by Aishah Alattas
I am privileged. I was fortunate enough that through my parents’ hard work, we grew up living comfortably, moving around to countries overseas and not having to worry about a roof over our shoulders, food on our plates and clothes on our back. I graduated from an international high school where it was given that all of us would be going to overseas universities. I completed my bachelor’s degree and my master’s by the age of 21 with financial help from my mother. Surely, I would be geared up for success and pass this privilege on to my children.
I am also at a disadvantage. I was born with visible physical deformities that for a considerable part of my childhood and early teenage years was the subject of ridicule from my peers. After 5 years of being on the back brace, which was to no avail in improving my condition, I opted to go for a spinal surgery which I believed would make me look normal. It did not. The surgery did not go as planned and I was stuck in the same body, except now I was in infinitely more pain and it would take months for me to be able to recover and complete daily tasks independently again. Not only was this the first big disappointment I had faced, worse still, I had no one or nothing to blame.
In my teenage years and early twenties, I proudly called myself a pessimist, claiming with confidence that if I never expected anything to go my way, I will never be disappointed. This way, I could be pleasantly surprised by even a mildly good outcome. The problem was that I never experienced this pleasant feeling, as my pessimistic tendencies meant that I always saw the worst in things—someone being nice to me would mean they had a hidden agenda, an achievement would be due to sheer luck and will be brushed off anyway. Safe to say, being pessimistic wasn’t working out all that great.
During the time I was having this realisation, I started to fall in love. They say your first love hits the hardest, and that was definitely the case for me. I was completely caught up in my emotions. I was walking on clouds and seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses. I had never felt happier. Then he abruptly texted me one day that he no longer wanted a relationship and cut me off all forms of possible contact. Not only was this the second big disappointment I faced, but I had no answers or explanation as to why or how something so great could come crashing down with barely a moment’s notice.
My search for answers led me nowhere, so I decided that there was something terribly wrong with me. I’ve now gone beyond pessimism, this is realism. I had to face the fact that I was the problem. Perhaps my deformities disgust people, maybe I’m too needy, is it the way I speak? I took it upon myself to believe that it was all of the above and more until I felt there was nothing left of me that would be worthy of anyone’s attention. I was committed to embodying this new persona of non-existence, letting my body, my mind, my soul, my time and my resources be used however people saw fit without any opinion or input from me because I didn’t let myself have one.
I call those years the invisible years, where I made myself invisible to myself and those around me because if people can’t see me, surely they won’t be able to hurt me or disappoint me. This was also when I started to pursue my Master’s in Mood Disorders. I had applied for it before my “invisibility” when I was still with the guy, when I still had my plans and aspirations. I wanted to opt out but it was too late as the payments and related arrangements had been made.
Hard as it was, I pushed through. Academic settings are where I’ve always thrived so I thought I’ll just study, get the grades and go back in hiding. So I did it, I went to class, I went to work, I saw friends and family even though I mostly felt withdrawn from any interaction I had with other human beings and had this impending sense that I was being judged for all the flaws I magnified in my head. And somewhere down the line I learnt that as long as I’m seen as being ‘alright’ people will treat me as someone ‘alright’ and yes, they still can and maybe even will hurt and disappoint me.
That’s it. I can’t run away from it. People can and will disappoint me. Just like how they do to every other person. Heck, I’ve probably disappointed and hurt people without even meaning to or knowing that I did. As part of my Master’s programme we were put on placements in community mental health settings and in psychiatric hospitals where I came into contact with people whose traumas are those you could only imagine coming from a horror movie. How could I sit there and wallow in self-pity while at the same time trying to help others move on from their pasts?
It didn’t come to me spontaneously, but rather in a series of analysis and acceptance that within and throughout all of the hardships we all inevitably face, there is one necessary sentiment which allows us to overcome and live fulfilling lives. This could be as simple as getting rejected from a job that you were hoping to get, all the way up to the unjust and untimely death of your husband and child.
Eventually, it is hope that pulls us through.
Hope is everywhere all the time. It’s the reason we do anything at all. We run for the bus because we hope that the driver will wait for us before he drives off, we buy that new highly-acclaimed moisturizer because we hope it will make our skin look better, we live simply because we hope for better lives. The more we live, the better we hope our lives will be. I say it took analysis because the range of issues that everyone faces is so vast and sometimes dependent on other factors like gender, race and socioeconomic status, that I wondered if there were things where simply being hopeful would just not suffice. I say it took acceptance because it wasn’t easy for me to take this abstract concept of hope and rely on it to serve myself and the people around me. It just can’t be that simple, but it is, and then it isn’t.
It’s simple because we all hope all the time without even noticing it. Everything we do, every choice we make to get out of bed, to shower, to eat, to fulfil any and all our responsibilities, no matter and especially how reluctant we are to do so, is because we hope that it will benefit us in some way. It is oh so complex because no matter how much or how hard we hope, we will still face disappointment, rejection and at times helplessness. Hope does not prevent us from the downs that life brings to each one of us without discrimination, it does not ensure that we will spend every living moment happy and carefree because the truth is, nothing will.
What happens when we think of this harsh reality is that we abandon all hope, because what is the point if we are going to end up being disappointed anyway? But that’s exactly the point. We know we’re going to get hurt and be disappointed sooner or later. It has happened to all of us before and it will happen again. So why spend the time we have when we are not hurt and disappointed acting like we are? Why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to enjoy what is good? Even if that good thing ends up not being good for us after all, at least we’ve taken our slice of the cake and enjoyed it while we could. But if it turns out that it was good for us all along, we would have never known because we just assumed the world is working against us.
Now, at 25 years young, I’ve had enough surgeries to finally have a ‘normal’ body, but it’s still not good enough as I have persistent acne on my face and body. I had a stable job as a mental health counsellor but put that on hold for an opportunity to pursue my passion in acting, a step that some regard as a downgrade and a waste of my education. I’m on good terms with my ex-boyfriend, but I still deal with trust issues and haven’t been in a relationship since. I’m still privileged and I’m still at a disadvantage. The only thing that’s changed is that I’ve leaned into the innate hope that we all have within us. I’m not afraid of disappointment, of being hurt or being rejected because I have hope that things can and will get better after that, and then get worse, and then get better again. I enjoy my life and I enjoy being me at a level that I never did before because I hope for the best outcome while actively taking steps to work towards it, and I hope that everyone can see the value in this too.
Aishah finds writing about herself in the third person to be rather awkward. She is a mental health professional, an actor, a writer, a vegan, a shower singer, a terrible painter, a decent daughter, an annoying sister, a loyal friend, a platypus enthusiast and above all else, a human in progress.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu