SMILE, BISH! When I first started experiencing symptoms of polycystic kidney disease, I had no idea what was happening. My whole body hurt, I had a 105 fever, and couldn't piss. My kidneys had stopped functioning. I checked myself into the hospital and they told me it was a uti. I never had a one in my life and I knew something else was wrong. I spent a year in and out of the hospital, every few months the symptoms would return and the doc would pump me full of antibotics that killed everything good in my body and left me weak, pale and susceptible to other illnesses. I was losing my hair and my will to keep going. If I was going to be in pain all the time, what was the point?
After a year with no diagnosis, I demanded that the doc ultrasound my kidneys, that's where the pain was after all! The ultrasound showed black polka-dots all over, cysts. They told me it was a genetic disease that I had carried in my genes but it could be triggered by large amounts of stress or toxicity. It all made sense now. The first time I ever had a symptom was right after coming out to my parents. Read my coming out story. Their reaction was so toxic that it literally sent me to the hospital. I knew I had to remove myself from that environment. So, after being home from Istanbul only two weeks, and recovering from the first hospital visit, I packed my belongings and got out. That choice saved my life.
I know now that PKD is an inflammatory disease, and inflammation is caused by stress most of all, as well as an unhealthy diet. Though this disease is progressive and has no cure except a transplant, I am so grateful that I have it. Because of it, I completely transformed my life. I pay attention to my body, rest when I need to, and appreciate every moment. I refuse to be around toxic people or environments. My kidneys literally give me spidey senses- sharp pains will shoot through them when I'm around any negativity. Sometimes my body knows it before I do! It's my new super power.
When I was diagnosed, I faced my own mortality. There were days that I couldn't walk because of the pain. It scared me into action. I was once a fearful and anxious person. Now, I face every challenge without fear and appreciate everything I have.
What is your silver lining?
Our memory is creative. So creative that 50% of your memories are not even true. That means that you can create false memories for yourself which will affect your personality and eventually your destiny. By mediating on false memories that are positive and uplifting, new behaviors will form and thus change our destiny. If we continue to think about negative memories, we will forever find ways to re-live those feelings in the present. You cannot create a new future when holding onto the emotions of the past. You must create new emotions for a new future, by changing how you think about your painful memories of the past. Break the habit of negativity.
To change is to be greater than your habits.
Every morning and every night you must think about your vision for the future so you are programming your thoughts to focus on that, thus you will attract that reality.
The same thoughts will produce the same reality, so if your thoughts don't change, you will always repeat the same reality over and over, which is the definition of hell on earth. “Heaven” is an enlightened state of mind, or being 'awake', fully present, and at peace.
Emotions influence our biology. It is very likely that extreme emotional distress can trigger hidden parts of our DNA and cause disease.Emotions influence our neuro-chemistry, hormones, and genetic expression. They may bring out something that is written in your genes, like my PKD which was genetic.
Your personality creates your personal reality
Your personality is made up of how you think, act, and feel. To create a new future reality, you must first become an entirely new person. The hardest part about change is not making the same choices you did the day before. New choices feel uncomfortable because there is a sense of uncertainty. We get used to doing the same tasks in comfort. Discomfort is a good sign that you are making changes in your life.
Like a movie in your mind, mentally rehearse what you are going to do before actually doing it. This installs the neurological hardware in your brain to complete that task. Visualize what needs to be done the day before, to ensure you are in the right frame of mind to complete the task. Focus on how it feels to do the task, and the satisfaction afterwards. Emotions solidify thoughts in our mind so you're more likely to take action the next day.
This blog paraphrased the key points of a speech by Dr. Joe Dispenza who is a self-help expert. I highly recommend watching the full lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BVb2p4hhVE
I will be watching it multiple times, because every time I understand a little deeper. Dr. Dispenza is a great person to follow if you are on a journey like me towards self healing, opening your heart, and becoming the best version of yourself. Tell me all about your journey!
A conversation with Singer/Songwriter and Tazyeen Ayub on her podcast, Digging Deeper.
On the season finale, I visited my friend Tazyeen and had a deep and frank discussion about life, body image, entrepreneurship, and more. This moment was very important for me because it meant sharing passion for my work as a fashion designer and love activist. Watch the full episode below.
"Expression is an exploration of our inner selves, when we dig deep and allow ourselves to be inspired. There are so many forms in which a person can express themselves, through art, poetry, music, food, and much more. In this weekly series, Digging Deeper, we discuss, in depth, topics around expression as a deeply spiritual endeavor as well as expression as a means of activism. Each week Tazeen sits down with a local artist, activist, or person with a spiritual practice to dig deeper about a topic relevant and important to the guest and the viewers. At the end of the hour, the guest shares their expression with the audience."
Episodes are live every Tuesday evening at 7pm (EST) on Tazeen's Instagram (@tazeen.ayub). Because they are live, viewers can comment with their reflections and questions. Digging Deeper is meant to be a wider conversation between Tazeen, the guest, and viewers so that together we can gain deeper insight and clarity.
We all have dreams, but how many of us are actually living them? As a child we had dreams about what we want to be when we grow up, but many of us end up working jobs we hate. Those people say thing's to me like, “You're so lucky you get to work as an artist! I wish I could have done that.” There are two things that are wrong with these statements. First, it has nothing to do with luck. I am where I am today as a result of every small decision I made. Second, it is never too late to start! Lots of people start a new career in their older age. That being said, these are the steps that I used to create a life I love.
1. Define life by YOUR standards
This one has to be first, because without this step this entire article is useless. If you are constantly judging your life by other people's standards, you will never truly be happy even if your life is everything you dreamed for. Society tells us that we should: Go to college, graduate and get hired at a 9-5 job, get married, have kids, then retire till you die. If you want that life, all the power to you! But that formula doesn't fit everyone. I went to college because I thought I was supposed to. There is no “supposed to” in life. Your life is yours, and there is no timeline. You can go to college at 81 instead of 18 if you wanted to! Ask yourself what kind of life you want, and don't pay attention to what others think you should do. It's not their life to live.
2. Make each day your dream day
Sometimes it's hard to imagine what you want your whole life to look like. A good place to start is to ask yourself: “what would my dream day consist of?” Get a piece of paper and write down all the activities you would want to do on a perfect day. Mine looks something like this: Wake up to a beautiful sunrise, draw or paint before having a delicious breakfast then going for a run or bike ride. Then meeting with some clients for custom outfits (that look fabulous on them!), going to the beach to watch the sunset, then having dinner with friends. It doesn't have to be complicated or fancy. Your dream day will evolve with your goals. Just start with a simple day plan, and write down how much time would be spent on each activity. Once you write down everything you want to fit into a day, it will be much easier to identify your priorities in life. If you can't fit something into your day, its hard to fit it into your life. Focus your energy on these priorities and your days will be amazing!
3. Create your own opportunities
Some are born with all the resources in the world, but never amount to anything, while others are born with very little and achieve greatness. How can that be? It's because even though we may not start on the same level, the universe is full to the brim with opportunities. All it takes is the right amount of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Success comes to those who can see things others do not. The entire world is connected, like a giant machine. There are always gaps in the system that you can slip into. A great example is the recycled products industry- like shoes made from old tires. The rest of the world saw the tires and dismissed it as trash, but the founder saw an opportunity to use the tires as soles for shoes. Train yourself to see things others don't, and then build something from it.
4. Treasure your energy...like gold!
You never have the time you need to take action on your goals- or so you thought! You would be surprised how much energy you have when you start being mindful of how you spend it. It's kind of like budgeting money. Once you list all your expenses, its easy to see where all your money is going. There are countless ways to waste your energy. Digital sources take up the most time- like T.V, Internet and social media. Mundane or repetitive tasks that could be done in a smarter way also drain energy. However, people are the biggest drainers of energy. Try to monitor your energy when you are around others- who makes you feel drained? Avoid them as much as possible. Your energy is precious, there is only so much of it in a day. The priorities you listed in step #2 should be what you spend the most energy on.
5. Find your tribe
Remember the energy suckers from step four? Your goal is to find their exact opposite. Find people who fill you with energy rather than drain it. Surround yourself with friends who share a dream similar to yours, so you can fuel each others passion. When you are living an alternative lifestyle, it helps to be around others who think like you, so you are a part of a community. These people should celebrate your success and shower you with positive vibes, but also be able to give you constructive criticism. A true friend will be honest with you about things you need to change, without being judgmental or harsh. Friends like this come few and far between, so hold on to them!
