Welcome to the underside of joy.
I took this picture April 8, 2020.
I was still living with my husband, but he was no longer the person I’d known and loved for 26 years. He spoke to me like a stranger. I had spent hours alone sobbing over loss of my best friend. When I finally went to my bathroom to wash up for bed and saw my face, I was shocked.
This is the face of grief.
I took a picture.
I knew I would want to remember that moment forever. It seemed so odd to want to memorialize this. I never intended to share it with anyone. In fact, it’s the first picture in my “hidden” folder on my iPhone.
But it was the first time I had fully allowed myself to surrender to grief. Prior to that, I was a wholly committed optimist either glossing over what was difficult in favor of life’s many blessings or going into planning mode to ensure the best possible outcome in a bad situation. As Mark Twain famously said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Let me explain.
Over the past few weeks, you’ve seen the courage, passion and ferocity of the Iranian people. It’s been incredible. But did you also know our culture is very formal. Everyone is very polite. You will rarely meet an ill-mannered Persian person out in the world. This clip from comedian Maz Jobrani nails it.
The dark side of this politeness and formality is caring very much what the outer world thinks of you. Being respectable is of the utmost importance. So, in my family, whichever child was doing the best out in the world (looks, grades, jobs, money), was the one my mother showered with the bright light of her love. As a dyslexic kid with low grades, I very much lived in the shadow of my very academically accomplished siblings. (Doctors!) So, I unconsciously cultivated this “perfect” version of myself over the course of my entire adult life to finally win her adoration. I was always perfectly put together, had the perfect marriage, perfect career. “Atoosa Rubenstein” was essentially a performance art piece designed to earn my mother’s approval, pride and ultimately her love. And believe me, I got it.
I had unintentionally cast myself in the role of a lifetime….as myself.
Behind the scenes, of course, I was far from perfect, but you know all about that.
I had a sense of this toward the end of my time at Seventeen because no matter what incredible accomplishment or material possession I’d achieved, I was just kind of numb. Meh. Nothing brought me joy. So, I began my quest to figure out what was behind this performance. Who was I really, if not this well-coiffed soundbite? My therapist wanted to start with some tough things I had just assumed I could leave in the past. I did a ton of therapeutic work around the various forms of trauma I experienced as a kid: Incest, the stress of coming to America, the death of my father, all of it. I had always had a quick temper and it’s no wonder. There were so many buried land mines in my psyche.
All of that work brought me to a new and more peaceful place. My husband used to say that it was like I was a different person.
When I was around my family of birth.
No amount of therapy seemed to help me there. My anger was always right there waiting to explode.
This past week was no different. I went to dinner with my sister, but I could barely look her in the eye. It was the usual superficial conversation. Big smile on her end, talking about something, but talking about nothing. My old anger was gaining steam below the surface. A simple question about Thanksgiving finally pushed me over the edge. I was reading her a laundry list of why I was angry with her and my mom and one of the things I said was, “Listen, I’m over the incest but…” And she interrupted, “Obviously, you’re not!”
I do think I’ve processed my experience of being molested. I really do.
But something about it stuck with me and a text she just sent me today crystallized it. She said, “I believe you are addicted to your victimhood and your obsession with this is driving you crazy.”
I finally realized why I’m angry with my family.
And yes, it is connected to the incest. But not just that.
A big part of my grit and perseverance in my career came from being a warrior in my own home fighting off a huge grown man every day after school. Today, I am working so hard to learn how to be in a relationship properly because I spent the first half of my marriage cheating on my husband. I keep dating and grieving the wrong men because I was never allowed to grieve the death of my father. I am not the first person who has gone through any of these situations in my family. I’m merely the first one that wants to talk about it.
Why can’t we talk about it?
Am I “addicted to victimhood” for wanting to talk about it? For not wanting to be ashamed about it? For wanting to be loved and held by my community for the fullness of who I am? Not just for my success but for my mistakes. My trauma. My grief.
So, as we discussed earlier, in the Iranian culture I was raised in, politeness is expected. “Perfect” Atoosa expertly navigated this. But grief and trauma defy politeness. I can no longer abide by this formality. I can’t pretend entire portions of my life didn’t happen because it’s not polite or appropriate to talk about them.
I am a survivor of incest.
I cheated on my husband.
And then he cheated on me.
It destroyed my family and now I’m picking up the pieces.
None of this is polite. But it is real. It is real.
I recently made a Reel about not getting involved in the little niggly dramas of day-to-day life (I like to use the example of RHONJ when Theresa was mad at her sister-in-law for bringing sprinkle cookies to her house when everyone knows she hates sprinkle cookies! 🤪). I stand by this advice because when we stop hooking into the little dramas, we make space for the bigger, older feelings that need to be processed.
For me, that feeling is grief and when it comes up, I want to scream. Writhe. Weep. I wish I could do all those things and be held and loved through it by my closest community. But my family is afraid of those feelings. They’re afraid of the impolite, messiness of it all.
I wish my family weren’t afraid of grief.
I wish my family weren’t afraid of me.
I long for open arms.
For someone to weep with me.
One person can’t heal in a box. The whole family system needs to heal. But what if the very uncivilized nature of healing is just not compatible with a culture? How can I heal but still have belonging? How can I not feel orphaned from my family for something that wasn’t my fault or my doing? No one, but me, has grieved for what I lost. And that makes me angry but ultimately, it makes me sad. It’s a lonely place to sit. But I sit with my friends and my own little family. I find belonging with you, my beautiful community. But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I wish I could find belonging and acceptance with my family of birth. I feel like a refugee…all over again.
No happy ending this week. But the one thing I have learned in my 50 years is that every river of grief and emotional contraction leads me to a beautiful expansion. As the Buddha says, everything that arises, also passes. Including grief. I know joy is around the corner or maybe down the block. And perhaps that is the happy ending. Since that dark, dark night in April 2020, I have experienced more joy, passion and deep, deep love than I ever knew was possible. That gives me hope as I sit in the dark with my grief tonight. I love you. Thank you for listening.
This week, one of my favorite poems. Please enjoy The Well of Grief by David Whyte.
Atoosa Unedited is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.