As with anything in life, you can choose to look ahead or you can let the past drag you down.
Yesterday, I got accepted into the Honors College at UIC. This was such a huge moment for me — because I did it. Four years after most people started college, I was admitted and I made that happen, with the help of some pretty amazing teachers.
The same day, I also received a package in the mail. It was a stack of photos from when I was young. There was one of me and my mom. I can’t share it here, but it is just me when I am 3 years old (approximately) and she is hugging me.
I took no childhood pictures with me when I left home four years ago, due to an abusive situation, and have chosen to remain isolated from my parents since. So looking at these pictures, after all this time, brought up much emotion. This photo of me and my mother, in particular, made me cry so much because I saw myself as a little girl, for the first time in a long time. I saw in my face, the love and care that I so desperately needed as that little girl and still as the woman I am today. That is what resounded, as if someone struck a gong right in my stomach. I wanted to go back in, to dive into that picture and save her — the little girl — to hug her, and kiss her, and love her, and be proud of and cherish her just for being who she is. To let her know she didn’t have to do anything extra or special to be loved — she is loved, and special, because she is alive. She is Nadia. And that is damn awesome.
I wanted to tell her that the craziness of the beliefs my parents inflicted on me, as well as the overt abuse inflicted on me, were never meant for me. They did not come because I was a bad girl — as I believed growing up, in shock that this was my life, wondering what I ever did to deserve such treatment.
I look back on my three-year-old self and want to show her how to begin to love herself. I am still struggling with that right now, at almost 23 years old, but I am also in the most opportune position of my life to give myself the love I was never given as a child and then more. I believe my parents loved me the way all parents have a natural inclination to love their children, though their love was skewed and damaged through their religious beliefs. I wasn’t given free love; unfortunately, as is taught in the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, I was a product by which my parents could achieve salvation and wash away all of the “sins” their God convinced them were inherently theirs. All that they needed to achieve this salvation, was for me to obey them and Jehovah God as perfectly as possible — and all the many, many horrific things he demanded, such as hating people who were gay, shunning people who left the faith and staying silent about child sexual abuse within the religious organization, instead of reporting it to the police. And the life commitment to the faith — preaching door to door every Saturday morning, studying the Bible for eight hours a week, never accepting blood transfusions (even in the face of death), not having sex before marriage, dating only within the faith and giving up women’s rights — free thought and ownership of our own bodies.
In this “faith,” children were believed to have no intrinsic worth — and I truly believe, their parents’ natural feelings of unconditional love towards them, were squashed by the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine — demonized, even. And consequently, whole families lived in agony because they weren’t allowed to think and feel how they wanted — independent thinking was strongly and widely discouraged in religious literature. Rather than acting in accordance with their feelings and truth, I watched several families like mine betray each other in a cycle of forgetting — forgetting their humanness, wonderful imperfections and innate freedoms.
In the midst of being raised like this, I was never shown how to give unconditional love to myself because I didn’t have a mother who could give it to herself, nor a father to himself.
In response to their love not being enough, I started learning how to adapt to not having enough. How to manipulate myself to be good — rather, be “better” — be quiet, studious, pleasant, pretty, courteous — anything that would get my mother and father to have pride in me. To create a false self that I believed, hopelessly, could nourish my dying child-self inside. I learned how to be silent, very silent, in order to survive, especially as I grew older. And valiant, painfully valiant, which I wish I did not have to be — because I experienced terrible atrocities, sexually, physically, emotionally and psychologically, in this home. The older I became, the more I accepted that this love I so desperately wanted from my mother and even father, whom I loathed, would never come. That my parents would never understand me. That their religion would cause them to hate me and damn me to Armageddon in their own minds. And that I must take it into my own hands to live the full, exciting, loving life I knew, electrically, that I came to live.
The pain increased as I got older, because it made me more and more hopeless — I would never get what I needed at that early age, from anyone outside of me. It was up to me to somehow learn to give it to myself. Now that I have built a life on my own and am developing healthy relationships with myself and with people who support me, I am in such an incredible position to practice self-love. I have so many wonderful people here to help me — from counselors to friends, coworkers and an amazing artistic community. I still feel, most days, like I am absentmindedly hitting the pieces together to make it work. Trying every possible combination until I feel better. And the great news is, the combinations I’m trying are working, both slowly and instantaneously at times. I am getting the support that is helping me heal and I am feeling prouder of my steps along the way — the pain, the misery, the confusion, the choice to take action, the choice to love myself and the choice to continue believing.The choice to see the silver lining, the choice to let myself be angry — the choice to move forward, and not be held back by what I was never given so long ago — I’m choosing all of these things.
I’m ready to put that chapter of my life, those eighteen years, behind me. I’m ready to live now, to enjoy my life and to look to the future. To celebrate how far I’ve come and how genuinely good my life is here. It brings me to tears every time I remember where I am now, just five years after living on my own. I think of my experiences and relationships continually growing into a more beautiful mosaic of color, life and meaning.
And so may it be for you as well — may it be that each day you live makes you more enthusiastic for the place in which you stand right now, but also, stronger for the pain you know. May you be a little awe-struck by your own ability to heal and grow and develop and change. Celebrate and love this person you are — your self — as was always meant for you.