6. Load up on good Karma
A great way to make friends and rack up good karma is to give without expecting anything in return. Be generous just for the sake of being kind. Be generous with your time, resources, and knowledge. If someone is upset, be someone who listens and empathizes. If someone is in need and you are able to help them, do it. If someone comes to you for advice, don't withhold knowledge because you are afraid of what they might do with it. This is a common pitfall for entrepreneurs, we are afraid of competition. Don't give away company secrets- but some free advice can mean the world to that person. You will find that once you are a generous person, the good karma will rack up and the universe will be generous right back. There are countless scenarios where I was in a desperate situation and compete strangers helped me out. I would like to think it's because of my good karma.
7. Choose happiness
Another way to load up on good karma is to respect and appreciate life. Happiness is a choice, so when we choose anything else we are not appreciating the gift we have been given. Follow these steps to get happy now! The way we feel every day comes down to our mood, and our mood is created by our thoughts, and our thoughts are created by our perceptions. It is a difficult process to change your perception of the world, because it is developed during childhood and heavily influenced by our experiences. For example, when a child is attacked by a dog, often times they grow up to be adults who fear dogs. Changing your perception starts with challenging the beliefs you learned in childhood. For example, if you make a mistake your conditioned response may be to feel like a failure or beat yourself up about it. A happy person would acknowledge their mistake, and even celebrate it, because they believe that everything is a learning experience. Every negative situation has a silver lining if we look for it. Choosing happiness means conditioning yourself to find the silver lining around every rain cloud.
8. Don't wait for the right time
When something is important to us, we have a tendency to want to wait for the “right time”. We don't want to mess things up by starting before we are ready or have all the knowledge. Everything has to be perfect for us to take that first step. Guess what? That time will never come! You will always be busy. Life does not stop. If you want to live your dream life, you have to be okay with not knowing all the answers. Experience is the best way to learn. You have to get comfortable making mistakes- don't let the fear of failure stop you from moving forward. One step- even if its in the wrong direction- is still better than not progressing at all. Every so-called failure teaches you more than any class or book could teach you. Do like Nike says, Just Do It!
9. Make a commitment to growth and learning
While it is okay to make mistakes, it would be wrong to keep doing it and never learn. It is equally wrong to assume that you can get ahead in life without working on yourself and your skills. There is a direct correlation- improving yourself leads to an improved life. When you are healthier, can think clearer, and spend your energy wisely, it's only natural that your life will change to reflect that. It is the same with your career. When you invest into refining your skills and developing new ones you will reap the rewards. Try to identify your strengths and weaknesses, then make a plan to be the very best you can be.
What is YOUR dream day?
How are YOU living the life of your dreams, today?
Classic advice that will serve to improve the overall quality of your life.
1. Know thyself
In order to know which way to walk, you have to know what you're looking for. The same goes for life. You can't have a direction if you don't know what kind of person you want to be. If you want to be a wise person, then your natural direction would be to read more books and get more life experience. To know your direction you must know what it is that makes your heart truly happy. Think of what you liked to do when you were a child. What made you jump for joy? What made your heart race? Those are the experiences you need to be chasing. Know what gets you excited, and know what is crossing a red line for you. Learn to say no to people. Not everyone has your best interest at heart, not every experience is the right one for you. It is okay to walk away to protect yourself. Knowing your boundaries and respecting them will instantly boost your esteem and happiness.
2. Listen to your inner guiding voice
Everyone has had a gut feeling before. An event that you thought would happen actually did happen, and you realize that you should have trusted yourself when you had the initial thought. As we are living life, our body sends signals to us telling us if we have strayed off course. You were forced to make a decision that went against your moral code, you feel tight in your stomach. Something about someone made you think you shouldn't trust them but you gave them the benefit of the doubt then got burned. These feelings we have throughout life should be paid attention to. They are important and valid. If you are on a course of action and you start noticing this feeling, stop and change your direction. Head in the direction that feels right to you. You could save your life, make an amazing personal discovery, and enhance your quality of life.
3. Challenge yourself
You will never grow if you do the same things over and over again. Imagine a weight lifter who used ten pound dumbbells for their whole career. They may be fit, but they might not ever overcome a plateau. It is the same for your personal skills. Whether it be calculating engineering problems or painting, you must try new things in order to become truly great at what you do. I live with this constant feeling that there is so much I don't know, it drives me to always seek new knowledge. Read books about the subject you are interested in, or even books on something you thought was completely unrelated. You could be surprised how innovation in one field can influence a new idea in your field. If you don't have the discipline to teach yourself, take some classes either online in person. Never settle for the knowledge that you already have, always seek more.
4. Appreciate the small things
What is the beauty of life if not the small things? Life will feel much fuller and more joyous when you start appreciating the simple things. The sense of satisfaction you get after completing a work of art, cooking a delicious meal from scratch, or writing an insightful article. The clean water flowing from your faucet. The electricity that brings you the internet that connects you to people all over the world. Knowing that everyday is a chance to exercise your free will as a human being. Making a stranger smile. Seeing transformation in a child that once didn't believe in themselves and now does. Waking up next to someone you love. Sharing warm hugs with those you care about. Being able to make sounds in your throat that is known as language, that allows you to express yourself and be understood. The fact that YOU EXIST in this time, in this dimension, is a blessing in of itself.
5. Feed yourself only good, real food
Looking back at my diet a few years ago when I was in the deepest part of my depression, its no wonder I felt so physically fatigued. Sure, depression causes fatigue as well, but it becomes a vicious cycle when you don't feed yourself well because you aren't feeling well. I used to rely on the vending machines at my high school for lunch sometimes, wash it down with a diet soda. I would crash diet, focusing on what I couldn't eat as opposed to what I should be eating more of. Now, I try to eat two servings of fruits and vegetables everyday. Each meal needs to be balanced with protein, fruits/veggies, and a wholesome grain. Try to drink half your weight in ounces of water every day, its better than coffee at waking you up. Cut back on the salt, sugar, and fat, eat only real wholesome foods. It's what your body deserves.
6. Make your body a strong machine
Our bodies are meant to move. If we sit still for too long our bodies send us a signal by being achy, cramped, or tight. Commit to moving your body in some way each and every day. That may not mean hitting the gym. It could mean dancing in your living room in your PJ's all alone for a good hour. Speaking from experience, getting a little booty shaking in your day is always a good thing. Or some stretching- some calming yoga poses that really make your muscles thank you with that good feeling ache. A proven tool against depression is weight lifting. There are numerous studies that support this, and in a short time since weight lifting on and off I have experienced enormous physical benefits. I have better posture and my body feels more energetic. Do any physical activity that makes you happy and break a sweat at the same time! In no time your mood will follow the improvements in your body.
7. Calm your mind
Our minds have minds of their own, believe it or not! That's that inner voice, perhaps the criticizer who says “Don't do that, you'll look stupid!” or, “Don't go for that opportunity, you're not qualified!” We all have a voice inside our head that makes unwarranted comments to us throughout the day. The key here is realizing that the voice is not you. The voice is rather your Ego or False Self, spurred on by fear and reactive tendencies. There's no reason to be resentful of this voice, it is only trying to protect you from harm, as it sees fit according to past encounters. It is how human beings are wired. We need to simply dismiss the hurried anxious voice and say 'thank you for the suggestion, but I've got it from here', and tune back into the present moment. Feel inside that you are okay, as you are, this very moment. Clear your mind of all clutter, and be present where you are.
8. Tame your thoughts
Thoughts zip into the front of our consciousness seemingly from out of no where. You may be having a perfectly pleasant day when all of the sudden a disruptive thought comes into your head that makes you feel upset, uncomfortable, or angry. I honestly believe in the power of telepathy, that thoughts can travel around all vibrations and enter some other persons brain. Often times when a thought seems like it isn't coming from you, it really isn't. It's someone else's projection or influence on you. Learn to let certain thoughts just float by. Tell yourself “I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm thinking about---” Insert what you are doing in the present moment. As I'm writing this, I'm telling myself “I'm not thinking about that bill I have to pay, right now I'm thinking about writing this article.” The most important thing you can do in life is be in the present moment. That is honoring the moment, making the most of life, and unlocking the potential of the now.
What are the essential rituals you practice to get in the now? What can't you live without when it comes to keeping happy?
Photos are by the talented Thomas Scotch
It was like a light switch went off in my head. What used to seem horrible, unthinkable, and incomprehensible was suddenly easy and natural. Leaving Islam. And joining the rest of humanity. Yes. Being a Muslim did mean separating yourself from other people. They will tell you that's a lie. That Islam respects other religions, etc, and don't misunderstand me- they do – but from a distance. Don't be friends with quote “Non-Muslims”. You can smile and talk about basic things like school or work but you can never form close friendship. This type of self isolation causes fear to arise of the “Other”.
Growing up in a religiously split family, my mom's side was Catholic or non-religious, and my father's side was conservative Muslim. My mother converted after marrying my father and that meant that all of us had to be Muslim too. When I was younger, it gave me a sense of community and belonging. The people around me were almost always either Muslim or Middle Eastern or both. Some bragged about how long they spent at the Mosque. Like that did anything to better the world. In their mind they had racked up virtual “Good Deed” points that an angel on the right shoulder writes down. An angel on the left shoulder writes down all the "bad" things you did.
