Most of the time, I’m a chatterbox, till I need to retreat into myself to catch my breath. But it’s incredibly rare that you’ll hear me share any carefully guarded secrets and feelings that render me exposed. I’ve become a master of obfuscation. I talk to anyone on just about anything, including seemingly deep issues, yet snake past anything that feels too personal. I didn’t want to belabour people with emotional stories or worries. But, more recently, sharing stories with friends or strangers has let me connect, comfort, and slowly heal, because I’ve realized that I’m not alone, I just have a different story. So, here I go, for the first time, broadcasting to you all.
I’m proud to say I was born in London, of Indian descent raised in a culturally diverse family of migrants/refugees from east Africa. My remarkable family has endured hardships that I will likely never face, to provide me with the roots for a comfortable start in life and a happy childhood. As a kid, in my unbounded imagination I wanted to be a Spice Girl (Chai Spice would have been my name, or something equally corny) or an actress in one of my many ingenious, original plays. I kept busy with three types of dance, piano, swimming, tennis, gymnastics and Kumon. Then at age 12, my family took a leap across the pond to Texas.
What I had imagined as a new exciting life of horseback riding and dustbowls, soon turned into a reality of being a stranger in a foreign southern small town. And boy was I unlike anything they had ever seen or heard! British accents weren’t possible for a brown skinned person — you could only be from England if you were white. The identity I’d created as a quirky Spice Girl wannabe (get it?) was quickly labelled fake, something I had devised to get attention. So, it began – harmless teasing that escalated to bullying on everything from my accent and clothes to my body type. Even in my interactions with the local Indian community, I felt like an outsider. Here I was, a third generation Indian with grandparents from Africa, British parents, with no ties to India whatsoever. I was on my very own, deserted island.
The school bullying came in a variety of forms: cyber bullying, isolation or being publicly ridiculed. I was told by some to end my life or become a lesbian because I was too ugly to ever have a boyfriend, was alienated on the school bus (which I had previously, and quite erroneously imagined to be my very own version of The Magic School Bus) and more. And among the Indian community, I was at times told, I wasn’t “smart” enough, wouldn’t be very successful, oh, and a slut. (How anyone can be a slut and kiss a guy for the first time at 16 is still beyond me.)
The downpour never seemed to stop. I developed eating disorders, anxiety, and eventually intermittent depressive episodes. I never told my parents or anyone else for a very long time. I coped and suffered in silence. As I pushed through toward university, I did my best to reinvent myself, but still bore a tonne of emotional weight and my unhealthy habits followed me.
Dealing with a host of mental health issues felt like a downward spiral. Now I know it changes your body chemistry, immunity, and seeps into your relationships like a slow poison. More frustratingly, you encounter those that see it as simply a light switch you just aren’t willing to turn on.
But it’s never that simple. Especially when you have disordered eating, a challenge at every meal. There were many days when I would eat something indulgent or “taboo” and immediately regret nourishing my body and spent the rest of the day with a cloud of guilt hanging over my head. It was taxing on my relationships, where my loved ones couldn’t understand how I could be so hard on myself, when they loved my imperfections and thick thighs. And worse still, I hid it and did it anyway knowing it was wrong and I was hurting myself.
My anxiety would plague me at work. My mind would instantly default to “I’m not smart enough, I shouldn’t be here.” I knew people could sense my anxiousness, which only made it worse.
When depression or low self-esteem hit it felt like Instagram had created my own personal filter of greys and clouds for everything in sight. I wanted to hide and sleep, all the time. I would crawl into bed and wish away my problems and my life because I felt trapped. Worse still was when I had plans of all the things I wanted to accomplish in a day, but was overcome by the mental flood of emotions. It left me exhausted with no energy to tackle any of it. For quite some time, I was running on an autopilot and scraping by with the essentials: eat, work, sleep, rinse, repeat. Survival mode.
Gradually I’ve dug myself out of the hole. Reframing problems, meditating/yoga, creative outlets, envisioning demons while kickboxing, starting afresh in a new city (this one worked wonders for me) all things that slowly allowed me to see myself in a new light – or a light that was within reach. The demons don’t go away all at once, they become part of you that you get to choose whether to fuel or put out. They will at times resurface and completely eclipse your world, but they will just as quickly dissipate when you remember you are not alone.
I learned to make room for myself. I prioritized my health and have started to watch that downward spiral turn into a forward momentum. Recently, a business trip took me to Israel and I got the chance to visit the Dead Sea. A wondrous, naturally occurring body of water so salinized that you can only float. Upon entering any body of water, there is always a risk of drowning but I effortlessly floated. I now openly share struggles and stories with people at work or in my personal life, and though there is the fear of judgment and the chance I could sink, it doesn’t touch me, I always end up floating.
Along the way, I’ve learned that my life is so much bigger than the vessel I arrived in. An army of mentors at work became my friends in important meetings that reassured me of my place. And I’m learning to recognize and decelerate when a depressive mood is hovering.
My mum always says, “honesty is the best policy” because you can’t begin to deal with the realities of your world if you’re not true to yourself and others. Here is my truth: I am imperfect and far more beautiful than if I were flawless.