One year on

Yesterday, marked the one year anniversary of my move to Belgium, to take on a five month internship with the European Parliament as part of a career break, that I never returned from.

Although, it was never my intention to stay, as my life unfurled over the past 12 months, in turns of the utmost unexpected, Belgium became more of a home to me than England.

My internship officially ended on the 31st of May 2019, leaving me to face unemployment for the first time in four years. Growing up in the UK, I was often advised to avoid gaps in my CV as this reflected poorly, a notion that meant that I had been in continuous employment from January 2015 until May 2019, switching between five different roles for three different public sector institutions, despite the sometimes gut-wrenching periods of my life, that almost drained me absolutely.

Unemployment scared me, more so than the physical and mental burnout that I tried to rectify through short breaks to somewhere – minimal rest for maximum exhaustion in some cases. Employment for me was a mandatory dependency, lacking a parental unit to catch me when my world went to shit, self-sufficiency was my safety blanket in life and I was unsure how to survive without it.

In the end I was unemployed for 16 weeks, or a little over 3 months, and in this time I learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined, and my mindset and outlook on life drastically changed.

I spent the first month in my flat alone, waiting for a job interview for a position that fell at the last hurdle after I had depleted my savings, and also made me realise that I needed to work somewhere that was aligned to my values and beliefs or I would continue to live my life in deep blue hues.

During this time, before the last hurdle fell, I reached out to my mother for support to catch me as her child, but unfortunately this was once more met with the rejection, that I had become accustomed to expect from her, as I was told she was ‘unable to support me emotionally or financially, but she was always there for me.’

This was painful, but not unexpected, and was followed by a series of events that meant I finally stood up to her for the first time in my life. My courage was met with blatant faced denial, but although the voice of my truth was not fully heard by her it lifted the greatest weight off my soul.

It was a painful severing.

Part of me sees the possibility for reconciliation if my truth is heard and listened to, but part of me sees it like an infected limb – excruciating to live with and to remove, but better to live without even with the phantom feelings from time to time.

In this moment, that would have previously been awash with inky blue hues deeper than any ocean, another revelation was bought into my view; a new familial support network, unknown to me before I came to Belgium in 2018, in my aunt. A kindness unlike any that I have experienced prior, she has cared for me and shown me what unconditional love is; and for this I am eternally grateful. This act of kindness has allowed me the courage to stand up for myself and has given me hope in the future, my future.

Often when you read about battling the black dog of depression or the pressure of anxiety, finding someone that scares your internal demons and makes them run scared is recommended. It is often implied that this is a romantic partner, but it doesn’t have to be. I have been fortunate to find this in my family – my aunt(s), my cousins and older brothers; in my friends – in the UK, Belgium and elsewhere; and finally in myself.

So, as I sit and type, watching the sun-soaked trees go by in a green blur from the train window fading slowly in the vibrant but calm orange hues of sunset, which occupies most of my new work commute, I smile a little to myself in knowing that I am loved, I am supported, I am courageous, and for the first time in a long time I am happy– all I needed to do was follow the butterflies and take a leap of faith into the unknown, it wasn’t so scary after all.

Travel, stereotypes, and being a coconut.

If you follow me on social media you may have seen that I spent the first 2 weeks of July country hopping in Eastern Europe and Germany.

Following the breakdown of a long term relationship in 2016, I subsequently was bitten by the travel bug, and have since visited 18 different cities (19 if I count the hour spent in the Eurostar terminal in Brussels).

In other words I embarked on a budget friendly, I’m a 20 something renting in London, and trying to maintain a full-time job, version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’

Travelling for me, like many things I do, is not only a way for me to broaden my view of the world – learning about new cultures, people, and experiences – it’s ultimately a way for me to understand myself and who I am, and how I fit within the society that surrounds me.

Figuring out who I am and what my place is in society is not a new concept to me, it is one I’ve struggled with my entire life.

I’ve previously written about growing up in British Indian household, and have touched upon aspects of my less than ideal childhood, from the stigma surrounding mental health in the South Asian community and also my relationship, or lack thereof, with my estranged father.

However, I’ve never really spoken openly and honestly about my experience growing up between two cultures, and how this has shaped the person I am today.

In an ideal world both my cultures would coexist peacefully, my Britishness and Indianness would no conflict in the slightest, and they most certainly wouldn’t lead to a conflict of existence in my inner being, more articulately describes as an identity crisis, which fuelled most of my childhood, adolescent, and early adulthood angst.

For me growing up with two cultures often meant choosing sides or being stuck in the middle, there was rarely a neutral point, I was either one of the other but never both.

Memories of my childhood visits to my father’s family in Yorkshire mainly consist of judgement and disappointment from my extended family over my apparent failure of not being Indian enough, and or appearing/behaving too ‘Western’. Visits often included questioning by various aunts and uncles over my ability to speak and understand Gujarati (my mother tongue) – with my elementary grasp of it often being considered a betrayal against my heritage, which was often accompanied by negative comments on my appearance and attire due to my choice of jeans and t-shirt over a ‘traditional’ salwar kameez.

