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Power by Zeleen Virani

“Picture it: Sicily, 1922…Just joking! Although, at the ripe age of 42 I feel like the fifth Golden Girl that never made the audition. So here is the story that never made it on screen:

My parents came to Canada like many others in 1983 with barely any belongings and enough money to maybe last a week. They came following a promise they had made to themselves: a dream that they could give their daughters a better upbringing, a better future, and a better life. Like most parents, they aimed to give the new generation more opportunities than they had for themselves. They did this with lots of hard work, sacrifice, and unseen blood, sweat, and tears.

Growing up, my sister and I knew the exact meaning of sacrifice because we consistently saw, heard, and felt our parents’ sacrifices as we grew up. Our parents had their own business (thank God for that blessing), but with every blessing comes a test and sacrifice. Working eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, my sister and I became each other’s source of support. Many times, our parents would take us in hand to the bakery at 4:00 in the morning because they could not leave two young girls home alone, this couldn’t have been easy on them, but like any dedicated parent they involved us to make everything a family moment. When that became difficult and through no fault of their own, they would pay a babysitter to take us at four in the morning until school started and keep us until either my mom or dad could pick us up. Then the day came where my older sister was old enough to watch us at home alone. Boy, was that a great day! But that too came with sacrifices on her part. She always ensured she took care of me whilst trying to be a carefree child herself. Those were “my little pain in the butt sister days” where I wanted to go wherever my sister went; wear her clothes; anything and everything to have that connection close.

Our parents always went out of their way to make sure they gave us what we needed and not necessarily what we wanted. If it meant playing with toys in the aisles of Woolco while they did their shopping, that is what we did. I don’t think we ever felt the lack until our teenage years…and not necessarily for the material things but the experiences like family trips our friends were taking but wasn’t an option for us. At that time, it just felt like the worst possible scenario if both our parents couldn’t attend an important event; or be the parent that got to come on a field trip; or take the day off to just spend time with us to give us the experiences our friends got.

It seems all a blur now, but off went my sister to the University of Alberta. I was left behind, working every weekend for what at that time was a whopping $20.00 per weekend at the family business. After school I began to work part time jobs at Zellers or Swiss Chalet. Not because I needed to, but because I wanted to. I wanted to be able to afford things that I would never dare ask my hard-working parents for….because that would mean the little time I got with them, I may not get. I remember when I received my first pay cheque. I was so happy I went to the Disney Store, bought my sister a sweatshirt, and sent it to her at U of A. I was so proud that I could send her something that we could never afford to buy. From there I bought myself the brand names Gap, Club Monoco, and other clothing brands that I never had. It felt good to buy things that I didn’t know were just covering up the feeling of lack. I felt empowered to finally be able to buy luxuries like these for myself and for my loved ones.

When I got accepted to a prestigious university myself, it felt good to know how proud I was making my Dad. It felt like all his sacrifices were worth it since his daughters were receiving a quality education. We were fulfilling a dream he had always wanted for himself. Again, I worked part time as many of my friends did. It paid for the meal plan (because let me tell you the flex dollars were used quite a bit ordering pizza to the dorms). It paid for the clothes I felt I needed in order to fit in; it paid for the formal events that I could now afford to go to. It felt good to have the money to cover that powerful feeling of lack.

At twenty-six, I wanted to buy my own place. I had a talk with my dad. An immigrant dad who left his country in his twenties was puzzled about why I would want to leave the comforts of home and spend my hard earned money on a place of my own. We disagreed, and I put in an offer on a condo not far from home, and once it was signed sealed and delivered, I told my dad about my purchase. This was considered the biggest act of defiance and rebellion on my part. This decision cost me almost two months of silence between my father and I. As happy and proud I was of myself to be able to own my own home at twenty-six, not speaking to my father was the biggest feeling of lack in my whole life because I had such a strong bond to him even if in those days hugs and verbal reinforcement were seldom. It felt awful to know that I did not having my father’s approval, blessing, and support. My Dad eventually came around. He even became proud that I was able to stand on my own two feet so early in life while most twenty-something girls were living with their parents, not working, not accomplishing much-just living their somewhat carefree adolescent lives. This condo was my biggest purchase to date. This purchase made me feel empowered again.

