And I hope others feel upset as well. Many of my friends know I’ve been followed home before on more than one occasion, I’ve been groped on the train, and I’ve experienced a barrage of catcalls, whistles, and other noises that men employ to try to get my attention. I’ve been called slut, ho, and a litany of other names that the male species keep on reserve for women. Even though the occurrences of street harassment have gone down for me since I moved out of New York, I still get them in DC. I’ve been followed home and I’ve been grabbed while walking down a crowded street at night. (I also have plenty of examples from traveling, living, and working abroad, but I don’t want to detract from my main point.)

Although there has been a growing movement to reduce street harassment in recent years, IT STILL HAPPENS. And it happens because there are no laws on the books to deter such behavior. If someone can get a $250 ticket for jaywalking, why can’t we fine someone $250 for whistling at a woman?

Of course, I can’t just blame the men and legislators here, I should also point a finger at women who are part of the problem by 1) welcoming the behavior or 2) not teaching their sons to respect women.

Amongst all of the frustrating stories my female friends share on Facebook about getting harassed while simply going about their days, I have one “friend” who boasts proudly about all the compliments she gets on the street and while riding the metro. She stops to carry on full conversations with the perpetrators and she thanks them when they “compliment” her. When I see these posts, my blood starts to boil almost as much as it does when I’m harassed on the street because she’s a part of the problem. Maybe women like her enjoy the attention… or maybe they come from a small town where everyone greets everyone and they think that’s normal in all parts of the world. Regardless of the reasons, I want to tell these women to STOP encouraging the behavior.

Then there are the parents who do not discipline their sons to respect women. I’m not a parent so I don’t feel like I have the right to school parents here, but I am a woman who suffer from the negative consequences of street harassment. So mothers: Please teach your sons respect. Tell them it’s wrong to touch a woman without consent. Tell them they don’t have a right to tell a woman to smile more. Tell them it’s not flattering to compliment a woman on her physical features. Teach them to share this etiquette with their friends so that it becomes a norm.

For more information and statistics on street harassment, please visit: www.stopstreetharassment.org.

The Story of How We Met

Just as other couples do upon meeting new acquaintances, Kyle and I often get asked how we met. The short version is that we met online. The long version is recounted below in this blog. Kyle and I love to celebrate our dateversary and, I speak for myself here, it means a lot more to me than our wedding anniversary. Since I’m in Kabul this year and can’t celebrate our dateversary with Kyle, I’m putting our first date down on paper (I think there’s a version in my diary, too).

In 2011, before I moved to Washington, DC, my best friend was getting ready to move to Munich. She told me she purchased a Groupon voucher for a new online dating site called howaboutwe.com. The voucher was for a 3-month subscription and it was going to expire at the end of the year before her 6-month assignment in Munich was supposed to end (she’s still in Munich to this day), so she gave me the voucher. I didn’t do anything with it until November 2011. Thanksgiving weekend to be precise. I was a temp at a non-profit with a Monday to Thursday schedule and I spent the rest of my time job searching for a permanent job. That weekend, all was quiet on the job hunt and the group house I was living in at the time had emptied out (all four of my roommates were visiting their families for the holiday). So what to do? I decided to finally use the voucher.

Between Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas, I went on dates with three guys whom I had met through the website. One in particular seemed promising. We had gone on three dates in December, but after Christmas things quickly lost momentum. After that, I was almost counting the days until the end of February when the 3-month subscription was due to expire.

In early January 2012, the website was just a fun distraction for me during my downtime between my job search, dead end temp job, and my volunteer work. I continued to receive some hits and messages from guys I wasn’t interested in. I also got some views but no follow-up, but of course I had to check out their profiles, too. One of those views was from Kyle. His profile photo was of him in a black polo shirt, carrying a backpack, and wearing a pair of black shades. The photo didn’t show much of his face or physique, but I liked his date ideas so I clicked on his proposed date for smoking hookah. (Later on, he told me it was a photo of him in Israel.) To my surprise, he sent me a message almost right away to ask me out. We made plans to meet at Soussi in Adams Morgan after work.

Although I loved Adams Morgan (it reminded me of the West Village) and I love hookah, I was just not feeling it that day we had planned to meet. It was a cold January day and I was emotionally spent. Two hours before we were supposed to meet, I almost canceled on Kyle. So here’s how I talked myself into going: 1) I didn’t want to stand him up; 2) I only had a month left on the subscription so I might as well get some more use out of it; and 3) I was already dressed for the date.

I underestimated how long it was going to take me to get up to Adams Morgan from downtown and showed up 15 minutes late. (Months later, he told me that he thought he was going to be late because he had left his wallet at work and didn’t realize it until he was halfway home.) My first impression of Kyle was, “He has nice eyes. I wonder why he hid them in his profile picture.” Over hookah, we quickly learned that both our families moved around a lot, although his was far more nomadic than mine. He was studying abroad in Germany in summer 2005, at the same time I was on my Semester At Sea voyage going around Europe (Germany was one of the European countries I didn’t go to). We learned that we both love to travel and we have a strong interest in the world in general.

After hookah, Kyle proposed we go get dinner. It was the perfect opportunity for me to test him. I suggested Nepalese food across the street. If he said it was too “strange,” “foreign,” or “ethnic,” it was an automatic deal breaker. However, he agreed and he later told me that he had actually been to the restaurant before and really liked it.

