What I’ve learnt from being forced to talk to people on the phone

To preface: I used to absolutely hate talking to people on the phone. I would avoid it as much as possible, to the point where even talking to my own family on the phone felt like an insurmountable ordeal in my life. I know I’m not alone in this, and that heartens me. In a few short years, I will be able to successfully sidestep the phone and conduct all my dailies without having to talk to anyone at all. As it is, I could probably live a talk-on-the-phone-free lifestyle but I do not have the luxury of that. Mostly because I will be working for people that still expect me to pick up the phone and talk to a person.

Now, before you start shaking your cane/mortgage/NOKIA 3310 at me, I will have you know I am not an antisocial person. I am just an anxious person. Like every other millennial. Also, none of us actually likes being anxious, we just have to develop coping mechanisms and cross-stitch reminders that we can do the dang thing, you All-Lives-Matter-touting ding-dong.

And so, let me launch into what I’ve learnt from being forced to call people on the phone – something I’m actually capable of doing now!

  1. Let’s start with the basic essentials: always leave your name and a number/email you can be reached at! I cannot stress this enough, and will be calling back (this was an accidental pun and I am thrilled) to this point later.
  2. When you do leave your name and number, make sure you spell your name out as painstakingly as possible. This is my usual spiel: “My name is Neiha Lasharie; that’s N- N for Nancy-E-I-H-A, Lasharie, L-A-S-H-A-R-I-E, Neiha Lasharie.” Why N for Nancy? Because I’m tired of being called Meiha and I live in constant fear of the day I have an international flight ticket with the wrong spelling of my Pakistani passport-holding name.
    1. Subpoint: memorize some approximation of the NATO phonetic alphabet. That way, you don’t have to scramble to find the stupidest word possible that happens to start with the letter in question, or end up in a situation where you forget that Phoenix does not, actually, start with F, or decide that “hallelujah” is the word you’re going for instead of, I don’t know, hotel (I have done this).
  3. Almost always, the person answering the phone will tell you their name right at the beginning. If they don’t tell you their name – or you forgot/were too busy panicking to register it, it’s nice to ask their name again right before you get off the phone. Write it down somewhere, it’ll come in handy later down this list. If nothing else, the person on the phone appreciates it, and it will make this mutual ordeal seem a bit more palatable and human. Look at you go!
  4. (Increasingly) no one actually likes talking on the phone. The person you are calling wants to get off the phone as quickly as you do. You don’t have to exchange pleasantries; in fact, the more streamlined you can make your phone call experience, the better it is for them to! Stick to the bare minimum; if they have questions, they’ll ask you. However…
  5. …you just put down the phone and realized that you forgot to give the person you were talking to a key bit of information! Dang it! “That’s too bad I guess, oh well, I could always-” don’t you do it, 19-year-old Neiha, don’t you throw the person on the phone under the bus for something you should be responsible for! You call that person back! You call them back as soon as possible so they still remember you and you don’t inconvenience literally everyone around you except yourself! Anxious child!
    1. This is where having left your name and number really helps, along with any correspondence number/order number/reference number if applicable.
    2. Additionally, if this a customer service type situation or there’s more than one person likely to pick up the phone, having the name of the person you talked to previously handy will make a big difference! Either they can run a note to the other person, or just hand the phone over if possible.
  6. If this is a work-related thing, or you have to ask a detailed question to someone, it’s good to write a script. But like, physically write it out if possible. You will 100% remember individual points way better if you lose the script because you wrote it down by hand. Scripts are also extremely handy if the call goes to voicemail and you panic – because as much as talking to another person is rough, talking into the void is way worse.
    1. Depending on the type of person you are, you can either write out the entire script word for word, or bullet point it. I personally prefer bullet pointing it.