As a young teen growing up in the Islamic community, a lot of things I did were considered “bad”. Thinking about boys. Talking to a boy. Any type of physical contact with a boy before being married to him, for that matter. Drawing nude bodies in art school. Going out at night to dance. Showing skin besides my face and hands.
That one got me the most. When I was younger I pictured myself being an adult wearing the Hijab*. Then I grew up and realized I never wanted to wear it. I got some pressure from my dad growing up to put it on, but not as bad as some girls get. He never forced me to explicitly cover my hair, but he maintained steady control over what I wore. I had to be surveyed before leaving the house. If he disliked something- my skirt was two inches too short- he would ask me to change. Why? Because he didn't want boys to be tempted to do something to me because of my clothes. That's the bottom line of modesty in Islam. The responsibility of men's behavior falls onto women. And even then women in Burkas** get raped. They show a flash of ankle and it turns some sicko on. It takes a rapist to rape. And covering up the women will not stop them.
When will it end? Will women have to wear armor from now on? I'm a designer- yeah, I should think for the future and make fashionable armor because that's what women will need continue in this direction. Armor for our bodies, To protect ourselves from men who were raised in the mentality that “boys will be boys”.
Why are women in Islam taught not to make eye contact with a man? Is it that our eye contact will entice them sexually or because it is too defiant? So instead we look down. And the men talk down at us. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Having to look down puts out some of the fire in you. It makes you feel less human, and you connect to less people.
My dad's side of the family covers their faces with black veils when they go outside. I respect their choice to do so, and I don't think they are ignorant for doing what everyone in their culture does. However, for me personally, I find the Burkah highly offensive and would be devastated if I was forced to wear it somehow. It dehumanized the woman. She's just a faceless shadow walking around the city. Why can the men show their faces and hair? Why can they have all the power, and all the sexuality? It is widely accepted that men get turned on, why is it a "taboo" that women do, too? Women get just as horny as men do. Hormones be crazy, and sometimes, ladies just wanna jump on some dick. This is biological stuff, people. So wouldn't it make sense- religiously speaking- to encourage celibacy by having men cover themselves up except for their faces and hands? Better yet, have the Saudi men start covering their faces with a black veil, like they force their women to, and have them tell me how much that helps their eyesight.
* The Hijab is an Islamic covering that requires everything but the hands and face to show. Some women also show their feet up to the ankle.
**Burkah is a covering that goes over the entire woman covering her face, hair, and body in fabric. She sees through sheer black fabric over her eyes.
***Niquab is like the Burkah but there is a cut out for the eyes so the woman can see better.
Photography by Thomas Scotch
Fashion design and modeling by Lena Harbali.
To get any of these pieces made-to-order email Lenaartinfo@gmail.com
How has religion influenced your life? In what ways has it been positive, negative?
Islam has not all been negative to me, and that is important to remember. I will be following up this post with ones in the future about the good things that religion has taught me.
Anxiety feels like...
That initial feeling of dread when you realize you lost your wallet or keys, but that feeling drags on for hours.
Forgetting to breathe, realizing that you aren't breathing, then panicking and breathing deeply only to cause yourself to get dizzy.
Hearing the voices of people you know saying negative things about you that they have never said, and you can picture them saying it in your head.
A hazy mist of tense and stressful thoughts swirling around the brain causing problems with attention and memory.
Migraines that feel like all the muscles in your head are doing somersaults under your scalp.
The constant expectation of something horrible happening in your life, causing it to turn completely upside down.
Feeling like no thing is stable or trustworthy.
Fighting daily not to surrender to helplessness, despite feeling completely powerless and out of control.
Thinking that death sounds blissfully peaceful compared to the storm inside your brain.
Replaying all the mistakes you've ever made in your head over and over again and analyzing every move and how it should have happened.
Reliving every uncomfortable moment until your present gets ruined by negative emotions from the past.
Wanting to quit everyday because everything is so hard but expecting too much of yourself to ever quit.
Always having the feeling like you are missing some big, critical idea or task.
This is my own experience with anxiety, each person with anxiety feels it in a different way.
Having anxiety is like fighting a constant battle in your head. The problem is, if people don't talk about their anxiety then no one will be able to understand. Having a mental illness is supposed to be something you are ashamed of and don't publicize. I'm tired of feeling shame and trying to hide what I deal with every day. By sharing my struggles with the world, I hope that someone out there will be able to relate and find comfort in the fact that they are not alone. Not only that, but I believe that by talking about insecurities and imperfections openly, I can balance out the perfect image of myself that has been manufactured on the Internet. Online, it is way too easy to make it seem like your life is perfect. We all need to start portraying an image that is a little more flawed, and maybe in that way we can rediscover our humanity.
“The way we spend our days is how we spend our lives” It makes perfect sense, but sometimes it is so hard to just be one with the present day. If we spend our days being consumed by worries about the future that means that's how we are spending our lives- in a constant state of discontent. The fact of the matter is, there is no “future”. There is only this day, and yesterday can never be changed no matter how bad we want it to. Anxiety comes from a disconnect between the past, future and present.
An anxious person will come up with a thousand mini movies in their head on a daily basis. These could consist of anything ranging from the engine on your car falling out, to getting physically assaulted, to you or your loved ones developing strange illnesses. Most of these stories lead to absolute horror and devastation As you can tell none of these future predictions are ever positive. While watching these 'films' in their head through out the day, their mood naturally dips down, causing even more negative thinking. If left unchecked, this cycle can continue all day until all their energy is depleted and they feel absolutely miserable. Some people live every day like this. I am fighting everyday not to live like this. That is where Presence plays a key role.
It comes first with accepting the fact that no one can never predict the future. And I mean never. I used to have ideas about my life when I was a child, and a teenager, but very few predictions actually came true. I remember saying in 3rd grade that when I grew up I was going to be an artist, a writer, and a teacher. All of those things are true this day, which still amazes me. But other than that, I could never have predicted all the details- every tiny beautiful (and ugly) moment that came together to form this life I am living.
Every day, I remind myself to stop picturing what I think the future should look like. I have hopes, sure, but I am no longer set on a specific ideal, an unreachable goal that will supposedly finally bring me a sense of peace and satisfaction. You must ask yourself, if you never reach that dreamy future ideal, will you live in a state of dissatisfaction your whole life? Or even more importantly, if you did reach that goal, do you think you would truly be satisfied, or is the discontent coming from something other than your circumstances, somewhere deep inside you? The key to true success is to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in the small things you do and experience in every present moment.
One way I like to cultivate Presence is to meditate on my breathing. Wherever I am, and whatever I am doing, I will zone in on the breath coming in and out of my lungs. When my anxiety is flaring up, and I am stuck in some nightmare inside of my mind, my breathing can become short and shallow. Just being able to remember to breathe can sometimes bring me out of my head and back to reality. I tell myself take a deep breath. Look around you. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? I take time to check all my senses and mentally log what I see, smell, and hear. Sometimes it takes a few seconds, sometimes longer, but I eventually come back to the present moment. I realize that there is only ever this moment in time. That I will never get to repeat it. I continue to breathe deeply.
The next thing I do is attempt to be content with the present moment. I look around and find the smallest thing to be happy or grateful about. This might sound simple, but during an anxiety attack it can be difficult, everything you see is through negativity-tainted glasses. Once I find that one positive thing, I focus on it and consciously try to shift my emotions away from the negative downward spiral.
Once I have recovered slightly, I have to make sure to monitor my thoughts to make sure they don't start back on the downward trend. I do this by routinely asking myself What are you thinking? What are you telling yourself? One would think that we are always aware and in control of our thoughts, when in fact our thoughts are a voice playing in our heads, but it is not us. That is why, without paying attention to what we are thinking, we can have negative thoughts running through our head all day and poisoning our lives. Imagine having a sidekick that followed you around and constantly critiqued everything and made horrible comments. You would definitely not be a happy camper. That is what anxiety is like, and being present in the moment can help stem the flow of thoughts that can ruin your day.
Remember: Breathe, check your senses, find something positive, then monitor your thoughts.
Being an artist with anxiety and depression is hard, and even more difficult to explain. But writing this article is important to me. Our image on social media needs to be more transparent, more human, and I want to set a good example. Too many of us scroll through IG looking at images of seemingly happy people and start to feel bad about our own lives. That is because what we see online is only a slice of reality. I can be so focused on getting out the next post that I don't see the illusion of perfection I am creating for my viewers. That changes from here on out, starting with this post.