I met a guy, dated and got married at twenty-seven. Again, I wanted to pay for the wedding on my own. This was another behavior instilled in me by my parents. My parents sacrificed so much to get me where I am today that I was determined to afford all of life’s luxuries on my own. I paid for all my Mom’s outfits, my sister’s outfits, matching shirts and ties for my dad, and of course all the necessary four day event attire for myself.

As a South Asian family, the gift of gold is traditionally presented to family as part of a wedding. Gold-not a need but a want- I felt compelled to pay for as well. But my parents wouldn’t have it. Because this was the first wedding in our family, they wanted to pay for all the family gifts and the reception. It was the first wedding that all of my dad’s family came for from all over the world. It was my wedding that gave our family this feeling of unity, covering the lack of not having family a lot of family around growing up. At this moment we were all feeling the power of love.

A young woman (of visible minority) making my way in the corporate world, working hard to over achieve because that is what my parents always did in my eyes. I felt I worked harder than my male counterparts and even my White ‘equals’ for recognition, for promotions, for a sense of pride and worth. That sense of pride and worth came when one of my White male Regional Presidents saw in me more than being an exceptional executive assistant and put me on the retail manager training program. At twenty six I became a Manager of Client Care in one of Canada’s largest financial institutions, in a flagship branch downtown Toronto. Can you feel the pride beaming from my father’s eyes? Continuing to work hard to show the investment was well worth it, I got pregnant with my first child.

Life seemed to be really going well for me. I felt fulfilled. Much of my job at the time involved standing. One day, five months into my pregnancy, I felt really achy. At first I thought it was just from a long day at work and a long commute home. But the achiness was accompanied by a bit of bleeding. Super nervous, I self- diagnosed the worst with the Google MD I earned and couldn’t call my doctor fast enough. Sending me to emergency room, I was placed on a tilt for 24 hours. I called my husband at that time (spoiler alert) and told him that I had what was said to be a loose cervix and that the baby’s umbilical cord was lowered to a dangerous position. The tilt was supposed to help try to naturally send it back into the cervix. I asked my husband to bring all things that would classify as well- wishing tools, like a rosary. He stayed with me all night. When examined the next day we received the fateful news that the tilt didn’t do what was intended and that at five months I would have to deliver. Too early for the fetus to survive outside the womb, we were told to brace ourselves for losing our first born. Through tears of disbelief, I asked my husband to call members of the mosque to be here to perform our child’s last rites and summoned our family. I gave birth to a little girl. A beautiful, perfectly-formed but translucent little girl the size of my palm. I now felt the largest feeling of lack I had ever felt to date, an overwhelming and powerful kick to the gut. I don’t know if it was the lack of not experiencing a perfect birth or not bringing home our daughter or the lack of not being able to be an efficient host to this innocent child that chose me to be her vessel into this world.

At twenty seven my ex-husband and I had mere minutes to say hello and goodbye to our child. We had to plan a funeral for her that we fought for in our religious practices because in the eyes of the religious definition she was born stillborn and therefore could not join the religion or have the religious ceremonies done for her. We felt powerless. That lack never left me, neither did the replay of my ex burying our daughter. I felt a sadness and despair like no other. People tried to be nice, they tried to bring me comfort with good intentions, telling me that I was young and would have more children. Their hope could not even begin to cover the lack I felt, how powerless I felt.

Notice that up until now I haven’t spoken much about my mom. That is not unintentional. My mom and I were never very close. All my life I was felt to feel second best…..maybe not intentional but felt. So having a child of my own was my chance to fill that lack, and ensure my child always felt like a priority. I spent many days at home on the floor of the nursery we were prepping. I didn’t sleep much and didn’t eat much. The lack was overbearing. I was upset that my husband could return to work and return to life like before. But I guess men process grief differently from women.

After taking months of work off, I went back…hearing all the nay-sayers in my head that prevented me from moving ahead in my career because I was of a child rearing age. Seeing the world move on around me, made me feel like I was a mere spectator. The lack grew and grew, a lack I never knew I had, that I was covering up, that could not be covered up anymore because it was a part of me each day taking a bit more of my power. Months passed…and more of life’s challenges came my way. Three cerclages and miscarriages later alone (yes alone…knowing the fear my ex never stayed in hospital with me), a friend who was a physician told me to see a specialist. There must be something in modern day medicine that could help me. Bless her heart, she introduced me to a specialist who performed a surgery on my uterus that would help me have a better chance at having a family. Poked, prodded, and tested daily, I was ready to try again and with hope in my heart and dreams of a blue blanket that teased my mind night after night came my first son. He was a perfect little boy: six pounds eleven ounces, ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes. The dark cloud that was cast on me was lifted. I became the helicopter mom, over cautious and over- compensating to ensure this precious child never felt lack. I felt the power of being a mom. I felt the power of genuine love. I felt the unconditional and unbreakable bond. He was spoilt by the family being the first grand baby and also after the family going through the experience with us, my son was a beacon of light that we all needed and depended on.