  7. Speaking of voicemail: when you leave one, it’s helpful to speak as slowly and clearly as possible. No one actually knows how voicemails work, especially in an office setting. Speak slowly, carefully, and repeat things. Say your name in the beginning, and repeat your name at the end. Say your phone number twice. It’s also helpful to give the time and date you made this voicemail, and if it’s something where a follow-up will be needed, give the person you’re trying to reach the courtesy of telling them you’re about to hound them. But in a nice way.
  8. The build-up will always make it worse. Counting down the minutes to a phone call is hell. Usually, it’s not even worth it; the call goes to voicemail, and you’re left kinda underwhelmed. Just go for it. I know that’s not always possible for a lot of people, but for me, I sound and feel way more natural if I just pick up the phone and call someone instead of when I’m hyping myself up for it.
  9. During my first co-op, whenever I had to make a phone call, I would always isolate myself and find the most remote location possible. I didn’t want anyone to witness my embarrassment. But – and this is a good life lesson in general – no one cares if you stumble over your words. People stutter and stumble all the time. Now, I actually prefer calling people when I have someone around. It emboldens me.
  10. Always have something to write notes on. Make sure the thing you have to write notes on isn’t your phone. You WILL miss something in the transition from ear to speaker. This is crucial if you’re asking for contact information. Always have them spell out the name. Always confirm the number/email you’re been given. Basically, treat that situation with the same care you wish a Starbucks barista took when scrawling your name onto a grande iced latte.
  11. PACING HELPS SO MUCH. YOU WILL FEEL BETTER. But also don’t slip. I’ve definitely slipped during a phone interview.
    1. ALSO SCRIBBLING. This is something I picked up from my mom. Just doodling on a note card or newspaper or whatever it is you have nearby helps you focus.
  12. If you’re talking to someone important on the phone, don’t panic. It’s a totally different atmosphere than when you’re meeting with someone in real life. You don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing, or your body language – as long as you treat them with courtesy and respect their time, you should be good. But also, chances are, you’re talking to their secretary or assistant; be nice to them too. Actually, be especially nice to them – they have total control over whether or not you’ll get to talk to their boss.
    1. Some of the best interviewing advice I’ve ever been given has been from my father. This is very useful for an in-person interview but also applies to a phone call. Make yourself feel physically bigger; take a deep breath, square your shoulders, hold your feet shoulder’s width apart, just make yourself feel powerful. You’re feel more confident for it.
    2. The other best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is from a friend who didn’t even really mean it as advice; pretend you’re someone you really admire. Don’t, like, steal their identity. Just put yourself in their shoes, and you’ll find yourself adopting their perceived confidence too! This is the one piece of advice behind my public speaking success.
  13. Finally, it doesn’t matter who you’re calling, be as courteous to them as you would if you were talking to them in person. If someone is explaining something to you, make sure they know you’re actually listening. Ask questions. Be patient if you need to repeat yourself. Feel free to make fun of the situation, if you mess up! Don’t immediately hang up because you called yourself Zach and your name is definitely not Zach. It’s okay to ask someone to hold because you need a second to take a deep breath and dive back into it.

Okay, wow, this is way more advice than I was expecting to give. Feel free to ask me any questions! I’m happy to answer as best as I can! Now back to trying to get a hold of literal ambassadors!

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Forgiveness, can you imagine?

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-04 at 2.18.54 PM
There aren’t too many pictures of me from graduation, but I think this one – overwhelmed, holding way too many things, but so happy – is a pretty good summary of both graduation and my college life in general.

As of May 4th, 2018, I am the proud owner of a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs. If you’ve been following this blog since its very inception in 2010, then this might be tripping you up as much as it tripped me up. I still have vivid memories of giving college acceptance updates when this blog was still Neiha Thinks This. To be done, to have crossed out the erstwhile biggest item in the To-Do List of my life seems bizarre.