It's time to get real. I am an artist who lives with mental illness. My two companions are anxiety and depression. They are hereditary and I've experienced symptoms most of my young adult life.
The anxiety comes at me from one side in a voice that sounds like my own but with an edge to it that cuts like a sword- it says your art isn't good enough. Why can't you do anything right? They probably are laughing at you. If this inner voice was a person I would call her a bitch, and would avoid her like the plague. Because man, is she mean. That is anxiety, a constant inner dialogue that makes you feel tense and uncomfortable, in a constant state between fight and flight. Worry furrows my brow at even the simplest of things because the anxiety will amplify the problem into something bigger. It will dig through my brain and find every possible scenario and outcome and throw it into my field of vision. I have to consciously tell myself to shut it off, like changing the channel on the TV. Switch it to something more peaceful and positive.
On the other side is my depression. It brings fatigue and an inner numbness. My body aches for no reason at all. The sadness seems to seep out of my bones and infect my muscles. Migraines are a weekly occurrence. All this, seemingly for nothing. Because depression doesn't need a reason to stop by. Depression exists within me and I battle it every day. Most days are good, sometimes years go by before my companion stirs. Sometimes it pops up for no reason, other times it is triggered by stress, but when it is here, depression can tear me down like nothing else. Motivation is hard to find, my bed is my safe haven from the world I start to see in increasingly shit-colored glasses. The future seems absolutely bleak. My mind naively sighs it will be this horrible forever. I can't see myself being happy again. This is absolute nonsense, of course. Every storm will pass but the depressed mind only sees doom and gloom.
My biggest enemy has always been my own mind. As an artist my mind is my biggest tool. As someone who lives with mental illness, it can also be my biggest weakness. Accepting these truths and simply allowing myself to feel whole despite them is what brings me comfort day by day.
Phew. I did it. Everything in me is screaming not to publish this article, but I am going to anyway. I am going to put myself out there and be vulnerable. I invite everyone reading this to be brave and comment some of their vulnerabilities. Take one step towards finding peace by admitting it to yourself and to the world.
Until next time, keep pushing forward.
Living authentically can be one of the most freeing things you can do. Here are eight ways to cultivate authentic living.
1. If something doesn't feel good in my gut, I will not continue doing it.
I truly believe that gut instincts are almost always right. Most people have that little feeling they get in their gut when something doesn't seem right. This could be a feeling you get about a person, place, or situation. It comes down to trusting yourself. If that little voice inside your head is saying that you aren't safe, turn your butt around and walk away. Self preservation happens when you look out for yourself, and that only happens when you know your needs. If you don't seem to have this voice of reason, fear not! You can bring it out on your own by asking yourself what your boundaries are. Know yourself deeply. Know what makes you tick, what gets under your skin, and what you cannot accept. If you know what your red line looks like, it is a lot easier to tell when it has been crossed. Don't be afraid to physically walk away from a situation that makes you uncomfortable.
2. I don't owe my allegiance to any ideology, religion, or lifestyle that ceases to make me happy.
You don't have to do what you have always done because that is who you have always been. If you reflect on yourself and are unhappy, change! You don't owe it to your past self to stay the same. You don't owe it to your friends or family to stay the same. You owe it to yourself to pursue happiness.
3. I will not let the opinions of people who have no investment, impact, or history in my life to affect me.
The only people whose opinion you should listen to are those who truly have your best interest at heart. Think about it, if an internet troll calls you ugly, why should you value what they say? Do you even know them? Will their opinion change your life? No. This goes for other randos you come across in your life. People come and go, don't let one person's negative energy invade your space. If this person is not someone you would go to for advice on a personal topic, then you shouldn't take their negative comments to heart either.
4. I will take care of myself the way it makes sense to me
Some people need to talk to a friend to reduce stress, others need to take a nap. I like running, meditating, and taking long baths. Self care is very personal and everyone does it their own way. Many articles online show self care routines for “inner peace”. I'm sure they are lovely, but make sure you do what is right for you. If you despise running, that won't relax you. Maybe you like dancing, so do that instead! Think about all the things that drain you, and all the things that make you calm or happy. When practicing your personalized self care routine, remove all those things that drain your energy. For me that could be checking emails or doing the dishes. The things that fill me up are meditation, drawing in a real sketchbook, taking walks in nature, running, and dancing. I try my best to do one of these along with my meditation practice every day. Fill yourself up so you have enough to pour back into your crazy, hectic life.
5. I will never be afraid to die and be born again
As humans we go through huge transitions in life. Whether it be in your personal life or career, you are always growing and changing. Sometimes life does what life does best and surprises you, gives you opportunities for growth and change you never would have dreamed of. You find yourself waking up one day and being amazed at how far you have come. When I think of my past of all-consuming depression and anxiety and compare it to how I feel today, I am in awe. Humans are so resilient. We have the power to die (figuratively) at the hands of our circumstances and be born again as a new, stronger person. Becoming who you really are is a journey that is easier for some than others, so remember that there is no timeline but your own. It is a natural cycle, so embrace it and don't be afraid of reincarnating into a better version of yourself. It is never too late to bloom.
6. I will not be afraid to fail
All throughout school, my father always told me “only A's are acceptable, no B's.” My siblings and I were all held to a very high standard, which I am thankful for. It made us take pride in our work. Those high standards rubbed off on me, and I became sort of a perfectionist. That fear of failure is still a very real thing, but every year it loosens its grip on me. I used to be so afraid to fail that I wouldn't even try. Ironically, not trying is in itself a failure. The way I battle this internal fear is to remind myself that everyone sucks at things in the beginning, and that by being afraid to try I'm not giving myself a chance to improve. Practice is the only way to get where you want to be skill-wise. You have to be okay with sucking miserably in the beginning, then one day it will “click”.
7. I will dress for myself and no one else
This one is especially important to me as a fashion designer. Growing up, every day at school was a chance to express myself with my clothes. There has always been different fashion trends and many people like to wear only what is “in style”. Back when I was in middle school, girls loved animal print. I hated animal print and still do to this day. I could have made myself a leopard print skirt to wear and be like everyone else, but I didn't. I wore the clothes that made me feel comfortable and like myself. I still do this now. Some days I dress up, other days I dress very minimal. And that's okay. I dress for myself and no one else, you should too.
8. I will frequently check in with myself and ask, “What do I really want out of life?”
We all know the answer to that question can change drastically as the years go on. As we grow and mature, we realize that we have an infinite number of paths we can choose from. Life never turns out like you pictured when you are younger, it is too complicated to contain in a single daydream. It is easy to go through life drifting along and becoming a victim of your circumstances. This promise is reminding yourself that it is okay to want more. There is nothing wrong with saying you are unhappy with the direction your life is going, and changing course. In order to get where you want to be, you have to know what you want in the first place. One thing I like to do if I feel I am losing direction is perform a 5-10 meditation practice. During this meditation I clear my mind of any distractions and imagine myself at my absolute happiest. I try to vividly picture every detail: where I am living, what I do for a living, who I am around, and what type of person I am at that moment. By envisioning every detail, it is easier to then form a real plan to get yourself there. After you meditate, make sure to write down what you pictured and make a plan to accomplish your dreams.
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1. It sounds corny, but just do it!
Seriously, just start making shit. Literally anything. The more you make, the more materials you experiment with, and the more often you do it, the better! When I was a little pre-teen and growing out of my doll phase, I refused to give them away just so that I would have an excuse to sew them new outfits. Doll clothes by hand turned into a handful of garments sloppily thrown together, but still people-sized, made on my mother's old metal Riccar sewing machine. The first fashion show I was ever in, 2013 EMU Fashion Week, was the first time I even came close to attempting to make a collection or more than a few mismatched items. Looking back at my work, I cringe. Nothing was cohesive, and my construction was awful. I think every artist is critical of their work in this way, but I can look back now with pride because I jumped into it headfirst and without fear. Fearlessness will produce results every time.
2. Don't be afraid to fail, because failure is a fake concept.
I am almost entirely type A. I get it from my dad. I love to produce results, and hate to fail. That fear of failure has held me back in the past, but no more. I learned to let it go, and since I did that I have been seeing such amazing, positive, results! Yes, I did fail more, but according to the law of probability, for every time you fail there is a chance you will succeed. So, with that logic, the more you fail the more likely you are to succeed! I throw myself into situations I am not prepared for, just to see how hard I can fail. I ''failed'' every time I tried to draft a sleeve pattern. It just kept pinching in the shoulders, or being too bulky. I failed and failed until one day, I didn't, and I just GOT IT in a way that no lesson or teacher could give me, and only failure could. With that new skill of drafting sleeve patterns I went on to design (and get paid for) three custom wedding looks, and counting.
