Dear abused woman,

 

Dear abused woman,

I see you. You do your best to make everything seem OK, to close off the world to your pain. But I see you.

I see the slew of emotions splattered across your face like Pollock’s canvas. Dread. Fear. Shame. Anger. Perhaps confusion. I see the game face you try to mask those feelings with, and I think “that must be exhausting.”

I hear the pretense in your voice, as if letting one word roll off your tongue out of place would offend the recipient so much, they’d verbally slap you with their reply. Just like he does with his fists when you stand up to him. That they’ll tell you you’re worthless – just like he does. That they’ll say “no one cares about your stupid thoughts,” just like he does. That they’ll tell you you’re worthless, just like he does.

He’s likely been asserting his thoughts over yours for quite some time, and society indulges it.

Because let’s face it: if they president can grab women by their nether regions and still be respected, then what hope is there for women like you?

“Boys will be boys.”

Dear abused woman,

You try to hide the bruises. You wrap endless layers of makeup, clothing and denial around yourself, like King Tut in the tomb. But you are not dead to your feelings – you just bury them, deeply. Because if you let the tears bubble up like hot springs in your eyes, if you let the pain out, shoving it all back in will be next to impossible. Like rich men getting into heaven, like the camel fitting through the eye of the needle. You will fall apart; and there will be no stopping it.

Dear abused woman,

You tell yourself that the times when he’s affectionate are the only times you’re safe. But the reality is, even that isn’t sacred. He wants love when and how he wants it, and if you don’t give it to him then you must not love him. Your body is his playground, and you have no say in it. In God’s eyes you feel dirty, used and unloved. This leaves you with many messed up notions about your self worth and true love. You don’t realize that until years later, when you feel safe in the arms of somebody else and wonder why that makes you want to run.

Dear abused woman,

You hide all of this information from your friends, and it kills you. They tell you it’s not normal how much time you spend together. They lament the loss of their friend when you continuously ditch them to be with him, but the reality is he wouldn’t let you leave his sight no matter how hard you tried. You tell yourself they don’t understand. But one night, the night when you’ve finally had enough, they stay up all night with you and hold you while you cry. You don’t tell anybody else about what you’ve been through, because don’t yet know what it all means.

I know how much it hurts. I know how much you love him, how you thought he was the one. I know how kind and loving he was at the beginning, and how elated you were when he let that side show again in the thick of the madness. Despite the stack of cards against him, I know you remained hopeful you could change him, up until it became very clear he couldn’t be changed.

I know all of this because I used to be you. When I was young and vulnerable, I was wooed by an abuser, and I stayed long enough for it to alter my perception of the world. It wasn’t until things got physical that I knew something was wrong. One night, things escalated. He retaliated against me in a public place, and he hurt me. Not severely, but enough to scare me. I didn’t know why I was leaving, I just knew I had to leave. To this day I believe God was protecting me from the worst of the worst, and I’m forever thankful for what he put on my heart that day.

Dear abused woman, life after the breakup is the hardest. His outcries on social media depict your likeness with devil horns attached. He plays the victim to all your friends, ultimately convincing some of them that you’re the problem. He calls you crying, promising change, love, a trip to the moon and back if he thinks it will convince you. Maybe you fall for it, and the cycle continues. To him, he is the only victim here. He alone matters.

But if you resist, that’s when it gets scary. Perhaps he shows up, “coincidentally,” at your home, not saying anything but staring, menacingly. Perhaps you see him when you happen to be out in public, and he says horrible things about you just loud enough for you to hear it. Perhaps he blows up your phone with text, phone calls, messages on social media, bombarding you with the very abuse you fled.

Or, like my abuser, perhaps he threatens your life.

You’ll be getting ready for a football game with your best friend, and the phone rings. Your friend, who knows little about the abuse, answers. He asks to talk to you. He’s crying, but when you cut him off, he loses it. He says he’s nearby, and if he catches you dating someone else, you’ll be sorry. You hang up and cry, knowing you did the right thing. You wear a big coat to the game, hoping he doesn’t see you.

But once you’re free from his clutches, the battle is hardly over. Even if you don’t see him, you have to answer for his actions in every relationship you’ll ever be in. You have to explain why unannounced visits are unsettling. You have to explain why you’re constantly looking behind you when you’re walking alone, why you startle so easily. You have to explain why the faintest touches can reduce you to tears. You have to explain that you have never let another person into your world in any real way, because he taught you that’s how unsuspecting women get burned.

Dear abused woman, about three years ago, I told the story of a woman just like you. I was a journalist, and I’d just uncovered the grave injustice  perpetrated against her. She’d been sexually assaulted and stalked by an ex intimate partner, and would stop at nothing until our school and other powers that be were held accountable for not protecting her. She has since filed a lawsuit against our school, and the school itself has since come under fire for several scandals involving sexual assault. It wasn’t until I looked into her eyes and heard her story that I truly saw myself and what I went through.