Of course, in the process, comparatively smaller items on my micro to-do list fell by the wayside (including my plans to put up a blog post every month), but it’s hard to give myself too much of a hard time about it when I am in possession of the most expensive piece of paper I will ever hold. It wouldn’t be very poetic to let my graduation month pass without a blog post reflecting, properly, on at least some facet of the past five years. (NOTE: It is now June 3rd. I let May slip by without finishing this blog. Ha ha.)

I’ve been afraid of my last semester of college since I first stepped foot in Northeastern’s campus and realized I was home. Which is weird – being afraid of a milestone seems absurd. I couldn’t wait for my high school graduation so that I could be done with that chapter of my life but at the same time, those two milestones aren’t even worth comparing. My high school experience was not great. I had friends, many of whom I’m still close to, and saw some successes but I was always held back either by teachers who called me “too passionate” or resource crunches. I could never pursue knowledge to the extent that I wanted to, short of fighting my way into taking an independent study A  Level. My interests were belittled. And when I tried to leave high school behind in favor of greener pastures, I had my character, intelligence, and values attacked by the one teacher I was still in contact with and looked up to. I have no qualms about discussing this now: that messed me up. After working through this with my therapist, it has been concluded that most of my impostor syndrome and self-flagellation can be attributed to That One Teacher. Which is upsetting, because said teacher is why this blog exists in the first place.

I guess that’s a good transition into what aspect of my college life I want to reflect on this time: forgiveness. Specifically, learning how to forgive myself. While at therapy the other day, talking about some or the other requisite self-image issues I still have, we hit upon a bit of a revelation. I still hold on to the naive belief that, at 23, I shouldn’t have body image issues anymore. It was a hope that persisted throughout my teenage years. With age, all of this would go away. And of course it doesn’t. In my particular case, we noted that a lot of my issues that have roots in childhood often get triggered by specific events. None of my issues are ever in isolation, and if they flare up, it’s because something else has flared up concurrently that exacerbates the former. And then the revelation: I immediately realized that these issues aren’t just disparate, they’re parts – “tendrils” is how I described them – of the same large behemoth: how I see myself in relation to where I want to be. Each tendril is situational, variables that act up and inform the central question: am I on my way to becoming the person I want to be? It seems silly, but after months and months of working through each tendril in isolation, having a larger framework to work against was a pretty major breakthrough.

And, of course, it all goes back to ambition. Sometimes I think mine has gone stale or has paled in comparison to the people around me. That’s not the case; my ambition is stronger than it’s ever been. The two biggest driving forces behind my ambition have always been service and spite. The former is decidedly more noble than the latter and will always be more important – nothing I do matters if it doesn’t help in some capacity. The latter grew in size and force over the years, reaching its peak in college, but it has always been there. It’s always played a bit of a tempering role to the complacent, afraid side of me. My successes in high school despite the odds? Spite: if I can’t succeed despite the odds, what’s the point? Fighting my way back from a D in economics? Spite: “he looked at me like I was stupid, I’m not stupid.” Deciding, once and for all, that I will get a PhD? Spite: no one ever gets to call me a pseudointellectual again. And I don’t get to believe it.

And here’s the thing, a lot of my spite is intrinsic too. I live to spite myself because at the end of the day, I’m my worst enemy for these things. I treat myself like absolute trash. I’m the one that allows myself to listen to people who want to put me down because in my heart, I believe that part of service is taking all criticism on face value and becoming “better” for it. The roots of that are in the one trait I fear most in myself, arrogance. A “trait” that came out of insecure teenage bravado – forgivable! And yet, unforgiven. If arrogance is self-assurance without limits, then I would strive to be the opposite of that.

I think spite is a necessary driving force. For me, it forces me to take what I judge as a failing on my part and reevaluate it. It forces me to for once in my life give myself a break, because I can actually do the things I am told I can’t do. I spite myself so as to learn to forgive myself. Arrogance is bad, yes, but I’ve never actually been arrogant, I was just called that by someone at the age of 13 and it stung enough to stick for ten whole years.