3. Make friends with people who have similar interests and goals
This may go without saying, but I think it is relevant, because I wish someone had encouraged me to do this earlier on. I had great friends in high school, but I was the only one with such big aspirations or with a career that was seen as “gutsy” or “outside the norm”. I kind of kept my art in my own world, and didn't even invite people to my runway shows in the beginning. I am thankful for that in retrospect because I was able to develop my art voice without influence, however I think it is also good to have pride in your work and involve your family/loved ones. If they are not as excited as you'd hope, go to networking events and meet ups to find people who think like you.
4. COLLABORATE WITH EVERYONE!
Once you make a connection, and you feel like the gesture would be welcome, offer to do a collaboration. For example, Leah Vernon is a body-positive fashion blogger in Detroit who I didn't know that well until recently. We had seen each other and heard about each other, but without a connection, its hard to form a friendship. I reached out to her and offered to design a dress for her from scratch, and do a photo shoot for both our blogs. We had lots of fun together, and that is why we are friends to this day. Another example of a collaboration is a friend of a friend of mine, Jeremy, who hand-paints textiles. That is something I have always wanted to get into, and he already does it and is good at it. He is making me fabric, I am sewing him a cool outfit, and we both get cool representation from the other. Its all about using people's strengths to supplement your weaknesses and vice-versa. Help and work with people from the get-go, and they will be more likely to befriend and help you in return.
5. Research other designers, but don't over do it.
The one thing I can be thankful for about not going to fashion school is that my head is free of any outside influence. It is a well-known phenomenon among creatives that when they love someone's work, their own work started to emulate it. That's okay, because art is all appropriation from each other anyway. However, if you are constantly looking at other people, you won't have the creative space in your brain to make your own ideas. I experienced this when I first got on Pinterest, I kept pinning and obsessing over fashion, and then I wondered why I couldn't come up with new ideas. Now, I make a conscious effort to put social media/internet away when I'm in design mode, so I have nothing to interfere with my train of thought.
6. If you don't wear your clothes, no one else will either
Back in the day, when I first started designing, I approached it like the visual artist that I am. I figured I was sending these designs down the runway, each one should be unique, over the top, and like a walking piece of art. It should get a reaction, and people may not understand it. That's all good and dandy, if you are dressing Lady Gaga. For a designer who aspires to sell their work in stores and to real people, like I do, making the designs wearable is pertinent. I used to never wear my designs, because they were too over the top and crazy. Over time I refined my look, and made it more approachable to common people. Now I make sure that I sport my own designs to the grocery store, out for a meal, and especially to all networking events. You are your own billboard. I have more fans and clients than ever, because they see how much I love my own work.
7. There is no wrong way to promote your brand
There really isn't, except violent/vulgar things, of course. I used to think that the only way to get the word out about my fashion is by creating and showcasing collections at runway shows, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Everyone wears clothes, so everyone is a candidate to rep your work. The world is your runway. Wearing your own clothes, and having everyone you know wear your clothes is the best and easiest way. Beauty/fashion/lifestyle bloggers across the internet LOVE to get clothes to try on and get cool pictures in, offer to send them an outfit for a week. Musicians are great candidates too, get some to wear your shit during one of their shows. Youtube stars who make videos that align with your brand vision are also great candidates. Generally speaking, anyone with any type of publicity, or who is from/influences your target demographic, should be wearing your clothes. If you can make that happen, the publicity will come on its own.
8. Have a vision, but recognize that it can and will evolve over time
Those who remember my old work remember I used to call my brand “Lady Liberty”. I started with that concept with the tag line “Lady Liberty seeks to liberate women from standards of beauty set by society”. Not super complicated, but I stuck with it for a while. After coming out as bi-sexual to my close friends last year, I started to embrace my androgynous style that always made me different than other girls. I realized that I wanted to dress men, women, and everyone in between. I recognized that my brand was in fact me, so I named it Lena Harbali: Design and Blog. Now, my vision is to create a brand that is inclusive to ALL people, regardless of shape, color, size, gender, or sexuality. My new slogan is “Socially conscious designs that rebel against the System”. I had no effing clue what I was doing when I started. Now, I feel so proud of how far I have come, and how I was able to fully pinpoint my purpose. Having a clear purpose will help your vision, so work on defining WHY you do things, and then the HOW will come later.
9. Remember that it's not about the money, but it really is.
2016 was the first year I made real money off my design work. It wasn't much, but getting any kind of profit as a new independent business is a huge accomplishment. Ironically, 2016 was also the year that I decided to stop pursuing fashion shows. One would think that would have negatively effected my business. I started focusing instead on creating a great brand and product to boost sales. Whatever I did must have worked, because I am making money doing what I love. At the end of the day, if no one is paying me to do design work, I will have to get paid doing something else, because everyone needs money to live. Getting a second job cuts into my art time, which then makes it harder to get art out to the masses. With this logic, asking for money for your work is not being greedy, it is knowing your value and demanding it from the world. Just like lawyers and doctors get paid for their services, artists should too. Your followers will appreciate the fact that you are consistent in creating new art for their enjoyment. Not asking for money is letting everyone down.
10. Don't EVER let anyone be a hater and bring you down
This one is huge for me. I was a victim of bullying from 8th to 9th grade (read my story and how I overcame it here). That experience really hurt my confidence, especially regarding my art. I remember bringing in some of my designs and the girls saying that it looked like Grandma clothes. Back then, I felt the sting. Now, I shrug it off. I had haters back when I barely knew how to sew, and I have even more haters now that I actually know what I'm doing and can create amazing, incredible work! Funny, right? The more talented you are, the more jealous people will be, and the more they will try to tear you down. As an artist, its even harder to be understood, because we are often speaking in visual rather than vocal words. People often don't appreciate art, and will insult it or dismiss it because of their confusion. Don't let their ignorance, opinions, words of discouragement, or any other negative energies infiltrate your heart and mind. Kick those haters straight out of your life! Here's how. They are them, you are you, and you are awesome! All it takes is for you to believe in your work, and the bullies can never get under your skin.
Are you or someone you know a self-taught artist? How did you or your friend build success without training? What are some ways we get get skills training without traditional school? What is one of the coolest collaboration and promotion ideas you have?
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Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the first Anti-Bullying Workshop organized by Trendsetter's Productions Modeling and Etiquette School. The owner, Tracy Palmer, has been running the school for over three years in the Flint area. I met her back in 2013 when I designed a collection and showed it at one of her runway shows. Back then I was pretty fresh into the fashion scene, it was only my third show. What struck me back then was how she combined fashion with community and social activism. Her focus these days is on reducing bullying not only in schools, but across the board. She experienced bullying growing up, and so did a few of her children, so the cause hits close to home. Tracy's goal is to show people going through bullying now that there is hope for the future, and to give them practical tools to cope. The unique aspect to her approach is that she doesn't only focus on healing the bully victim, but also on engaging the entire community to help prevent people from becoming bullies in the first place. This method treats the bully as a human being, and with compassion, rather than blind punishments. Seeing the bully as a person with a past history can help us understand what caused them to end up hurting other people.
When I first arrived, Tracy was reading out some statistics about bullying. The first shocked me: Michigan is number one in bullying across the country! The second was even more shocking: suicide is the leading cause of death of youth between the ages of 10 and 24. This results in approximately 4,400 lives lost each year because of bullying. Hearing this really effected me, because I could have been one of those numbers. After I left the workshop I felt very inspired to share my bullying story, so that hopefully someone can gain some useful insight or a new perspective.
Not many people know this about me, but I was bullied to the point of being suicidal during 8th and 9th grade. Because of my depression, I attempted suicide three times. The only thing that stopped me was thinking how much it would scar my four younger siblings if their older sister they looked up to suddenly killed herself. Just thinking about it gets me upset, even though I haven't felt depression in years. My bullying story is pretty typical: I moved to a new school, where many of the students had known each other since grade school. In retrospect, its clear they felt threatened by the 'new girl' who was artistic, smart, and taller than everyone there. I can say that now with confidence, but back then, the bullying consumed my entire world.
Through my school years, I had always been the 'good kid', did well in class, and got along with my peers. It wasn't until the bullying that things started to change. Because of the bullying and depression, I developed anger issues that got me into trouble with the teachers. It was infuriating to me that the teachers always trusted the bullies' word over mine because I was an outsider. Every time an incident would occur, I would retaliate with anger against the bullies, then get punished by the teachers and administration in response. The principle and vice principle had what seemed to be a vendetta against me. I got suspended for the most ridiculous things, breaking rules that other, more long-time students didn't even know existed. I felt rejected by both the students and the teachers, so I had no where to turn for help.