That light was dimmed very quick as once again I had another miscarriage. Feelings of lack rushed back and hit me like a powerful tsunami. So I did what I always did, cover lack with short term happiness of gain. I convinced my husband to buy a bigger home so when we did bring home a brother or sister for our son we had more space. I wanted them to have all the things I didn’t have growing up- a big home, a big yard, and an abundance of toys and clothes. Blessed once more, I had another perfect little boy- six pounds thirteen ounces. After giving birth, my body was all cut up but it was okay. I was proud of my life-giving wounds. The scars never phased me. They were a physical reminder that with all lack comes light. They were a visible reminder of the power of the human body and God’s graces. But the emotional scars were just uncovering.

Still working in the corporate world, I would wake up at 4am every morning to commute into downtown Toronto from the rural areas of the GTA. I would get into downtown shortly before 7am- just enough time to grab a coffee and start my day. I found myself sprinting every day at 4pm to catch the train back home so I could get to my boys before 6pm. It was all worth it because I had the children I wanted, the home I wanted and the career I wanted.

But then the tsunami that hit me was harsher. It came in the form of a mental breakdown. A combination of my mom being diagnosed with cancer; trying to be the dutiful daughter and mother and it came from a boss who exerted his dominance over me; who used the fact that I was a mom to prevent my career advancement; who used the fact that I was a mom to depict me as a less-dedicated employee. He used my ideas to further his own career and made me feel like I was unworthy. This tsunami came with monsoon powerful feelings of unworthiness, despair, and lack like never before. I did all the right things and engaged HR which only backfired on me and gave him more of a reason to be unkind to me (a safe space to speak up was anything but).

My breakdown started with headaches-dizziness causing me to take absences from a job I worked so hard to prove I earned. Then it became fear and panic attacks which prompted me to go on a leave of absence. Eighteen years of service and once again I had been minimized because I was the weaker of the sexes. That is what I was made to feel. The old Boys’ Club stuck together, and therefore I decided to leave a company who I gave my blood, sweat and tears to.

The lack grew and grew. This was the only career I had known my whole adult life. It was what I worked for and earned through my own merit. I still have my old employees who stay in touch share their lives and families with me through the bonds we had built. Feeling diminished and powerless, I sought help. In my culture, talking about feelings and admitting that you have a mental health issue is seldom heard of, even taboo. But I needed help. I had two boys who needed me and I could not get to the local Walmart without having a panic attack. I was so unstable that one day while bending over to grab flyers from the front porch, my eldest witnessed me fall. I was so far into a trance that I didn’t notice I had begun to scratch my body to cover pain. But I was simultaneously uncovering open wounds. So I finally went through a year of therapy. I am so glad I did because now I can maintain some sense of daily life with the help of medication and tools to ground myself from falling deep into a rut. I am not healed….its a journey one I know will come with ups and downs.

There are still visible effects of torment… the shaky hands…the pessimistic attitude…the doom and gloom I believed were my new life. How you treat others can be so impactful on a person, good or bad. I was determined to get healthy so my kids would never remember me in that weakened state, that they always remember me as a very dedicated and involved mom. Not the mom who slept almost all the time; not the mom who was too tired to do activities only I would do; not the mom who lost interest in being on every parent teacher meeting and extra circular activity that made all the other moms think our life was flawless.

This time no shopping spree covered up the lack. No motivational quotes, no growth mindset gave me the power over this mental cancer. In fact, it drew a deeper and deeper wedge between my husband and I. He too became the voice of despair saying much of what I was going through was mind over matter. He would get mad at me for the wounds on my body and not see it as a cry for help. He never wanted to come to therapy with me to hear things I couldn’t articulate without a therapist. He would get upset that after coming home from a full day of work I was still in my pj’s, no dinner made…a sink full of dishes, no laundry done and the home was a mess. I began to feel like I was less and less useful and more and more of a burden.

