2018 has been a year of incredible highs and heartbreaking lows and I can’t decide if I want to tuck it away for a cold day with a cup of courage or watch it burst into flames in a bonfire. I’m so tired and so heavy but still trying to find joy and love and hope in the small things. Right now I’m sitting in the only coffeeshop I could find open on New Year’s Eve, and in typical last minute fashion, I’m trying to reflect back on a year I desperately want to forget, searching for lessons. I am sitting underneath a neon sign proclaiming Thinking of a Master Plan and right now I’d like to think that’s exactly what I’m doing.
I haven’t spoken about this until now but for many months of the year (nearly half) I found myself wading helplessly in the dark. I couldn’t sleep at night, I missed many of my morning alarms, I ran later than usual to the hospital more days than not. I chugged coffee when I didn’t have time to eat to curb my hunger, and then when I did I barely ate. I worked long hours — longer than most, by virtue of the luck of the draw. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t give myself the space to figure out what. I was exhausted, I broke, and I burned out. I stopped responding to messages and e-mails that weren’t urgent because I was drained, I stopped reaching out to the people I loved, I stopped communicating how I was feeling. It came down to this: I tried to be strong for everyone, because I thought that’s what everyone expected: calm, collected, cool, put together. It ate me up because I not only felt the weight of my expectations, but of all those cheering me on expecting this journey to be easy for me. It felt so, so heavy, and I finally snapped. I defined my worth in places I had no business defining it, and despite my uncompromising optimism, I snapped. It continued until one day I wasn’t sinking anymore and it left, as elusively as it came. On my twenty-fifth birthday I was notified I was accepted to Columbia University and began rerouting my life plans to move to a different city for the first time in my life and put everything behind me.
Throughout the months I prepared for my drastic, life-changing move, I realized that in general we may live in big cities (mine is apparently the fourth largest in the states) but we create small worlds. If we allow ourselves, we become accustomed to staying in the same place. Comfort is always the easy route, and before we know it we’re grown up, and time has run out, and all those hopes and dreams that found us in our youth get tired of waiting to be realized and leave us in search of others to carry them out. So I left Houston and put medical school on the temporary back burner because my world had become too small to contain all of me, and I became too comfortable, and I realized that if it wasn’t now it would be never. I ventured to make it a bit bigger.
I settled comfortably and shockingly seamlessly into NYC, the way one does when they do exactly what was meant to happen to them. I met a host of incredible people who quickly made a different city feel like home. The thing I feared most before moving, I think, was being alone in a new city that knew nothing of who I was, or am, or even what I wanted to be. Through this leap I discovered that I can pack my whole life and move to the furthest corners of wherever I imagined myself to be and still create something special out of it. I’m not sure what makes a home, but NYC slowly began to feel like home. I developed a simultaneous peace and unrest in a soul that was unlearning, and struggling, and failing, and growing, and lightly becoming, and all the burnout that plagued me in the beginning of the year turned into uncontrollable excitement for all that was to come, and my heart was brimming.
One early morning, before my alarm had rang, I received a panicked phone call from my mom. It was a month after I moved to NYC, and my father, out of the blue, suffered a devastating stroke. I was on the first flight out of NYC, crying on the last seat of an airplane, eternally grateful for friends who banded together to support me: venmo funds for lyft rides to the airport, dropping everything to stay in the hospital so they could translate medical language to my mother until I arrived, buying my family comfort food when we neglected our bodies. They gave me love, and support, and made me me question what I ever did to deserve beautiful people in my life who refused to let me slip through the cracks.
For my medical people — 66yo male with well controlled HTN presenting with left sided hemiparalysis found to have a R MCA ischemic stroke s/p tPA with hemorrhagic conversion complicated by increased ICP at high risk for herniation, stat decompressive craniectomy, wheeled out of the OR to the neuro ICU in a coma for a week. Prognosis: significant mortality and morbidity.
For my non-medical people — The stroke destroyed the right side of my father’s brain. Our doctors went from 90% chance of survival when he was admitted to 10% chance of survival within twenty-four hours.
For two weeks I slept at the foot of the bed of my father in the neuro ICU, shut off from the world, trying to convince my family 10% is still a fighting chance. I was already taking twice the amount of graduate classes I should’ve been taking to graduate in half the amount of time. I emailed professors, missed classes, drowned in assignments and readings, and with it being midterm week, shutdown. I tried, hard. I wrote responses at my father’s bedside, read books in between the doctors and the nurses, even skyped into a class so I wouldn’t fail. When my father continued to deteriorate with complications, I contemplated withdrawing from Columbia to take care of my family. I panicked because it was too late to apply for residency and I felt I had ruined everything I worked for. I was in limbo. One month after moving to New York, I was telling myself I shouldn’t have gone. How selfish and irresponsible it was of me to leave as the eldest in the family — I always have to be the glue.