I have so much I still haven’t forgiven myself for, from the banal to the serious. The last five years I’ve been at college are pockmarked by those moments. I think back on them and my immediate urge is to rip my own skin off. To blame yourself so much that your instinct is violence towards yourself? The cruelty of it all.

I want more than anything to be of use. I don’t need to be lauded, I don’t need to be appreciated, I just want to help and create and cultivate and study. Any moment where I have been less than those things is paramount to failure in my book. And yet, I graduated and I graduated pretty dang well. I have made life-long friends, I have been a mentor, I have learned so much, and I have even been able to help in that process. More than any other time in my life, I did the best I could and now that it’s over, I’m so proud of myself.

I think that might make it easier for me to forgive myself one day.


On a lighter-ish note, what comes next after the above detailed milestone, you say? Waiting for the US government to get back to me about whether or not I can stay in this country for the next year! Finding a full-time job! I have a part-time gig as a research assistant which I am so excited for and which will help tide me over until I can get a full-time job with benefits. I’m also ~paranoid~ so I don’t want to give more details on that until I get said government approval.

Over the next year, I will be studying for and taking the GRE and applying to graduate programs in political science/international affairs with a focus on ethnic conflict and global governance…and I think most of them will be PhD programs. I’m about 80% sure on that. That’s the most sure I’ve been about anything with the letters P, H, and D in it! I will also be fine-tuning my research article on sex trafficking in the EU and hopefully getting it in front of a panel of academics to get feedback. I’ll try my best to add updates here but they might go to LinkedIn first.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, thank you for sticking with me despite my unreliable upload schedule. It means a lot to me!

An overdue reflection

Increasingly, I find myself missing the Netherlands.

If you talked to me at any point over the last year, you would have heard some variation of the following: “I don’t really like traveling or going out of my comfort zone but…” and I know the part about not liking travel sounds weird but give this blog post a read and you’ll figure out why soon enough. Or hell, if you’ve been following this blog since before I came to college, you’ll know why. One of the central questions of my formative years was how long I’d have to wait until I truly felt at home somewhere. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make Lahore home again, and my trip back after five years of separation during the summer of 2016 proved me right (I made my peace with that pretty much instantly!). But in the interim, I had actively pinpointed Boston as home, and wasn’t disappointed. Boston will always be home.

And so, when I moved to the Netherlands, I was excited but I also went in with the mindset of impermanence. This was a temporary stopover so even if I ended up being extremely homesick or straight-up unhappy, there was an end-date I could rely on. And certainly, my last month in the Netherlands was one where I couldn’t wait for the end-date. Why not? I would see my family again, my brother was going to get married, I would soon be preparing for my last semester of college – there was so much to look forward to that I couldn’t help but be antsy.

But God, was it bittersweet. I didn’t expect the Netherlands to be so welcoming. Rather, I didn’t expect my heart – with its specific idea of “home” – to be so open to leaving a piece of itself with the Netherlands. Six months was not a long time, and I know there is so much I didn’t get to experience about the Netherlands; but I had my routine, and I had cultivated my comforts, my pet peeves, so fully. Every now and then, I’ll be hit with such a dense pang of longing for aspects of those six months. But it doesn’t make me sad or miserable with my current situation. I couldn’t be happier being in Boston (though my current workload could definitely stand to chill out for a hot second). The nostalgia doesn’t hurt, it just reminds me of the fullness of my time in yet another country I say I’ve lived and loved. What’s strange about my time there, though, is the privacy of it. I mentioned in a previous blog post from when I was in the Netherlands that the isolation I felt was really bizarre. Not too long after that, I realized it was because there weren’t many people with whom I was actively, physically sharing that moment in time-space with. For once, this experience was mine and mine along. But the consequence of that is now that I’m back to a familiar old lifestyle, I feel like my experiences in the Netherlands are private and secret. It’s a world only know, that only have experienced in its fullness. I had a few friends visit at a couple of points in those six months, but none of them really know of my time in the Netherlands in the way I did and do. My friends there are mine. My workplace there was mine. My time there was mine. My grocery trips there were mine. My meal-prep were mine. The cafe I used to go to to research was mine.