On the other side of this, I spent a majority of my school years as a spectacle for my peers to examine, the curious minds of children never ceasing to amaze as well as the ignorance of some teachers – which I would grow to become amazed at and wished would cease. Each wrongly directed “namaste”, “I wish I had a tan like yours,” “when did you come over to England?” and “but where are you really from?” starkly reminding me that I was different and didn’t quite fit into their predetermined idea of what was British.

It didn’t take me long to realise that in the eyes of my family I was too ‘Western’ to be a proper Indian, and in the eyes of my British peers I was too brown to be a proper Brit. I was a ‘coconut’, stuck in the middle of constant reminders that I wasn’t enough of either of the two cultures I’d grown up in to be considered a legitimate part of them.

The separation I felt between the two cultures worsened following the breakdown of my parent’s marriage when I was 9. As I has opted to stay with my British-born mother as a opposed to my Indian-born father, I found myself assimilating with my British surroundings more and more, as our tie with the Indian community I had grown up knowing was severed – due to my mother’s apparent ‘unthinkable’ and subsequently ‘unforgivable’ act in their eyes (this act being my mother’s bravery to stand up to a man who was meant to love her but instead forced her to live in constant fear of him, through a myriad of psychological and physical abuse).

We were ostracised and isolated. I still had my melanin and my name, but my connection to that part of me was lost. As I had been shunned by my family and community I began acting in ways directly opposed to their values, I shortened my name to make it less Arabic sounding, I denounced my childhood faith becoming a kaffir, I started drinking alcohol with my British friends, and at 19 I got my first tattoo.

However, despite all these acts I was still a ‘coconut’. Instead of appearing British, I was just a non-traditional Indian girl who drunk and had tattoos, I still didn’t quite fit in.

The constant reminders of my otherness was apparent in multiple aspects of my life, from going to the shop to buy a pint of milk and explaining my entire family background to the shopkeeper out of politeness, to the backhanded compliments and fetishism that would paint my love life (my earliest encounter of this being at the age of 12, where I was informed by a boy in my year that none of the other boys would be as “open minded” as him as to like a brown girl).

To this day, dating and romance often comes with a caveat, usually accompanied by overthinking on my part. I spend a lot of the time wondering if someone genuinely likes me for who I am, or whether they hoping I fit a preconceived set of of stereotypical traits they think I have (which I will inevitably disappoint).

The constant exposure to phrases and sentences like “sari seduction”, “Asian persuasion”, “I’ve always had a thing for brown girls”, “I bet you make a great curry”, and a multitude of Kama Sutra references that I’m not even going to start on, have left me weary and skeptical about love (although I still remain a hopeless romantic despite this).

However, the more I travel, the more places I visit, the more people I meet, and the more cultures I am exposed to, the broader my view of the world has become.

I’ve come to realise that for every person who says I don’t belong, there is always another who says I do, and this has given me hope.

I wish I could say I’m no longer affected by the commentary which comes with being British Indian, but I would be lying.

Although, I am confident in referring to myself as both British and Indian despite growing up with the two cultures conflicting and I’ve learned that I don’t need acceptance from others to be myself, and I certainly do not need their permission.

Harry Potter, caramel cardigans, tumeric, and stigma

My morning routine is pretty standard; I wake up to the sound of my alarm ‘flow’ and try to figure out why I’m still so tired, despite using my sleep aids. I listen out for the creaks and squeaks of the stairs and door hinges and wait for the shower to free up, I do my make up, sometimes attempting a cat eye, which often looks like I’ve framed my eyes using a Sharpie instead of with the intended subtle flick, and then I do my hair.

Until a few months ago I only wore my hair parted to the side, this was in part due to style trends but also due to two insecurities. The first being a squint in my left eye, which has since been surgically corrected, and the second, a scar in the middle of my forehead at the start of my hairline.

My forehead scar unlike Harry Potter’s doesn’t have a cool backstory about battling ‘he who shall not be named’ as a infant and bringing about a whole epic saga involving trolls and magical goblets; for starters my scar is sort of an oval shape, as opposed to a lightning bolt, and I didn’t get it from sacrificial motherly shield love, I got it running on wet cobblestones on the way to school.

Like many of my memories I remember moments of it in vivid detail but have trouble recalling other parts, often drifting between interpreted memories and real ones.

This is what I remember: I was on my way to primary school with my mum, it was Spring and raining heavily, I was running ahead of her (perhaps with excitement as school was a place I enjoyed in my early childhood), I came to the cobblestone path near the green space on our route and slipped forward, unable to break my fall I smashed headfirst onto the path.