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At the Women’s March in Detroit

Before I met her, I didn’t truly know what oppression and anger was, even though I’d fallen victim to it. I didn’t understand how passionate and fearless people could be in the face of opposition. I didn’t understand how a gendered society created abusers with fragile egos, outward entitlement and abusive tendencies. I didn’t understand how the cycle of power and control traps people.

Before I met her, I didn’t hear the words of Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis and Rupi Kaur and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I didn’t understand how women were taught to systematically devalue themselves before they even utter a word. I didn’t understand how it came to be that I had survived physical, verbal and sexual abuse without even realizing it, and how society had silenced me once I uncovered the truth. I didn’t know that the panic attacks and hypervigilance that ravaged my body and mind were symptoms of PTSD, a symptom of the trauma he thrust upon me. I didn’t know life apart from anxiety anymore. I didn’t know I could let go.

Before I met her, my career hadn’t even been born. Dear abused woman, I hope you find a person just like her. I hope she shows you that God has given you everything you need, and he will heal you and make you strong. I hope she shows you there’s hope on the other side. It’s a long road back, but women like us will walk that road with you.

Dear abused woman, it was women like you who inspired me. After my story ran, I changed careers immediately, volunteering for a nonprofit  geared toward empowering women. When I was admitted to a graduate program to pursue my Master’s in Social Work, I was over the moon with joy. I was ready to help women empower themselves in any way I could. I was ready to help them start over, just as I had.

Dear abused woman, with time, there comes a better life. Once I understood what happened to me, I began the process of healing. It hasn’t been easy, but every step has been so beautiful and necessary. When I make steps in the right direction, my significant other encourages and supports me. When I’m in a deep hole with no end in sight, he listens and comforts me. He shows me what true love is, and I’m forever thankful. When I meet other women who endured abuse like this, I don’t apologize and run to the bathroom to cry anymore. I beam with pride internally and find solidarity in our strength, and I say,

“Thank you for sharing that with me.”

Dear abused woman, I have dedicated my life to advocating for women and children just like you. I hold a child’s hand as she testifies in court against the man who raped her. I answer crisis calls from women seeking shelter, a restraining order or just someone to vent to. I educate the loved ones of survivors about how they can help. It’s heavy sometimes, yes. But when I get those hugs from my child witnesses, when a woman tells me I gave her hope for the first time, I think,

“God put me on this earth to do this.”

And I cry, just a little, both with joy in their liberation and pain that they’ve had to suffer like me.

Dear abused woman, society doesn’t know how to treat you. Or women, for that matter. They silence you, making you feel like you have to apologize every time you open your mouth, as if the mere sound of your voice is offensive to their sexist ears. They tell you you’re most lovely when you’re weak, unsuspecting and pliable. When you’re making 78 cents to his dollar. When you compromise what you need to appeal to the desires of men.

They call you battered, victim, damaged goods. But what you are is a survivor. What you are is a warrior, a soldier, a David in the face of Goliath. That Goliath is your abuser, your world, our society. And your slingshot will prevail.

Dear abused woman, our president doesn’t care about you. But I do. He wants to defund the grants that allow survivors like me to empower women like you to become survivors as well. Congress could gut our programs like a fish on a line – but mark my words, I will not surrender. I will answer your calls until I no longer have a job, and if that happens I will volunteer anyway. I have protested with thousands of other women, and I will continue to do so until I’m crippled or in handcuffs. I will channel the spirit of the women who came before me, fighting battles we shouldn’t have to fight in 2017. My God teaches me to fight for the oppressed, and I’ve got on his full armor to do so.

They don’t listen, so I will. They’re fighting, so I’ll fight back. They stole your voice, so I’ll crush Ursula’s necklace under my heel and restore your chance to sing.

Dear survivor, I see you. I’ve walked where you’re walking. And I’ll never stop fighting for you.

 

To be or not to be: struggling with identity in a colorblind world

“You’re … something … right?”

“Where is your family from?”

“You were born here?”

Yes, the aforementioned questions are all things that have been asked of me at one time or another, all in avoidance of the real question they mean to ask.

You don’t look white, so what are you?

I’ve been approached everywhere from the bar to the gym to the workplace, by friends and complete strangers who evidently feel my race is of utmost importance to the entertainment value of their day. Sometimes it’s hilariously awkward, sometimes it’s downright inappropriate and offensive.

This has been my life thus far: navigating the line between what I will and will not tolerate as somewhat of a biracial human being.

The first of the above questions came from the lips of my former boss, after he nominated me to be our company’s minority representative without officially knowing whether I was in fact a part of a minority group.