After dinner, he had to walk back to the U Street metro which was on the way back to my house. I thought I knew a shortcut but got us lost instead, leading us east to Meridian Hill Park instead of south to  U Street. (Much later on in our relationship, he told me that I was taking us the wrong way, but he didn’t want to tell me at the time.) On the way, we discussed Chinese food and I told him about a place in Chinatown that my cousin had recently recommended to me. He said maybe we can check it out next time. I was surprised that he was planning our second date already, but being the pessimist that I am when it comes to dating, I didn’t get my hopes up.

When we finally got to the U Street metro, Kyle asked me if it was okay if he didn’t walk me all the way home. Admittedly, I was disappointed, but I didn’t tell him that.

So, kids, that is the story of how we met… plus our first date.


Just as all moms like to do, mine loves to tell stories of me as a baby. She describes me as a generally happy baby who loved everyone, even strangers. I don’t know what happened between my infancy and the first grade. By the time I was six years old, I was no longer that friendly, extroverted kid. Instead, I would keep to myself in class and hide out of sight from the playground at recess.

Maybe it was because of all the bullying throughout elementary school, but somewhere along the way I became increasingly withdrawn and self-conscious. It wasn’t until my tweens when I finally learned to walk into a room and not imagine that everyone was staring at me, whispering about me. By then, I was on my school’s dance team and chorus. I had been in the school orchestra. I was in honors classes and received special attention from my teachers for my writing. Finally, I grew out of a shell I had constructed around myself between the ages of six and eleven.

After that, I cannot recall feeling panicky when I had to stand up in front of a room full of people. I continued to perform in school orchestras, continued to dance, and even aced the required public speaking skills prerequisite in college. To this day, I am perfectly comfortable doing all of that (well, except for perhaps playing the violin because I’ve been out of practice).

About two years ago, when I was 29, I noticed that my hands started shaking, I would break out in a sweat right, and my heart started racing whenever I had to enter a room full of people. Right before I attended events that other people organized, the panicky feeling would overcome me days in advance. Do they really want me there? What if I’m not good enough to be their friend? Are they really my friends or do they want something from me? When I planned parties and gatherings, I would panic weeks in advance that no one would show up. There were the normal party-planning concerns: Do I have enough food? Do I have enough of a variety of beverages? And then there are the irrational questions: What if everyone cancels? What if they don’t have fun? Will they leave early? I even started Googling “What if no one comes to my party?” The irrational thoughts go on and on.

I remember so vividly how I got a panic attack at an after-party in September 2014 (the impromptu after-party followed a gala I had a large role in organizing and running). I was sitting at a restaurant bar, trying to chat with my husband’s coworker/classmate when all of sudden, just like that, the negative thoughts rushed through me. Why aren’t my friends talking to me? Not a single one of them greeted me when I walked in. Are they talking about me? My chest tightened up and I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed my clutch and my husband, running out of there as fast as I could in my heels, the panic attack making my legs unsteady and weak. When I was outside, I wondered if anyone had even noticed that I left. Did they even care?

In recent months, that panic and anxiety have completely demobilized me. I planned a gathering in October that I had been preparing for since July. I sent out invitations a month in advance to give everyone time to respond and to make their plans. As the date drew closer, especially in the two weeks leading up to it, my panic attacks started. I started getting heart palpitations. What if no one shows up? What if only two people show up and think I’m a loser because I have no real friends? It was supposed to be a small gathering with just my female friends and I had invited about 25 ladies. I got a very small, disappointing turnout of only four. The planning, fretting, and disappointment completely wiped me out. Ultimately, it was the fact that people I considered friends validated my worst fears. From then on, I had little to no energy for socializing, for making plans with friends, and even for reaching out to my best friend.

As the holiday season is now upon us and the party invites are flooding in, I’m weighing each one with a new scrutiny I didn’t exercise before. In addition to the initial question of “Am I free that day/night/date?”, it’s followed by: Which events deserve my effort and energy? More importantly, who do I want to spend time with? Who will truly miss my presence if I’m not at their party? Which party and group of friends are less likely to cause a nausea-inducing panic attack and nasty, negative, paralyzing thoughts from arising?

Those negative thoughts and insecurities don’t just come up in large crowds and social settings, but also in smaller groups, especially groups of three because I always feel like the third wheel. Maybe in some cases, it was intentional. But when I think about it rationally, I’m sure that most of the time it’s all in my head. For instance, for my 30th birthday, I celebrated in Miami with two of my closest girlfriends from college. For most of the weekend, I felt like they were making sure they were always walking a part from me. Their heads always bowed together, whispering, conspiring, intentionally leaving me out of the conversations. To combat these negative thoughts, I tried to focus on the positives—two of my friends took time off to fly down to Miami in order to celebrate my birthday with me. Although I had invited others, they were the only two who made the effort because they cared that much.

I’ve written a lot about my clinical depression, but I’ve never written about my anxiety before. I’m not sharing this to garner pity and sympathy. In fact, I’m downright scared that people will read this and think that I’m a freak.

My hope is that people would understand me better. People who know me well might be surprised to learn this about me because I’m so outspoken about—well, pretty much everything because I don’t normally worry about what others think about me and my opinions. Plus, I’m comfortable in crowds and I enjoy networking events and spending time with friends. I also love doing things on my own that some might find strange, such as eating dinner out by myself or going to the theater by myself; I’m never worried about others judging me in many cases. So why the social anxiety? I’m trying to figure that out myself.

I also hope that if there are others out there with the same condition, so they can tell me how they’ve learned to either overcome social anxiety or learned to cope with it. So far, I’m treating it like I do with my depression: I embrace the feelings—no matter how horrible and terrifying they are, and then I breathe.