My mum screamed to the heavens and held my caramel cardigan to head in an attempt to subdue the bleeding, I began to cry once I noticed I was bleeding and my mum attempted to comfort me. She took me to my school, where my headteacher, Ms Peacock, advised that the nearby doctors surgery may be able to help, unfortunately because this was not my registered surgery we were turned away. My mum took me home, and after explaining to my dad what had happened, he placed tumeric on my cut in order to heal it.

Growing up, in a British Indian household, it was commonplace to favour natural remedies to treat ailments; echinacea and homemade masala chai were often used to treat cold or flu, seeking help from an actual doctor was often a last resort, and was often discouraged if the treatment could be replaced by a herbal alternative in order to keep sanctity in the community.

For a wide variety of ailments natural remedies do have their benefits, to this day I still make masala chai every time I have a congested cold, but some ailments require a bit more than tea and spices to fix.

Speaking from personal experience, my elders held particularly damaging views of mental health. Often if someone was mentally unwell, the supernatural and superstition were often cited as the causation for it. Growing up I often heard stories about relatives in India who been possessed by a ‘djinn’ as cautionary tales, their mental instability tarring them with the derogatory term of ‘pagal’. A chemical imbalance in the brain or trauma was often complete devoid from any reason as to why the person was suffering, and instead they were often ostracised by the community because of it.

I was 13 when my mum first took me to the doctor for my mental health, she had found and read my diary which described my first documented thoughts of suicidal ideation and depression, at the time I was being bullied at school to the point where I was told by one person to “go die in a fire” after I revealed I had a crush on them, and added to that my home life was particularly turbulent due to my parents’ divorce. Sitting in the doctor’s office with my mum, I felt ashamed, embarrassed and betrayed, as my mum explained to the doctor that she didn’t know what to do and that most Indian families wouldn’t come to the doctor for help, but we weren’t like most Indian families and she didn’t know what to do. This was her last resort.

No constructive help came from that appointment, the doctor said due to my age it was most likely hormone related, and my mum declared that the end of it. I stopped keeping a diary, fearful it may be found, and I buried my emotions, bottling up my sadness until it erupted.

I was 15 when I made my first attempt on my life, I was in an abusive relationship at the time and I saw it as an escape. I made my second and third attempt when I was 20 and 21, again I saw these as a means of escape from the situation I was in at the time.

Following a doctor’s appointment after my second attempt, I found out this was in part due to my previously undiagnosed PTSD, depression and anxiety. My doctor commented that she was surprised no one had diagnosed me sooner, and also that many BAME people suffer from mental illness in the UK due to lack of sunlight. I was given a prescription of antidepressants. referred to a therapist, and put under the watchful eye of the mental health care team.

I was finally receiving the help I sought out almost a decade earlier. I often think back to sitting in that doctor’s office with my mum at 13. If there wasn’t such a damaging stigma of mental health in my community, would I have received the help I desperately needed sooner?

The stigma surrounding mental illness as something shameful or insignificant is incredibly damaging and is one that needs to go.


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/


Rumpelstiltskin

Last week I found myself at the edge point of a depressive episode.

I had received a message two weeks prior from my estranged father, who I hadn’t heard from in seven years. Instead of dealing with it rationally, I tried to drink it into submission, and bury it inside of me. This resulted in a bubbling of emotions, which eventually erupted in a cortisol fueled break in my stability. In summary: I cracked.

I rapidly spun into a depressive state, marred by the feelings of despair, loneliness, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I had fallen into a well of negative emotion, bought on by suppressing an unexpected occurrence, that had dragged up an armoury of feelings all targeted at my wellbeing.

I didn’t want this to occur but it was happening anyway. It was a cataclysm of external factors which didn’t fit neatly into my preexisting microclimates of things I knew how to cope with. I was out of my comfort zone.

I tried to ignore it but it was still there, and it was causing a rift of cognitive dissonance in my mind – I hadn’t spoken to my father in seven years, his neglect and failure to nurture me as a child caused me to show a great disdain towards him; when asked about him and I’d often respond with the rhetoric that ‘I don’t need him’ and ‘I’m better off without him in my life.’

However, this occurrence drudged up two questions from my childhood ‘why don’t they love me?’ and ‘why wasn’t I good enough?’

These questions are harboured in the foundations of who I am as a person, and are the likely causation of my attachment anxiety, which particularly manifest with romantic partners (something I hadn’t realised until a few days ago).

In the past I have reacted irrationally to the breakdown of a relationship, using targeted words and actions to cause the maximum amount of damage; because ‘I don’t need him’ and ‘I’m better off without him in my life.’ I feel rejected by that person so my brain uses its learned behaviour from my formative years in an attempt to protect itself.

I had thought if I continued to achieve in other areas of my life, than these questions would simply dissipate and cease to exist.

However, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, identifying it as a problem and tackling it does – a bit like Rumpelstiltskin, if you can identify something you can solve it.


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/