Back home it wasn't any better. The transition from my secular school in Hiroshima, Japan to the private Muslim school in Michigan was extremely difficult for me. I had been in the secular school for four years during middle school. I had good friends and the art program was spectacular. The teachers loved me and encouraged my unique voice. My parents always wanted my siblings and I to be in religious school, so they had big hopes for my time back in Michigan. I was expected to graduate from the Muslim school like my older brother did. Their dedication to providing me a religious education made it hard for them to hear my complaints about school. They thought that I was simply being a rebellious teen, and that I just needed to adjust.
My depression got worse really quick. Within just those two years, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, tried out three different counselors, and several types and doses of anti-depressants. As a minor I had no control over anything. I was forced to go see a counselor, but lost all trust when I discovered she was relaying every word to my parents. I didn't want to take medicine. I knew I wasn't sick, my environment was just making me this way. Every day I took the pill in the morning before school, but would come home crying and upset regardless. Every time I took the anti-depressant it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, just like the bullies made me feel, just like the teachers made me feel, and just like my parents made me feel for not loving the school they chose. It was a horrible cycle and I felt trapped.
I was overwhelmed by these feelings of being trapped and powerless so much that I no longer wanted to live. The first suicide plan I had was to take a bunch of pain pills and overdose. I couldn't follow through. The second was to hang myself in my closet. I even had a chair set up, a belt hanging from the rod, and in a noose around my neck . I remember taking one foot off the chair and bending the other, letting the pressure build on my throat till I saw black. I chickened out and stopped. The last time was the same, but before I had a chance to put the belt over my head, my little sister knocked on the door asking to play with her. I broke down crying because I knew I could never leave them.
When I wasn't attempting suicide, I was engaging in other self-harming coping mechanisms. My left arm still has scars from the cutting. It started out as a curiosity, to see just how much physical pain could I withstand. The physical pain numbed all the emotional pain I was feeling. It was a rush and an adrenaline that I used to cope. Other teens may turn to drugs, alcohol, or partying. I chose to hurt myself. At first it was just pins and other objects I could make a small surface scratch with. I quickly graduated to real razors that left deep wounds and dripped red. My mom found a blood soaked pillow case in my room, and that's when she really understood the severity of my depression.
All this hurt and suffering was caused by only a handful of people. The private school was extremely small, so I was forced to see these same girls every day in every class. They never beat me up, stole from me, or damaged any of my property. Instead, they made fun of and excluded me relentlessly, day in and day out. It doesn't take being physically bullied to get physically hurt. Often times verbal bullying drives the victim to hate themselves so much that they do the job themselves. Thankfully, I was able to convince my parents to let me transfer schools, and the bullying finally ended. My last three years of high school were spent at Washtenaw Technical Middle College where I was able to heal and rebuild my confidence. Being bullied changed me in so many ways, and if there is someone out there reading this who bullies someone, I'd like you to recognize exactly how much your actions hurt people. Here are some of the ways I was affected by bullying:
Thinking back on my bullying story and how I overcame it, I feel a sense of pride. I pulled through. I came out on the other side as a strong, confident woman. But not everyone is so lucky. There are people of all walks of life experiencing bullying this very moment, and some may be considering taking their own life as a result. It necessary that communities are persistent with opening and continuing dialogue about ways we can work together to end this epidemic. That is why am teaming up with Tracy to bring more awareness to the issue and search for solution. We are cooking up an event together to achieve this, so stay tuned!
Thank you for reading up until this point, and for exploring the most vulnerable parts of my heart with me.
Have you ever experienced bullying? If so, how has it effected you?
What are some practical ways we can stop bullying in our schools, workplaces, and society?
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In life, the only currency we have is time. We trade our time while working at our jobs, which gives us money, with which we buy the products we use to live. We assess the value for each product we buy, so why don't we assess the value of each person we trade our time for? That time will never be given back. There is no refund policy for life. If its hard to assess whether someone brings value to your life, ask yourself if you could have done something more valuable with your time than see that person. If the answer is no, then you know that you have a deep and meaningful connection with that person. If the answer is yes, you could have been more productive with your time, then maybe it's time to reassess this relationship. Start by assessing the value each person brings to your life, then move on to the steps below.
1. Think objectively about how much you sacrifice to continue that relationship, and how much they contribute.
Ah, the needy friend. Don't we all love those? This point takes me back to freshman year of university. I had found a new group of “cool” older friends, all in their mid to upper twenties. Ironically, as the youngest of the group, I was the most put together out of them all. I was the only one with a steady job, and a car. These “friends” started asking for rides in my car, for money, or to grab the bill at the restaurant. When I have a deep and meaningful connection with a friend, like I do with my best friends, money means nothing and I will treat them to dinner till I go broke. But with these friends, they did nothing to reciprocate my kindness. I realized that I didn't trust them. It wasn't until I discovered that one of these “friends” had taken my car and driven it without my permission while I was at a party that I decided to cut these people out of my life for good. As I figured, they only texted me when they needed money, or a ride to work. I promptly blocked all their asses.
2. Ask yourself: “Can I see myself having a meaningful relationship with this person in 5-10 years?”
With regards to the people mentioned above, the answer for me was a resounding “HELL NAW!” If you find yourself questioning your relationship with someone, whether it be an old friend or new acquaintance, think about your future with them. Can you see them at your wedding, graduation, or other important events? Do you think you would invite them to your birthday party twenty years from now? If the answer is no, then you probably should save your time in the present and walk away. If you don't see yourself having a valuable connection with this person in the future, then it probably won't benefit you now.
3. Listen to the type of language they use around you.
Have you ever been around some one who was ridiculously passive aggressive? How about someone really sarcastic or negative? Thinking about people like this probably already has you in a bad mood. I've had countless friends, classmates, and coworkers, that I didn't pursue friendships with because of their negative vibe and energy. The first way someone's vibe is detected is through their speech and language. If they are constantly bringing themselves down, this tends to bring down your energy too. They could use language meant to bring you down as well, perhaps because of jealousy or projected anger. These types of people will only remain this way, cannot be fixed, and should be avoided like the poison they are.
5. When it comes down to it, does hanging around them make you happy?
This one's pretty simple. If you hang out with a friend and come home feeling like shit almost every time, then maybe that friendship isn't so great. It doesn't matter what type of unwanted emotion that person is making you feel, as long as it is unwanted that is enough justification to end the friendship. I once had a guy friend who was in a long-term relationship. He wanted to marry the girl, or so he told me, but was always flirtatious with me and would complain about his girlfriend every time I saw him. I found myself becoming attracted to him even though I valued our friendship, but it was an automatic response to his manipulative ways. I would come home feeling guilty like I was the “other woman” even though we had never done or said anything sexual. When I started feeling like this all the time, I knew it was time to stop seeing him. I simply stopped replying to his messages, and its been years now since I've seen or heard from him. The drama went away along with him. All the time I would have spent on him is now restored back to me, where I can use it for something much more positive and meaningful, and that makes me feel happy.
After going through the steps above, the rest will come naturally. Once you have recognized that the relationship isn't bringing enough value to your life in exchange for the time you spent, you will have an easy time deciding to end that connection. Next comes the hard part. How do you stop engaging with a person who feels so entitled to your attention? In this age of technology, cutting people out has to start there. If someone is bothering you or making you feel uncomfortable, immediately block them on all social media sites. I can't even tell you how long my block list is on Facebook. You would think that I would mainly be blocking creepy old men, but the type of people I encounter on social media as a modern woman shockingly broad...
The list goes on....
As I have worked to expand my brand and blog, I've had to reach out even further into the depths of the internet to engage with audiences. As I was doing this I started seeing more and more hate being thrown, seemingly without remorse, in all directions. There are communities on the internet that are so supportive and loving, but on the outskirts there always lies a hoard of ignorant haters, sitting in their underwear posting on the internet out of pure spite.
How does one navigate this shit storm, you ask? Simple.
It all comes down to your mindset. It sounds cliche, but things are cliche for a reason. When someone sends me a hateful, violent, or uninvited sexually explicit message, instead of feeling fear and anger, I turn it around in my head and feel sorry for them. There is clearly something wrong going on in their life, heart, or soul, for them to think that this behavior is acceptable and necessary. They should be ashamed of themselves. Recognize that you are the sane and loving one who is not sending negative vibes into the universe. You are simply taking up your own space, doing your own thing, and they are intruding on your bubble and causing harm.
You need to strengthen your mental bubble. They are sad, pathetic people, who have nothing better to do than sit on their computers and find a feminist to slut-shame on the internet to make themselves feel better. They are the people who grew up with uneducated families, and were taught that black skin meant evil. That Trump supporter who hates immigrants is now missing out on some of the best food in the world. By being a hater, they are missing out on so much GOOD STUFF. Of course, it makes a lot of sense! By being a hater, they are missing out on so much LOVE. THEY are the ones who have their hearts and minds shut to the world, to people different than them, and to the “other”.