Yep, this really happened.

The story would have been tragically funny, if the laughter wasn’t curttailed the following year. I was once again nominated, and when I began to consider taking the offer, one editor shot me down for not being “Arab enough.” As if I’d been carrying the last name Abdilla ( literally meaning slave of God in Arabic) around my whole life with an undeserved sense of entitlement. As if it was the only thing that made me ethnic, that made me different. I instantly felt silenced by the likes of a brainy white girl who scarcely weighed 100 pounds.

This tendency to let others define me before I could define myself kept me from my true identity for longer than it should have. But now that I’m aware of it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. My heritage is no longer a sense of shame, something I must hide my pride over. 

I wish I didn’t have to write this, but it appears an explanation is needed. Although I have been privileged in many aspects of my life, I must write this because our country’s current colorblindness in the face of multiracial individuals has become evident. Although it’s not the typical story of race and ethnicity, it’s my story nonetheless.

But before I get ahead of myself, perhaps a climb up the family tree is in order.

My mother is about as Irish as they come. Her mother’s family, the O’Learys (could it get any more typical?),  immigrated to America during the World War 1 era. There’s also a bit of German mixed in there, as with most white folk in the Americas.

My father’s background is where it gets complicated. My great-grandfather, lovingly referred to as “Grandpa Anthony,” was born and raised in Tunisia in a traditional Arab-Muslim household. In mid-life he immigrated to Malta, a cluster of islands south of Sicily in the Mediterranean. He then converted to Catholicism, married a Maltese woman and had my grandfather.

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My grandfather, in his workshop in my father’s childhood home in Little Malta, Corktown Detroit.

My grandfather grew up in Sliema, a now-bustling city in Malta that was once considered the ghetto of the main island. After much economic devastation post-World War II, which reached into the mid-1950s in terms of impact, the Abdilla family was split by immigration. My grandfather moved himself, my grandmother, my great-aunt and my two eldest uncles to the United States, while the rest of my family headed further east to Australia, which has the largest Maltese population outside the country proper.

My father was the first in the family born in the United States. My grandfather, my father and uncles attempted to fulfill the typical “American dream”: working on the line at Ford. Because they came to Detroit on the cusp of its racial upheaval, my family was subject to discrimination many working-class people felt.

The first of such cases was with language. Because of Malta’s strong ties with the Arab world, the Maltese language is essentially a dialect of Arabic. So in America, my dad was socially conditioned to only speak the language at home. Because my father and uncle grew up with learning disabilities, they were essentially left for dead in the authoritarian-style Catholic classrooms that were common at the time. For my uncle, who was still learning English, his version of hard work just wasn’t good enough; he was functionally illiterate until he approached adulthood. Another uncle felt so pressured to conform to American ideals that he legally changed his name from Carmel, a popular Maltese name, to Charles.

My family also felt the sentiments of colorism within segregation-era Detroit. As most

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My father, in the red polo, and five of his siblings in Detroit. Check out that beauty of an automobile behind them.

people with Arab and Mediterranean roots know, the variation of skin tone in both communities is vast, even within families. My father, being the darkest, said he often felt as though he was scapegoated for less severe behavior than his siblings because of the way he looked. To a certain degree I still see it: while my father and two oldest uncles, who are darker-skinned, seem unaware of their otherness, some of their lighter-skinned siblings ascribe to the very belief systems that once oppressed them in childhood.

I feel as though this long-winded explanation needs another explanation: I am not in any way saying that I can relate to the oppression and struggles of various peoples of color. Rather, I am stating that the oppression I have seen within my own family casts a heavy weight on my shoulders, and that the history of such behavior has caused others to stratify me and others like me in one of two categories: as “too brown” or “not brown enough.”

And I’m just not about that.

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My grandmother, Lilly, left, and my grandfather, Frank, center. My grandma was known as “the General” –  she didn’t take any you-know-what.

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t always feel this way. I used to laugh at the jokes my coworkers made, and I still feel some of them were genuinely funny. I pick fun at my own complicated heritage routinely. But when I think back on what my father went through because of such ridicule, how profoundly it affected his ego, I’m left silent, stunned by my own complacency in the face of racial discrimination.

Studying social work has taught me a great deal about the concept of white supremacy. It conditions individuals to see two categories of race: white and “other.” For the former, it causes them to conjure up questions and definitions geared toward the latter, as if their explanation of the otherness is the only one that matters.

Their definition then exoticizes all the very traditions that make each culture beautiful, appropriating them as if they’re theirs for the taking. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the culture is rejected completely, leading members of said culture with a pivotal decision: reject their origin and assimilate, or learn to love the differences. The second option, of course, often has left even the most mundane decisions of my everyday life up to scrutiny.