In fact, I hadn’t realized how much of my normal life wasn’t mine. That’s not a bad thing at all. It speaks to another kind of fullness, the fullness of companionship that I am so lucky to have. More than anything else though the Netherlands taught me that I can be happy experiencing something on my own. I don’t really want to go out of my way to emulate the experience again, so you definitely won’t be getting a travel blog out of me any time soon (or ever), but I feel so much more confident in and with myself. I got to travel to Berlin on my own – without access to internet or cellular communication beyond public WiFi – and it was a really good experience. I can succeed on my own!

I can’t explain how badly I needed to know that.

The Netherlands – especially the Hague and Rotterdam – will always hold a wonderful place in my heart. It also feels good knowing that if my career goes the way I hope it does and I end up back in the Netherlands, I’ll be back to a beloved familiar. So, yes, I’ve been missing the Netherlands a lot: the chocolate, the straightforward people, my co-workers and friends that I got to know, my Sundays dedicated almost entirely to hours of meal-prep, visits to the grocery store, CHEAP PRODUCE, Albert Heijn and pepernoten, the view from the beach clubs at Scheveningen, getting lost in Rotterdam, the way the Hague glories as it is bathed in sun, punctual public transportation, the fries… but at the end of the day, I don’t miss the Netherlands as if it’s something gone missing. I revel in having tried something new and falling in love in the process.

But I’ll be damned if you see me post a picture of the Hague on Instagram with the caption Take me back!

Poetrygrams, privacy and setbacks

I hate calling myself a poet, in the way I always struggled with calling myself an artist (I still don’t like calling myself an artist). To be a “poet” or an “artist” means you have received a degree of instruction, or self-taught prowess, of a calibre that it can be disseminated. I don’t think I have that distinction at all. I can barely call myself a writer. It’s easier to create some space between myself and the act: I write poetry, I make art, both are more palatable in that they aren’t claims, they aren’t identities, but they are easily identifyable actions.

At some point, I had forgone this cautionary practice and – kind of arrogantly – started calling myself a poet. For what reason? I got a handful of likes on some poetry I threw onto my Instagram feed, and it fed my ego. I wrote more stuff, and threw it on my Insta feed, and got more affirmation. Don’t get me wrong – I cared about the poetry I wrote, and I took care in the writing process. I sat on poems until I was happy with them, for weeks and months at times. But at the back of my mind, I knew the medium I was writing for. I had a formula – no more lines than can fit the length of my phone, linebreaks so that there were no run-on sentences past the width of my phone, and squat enough that the poem could be easily squared and put up on Instagram. I was immediately limited to short bursts of prettily strung together sentences that, sure enough, were poems but by no means the best poems I could write. At some point, I had accrued enough poems that I could dedicate a separate poetrygram to my work, and I did. I felt wonderful about that – maybe I could find a poetry community for myself on Instagram. I could cultivate followers, get feedback, learn from the feedback. It would be a form of workshopping that I didn’t have access to.

A few months passed. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied still, after a few months of playing around with the poetrygram, I created a poetry WordPress blog. I felt wonderful about that again, but in a slightly wiser way. That was my first inkling of understanding. Once I started writing poetry specifically for the WordPress blog, I found that I became more experimental. I started playing with formats and styles, wrote longer poems, I created room for myself to expand into. All the little lessons I had stored away in the back of my mind in my miserliness after years of reading diverse poetry finally had a space to come out in. I was Silas Marner, and this endless space for growth and writing was my Eppie. I was a surprised at how different my poetry had become, within days – I wasn’t writing for a specific medium anymore, and, honestly, I wasn’t writing for the easy validation either. I hate admitting that the influx of likes made me feel better, more talented, but it did. But I never got the poetry community, the access to the world that I wanted.