Opening yourself up to every kind of person is hard. There are so many people in the world. They will say things that hurt, confuse, and scare you. The important thing is that you listen. Listen and learn. How can you know your enemies without learning about them? How can you find common ground with a stranger without knowing what ground he stands on?
So let's all learn to not be a HATER, learn to open ourselves up for LOVE and ENLIGHTENMENT, and use our new-found self love to care for our selves by kicking haters out of our lives for good!
COMMENT BELOW! What are some ways you practice self-care and avoid negativity? What's your best tip to kicking out a hater?
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This generation does not view religion like the previous one, and that is clearly visible. Our parents generation generally went along with what their parents did before them, when it comes to religion anyway. Often times a child born to Christianity was a Christian when they died. A child born into Islam was a Muslim when they died. It is a cycle. People live and die for generations having the same mentality without ever growing or evolving. I think in a different way. I made the choice a long time ago, while I still identified as fully Muslim, to allow myself to think that there might be another way. This is something extremely radical in strict religious communities. In Islam its called Shirk, meaning doing something that discredits Allah, his Prophets, or the Qur'an.
It always bothered me that in religious communities, even simply asking questions is met with negativity and resistance. I remember being in Qur'an (holy scripture) class and reading lines that I didn't quite understand. When I would ask what they meant, or why we had to obey what was written, I was treated like a rebellious child. Disagreeing with the words of the holy scripture is never an option in religious schools. Drowning in that expectation, I tried to make sense of things as best as I could. My curiosity was stifled time and time again, and all I could do was force myself to believe and obey. All those unanswered questions lead to frustration that built up over time, and that's why years later I'm coming face to face all these un-examined feelings stuffed in my chest.
Sadly my experience is a common one in religious communities, whether it be Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Each religion has its own culture and traditions that often converge to complicate things even further. For example, in Islam, the holy scripture commands all women past puberty to cover in a headscarf, or Hijab. If you travel to Saudi Arabia, they take it to the extreme and the women are covered head to toe in black with only eyes and hands showing. On the other hand, a trip to Pakistan would show women with midriffs showing, Saris slipping off their shoulders, and their silk scarves falling off their hair. Each group of people will interpret the scripture their own way, making religion corruptible. People of all backgrounds born into these religions have experienced these unpleasant circumstances. As I got older I came to realize that most of my friends or people that gravitated towards me also felt this same way about organized religion.
Several friends of mine have recalled experiences in their religious communities that made them feel resentful, confused, and unwelcome. They have similar stories of asking questions at school or with family, and being shut down without an answer. These experiences create a collection of memories in one's brain relating back to religion. Because of how our religious communities handle truth-seekers and skeptics, our recollections of religion now often have negative connotations. Those negative feelings, mixed with my natural skepticism, evolved quickly into the question:
“Why don't religious communities encourage their followers to ask questions and empower them to find the Truth?”
If religion was truly about connection with God and finding the divine Truth, then religious communities shouldn't discourage their followers to ask questions. If history has shown us anything, it is that holy scriptures and religion can be used to manipulate naive people. Christianity is an easy example- it was used as a weapon for years, to strip away the identity of Native People, and to control the African slaves. Back when most of the citizens of a land were illiterate, it was generally the government who controlled and interpreted the scriptures. As the saying goes, wherever there is power there is corruption. The only way to prevent being taken advantage of or mislead is to always follow your gut.
It wasn't until I actually slowed down and examined my views of religion that I recognized all these stifled doubts inside. My gut had been poking me for years. Identifying as Muslim this long without being fully convinced, or at least working towards full conviction, was doing myself a huge disservice. I was robbing myself of the chance of living an open and genuine life, and fully stand behind what I say I believe in. I had to either get answers, or move on from the religion that was causing me so much discomfort. Religion is not a person or an entity. It's not a job you can't quit. The religion is not going to miss you. My family doesn't own the religion, and me disliking it shouldn't reflect on how I feel about them or how I was raised. The biggest breakthrough I had this year was realizing I didn't owe it to anyone to stay Muslim.
I do however, owe it to myself to be honest, with myself and everyone else. I can't afford not to live an authentic life. Admitting to my family and the religious community that I am filled to the brim with doubt was the bravest thing I've ever had to do. I am still facing the repercussions of my decision to come clean. It's funny how religious people preach honesty until you are honesty about something they don't want to hear. Its been extremely difficult and emotionally exhausting, but allowing myself to be vulnerable has made me stronger. This journey towards authenticity has been marked by a steady feeling of calm growing in my chest. I won't stop till my demons are done dancing.
COMMENT BELOW! What ways does religion work? What ways doesn't it? What are some ways you have experienced religion and how has it effected you?
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People close to me have asked me "why was it important to you to come out publicly? Or specifically, on social media?" I can't even begin to explain the impact it has had on my life. The amount of love and support I've received has been overwhelming! I've had several extra-extra long messages in my inbox about experiencing a similar situation with their family and the religious clashes, or just applauding the class with which I came out. I've had people unfollow me on Instagram, at an alarming rate. All I can say is I'm dropping haters like flies. I don't have time for people who don't have positive vibes or wish me ill things. I don't have time for people who think I'm going to hell for making choices that give me an open and authentic lifestyle. Frankly, I don't have time for people who want to judge me. The only person I judge is myself. I judge how I like myself this year, and decide how best to progress towards my goals. Like I've said before, walk unapologetically in the direction of your goals and dreams. Don't let anybody bring you down from your high on life, love, art, connections, or success.
For a long time it felt like an answer was missing, and the answer was to a question I didn't even know. So you can understand the general feeling of unrest I had throughout my young adult hood. I had feelings that I presumed were normal, but somehow I always felt out of place. I did things that I would later reflect on that are clear indicators.
Choosing to come out now seems so random in the grand scheme of my life yet at the same time perfectly understandable. My family is probably shocked and doesn't understand why I'm choosing to come out now and why it took me so long to do it. Isn't this something that should have been brought to light as soon as I felt it?
The difference between me and maybe someone else coming out to their family is that I was raised to believe that homosexuality was disgusting, that gay people where either sick, confused, or following a social trend. Homosexuals needed to be helped. They needed to be pitied and prayed for. So it was something that I always had in the back of my head and I pushed down deep inside me.
Throughout high school and college, I always had this open-mindedness towards the LGBT community that my family never understood. My mom told me later on, after I told her I was bisexual, or queer, that she had wondered if I was “that” because of my support for the LGBT community, having gay friends or being excited to design wedding outfits for two grooms. That's something that another Muslim or middle eastern girl might be comfortable with. Just be because I was friendly and supportive she suspected I was gay, which is wrong on so many levels.
People who don't really understand sexuality will ask me: “Well, how do you know you're bisexual?” And I say, “Well, how do you know you're straight before you ever slept with someone?” I ask them that. They really don't have an answer, but they just say they're attracted to that gender. I ask them about when they were kids and had crushes on little boys or girls. They just knew they were straight...or rather it was something they didn't really have to think about.
I came to the realization that we are raised our whole lives to be straight and everyone assumes you're straight, so you kinda just assume it too till you step back and look at yourself in the mirror. Now I'm like, well shit! Everything makes sense now! It makes sense how I have this masculine side to me that I never understood or fully accepted.
Growing up I was always a tomboy, but at the same time I always loved art and clothes and all the things that were stereo-typically feminine. That's probably what made it so hard for me to recognize my sexuality, because I never knew it could be such a spectrum. My idea of a queer woman was a super-butch lesbian with short hair, and that wasn't me. As a kid I would wanna play the prince in pretend games with friends. I would tie my hair back and dress up in boy clothes. My first kiss was my friend who was pretending to be a princess. I must have been ten years old. I swooped her low like I'd seen in the movies and planted one on her lips. Everything was fine until she told her dad the next day, and we weren't allowed to play anymore.
In middle school I had my first real girl crush. She had auburn hair, freckles, and hazel eyes. I remember thinking she was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen. She was just a kid, we were all kids. I don't even remember recognizing that it was a girl crush, because I was taught by society to know what it felt like to have a crush on a boy, but I never knew what it felt like to have a crush on a girl, which is different in a way. But, the only thing I remember is just really wanting to be her friend. It sounds so silly and cute but I remember when I moved away, I wrote her a letter saying I wish we could be friends forever, or something like that, and I gave her a little present. And, looking back on that, I was really crushing on her.
That's not something that was talked about in my home. I knew not to mention even being friends with a boy, let alone having a crush on him, so imagine talking about crushing on a girl! In my house, if you felt things for your same gender, that meant you were sick and twisted. You need to be fixed.
But now, I recognize that that's just the way my brain is wired. That's just the way that I'm wired. It doesn't mean that I'm a deviant, it doesn't mean that I'm being rebellious or trying to be a “snowflake” or any other of that bullshit. You know, people make it seem like its a choice, and it may seem like I am “choosing” to be bisexual or to identify as that right now, when in fact I'm choosing to be honest with myself and the world rather than live in denial of my true self.