For example, I was once told by a guy I was interested in years ago that my choice to straighten my hair from time to time made it seem as though I was trying to “act white.” Little did he know that a) half of me is white, b) I got my curly hair from my mother’s side and c) his assumption that curly hair must be an ethnic trait is incredibly racist and offensive. Needless to say, this was the end of his presence.

As with my family, they gradually rejected our Arab roots and even the Maltese traditions began to fade, reducing my childhood cultural experience to pastizzi (meat pies) from Dearborn bakeries on holidays and distant stories of “the homeland.” My grandparents both died before I was born, so most of the stories are left up to aunts and uncles to pass on. To this day my father often tells me he regrets not teaching me and my siblings Maltese, but since he was often teased for it he didn’t want us to feel the shame he did.

There will never be a day when this does not shatter my heart into pieces. My father was mocked for being himself in a place where Anglo-Saxon privilege is the norm, and as a result I cannot fully know, understand or enjoy the culture I was born into.

To white people, my skin tone gives me away as an “other.” But amongst other Maltese and Middle Eastern individuals, my experience pales in comparison and renders me unfit for the categorization.

I fit in everywhere, or I fit in nowhere.

So when people in public innocently ask me where I’m from or what my ethnicity is, I constantly weigh the benefits and consequences of going into my usual spiel.

If I could say what I felt like saying, I would say this.

I’m a mix, a mutt, or as they say in India, a masala. I don’t always feel brown, but I suppose I am. Most days I’m proud of my olive-tinted skin and my long dark hair. But some days it feels like I’m wearing a sign on my head that reads “question ethnicity here.”

No, I do not practice Islam. I cannot say much in Arabic outside of the casual keefak between cheek kisses  and a scattering of obscenities I learned from a childhood Egyptian friend and my foul-mouthed great Aunt Mary.

I am the consequence of years of white privilege bestowed on every individual marked “other.” My lack of true affiliation is both a blessing and a curse.

According to the Census Bureau I am “white,” but anyone of Arab heritage will tell you this often could not be further from the truth.

I am a question mark amid dinner table conversation, considered white by some and brown by others, as if my genetic makeup is theirs to define.

Occasionally, though, I do have moments of pure pride. When the wise-beyond-her-years Syrian woman who directs the nonprofit I routinely volunteer at tells me she’s the Tata I never had, I relish her hugs and appreciation. Last fall, when I met a friend’s new boyfriend, whose family is Lebanese, he looked at me with a sly smile and asked the universal question of acceptance.

“So I hear you’re brown too?”

But just as I will not subscribe to the idea that my semi-brownness is the be-all-end-all of existence, I also will not allow mindless people to vilify my heritage because it doesn’t suit their desirable bloodline. I might be a few standard deviations away from true “brown identity,” but I will embrace my identity exactly as it is at this very moment.

Perhaps one day I’ll make the trip to Tunis and Sliema. One day I’ll see the house where my grandfather was born. Perhaps I’ll learn Arabic so I can avoid speaking to distant relatives in broken English.

For now, all I care about is making myself and my father proud, and I believe I’m well on my way to doing just that. I went to a top university, and am now getting a master’s degree. My father was never given the opportunity to go to college, and here I am dedicating my life to make sure people like him have a fighting chance. Despite how I feel about my own self day in and day out, that’s more than enough for me.

Photos courtesy of my lovely aunt, Brenda Abdilla. 

He loves me, he loves me not: My love affair with my city

America is obsessed with love-hate relationships on television. We hate to admit it, but it’s true.

Directors, producers and screenwriters have made millions off characters who just can’t stay away from the men who hurt them over and over. The Meredith Greys. The Blair Waldorfs. The Carrie Bradshaws. They open their hearts an infinitesimal amount of times, just enough for it to drain them dry when it ends – again. Yet somehow, they always come running back into the arms of their ex-lover, their “person,” and everything turns out alright.

Except for poor Meredith. Yikes. #spoileralert.

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A photo from one of my favorite hot dates with my city: a stroll around the Fisher Building. Taken Dec. 2015.

As deplorable as it is that I’m making this comparison (I can feel my former journalism professors cringing at the thought), these pseudo-neurotic love stories share a striking resemblance to my relationship with Detroit.

Metro Detroit was my first love, really. In childhood I knew nothing outside a few suburbs, the city itself and the pleasant silence amongst nature that is “Up North.” As a teenager who’d seen nothing of the world, I couldn’t be more eager to leave for college. But despite some major worldwide flirtations during my time at Michigan State, Metro Detroit is my home once again. Detroit has always been my city, and my city it shall stay.

