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By Tanwi Nandini Islam
When something happened. An allusion to something ominous from the distant past. I documented my rape thoroughly in my creative work, yet within the nucleus of my family, I’ve only felt I could openly name it to my sister. While my parents braved my teenaged vacillations between rage and impetuousness, felt confounded by my burgeoning sexuality, they never knew the extent to which I suffered. And so, I never went to therapy.
I bought into my parents’ standing on the issue: that psychotherapy is, in fact, for “psychos.” Never mind that I was neck-deep in feminist study, a women’s studies major, a volunteer at a horribly named “battered women’s service,” in Poughkeepsie, NY, where I wrote orders of protection for survivors of violence (and perpetrators, in the ironic democracy that is the government social services system). Never mind that every day I was confronted with the underlying socioeconomic realities of my clients, the unnerving hold of drugs, the ways people hurt one another. I sought healing through experience—loud, exciting, and dramatic experience. My travails led to my travels—I spent time in Nairobi, Cuba, Mexico. I moved to Brooklyn; I moved to India. I did everything I could to seek out beauty, misery, and the unknown great world out there.
At the time of this writing—aged thirty—I have just ‘concluded’ three years of therapy. I found my therapist—Amalia Suarez*— through two dear friends, queer/trans people of color, each of whom sang Amalia’s praises. She had a practice in a psychotherapy collective near Union Square. She was an enigma–as I imagine every therapist is to their clients. She could have been in her thirties or forties. She was Latina, but I still have no idea what kind of Latina. She sounded New York, but could have been a transplant. She seemed tall when she sat down, but was in fact very petite. She had a vibrant, mismatched sartorial sensibility, and of course, funky plastic spectacles.
I tried three times. The first go around, I went to salvage a relationship which had left me heartbroken over a laughably insignificant incident: my lover and I, both of us on bikes, dude left me in the dust to race through green lights. It was over before it began, we joked. But when she started asking questions, about why I was really there, I stopped going. A year later, I rang up Amalia again. Again, I wanted to still the tumult, the great anxiety I had developed. I wasn’t an alcoholic or one to self-medicate—but I was deeply addicted to lust and new beginnings. Naturally, I didn’t call it addiction; that was too Dr. Drew-pop-psych. As soon as she started getting a bit deeper—asking questions about my family, their spiritual and religious beliefs, the night my father cried, when lurid photographs and paraphernalia were uncovered in my bedroom at age seventeen–an immense guilt of being a total failure washed over me. I ran from therapy again. Talking about shit seemed like a grand waste of time.
When I finally went back to Amalia, she told me it was my last chance with her. Three strikes rule and whatnot. But I was ready.
We got into sex. Sex was synonymous with expelling dread. Lots of seeking love, but never finding it. I experienced lover as oracle, as teacher, as stranger, as punisher, as unattainable. Each person I met could possibly maybe be the person. I mastered an artful hypnosis—being well-versed in a variety of subjects—a conversation with me was a salon of art, ideas, experience, possibility. Coquetry requires more than allure, but a great stamina. It is hard work to listen and to let people know that you are available. Always available.
I was numb. Not the sort of numbness that has you catatonically moving through life. This was the kind that comes from moving so fast that you become a blur. Boundaries become hard to distinguish. You are never quite steady enough to take in the world. You are chaos.
By this time in my life, the separations between my parents and me had subsided quite a bit. I was open with my mom about relationships, my annual lady doctor visits. During one period, if my mother detected melancholy in my voice she would ask, “Is it a girl problem, or a boy problem?” “Neither,” I’d mutter. I told her I was going to therapy, and immediately she asked, “How much is it? A hundred a session? Do you really need to go? Why do you need to go?”
In my mother’s voice I heard discouragement and confusion. Therapy was for people who had been abused or were abusive. It was for people who needed medication. There was no way to explain to her that I needed to go, because a depression was driving itself deep into my spirit, a depression from which I was not waking up. And I very well might need medicine. In my early twenties, I wore these scars as proud as jewelry**—I was an outsider among Bangladeshi youth I’d grown up with, who’d gone into pharmacy, business, medicine. I stayed true to myself, my sense of style, my commitments to social justice over economic profit. I’d gotten my MFA from Brooklyn College. I was writing a book.
But I was miserable. Daily, I contemplated walking in front of moving vehicles, making myself disappear as quickly as the last thirteen years had gone by.
Amalia asked loads of questions about my parents—their religious ascent had already alarmed me and become old news. My parents’ faith was connected with much of the guilt I felt about my past and my present. Being unable to share trauma with them had become more than a decade-long depression, hardened like rock. On this new path to discovery, I swore celibacy and solitude. I had started working full-time, found a literary agent, and felt my goals tangible for the first time. I would finish my novel.
I would let no person enter. I was sacred unto myself.
