You probably wouldn’t believe my life. In a certain light it reads like an encyclopedia of tragedy: revolution, disease, isolation, dysfunction, terrorism, failure and withdrawal. But let me also tell you that if you were to meet me, you may think a sunnier person never lived. I was virtually orphaned early on when, as a child, I was sent out of Iran in a hurry at the onset of the Islamic Revolution. For the next five years, I wandered around European countries—Holland, Scotland, Germany, England, France—skipping between relatives’ houses and schools. I don’t think I stayed anyplace more than a year.
By the time my parents escaped the Mullahs and we all joined my older brother in Southern California in the early to mid-1980s, our family chemistry had changed fundamentally and profoundly. Even as a child in Iran I had been a little different but now I emerged as a full-blown black sheep. Most of the kids in my generation of bi-cultural straddlers were torn between our American heritage, brought to life mainly by commercials and various sitcoms (“be yourself, follow your dreams”) and our Iranian heritage, voiced mainly by our parents (“be yourself, as long as that self is a doctor, lawyer or engineer … and don’t embarrass me.”) I did not toe the line at first. I danced and acted in a performing arts workshop that toured both nationally and internationally. I spoke my mind freely. I wore black frequently.
But at some point, I lost both my compass and my will. I escaped to the East Coast to attend law school. My only consolation was my constant self-assurance that I would practice civil and human rights law as an attorney. But civil and human rights firms don’t recruit on campus. Major law firms do. I was at the top of my class and had my share of high-salary, big-firm offers. Alas, law school had been a blast, but being a lawyer was not.
What can I say about my years as a practicing attorney? I was a capable lawyer but an unhappy, reluctant one. Years passed, my mind numbing with the Novocain of law practice. I fell into a deeper and deeper depression.My solution? Go back to school, of course! Because a law degree hadn’t been bad enough, I racked up another 50,000 dollars in debt to get a master’s in international law! It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was like a painful, long drawn-out quick sand. Inch by inch, I was disappearing.In 1999 I met a man at a friend’s birthday party. He was, in no particular order, younger, Texan, Catholic and Mexican-American—about as different from me as he could possibly be. So naturally I married him.
We moved to New York City in 2000. We lived in the West Village at Sixth Avenue and Bleecker. In late 2000 I started to have increasingly more alarming dreams, all to do with war and disaster in New York City. I was freefalling into a deep funk. By summer 2001, my panic had hit a fever pitch. On September 10, 2001, I was at a therapist’s office, trying with great difficulty to explain my hysteria. I demanded meds and got a referral to a psychiatrist so I could get a prescription. I went home that night, thinking that all would be alright again. The following morning, my nightmares came true in a multi-sensory horror show.
I suffered a vicious post-traumatic reaction to 9/11. It reminded me, in so many ways, of the revolution.
In 2004 I had a daughter followed in 19 months by a son—a perfect excuse to quit working as a lawyer. I was not a natural-born mother but what I was lacking in skills, I tried to make up for in heart. And that first year with my daughter on the Upper Westside was glorious. Whoever says New York City is no fun with babies just has no clue. It’s magical with babies. The problems start once they get older, and you have to start shelling out for school and classes.
In 2006 a career opportunity for my husband moved us to the West Coast. At first we thought we were going to be living in LA, which is my favorite city in the world right after Pripyat, which was made famous by Chernobyl. Then we found out we’d be going to San Francisco instead. San Francisco was probably the only big city in the United States I hadn’t lived in. I also thought it was one of the most fascinating.The only problem was that the nightmares had returned in mid-2006. This time I knew what was coming, so I started preparing. I started hoarding water and canned goods. I bought radiation pills on the Internet because I just knew there would be some kind of radiation involved this time. I started fixating on the months of August and September of 2007. I refused to move into San Francisco proper, reasoning that terrorists would target the big cities but not the suburbs.
We settled into a sunny city on the Peninsula. We arrived in July. In August, disaster struck, just as I had predicted. Not in the form of a terrorist attack, though. Even as I was nursing my one-year-old, I was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. No family history. No risk factors. No explanations. Nothing. I had been right about the radiation but in the end the only person who was irradiated was me.I have always thought myself a resilient person. But the cancer broke me at first. I spent a year stumbling through the fog. For the better part of the first six months I wallowed: “Why me? Why always me?”
The real story of stress came together for me during this period. All the pieces: history, science, philosophy, faith, fate—all of them finally fit. And the picture that emerged made sense for the first time. Stress was not the devil at all. It never had been. It was the messenger that I feared and fled. And when I was finally able to stop and listen, it changed the way I saw everything. I began to emerge from the fog of cancer in early 2008. I was skeletal and weak, but happy, grateful and laser-focused for the first time in years. The anxiety had lifted. The nightmares ceased. I was long overdue but finally, finally, I had entered the Valley of Love.