As with any relationship, Detroit has its selling points. Gorgeous, age-old real estate. Cheap, delicious food – and a growing restaurant buzz, according to the Washington Post. More cultural diversity than a UN commission. But every once in awhile, the abysmal parking and obxiously ill-informed suburbanites seem like deal breakers.

There are also memories of other cities – past exes, if you will – that manifest in my dreams to wake me from a dead sleep. I see the beautiful skyline of Dubai, so close to the edge of the turquoise water I feel like I’ll fall off the edge of the earth. I crave the chaos of New Delhi, temple after gorgeous temple gleaming in the pre-monsoon sun.

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“The Pink Hummer” at the Heidelberg Project, the original Mecca for lovers of lost and found art. Taken summer 2011.

And once in a blue moon, I’d give nothing more than to drink cheap margaritas on the rooftop of my favorite Mexican restaurant in East Lansing, or tailgate until I drop while MSU finds a new team to pummel.

But alas, the UAE is deliriously pricy – even a Chicken McNugget meal from the McDonald’s in Dubai costs $10. My acid reflux-ridden stomach could barely handle countless days of heavy curries and tongue-scorching Indochinese cuisine during my time in India. My apartments in East Lansing were quite expensive for a broke college student, and I definitely don’t miss the obnoxious neighbors attempting to make mincemeat of my ceiling at 4 a.m.

Although I’d been so excited to leave the tri-county area back in 2011, it took me less than two months to realize I missed the vastness of my former city more than ever.

When these moments of frustration or wanderlust get to me, the positives deep down outweigh them every time. I can’t imagine my life without the satisfaction I get from a little road rage while speeding down I-94 at 8 a.m. I look forward to the tree lighting and ice skating at Campus Martius over the holidays like a child counting down the minutes to watch the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on TV.

I relish the old family videos of my Dad’s childhood – birthday parties at their house in Little Malta, Corktown, my grandfather spreading a blanket on the beach on Belle Isle. I giggle at my mother’s stories, like that one time she went to Catholic school with the children of well-known mobsters (St. Ambrose made her spunky.)

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One of my favorite works of art in the city: the Belle Isle Fountain.

More than that, what I love about Detroit is its ultimate refusal to be defeated. We’ve had our fair share of failure, and mainstream media won’t let us forget it. But it’s just like Maya Angelou said – every time the negativity gets Detroiters down, still, like dust, they rise. I aim to be a part of that ascension, as a social worker and a game changer alike.

Us Metro Detroiters refuse to be knocked down, but not for the sake of our own dignity. Detroit’s current and former glory might not mirror one another, but the mere image of what the city is and could be keeps us going.

It keeps the fight in us. It makes us scrappy, rough around the edges.

But within the tough cell walls of our ego, there exists a powerhouse mitochondria that refuses to be tamed, a mighty generator that won’t allow Detroit pride to die.

I’ve dated a decent amount of cities, even fallen in love once or twice. I’d be a liar if I said the thought of going back to New Delhi didn’t make me swoon. My future, hopefully, will consist of plenty of world travel.

Yet despite all of it, I remain committed and hopelessly in love with Detroit. And I won’t let any job or circumstance come between me and my boyfriend.

Staying positive in a world of toxicity

Yoga keeps me sane. Period.

Yoga keeps me sane. Period.

Like most families, mine has gotten the celebration of holidays down to a science. Most of the time the dinner table overflows with food, laughs and surrounding family members, but this year my Christmas came with a side of dysfunction next to the gravy boat.

One family member, who will remain nameless (a girl never reveals her sources), has a difficult time getting through the holidays because of a recent loss. But rather than sharing the burden with all of us in a healthy way, the individual chose to nitpick and yell at virtually everyone at the table, all in front of my poor grandfather, who by the end of it looked like he was one short breath away from a coronary.

And I can’t say I blame him. Nor do I particularly harbor resentment toward the family member – loss affects us all in different ways. But nobody expects such behavior over turkey and stuffing, and on days like these I find myself wishing people who act in such a way did not exist.

In my short lifetime, I’ve encountered many people like this. I’d venture to say we all have. The Debbie Downers. The Negative Nancies. Those people whose mere presence is so toxic it sucks all the air out of the room and replaces it with anxiety and contempt. And at a time where my life has endured such tumultuous change, I find myself still navigating healthy ways to confront the negativity knocking at my door without inviting it in for dinner and a movie.

A majority of the time, my life as a 22-year-old feels like this: a struggle between the reserve to stay positive and the urge to let myself give up, just for one day. During the two week break from work I’ve experienced both: I’ve shooed away the self-critiques that tell me I’ll never amount to anything, encouraging myself to keep pushing for another semester of all 4.0s (I didn’t mean for that to be a humble brag, but hell, I worked hard for these grades and I’m gonna brag about ‘em).

