By Sonya Rehman
I never thought I’d say this, but the mid/late 30s are weird. I’ve never been one to make a big hue and cry about hiding my age or stressing about hitting the big 3-0, in fact, when I turned 30, I was utterly excited. The 20s are an extended trial and error decade you see – where you fumble through the world, knocking things over, falling over and just being a complete blubbering little disaster. But when I turned 36 this year, I was gripped by quiet panic.
I felt like I was in a Mindy Kaling sitcom; Freeze the eggs! So many things to do! To write! Man to meet! Places to see! Experiences to be lived! Feelings to be felt!
But let’s back it up a bit: in 2009, after losing someone I deeply cared for, I voluntarily placed myself in a self-imposed love exile. I had zero self-awareness as a 26-year-old and I honestly didn’t even realize what I was doing…till literally a decade later. Stripped of self-confidence and self-respect, I allowed myself to nose-dive into an abyss of shame, guilt and self-loathing. ‘Abyss’ – sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it? But the truth it, it felt like an abyss of despair – I didn’t have the tools to get out. It was all in my head of course. And I allowed the narrative to play out within me and stretch out into my external world; the narrative that I was nothing and that my life was of little consequence to anything or anyone. I allowed this shitty story-line – with me starring as its loser protagonist – play out through my personal life. On the work front, I faked it. It’s true; I had many highs, and hung on to my career as if my sanity depended on it. And it did. But I overlooked the ‘work’ I needed to do on myself.
The narrative further perpetuated itself when a loved one battled cancer five years ago. There were many times I’d beg God during prayer to let the disease flow into me and that if one of us were to pass on, to please let it be me. My loved one valued life, not me. My loved one was a better person, not me. The trial, I felt, was grossly unfair, and I had these ridiculous delusions of self-sacrificing grandeur thinking I could visualize the cancer out of my loved one and place it in me. I wasn’t trying to morph into Mother Theresa v.2, I promise, far from it. But I was seized by an urgency to ‘save.’ If I couldn’t save myself, I had to save someone else.
It was nuts. But then again, grief does strange things to you. You become completely unhinged by it. It pushes you to the edge of your carefully constructed sense of normalcy.
Thankfully my loved one beat the disease, and for a while, I became engrossed in work again. I worked on my social life, met friends, and let myself live a little. But I continued lugging the baggage around lovingly. But in 2018 when the cancer relapsed, I went into auto-pilot mode. Given my loved one was holed up in quarantine in hospital with another family member for a month, I had to stay home and hold the fort. But there were times when I’d receive panicked phone calls past 12am and had to summon a cab to drive 25 minutes at high speed to the hospital. The PTSD was real. But I was emotionally very reticent. Even though I’ve lost count of the times I’d cry in a Careem, feeling exceptionally alone and sorry for myself in the presence of awkward cabbies. Perhaps that could make for a cute short story; the Careem Cry Baby – Maneuvering Through Lahore’s Heartless Jungle.
Anyway, I was so stoic and stable in the face of emergencies that I surprised myself sometimes. Emotional collapse was a luxury I couldn’t afford. And I still can’t. In Islamabad towards the end of last year, a close friend and I had a horrible accident. Luckily, no one was hurt. Later, my friend remarked how calm I was. But I’m digressing.
The past few months have been a revelation. When I think of them, I think of warm, golden sunlight after a terrible storm. Somewhere along the way, I felt a switch within me turn off. And then the baggage disappeared.
I feel radiant ever since I allowed myself to come back into my own after the premeditated self-exile. I don’t know how it happened and at what point it happened. Did I psyche myself out of the pain? Was the trauma therapy for my silly thoughts? Did it pave the way for self-awareness? Did it push me over the edge and let me taste the abyss only to spring back? Did I have to taste the abyss first before I could live in joy? Or was I suddenly more conscious of my mortality? Or maybe my soul was downright sick of me and was like; ‘Fuck you, I need to radiate some light out of this shitty excuse of a meat skeleton that you have on.’
And just like that, it was done. The inner work began.
Sometimes when I look back, I can’t even recognize who I was even three years ago. I now look at life and the people I come across with a lens of deep affection. I can’t help it. Again, no Mother Theresa syndrome, I can still be a real bitch sometimes.
But I’m dancing again. And that’s all that matters.
Won’t lay down our heads till the day is won
Won’t stop running till we reach the sun
Chasing all the things that are keeping us young
We won’t stop running till we reach the sun
We are all creatures of the sun
We’re all children of the rain
We’re just chasin’ what we can…