“You never really let the scared, sorrowful young girl have her peace,” said Amalia. “You became strong, protective, and sexually in control of your destiny.”
One day, I came into a session raw from an exchange with a hyper-Islamic labor organizer in San Francisco. After he’d experienced some intense epileptic seizures, he’d gotten in touch with his connection to Islam. Let’s call him Brother X. He was Bangladeshi, tall, brown-skinned, well-read, and passionate about building a new world—but about as refined as sandpaper. We’d somehow developed a love connection on gchat, during Ramadan. Just two hungry fools looking for a distraction.
“You attract what you are capable of giving,” said Amalia. She always wore a kind expression on her face, but was not one to mollycoddle. “He’s far away. So it never gets deeper.”
I wept into a tissue. “I feel like I want to give so much. I listen, I’m there. I take effort to look like and be a woman someone would want to be with.”
“The vulnerability it takes to be there with someone, you must get there, slowly. Why do you think you want him?”
I thought about it for a moment. How much of this was the actual (virtual) person in front of me, and how much of this was based on wanting someone who mirrored what I imagined would bring me stability, match my family’s expectations? As bell hooks says in All about Love, “learning faulty definitions of love when we are quite young, makes it difficult to be loving as we grow older.”
Faulty definitions were all I had.
I asked Amalia what she thought. “Well, do you feel pressure to get married? To sign yourself over to someone?”
“My parents do talk about it. But I’m not doing it for them.”
“Love has to evolve, and grow into something. It starts from a place where both people want it.”
“I do want it.”
I didn’t know.
When I told my folks about him, expecting their elation—his labor organizing, his piety—my father’s immediate reaction, “Why on earth would you want to be with a religious type?”
“What? He’s spiritual. You two are the ones that already went on the Hajj!” I exclaimed. I remembered then something he and I had talked about, the top five things we wanted to do in our lifetimes. I shared his answers: “1.) Go on Hajj; 2.) Organize for Muslims’ rights; 3.) Keep on my prayers; 4.) Have a wife and kids who I can love and cherish; 5.) Go on Hajj again, in’shallah.”
My father gave a bemused, mustachioed smile. “What were your answers?”
“What does Amalia say about him?” my mother chimed in.
In the session, I recall this conversation. “What were your answers?” asks Amalia.
“I guess we didn’t really get into my answers.”
“Let’s get into it.”
“I want to publish a book, find a life partner and travel the world for a year with them. I want to start a fellowship for youth of color writers, learn to really swim and to play electric guitar.”
“Those sound like lovely things. And pretty different from his list. What do you think about that?”
My god pendulum swings between New Age hippie to metaphysical/mystical study. I have color-coded crystals for my chakras, just as I have copies of the Qur’an and Pali sutras. To be a born in a universe where our bodies become dust and are comprised of the same stuff as stars–I’m into it. I liked that Brother X understood that. But I wanted not to live in the shadow of anyone else’s top five things. What were your answers?
Brother X had no idea.
This was a revelation.
Before I let go of Brother X, he had already let go of me. Turns out he’d been dabbling in two new beginnings, and had to let go of me to let the other one succeed. As soon as he evaporated, I felt a lessening of tension, no longer wanting someone I could never have. The more I gave meaning and intention to my life, confiding in Amalia, the more I started to actualize in my life. Perhaps the wise among us always know this. But depression, trauma, rape, ‘faulty definitions’ can etch out a bleak path for us, making us uncertain of our ability and deservedness. Our worth becomes tenuous in the face of shame. Doing inner work seems lofty, time-consuming, and unbearably slow. Doing inner work seems to take away from the struggles we commit ourselves to. But how can we really bear to give when we cannot bear ourselves?
During a bout of spring cleaning, I found an unopened envelope in my bedroom—a card for my twenty-ninth birthday. My father’s miniature scrawl: Live every moment of your precious life.
I’d come to fear doing so. But I am learning to reassemble myself, and remember how.
** phrase “scars like jewelry”- Assata Shakur
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer, youth educator, and performance artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Born to Bangladeshi immigrants in Carbondale, Illinois, she lived in a handful of Southern states before settling in New York. She received her B.A. in Women’s Studies from Vassar College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College. After working as a youth organizer and Artistic Director of the Bushwick Youth Theater at Make the Road NY, she received the American India Foundation’s Service Corps Fellowship, and moved to New Delhi, India, to continue her youth work. She worked with young women of color on their creative and academic success at a number of NYC based non-profits, including South Asian Youth Action, Urban Arts Partnership, and Step Up Women’s Network. Her writing has appeared in CURA: A Literary Magazine for Art and Action, Escape into Life, Billboard, Brooklyn Bound, Thought Catalog, and Brooklyn Bodega; her play, Nayana’s Passing, debuted at Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival in 2005. Her debut novel, Bright Lines, is forthcoming by Viking Penguin. Follow her @tanwinandini.