But there have been a couple days where I’ve felt so discouraged it rendered me frozen in bed, absentminded and at a loss. We’ve all had those days – we scroll through social media sites endlessly, reading the same status eight times because we just can’t retain any more information in our tired brains. And what we do retain is typically the positive things our Facebook “friends” are doing with their lives, which really just translates to a comparison pity party. We watch Netflix until our brains go blank, numbing ourselves enough to get through the day without a legitimate thought. Because thoughts about our future mean we have to consider taking risks, and risks can mean failure.

So how do we, as newly-functioning young adults, begin to tackle these feelings? How can I, a person who has never been comfortable settling academically or professionally, let go of all that negative, toxic mojo and focus on all the positives on the flip side?

Thus far, I’ve found the true power comes from recognizing that the coping mechanisms I’d previously used in times of trouble simply weren’t cutting it anymore. I used to go to family and close friends often for advice, but as the only person in both groups pursuing post-graduate studies I’ve found they often can’t relate to what I’m going through. This in turn makes me compare my struggles to theirs, which never bodes well amongst other 22-year-olds who already have full-time careers (*cries*). Or even worse, there are times where they throw up their hands, sigh and say “I don’t know what else to tell you.” Those eight words translate to “I give up,” which then makes me want to give up as well.

So rather than overwhelming my closest loved ones with problems they can’t relate to, I have found myself confiding in some acquaintances and friends I’ve met at school. They can all relate to my struggles – always being broke, family/relationship stress – and nothing has made me feel better than realizing I’m not alone. When in doubt, it helps to surround myself with people who are as passionate about social work as I am to push me further.

Another avenue of positive reinforcement is a friendly trip to the online classifieds for jobs in my field. When dozens of openings fly down my screen, I heave a sigh of relief: “There are jobs!” Although I can’t have any of them yet (God willing), it’s extremely encouraging to know I’ll also be compensated relatively well for all my trouble.

If the aforementioned methods just aren’t cutting it, I take a slightly simpler psychological approach: working my butt off at the gym. Whether it’s an hour of yoga or some intense cardio, it typically does the trick. On mornings where I don’t have work or class until later in the day, I love nothing more than spending an hour kicking my own ass to the beat of Missy Elliott or Britney Spears, then coming home and making my favorite post-workout meal: 2 eggs, a bagel and a banana. Don’t ask me why, but the routine found within the little moments makes life seem less abysmal for the day.

At this point, I want what every 22-year-old wants: a great job with sizable benefits, a pretty apartment and a car that came off the assembly line some time after the new millennium. But until all of the items on my ultimate wish list fall into place, I’m just going to have to find ways to keep myself upbeat and positive. Really, it’s what we all want: something to pass the time until the “next big thing” comes along.

But my needs are deeper than that. I refuse to live my life believing that the next promotion, or a big happy wedding, or another degree will make me happy. The cheesiest fortune cookie scripts and dial-a-minute mediums tell us to be happy in the moment, and it might make me a Pollyanna to believe it but if it gets me through, then I can’t apologize for that.

Smack heard round the world – or maybe just the jungle gym

It was an average day on the playground.

Nine tiny humans, lined up and ready to go outside. I spent an ungodly amount of time zipping hot pink jackets, putting on gloves and general child wrangling. Once I let them all loose in the courtyard, the fun began.

There’s a set of twins in my class, and to put it mildly they’ve put me through the wringer. One is sweet and sensitive, while the other is hyper, has a short attention span and some violent tendencies. This combination has the potential to become explosive quickly, and it often leaves me stressed, frustrated and exhausted.

These two were a part of my group, which combines with another

Some of my girls in their best princess attire.

Some of my girls in their best princess attire.

class on the playground in the late afternoon. So I signed my kids in for the other teaching assistants, said goodbye for the day and started to leave on my merry way.

Yes, it was an average day on the playground — that is, until it wasn’t. It all happened so quickly I almost missed it. But for reasons that soon will become clear, I’m glad I didn’t.

One twin hit the other in the face. This isn’t atypical by any means. Usually we attempt to separate them so we can assess the problem and discipline further.  But this time, the hitter just wasn’t having it and darted across the grass like a Jack Russell chasing a shiny red frisbee.

Before I could even get a “come back!” out of my mouth, the errant child had been tackled to the ground by three other 4-year-olds.

“You were NOT listening to Miss Katie!” one shouted sternly.

“We GOT you!” another declared. They high-fived, gave speechless me a hug and went about their business as usual.

Once I got over the shock of it all, My mind was racing. “My kids just stood up for me. My kids are on my side. MY KIDS AREN’T TRYING TO KILL ME.”

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Although at times they exasperate me to no end, my kids have hearts of gold.