When my father’s life wasn’t in danger anymore, I grabbed his laptop and his checks and his to-do lists and his letters and with a heart heavy with guilt packed them up in my personal bag and flew back to NYC. Deep down I knew this is what he would’ve wanted me to do. From my shoebox of an apartment I continued my graduate studies while also making sure the roof stayed above my family’s heads. I paid bills, taxes, managed banked accounts. I stepped outside of class to talk to social workers and case managers, argued with insurance companies, fought hospital transfers, talked management plans and medications with doctors. I only told the people closest to my heart, because at the end of the day I couldn’t handle giving this information to people I knew never intended to hold me. They watched as I tried to hold it desperately together while slowly unraveling. I don’t think I ever stopped crying.
I may always have to be the glue, but it was my village that allowed me to be.
People consider this strong, and the for the weeks I was back, my professors continuously used this to describe me. I only remember desperately trying to be. I paid close attention to the people who were there, and the people who weren’t, and though some of the results shocked me and angered me, I am now more aware of who I should surround myself with. Someone once mentioned in class that losing a parent is difficult because you come to the realization that there is no one else to lift the world from your shoulders once they’re gone. When the world fell on mine I had no choice but to carry it. So I lived simply to survive and my village held me along the way, but I dragged my heart, and I questioned this soul, and I once again became furious with the world. I physically, emotionally, spiritually couldn’t handle anything more. When I asked why me, I had to remember to follow it with why not, and it was a humiliating and humbling experience. Took it day, by day, by day. I don’t know how I made it through the semester, back to Houston, sitting across from my father, but today is New Year’s Eve and I have.
My father is still in the hospital three months later. He is recovering painstakingly slow. For the first time in months he was able to hold a a small conversation with me. People ask me about his progress and wish for a full recovery, and this pains me because I’ve seen his scans and I know he most likely won’t ever move the left side of his body ever again. We are adjusting to a new normal, and that is all we can pray for right now. He complains that his left hand is broken, and when he smiles only his right lip turns up. It’s charming, in a way, and my dad is a man who has always overcome adversity with pride and in stride. His voice is weak from not being used, but I know this will grow stronger. Things will never go back to the way they were before, my medical knowledge has deprived me of this hope, and dynamics have changed, and I have had to age decades in the last couple of months in order to do what is only for me to do, and it’s been hard letting go of how I alway thought the future was going to play out, but we are moving along. I am so incredibly proud of my family.
A few days ago, as we were walking out of the hospital, my mother told me a story of my birth that I never heard. She shared how all her sisters made fun of her for having a daughter for a first-born, since they all had sons, and she recalled crying to her mother about the teasing. Her mother told her that one daughter can be more valuable than several sons. My mother looked at me and said the angels heard her words and wrote them down in my book, and here I am, carrying my grandmother’s blessing. It doesn’t feel fair, that this is who I must be, and perhaps one day I can’t, but so far I am, and I do, and I will, so let’s keep going while I got it.
This is not to say 2018 was a complete failure.
2018 is the year I turned twenty-five, and I have found beauty in this age. Twenty-five is building empires. It is young enough to still be naive, but old enough to realize you don’t have time to waste not taking risks out of fear. You don’t have time to waste not taking shots because of a chance of failure. It is fine-tuning who you are and what you want while still trying to figure it all out — it is still being flexible, but doing so without self-compromise. It is still self-love and self-confidence, but with exquisite refinement. It is being well into adulthood, well into being a woman, and gingerly settling into your skin, your space, your existence and making a home. It’s having a heart that desires to be, to do more, and knowing everything is still at your fingertips. Opportunities still await you. The sun still rises, casts its rays on your empire. Aging is positively elegant and twenty five is simply basking in it.
