After I read the article, “The importance of having a breakdown,” I felt that I had a story to share from my own life, two of my own breakdowns. My first small breakdown was when I was 17, a senior in high school. My big breakdown (that’ll be another blog), when I almost took my own life, happened in my college dorm when I was 22. That was 2 decades ago. After that, there was nothing that was going to stop me from learning to live, really live. Something beautiful was waiting when I actually walked through darkness and fear.
My experience of growing up in a Bangladeshi community within the larger American community had its ups and downs. There were certain expectations I felt that had to be met, to be worth all the sacrifices my immigrant parents made, in order for all of us to be deemed successful. Success and failure were seen as a group venture; individual desires and achievements were seen as selfish. For one, I had to have straight A’s in all my classes. I remember one time I misspelled one word in my spelling test, and my mother had me write that word 100 times. But I was one of the lucky ones in my community, because I didn’t get beat with brooms and wooden spoons if I earned an A-, like some of my cousins. Or maybe it was because I seldom earned anything less than an A. I got slapped across the face when I shaved my legs for the first time at age 11, with no explanation. I should’ve just known that doing grown up women stuff probably meant that I was going to do some dating “fating”, and that was one of the biggest fears of my mother. No dating allowed, arranged marriage was the only option, even in America. I never got the story of the bird and the bee, nor any information about menstruation. Google didn’t exist back then.
Before I go on, I have to say that I love, admire and respect my parents immensely. Even though they faced poverty, war, violence, and discrimination, they are full of kindness and love. They go out of their way to help those in need. So if my version of my childhood seem a bit harsh, please know, their intentions were always good. Their childhood was a thousand times worse.
On top of struggling with the usual adolescent insecurities (why can't I be skinnier? why don’t boys fall all over me? why am I so hairy? why can’t my parents be like her parents? why is my closet full of cheap, tacky Alexander’s clothes? why can’t my parents let me hang out with my friends? I wish I was pretty), I felt an immense pressure to protect the reputation of my parents. I didn’t realize this pressure I felt until my breakdown, in my senior year of high school.
Reputation is one of the holy grails in my parents’ community. If one of the aunties said the following about one’s daughter, the shame one would have to live with for years is too unbearable (might as well have been stabbed with a knife in the heart by one’s daughter). Picture this: a night of gathering at someone’s house, probably 20 or 30 people (it’s not a gathering if your house is not overflowing with women in sarees, men trying not to get in the way of passing the assortments of Indian sweets and chai, kids screaming and running around in a 900 square feet of space). In such a gathering, as usual, the aunties have gathered to bitch about their overworked husbands, naughty children, and shameful teenagers. When one aunty abashedly proclaims, “You know the other day, “vwhen” I went to shop, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw Seema! You know, the daughter of Zilfer, who is the cousin of my sister-in-law’s brother’s wife? Yes, yes, you know her, l’ll show you a photo from Shilpa’s wedding when you come to my house next. Seema and this boy (in a hush hush voice) they were talking and laughing, just them two! (with her right hand on her forehead like modern day version of smh) What kind of shame is she going to bring to her poor parents’ house. Girls these days are so selfish!” While I was, again, one of the lucky ones, because my mother allowed me to have friends of both sexes, I was not allowed to hang out with any friends outside of school and my house, even when I was 22! Unmarried women cannot be trusted out of sight of their parents. After all, puppy love can sway us to do shameful things, like laughing too loudly with a boy (what will people think?). She only let me sleepover and hang out at my best friend’s house, because she was also from my country, her parents and my parents were lifelong friends, and her parents were a million times stricter than my parents. Her mother could smell it when you even thought of a boy, and she could whip that shit out of you in a blink of an eye. Oh the memories.
During my high school years, I finally began to push my boundaries and try to be somewhat of a normal American teenager. Even though I’ve liked boys since 5 or 6, I never dared to voice that or act upon it until I was 14. I went through some very challenging issues in my family for most of my life, and I just came to the point in my life where I felt, “fuck it, I’m doing it anyway.” So I secretly kissed a few boys. I had my first secret boyfriend, a fun long relationship of two weeks. All these “relationships” were all in school and over the phone. When my parents were busy with their own challenges to keep up with what was going on in their children’s lives, I started venturing off on outings with my secret boyfriends by the time I was 16. I tried to be cautious, so no aunty or uncle would see me.
Being so careful of what I wore (no short or tight dresses), of whom I was seen with, of getting perfect grades, of not disappointing my parents, of not ruining their reputation (I tried too hard to counter the shame, the dark cloud that surrounded our family name because of my parents' divorce), of participating in cultural functions where I felt inauthentic, of being expected to marry someone only my parents approved of, of finding a career path that would make my parents proud, of finding scholarships so my parents would not have to take on more jobs to pay for college, of being a good daughter, felt like a tremendous boulder on my shoulders. And one day, it broke me.
I went to a local grocery store near my house with some of my friends (males and females) after an event at my school, to which I was surprisingly allowed to go. As my friends and I were making inappropriate jokes too loudly and laughing our heads off in the store, I noticed that the owner of the store was Indian looking. I froze. I went back to my friend’s car. I asked them to drop me off at the end of the block instead of in front of my house, because I felt something bursting inside of me, and I needed to leave them as soon as I could. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I jumped out of the car without saying bye, and I ran all the way home without turning around. I’m not even sure if anyone was home, because I was blinded by the tears that were pooling in my eyes, while I ran up the steps to the bathroom. And I violently cried for a long, long time, while I had the shower running to drown out the noise. Later, my friends asked me what happened, but I still didn’t have the words to explain, because I also didn’t know what happened. It was years later, when I realized I was a pressure cooker ready to explode.
I didn’t listen to my break down then, I didn’t understand that my soul was crying out for freedom. It took another decade to understand. It took another breakdown, a major one, to start the road to be my authentic self and find happiness.
“We haven’t become ill; we were ill already. Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis.”
“The reason we break down is that we have not, over years, flexed very much. There were things we needed to hear inside our minds that we deftly put to one side, there were messages we needed to heed, bits of emotional learning and communicating we didn’t do – and now, after being patient for so long, far too long, the emotional self is attempting to make itself heard in the only way it now knows how. It has become entirely desperate – and we should understand and even sympathise with its mute rage.” http://www.thebookoflife.org/the-importance-of-having-a-breakdown/