I grew up with the physical challenges of very limited hearing and progressively deteriorating eyesight – a genetic deaf-blindness called Usher Syndrome. Going to school was a traumatic experience, both socially and academically. In primary and secondary school, I felt a frustration I couldn’t describe. Adding to the anxiety was the situation at home. My parents constantly quarreled. I have agonizing memories of my father’s meanness and of the multiple times my mother barricaded herself in the bathroom threatening to slit her wrists, without understanding how their actions would affect my younger sister and me. When I was nine, my parents split and I lost the nurturing care of my mother and the loving companionship of my sister. My father became increasingly erratic and passive-aggressive, and what started with emotional abuse soon turned into regular physical abuse. To cope, I ran away from home every morning and returned only to sleep. I skipped most of Fifth grade and flunked Sixth.
Then God sent help. My paternal grandparents in Pakistan took us in and my grandfather started feeding me the little doses of kindness I so craved. He’d encourage me by day, console me at night, rub my shoulders, massage my back, relate anecdotes, quote scripture and tell me stories aimed at character development – about honesty, gentleness, humility, and an upright, steadfast nature. He recruited my grandmother’s sisters, to help me catch up with school work. He enrolled me in a new school and personally walked with me the mile each way in those first days. I was introduced to music. Both my grandparents – Abba and Bari Ammi – were avid musicians and regularly hosted gatherings filled with music and laughter, devotion and dance. On the weekends, my paternal uncle would visit us along with my aunt and cousins. Their presence provided much needed temporary relief to a wounded heart that missed his sister and mother. My uncle, Pallu Chacha would counsel me on the virtues of courage and confidence – that with these I could overcome any challenge. He encouraged me to develop an outgoing personality and to become a man of action, never afraid or passive, and ready to take a stand on issues.
These little doses of love and encouragement went a long way and still influence me today. My grades started to improve. I started to excel in sports, and began to make friends. In my second attempt at passing Sixth grade I ended up ranked 9th academically, in Seventh grade I improved to 2nd in class and in Eighth grade I became the Head Boy. That year I also won a national essay writing competition, which was a big boost for my self-esteem.
Four years later, in 1988, as a college student in America, I won another writing contest for a short story in which my father succumbed to an untimely death. At age seventeen, in my own way, through fiction and metaphors I was finally able to slay some of my emotional demons and move on. That very Semester, in a political science class, I came across some powerful words that grabbed my attention: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration of Independence, felt personal and incredibly empowering. America represented the destination in my journey of hope. I’ve been here ever since.
In 2007, serving a directorial role at Gannett New Jersey newspapers and as editor of a lifestyle magazine, I decided to run a story on the National Alliance of Mental Illness work in New Jersey. What a unique organization! NAMI gives voice to an underserved and stigmatized community. Mental illnesses are traumatic events and they are triggered by both biological and environmental factors. Those who suffer from mental illnesses often suffer without adequate support.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to building better lives for millions of Americans affected by mental illness. It is an empowerment powerhouse for community members and caregivers who are willing to stand up for and with those who suffer from mental illness. Through its many advocacy and education programs NAMI moves people from apathy to empathy and then to action.
Nearly thirty years have passed since that time in my adolescence when I first mustered the courage to start advocating for myself, and several years since I ran that news story about NAMI in the Home News Tribune and DesiNJ. This year, I decided to take an additional step and started facilitating NAMI family support groups, especially for caregivers of those challenged by mental illness. I’ve joined a group of exceptional people – who’re really just ordinary people who care – who choose to make life better for others. I feel the therapeutic impact of these sessions and benefit from the group wisdom in my own life. We learn to listen with empathy and become better managers of our emotions, thoughts and needs. We become better and more resourceful caregivers. There is a need for ongoing, sustained outreach in our communities. Through personal engagement we can stand up for justice and facilitate peace.