But I was still unable to pinpoint the feeling of lack that had taken over my whole life. I would shop online all night rather than sleep, to make sure my kids had more than what they needed. I knew I was over-compensating. That short term gratification left as quickly as it came. Ultimately causing uncontrollable fights between my husband and me. I was still unable to share or explain to him where this feeling of lack came from. I was unable to tell him that he too was stripping the little power of me that I had left.

Covid taught the world many powerful lessons. One lesson it taught me was to get back my grit-my power, or I will have surrendered to all the outside vices that tested the core of me. I now understand why faith and ethics can be so powerful in life. It can help you get through the best of times and the worst of times. As a faithful person, I do believe that your destiny is written, but the path you take is driven by you. This is by no means a women-issue, this is a human-kind issue. I know men who struggle from the same depression and feeling of lack, a desperate cry for help and saving. What did I want my journey to look like? I was never one to shy away from hardships. Short term gain for long term gain right….or so they say?

So my husband and I tried to stay in the same house in separate rooms for the sake of our kids. That didn’t help the fights, I am sure it only added fuel to tense situations. I started going to the mosque for morning and evening prayers daily. It was my only retreat. It was the only place I wasn’t judged…put down...talked down to; only place I wasn’t depended on; the only place where my resume or merits didn’t matter; the only place I wasn’t judged for having a mental illness. But my husband couldn’t understand it was healing…he only saw that was the only place I pushed myself to put any effort into. That too became a demand of his to leaving behind. That was the day I broke to a point where I knew there is no super glue here to make me whole again. One day after morning prayers, I had a nagging feeling and checked my husband’s phone while he showered for work. My life came crashing down like Jenga pieces that weighed tons. As much as he had verbally hurting me, I never in million years imagined he could hurt our marriage but more importantly our children. There it was in black and white… he had been engaged with another person outside our marriage, not knowing the extent of that relationship or situation-ship it was enough to know the vows one takes to have and to hold; in sickness and in health were abondoned. I had to pick myself up off the floor and pretend I never saw it. After he left for work, I actively sought out a rental, a place for me and my boys to leave. Giving him the power to push me out of our matrimonial home. I should have insisted he leave, but I had no energy left in me for another battle, and my thought process was once again frozen in time (almost like inducing a mental coma to preserve what is left). I am by no means blameless but screamed for help only to be ignored. Many ask why now to tell this part of the story….I am not sure; was I protecting the image of a man I once loved; was I protecting my kids father so they never see him the way I do; am I protecting him from the family he has held him up on a pedestal? Still giving him the power to preserve his reputation and throw mine to the wind.

The empowerment I felt at twenty-six moving into my own home, felt like a rollercoaster ride, the one you know you won’t be sick from. I didn’t recognize myself anymore…..I was sleeping all day; not eating; in a trance; and scratching wounds into my body.

I somehow found the last crumb of strength and started my life again. Although jobless, now marriageless, mom-less (mentally not physically), and feeling powerless, I managed to find a miniscule amount of rigour. I must have been wearing invisible blue suede shoes because I walked out of a life of powerlessness and into a life I had power over. A life I could dictate; a life that I could mold without anyone putting me down. A life where I can show my boys anything is possible with will and love. Power is what you make it, and it only has as much strength as you feed it. It was helping hands of my family who reached out to me….held me….sat with me to speak to lawyers…..hugged me…wiped my tears….and holding hands that gave me the much need nudge to choose life again without guilt.

Today I am here advocating for all the single moms, abused moms, widows, minority females, and everyone who society deems lesser than, powerless and/or a burden. I’m here to tell you to never give anyone enough power to re-write your life.

Don’t give anyone the power to make you change anything about yourself, whether it’s your name, your clothes, your ethics, your values, and most importantly the uniqueness of being you. Those who want to take from you will never want for you. I am not naïve, I know men go through the same situations….like I said it’s a human-kind issue. Find the village who lifts you, teaches you, helps you, empowers you, makes you smile, inspires you, believes in you….find them, be them, give gratitude for them. I could not be on my healing path without my family (even members of my exes family who refuse to treat me any differently); my village; and those special people that remind me I have something to offer the world.

Take back your power and never let it go again!

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