Disclaimer: OBVIOUSLY I teach my class that violence is not the answer, and I explained that while I appreciated their help, it’s not OK to tackle people. But on the inside I was screaming with joy.

We as adults are often quick to lose our patience with kids. We think logically (for the most part), and their growing brains don’t have the cognitive functioning to embody our ideology just yet. I’ll admit, there are times when I lose it. But this was one of those rare moments that helped me realize that with kids, some of the biggest annoyances also can manifest as their most powerful strengths.

Really, it’s true. The typical 4-year-old sees black and white, right and wrong, and nothing in between. While concrete thinking is typical of their age (and at times a major pain in the you-know-what), it can bring blind, unwavering loyalty toward the people they care about. While they didn’t display their loyalty in the most respectable  way, today they showed their loyalty to me. And I’m not one to discount such acts.

As silly and neurotic as it might be, my kids inspired me today. They helped me look past all the times I got annoyed when they took too long to get their snow boots on. I saw beyond the nap time debacles and messy snacks and just saw my kids.

My kids – the kids who made Christmas cards for elderly people in nursing homes because they didn’t want them to feel alone during the holidays. The kids who problem solve on their own when they all want to wear the Princess Elsa dress for the day. The kids who are fiercely independent, loyal, and with the right timing, sensitive and caring.

They’re my kids, and I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to help them learn.  

Should I stay or should I go: navigating the part-time job Sahara

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You're welcome.

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You’re welcome.

There’s this dream I keep having, night after night. I’m working with a research team in a clinic, performing behavioral assessments on patients for a new study. Everyone’s calling me “Doctor” Abdilla, but not the white coat-wearing variety. They’re coming to me with all their questions, and I have all the answers.

In this dream, I’m wearing bookishly high-fashion glasses, and my cable-knit sweater is J. Crew (hey, scientists can adore fashion too!) I’m the Christina Yang of behavioral science, and I couldn’t be happier with my research.

Fast-forward, and our work has made national news, and by some miracle no reporter has messed it up or misquoted me (har-har, journalist friends). We’re nominated for awards, and other behavioral scientists across the globe know all about it.

…Ok, do me a favor and please pretend that’s not as nerdy as it sounds. Do that, and I’ll pretend it’s not a huge change of pace from my daily work: a teaching assistant at a preschool.

That’s right. At night I’m having these dreams, and during the day it is my sole duty to make sure my bustling four-year olds don’t murder or maim each other. At this point in my life, I’m standing at the crossroads between making the best of the situation or moving on to bigger and better things. Or, perhaps there’s a third option: making my current job bigger and better by finding it in myself to make it a positive experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. Really, I do. When they don’t make me want to stab child-size pencils through my eyeballs, which is often, they’re adorable and sweet and fun.

This undertaking of mine – it’s sort of like that one couple everyone knows. They’ve been together forever, even though everyone except them seems to know it just isn’t working anymore. When it’s good it’s great, but when it’s bad, the whole world knows it. Yet they keep trying, hoping for a different outcome.

So instead of doing the same thing over and over, I’m trying to make some changes. And, like it does for many others, to me the challenge often feels like the riddle of the Sphinx. 

For the past few months I’ve searched for methods to make matters more interesting: reading books about cognitive restructuring, researching new methods of conflict resolution and assessing the progress of children with behavioral problems. None of these things are required for the job, but somehow it makes me feel like I’m contributing more than I was previously.

In other words, I’m looking for new ways to be challenged.

On its face the job should be simple, straightforward. But I am not a simple girl. Nor am I overly attached to the education system unless I’m talking about reforming it.

So reform it I shall. Through the eyes of my kids, I will make changes.

Although this blog might provide evidence to the contrary, I don’t think my needs are all that different from every other student my age. I want the stress and craziness of a full day’s work. I want a challenge. More than anything, I want the chance to put my skills to good use and prove myself as a competent, professional human being.

In other words, I want the life I most likely will have to wait until post-graduation to see and experience. At the moment, what I’m struggling with most is the discrepancy between what I want and what I’ve learned in the social work sector thus far.

But this is the career situation I signed up for. This is the delayed gratification I know will come. I knew this when I got into my first grad school. I’ve made my postgrad bed, but do I have to lie in it for so long?

Well for now, I just have to let it lie. But that doesn’t mean I can’t flip the pillows and see my job from a new perspective.

When working with kids, it’s so easy to let the microscopic transgressions overtake you. But instead of getting fed up and giving up, for the time being I’m taking on the challenge in stride and waiting for the next opportunity to learn.

 

The good, the bad and the sleepy: 10 of my daily thoughts as a grad student

Like many other disgruntled, misguided twenty-somethings, I have a love-hate relationship with my decision to pursue a Master’s degree right after undergrad. While it might sound vaguely impressive/fancy to others, I’m definitely enduring some serious growing pains in my first semester of grad school.