I told one person, one close friend, and then that turned into coming out to almost all of my close friends. It feels public when all your close friends know and you can just be yourself around them, but its not public until your family knows, and social media knows. Because (sarcasm) every one knows if it didn't happen on social media it never happened.
Back when I first was identifying privately as bisexual, I thought to myself "Damn, this whole time I was involved in activism for the LGBT community, being a supporter and an ally, and I couldn't even admit to myself my feelings about women. How fake of me." And I had that guilt. But now I realize I have nothing to be guilty about. Everyone has their own journey and now it's my duty to use my voice in a way that helps other people.
My mom often asked me why I think its important for people to know. I know that secretly she wishes I would have kept it to myself. But I know that my voice needs to be heard. My mix of identities is so eclectic, that someone out there might identify with me and my story. There has to be another half-Syrian girl that is living in fear of how her family will react. I want to assure her that she is strong and will make it through this. That there are people who will support her, even if her family is utterly confused and disgusted at your existence.
Being queer is just a small part of my identity. On most days I don't even think about it, it's just who I am. The world needs to see people as multi-dimensional instead of putting them into boxes. I pray this story has brought someone hope and bravery.
I was only in Turkey for a total of four months, but I swear to you it felt like way longer. Something about the city just draws you in. Its so chaotic, everything is always moving, but then there are those small neighborhoods like mine that make you feel like you're in a village. What a weird combination, Istanbul. It was such an eclectic mix of ethnicities, yet it was still mostly Turks. People rarely spoke English, so I had to get by with gestures and the few words I had picked up along the way. The hustle and bustle. It blew my mind.
When I first arrived I learned that indeed, the English language was just as confusing and boring as I anticipated it to be. I was enrolled in the area called Kadikoy, right on the water, at a TEFL school for a certification. I had made the plan to teach English in Turkey to extend my stay with my Syrian aunts that were living there after escaping from the conflict in Syria. I hadn't seen them in around seven years, so I wanted to be around them for a while. During that time I learned how to take the buses and not get (that) lost navigating my way to and from the language center downtown. At the center I practiced teaching English to retired Turks from around the area, and they were absolutely charming.
After I was certified I landed a job at a university in an area also close to the water, called Uskudar. There I taught at a preparatory school for students going into university for the first time. I learned how nationalism was popular for young Turks in this day and age. How many students, especially the males, would boast about the infinite wisdom of their president. It was an interesting parallel to the presidential race in the United States happening at the same time.
I realized then that authoritarian leaders rise in every country at different times and for different reasons. But also that there seemed to be a larger plan in the world that was being pulled in different directions by strings shrouded in mystery. The question I always seemed to have on my mind was who the true puppet master could be. Every country seemed to have different stakes in this global game of thrones. From an outside perspective looking at the United States, it was clear to see that maybe we were no longer the first world power. It looked like Russia was battling for the top, and the U.S was struggling with its grip on the world.
This kind of shattered my glass ceiling, and shifted my perspective of the world. Things are really not all what they seem. My time in Turkey was marked by moments like this for me. Weeks went by with this feeling of transparency in time. I knew I was in a moment that would come to be marked down in history as a time of change. I kept asking myself what my place was in this giant story. That could be a result of the big-ness of a city like Istanbul.
The city was crawling with people. Each person walking along had their own story. Each had their own voice, that they could choose to keep silent, or they could use for change. There's a word for this feeling- being overwhelmed with the existence of each passerby's individual story- and I was feeling it hard in Istanbul. I asked myself, in this crowd of people, how could I possibly change a thing? I guess you could say I went through a minor depression, or at least a loss of purpose.
Then I had kind of an epiphany. I examined my own individual mix of identities. I came to the conclusion that there really isn't anyone with my same vision, voice, or perspective. My mix of identities had always contained being American-born, half-Syrian, Muslim-raised, artist and designer, third-generation kid who lived all over the globe, and most recently; queer woman in a heterosexual relationship. I had that last realization about a year ago now.
I had reflected on my childhood and young adulthood while in Istanbul, and the explanation was clear for the way I had been feeling. I had been bi-sexual all along, but I hadn't been able to get past the mental blocks nailed in my head by religion to admit it to myself. Things I had thought about, felt, and done as a young teen now made sense to me. I reflected back on having my first crush on a girl, back in middle school.
I don't remember thinking of it as a crush, though. All I felt was a strong sense of wanting to be closer to her...and that she was the prettiest girl in the whole class. She had auburn hair and freckles across her face. When it was her birthday, valentines day, or any other excuse holiday, I would make cards and gifts for her. I would make them for my other friends too, of course. But hers I would take extra care with.
I look back and remember small instances in time like that, before I even knew anything about sexuality and what it meant to be attracted to someone. Flash forward to this past summer at a job, and I knew for sure that I was queer. This was the confirmation anyone could have asked for. Ironically this girl had red-ish hair and freckles too. And she made my heart pound fast. I think what made it more alluring was that it was clear she was not straight either. I wanted to talk to her so badly.
It was in Istanbul that I found the strength to tell my family (my mom for now) that I was bisexual. She reacted okay. I knew my dad, with his cultural Syrian roots and religion, wouldn't really have the tools to deal with a discovery like this. I didn't tell him just yet. I knew I had to tell him when I could see him face to face, back home. I knew the transition was going to be difficult. I was revealing a part of myself I had kept in the depths of my mind for so long. I knew it would be hard for my family to adjust to the idea.
People ask me, how do you know you're bisexual if you have never had sex with a woman? I ask in return, how do you know you are straight when you are young and haven't had sex yet? They get it then. Its about attraction. Its about how your biology is wired. I didn't choose to be attracted to women, that's just how I feel right now. The only choice I made wasn't to have these feelings, but to be transparent with this part of my identity.
When I first began to identify as queer, I suddenly had this feeling of not being genuine. Through all the support I showed to the LGBTQ community, I still hadn't been able to be “out” myself. I knew it was time to change that. In this world that paints Syrian women as one thing, or Americans as one thing, or even Muslim-born women as one thing, we need voices saying no. We are not a monolith, we are individuals. Syrian women are not all desperate refugees, but are strong, resilient warriors. Americans are not European/white people, America is White, Black, Brown, Asian, Arab... and Muslims are not all terrorists, we are normal people with normal struggles, like juggling our identities and discovering our sexuality.
I learned in Istanbul that I am part of the many people who are missing links. We hover in the limbo between worlds, between identities. We show the opposite of the stereotypes people paint us as. It's voices like ours that will change the perspectives of the world. This realization gave me my purpose back. I have this vision in my head and I carried it back home with me. It's time to work.
Learning to be vulnerable is probably one of the hardest personal battles I've ever had to overcome. As a young teen I suffered with severe depression that left me feeling broken and weak. During my recovery, I built an iron-hard casing around myself, my heart, and my thoughts. I was sick of being weak and pitied, and I told myself I would never feel that way again. I've always been a very passionate and emotional person, and for years during my recovery I kept all that emotion bottled up inside with a bubbly exterior.
At first it was fake, but after a while I actually became what I had been pretending to be. I was actually happy, fully and deeply happy. But, that same habit was still there. I knew how to be happy now, and I wanted to keep it up. Show my family and the world that Lena has finally got her shit together. No, she isn't about to fall apart again. What I never realized was that every quote-on-quote functioning person had an emotional break down every once and a while. People cried in front of others. They spoke out loud about their insecurities to their friends and family. They were genuine.
The biggest thing about not letting yourself be vulnerable is that you are in-fact robbing yourself more than anyone else. You are robbing yourself of the opportunity to be a sincere, open, and transparent person, and I can say as someone newly experienceing this feeling- there is nothing quite like it. I had felt for years that my inner self was made up of multiple layers...just like shrek being an onion ha ha...but totally relevent in this situation...and most people only ever met the first couple layers. Very few got deep, and you can bet no one got to my heart. That always had an unbreaking unconscious shield around it, saying “Don't care too much, Lena, cuz then you might get hurt. You remember how much emotions can hurt when they are exposed to the air”
Oddly, I had these delusions of being a mentally and emotionally tough person. I told myself I could handle anything thrown at me because I always had my trusty heart-shield that could bounce it right off. Only now, as I get older, am I realizing that you only get stronger when you face the resistance head-on. Until you let yourself fully feel everything, and externalize those thoughts and feelings, will you truly be strong. There is something incredibly powerful about being fully known as you are. I'm sick of the armor. I no longer romantacize mystery. I'm peeling away the layers year by year. I've never felt more vulnerable, and I've never felt stronger or more alive.
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I observe & write about society & culture.