Some amazing things happened. My TEDx talk was published. One of my favorite attendings told me how much of an accomplishment it was — most people who publish articles in journals don’t have as many people reading their words as I had people watching me speak, which truly put it into perspective. I did a profile interview with AllHeartsScrubs. Collaborated with TAIBA in Houston for my first ever poetry headline in honor of World Hijab Day. I completed all my medical school exams. I won a departmental award during the rotation I felt I was performing at my lowest (the same time I was wading helplessly in the dark), which reminded me that I need to stop being so harsh on myself. I wrote a letter, published online now 4000+ in shares, and received messages from medical students and deans across the states thanking me for my words. I’m set to be inducted into the Golden Humanism Honor Society, an honor I was notified of while studying in Butler Library on the grounds of Columbia, an honor I had convinced myself I wasn’t deserving of. I was accepted to Columbia University and was told I was born to write. I moved to New York City. I live in Harlem. I met incredible people who continuously inspire me to be better versions of myself, who without I would not be able to stand today, who helped me to expand my beautiful village — it has lead me to broadening the scope of my mind, and my ambition, to the same room as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Angela Davis, to rooms I’ve only dreamed of. I dressed up and cheered on a phenomenal friend at New York Fashion Week, hiked up a mountain for the first time to observe autumn in full bloom. A creative community took me in and gave me a microphone and a stage and a vision and a family. I’m on my way, to getting my words out there, in platforms I once dreamed of. I finished my semester at Columbia, completed half of my master’s degree. Grades are rolling in — God is great.
Some funny things happened. Like starting a movement to get a widely popular Instagram scrub company to showcase more diversity (specifically, Muslim women in healthcare). It worked, even though I’m not currently the face of it. I’m actually quite grateful for this. There was the time I was scouted to model for a new MAC cosmetics campaign only to cancel the shoot due to my father. I now have a story to tell at parties. And the time I was mistaken for a dancer at Juilliard, when I was simply there for a meeting, which had me gliding through the world that day. Then there was Aziz Ansari casually photobombing my scenic shot.
Some utterly magical things happened. On a cruise as the sun set, feeling the wind, the tunes of Frank Sinatra and New York and the Statue of Liberty, and the disbelief that this could happen to someone like me the first week I settled into my apartment. Running alongside the Hudson river as dawn pulled across the sky within twenty-four hours of moving to NYC. Strolling the MoMA, and the MET, sitting in the same coffeeshops as famous authors and typing away at a manuscript, having damn good authentic Greek coffee. Watching snow dance a graceful waltz down from the sky, curtsy as it touched the ground, running late to class with snow clinging to my hijab and my coat because I was not going to miss my first real snowfall. Coming back to my roots, of realizing the world outside of medicine, of realizing more of who I wanted to be, of stepping back so I can step into myself, and continuously remembering that God does not test us with burdens we can not handle, and that everything has its reason. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, and one day, when you reflect on all that pain you endured, you’ll see from the other side what was destined for you, what strength you were endowed with.
This year I learned that growing pains are damn painful. Some years will be better than others. Surround yourself with light and people who aren’t afraid to be brutally honest with your character flaws, then listen to them. Stop saying you can’t. Start saying you will. Laugh from your soul and cry from the same place, unabashedly. Accept when nothing can be done, fight when it can. Blooming into yourself takes solitude and effort and change and anger and tears and reflection and a village. At times it can be lonely, but push through. When it comes to your village — people will come in and out of your life, appreciate and love the ones who stay (I wouldn’t have been able to survive without them), and gracefully bid adieu to those who never intended to (let them go, without anger, without spite, let them go). Ask the strong people in your life the state of their heart. Know that all of this takes time, and time can only move forward, and every breath testifies to this existence, so remember when it becomes too heavy that this too shall pass. At the end of all of this you must know your worth, because you’re the only person to advocate for yourself. Know your worth so no one else can appraise it.
I still need to sit down and write my resolutions for 2019. I’m recognize the immense amount of growing I still need to do, acknowledging that though it feels like it, this year wasn’t as much of a failure as my mind makes it out to be, and that I still need to learn to be kinder to myself, to wring every moment I’m given for what I can get. I need to remember that every I can’t turned into I did or this wasn’t meant for me. Need to continuously remind myself this, step by step.
Most importantly, I’m recognizing how much more I need to tell the people that I love that I really love them. To those people, I know you’re reading this, and you know who you are, and I love you, and I am so grateful and praise God everyday for blessing me with your presence in this life. This year would have been unbearable without you.
Social media has a tendency to push people into comparisons and my life is far from perfect and together. If you’ve made it this far down my emotional rollercoaster, I appreciate you. If you had a rough year, know that you are not alone. If you’ve had a wonderful year, I’m so proud of you and wish you all the best. In either case, continuously humble yourself because lives change in 365 days. This year has been one huge mess, so I’m accepting this year as time. Say adieu and welcome 2019 with wide arms, and know the next 365 days are yours for the crafting and the taking.
Please pray for each other, and as always, wishing you love and light, and the insight to realize the reason behind the challenges we face.
Happy New Year and Hello 2019.