So instead of attempting to compare my experiences to others, I thought I’d give a glimpse into the daily thoughts that cross my mind in my pursuit of this fancy degree.

  1. Why wasn’t one degree enough?! As the only person in my friend group pursuing grad school, I have a unique perspective on adulthood – y’know, being that I’ve delayed experiencing it for the next two years and all. While most of my close friends are getting “big girl” jobs and moving into their first apartments, writing 20-page papers and preparing for field placements has become my full-time job (plus a part-time job on top of that.) While I’m happy for my friends, I also wonder why I couldn’t join the ranks of the real world like the rest of them rather than torturing myself with two more years of economic insecurity and mental insanity.
  2. Why can’t I leave my bed? Everyone remembers the glorious weekend mornings of undergrad. We were the kings and queens of brunching, laundry and relaxation. Fast-forward four years: in those rare moments when homework is done, all of my waking hours are spent doing these such things. Does this make me lazy? Probably. Can I motivate myself to do something a little more productive? Absolutely not. After a long day of class, work and homework, I want nothing more than to spend the evening crying over Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve earned that right, if I do say so myself.
  3. Am I secretly a grandma? When I was still at Michigan State, I never knew what adventures the day would hold. I was ready to go out and have a good time at the drop of a hat. Nowadays, I’d be hard pressed to put pants on, much less leave the house. I’m over spending nights in crowded bars, being forced to listen to the boring lives of trendy strangers I don’t care about. I’d much rather enjoy dinner and cocktails with my girls, or go to a new art gallery, or do anything that doesn’t involve frat boys. Does this make me a grandma? Potentially. But I have no regrets.
  4. Holy moly, this debt is horrifying. Whenever I’m in a particularly dark place, I start racking up the potential student loan debt I’ll have incurred by graduation. Then I think, “…who needs kids and a house, right?” That’s when the panic sets in, when I picture myself swimming in debt until my mid-50s. What can I say? I’m an emotional cutter and a glutton for financial punishment. But seriously — we as a country have mastered the cure for certain cancers, but we haven’t figured out a more effective way to help students pay for college reasonably? So much for the American dream.
  5. How did I go without this much sleep?! As an undergrad I felt invincible. A normal day meant class in the morning, covering crime at my job at night, then homework and potentially bed, unless one of my my friends dragged me out of bed so I could have some semblance of a social life. I remember having days where I actually forgot to eat — for anyone who really knows me, this is tough to imagine. Every day I got up and did the same routine, and somehow I had energy to go out on the weekends. No 8 a.m. class, murder trial or shot of tequila could vanquish me. Nowadays, every extra 15 minutes of sleep feels like my kryptonite. I see a future filled with flannel sheets and down-filled blankets, and I will not apologize for it.

But as with any situation, I’ve got some positive thoughts squeezed in there somewhere. These are the daily reminders that get me through:

    1. I’ve never felt so blessed. Despite the aforementioned complaints, grad school is also a relief in many ways. While I achieved some success as a journalist, I felt incessantly nagged by the feeling I wasn’t truly supposed to be there. Social work feels like the perfect fit I never had with journalism. I’m surrounded by so many positive, passionate people, and they drive me to expand my mind and life every day.
    2. The passion never ends. My professors always tell me that as a social worker I will most likely never be out of a job. Even one semester in, the true need within the social services sector has become evident to me. There’s a new social or political issue to learn more about and help work through around every corner, and it’s incredibly exciting to think of the many lives I can live as a social worker. There’s this constant opportunity to reinvent myself. But deeper than that, there are thousands of people I can reach and help.
    3. There’s so much excitement for the future. My mind is constantly buzzing with potential research ideas, additions to my future thesis and practice wisdom professors and supervisors have instilled in me. I’m that girl who keeps a notebook with her constantly, just in case I think of something so brilliant I’m bound to forget it unless it’s written down. While I’m partially impatient for graduation because I’m sick of 100-plus pages of reading per night, it’s mostly because I can’t wait to get out there and make the difference I’ve been aiming for.
    4. All the unpleasant parts of undergrad are behind me. This includes working for less than minimum wage. And taking the God-forsaken bus to class. And strange men peeing in my apartment doorway in the wee hours of the morning (yes, this actually happened.) I’m not any wiser, now I’m just old enough to not tolerate this crap. Good riddance.
    5. I’ll be making WAY more money two years from now. Aside from my complete and utter love of everything concerning social work, the fact that I could potentially be making upwards of $10K more per year than I would have as a journalist doesn’t hurt. I’ll definitely need it to pay off those student loans. Although being broke is difficult now, the extra two years of suffering will be better off financially in the long run (hopefully).

Anything you think I missed? Feel free to share!