But the WordPress blog brought to light a whole other issue. With the advent of the WordPress blog, I found the courage to submit poetry to various publications and reviews, and – well – I was knocked back onto my butt with an important realization: the poetry world rewards privacy. That is to say, you can’t publish stuff that has appeared online before in any form.

I reeled. I should have known this. Somehow, I thought a blog – an Instagram feed – I thought they didn’t really count as having appeared online before. What a weird combination of arrogance and self-deprecation. In the process of years of writing dozens and dozens of poems and subsequently uploading all of them to Instagram and WordPress, I had completely nullified 80% of the opportunities available to me; I had stunted my own ability to access a poetry community. (I say 80% here because there are definitely publications out there that take work that has previously appeared online.) All this in pursuit of the instant affirmation I got from one-click uploads and Instagram-savvy/SEO-friendly (hash)tagging. All because of my inability to appreciate poetry as a private pursuit.

I felt like crap. But it was a moment of much needed clarity. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for being humbled like that. The poetry I’ve written to this point matters to me. I parsed away little pieces of myself in everything I’ve written thus far, and I’m grateful that people got to see what they did – but I need to start from scratch now. I need to keep my work close to my chest, learn to actively workshop, learn to actually utilize the lessons I take away from the poets and poetry I read, to not cater to easy validation anymore. More generally, I need to care for my privacy. I’ve received a few harsh lessons in the part regarding privacy, and I don’t seem to have learnt anything. If not for my own safety, I should at least learn from the blow my ego – my ambition – has been dealt because of my own lack of diligance and easy susceptibility to memetically engineered cultures of art.

I’ve already taken down my poetry blog. I won’t be taking down my poetrygram. I think it’s important to face the physical manifestation of my arrogance head-on and learn from it. Removing the poems I’ve written so far from the face of the internet won’t help me much anyway. It’s also way too easy to pretend I never made a mistake. But, so help me God, I won’t be putting more content on there that hasn’t already been published elsewhere. I’m also going to stop making excuses and actually go to poetry workshops from now on.

I feel wonderful.


PS: I have…more feelings about Instapoetry than I’ve let myself disclose/discuss in this blogpost. There is a whole discussion about accessibility and democratizing poetry that I haven’t really touched on. This is not a commentary on making poetry accessible, just my experience with Instapoetry culture and the adverse impact it had on me as someone trying to be better at poetry.

An unqualified guide to bullet journaling for mental health

This guide was requested by a friend but in all honesty, this is something I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. This is no replacement for actual honest to god therapy, so please do seek a counselor if you struggle with some of the issues I vaguely allude to! Also, naturally, content warning for discussions of mental health and vague references self-harm and such.

To relatives who might be reading this – I promise, I’m good and well-adjusted and happy, and I’m okay weathering awkward questions if it means someone might find some use in this guide!


When I started bullet journaling last December, I didn’t realize how much it would help my anxiety and generally facilitate a more organized existence. While I was never a mess, I wasn’t necessarily organized either. Bullet journaling helped me keep track of all my deadlines, my daily tasks, weekly tasks, monthly tasks – whatever I needed from it – in a space that was as accessible as it was a creative outlet for me. Moreover, I found that it was incredibly helpful in tracking my mental health concerns; primarily my anxiety and complex PTSD.

Initially, I used it to log things I wanted to discuss with my therapist. I could only afford therapy every other week and didn’t want to forget anything important/catastrophic that happened during the days betwixt. I also started making a point of writing down important takeaways FROM therapy. I explained to my therapist what I was doing and why, and she encouraged me to write notes, doodle, scribble during our sessions. Keeping notes also helped my mindfulness and concentration. My mind tended to wander a lot – still does – but bullet journaling and my journal itself served as a focal point to remain present and not dissociate wildly.

The most destructive manifestation of my complex PTSD has been a tendency to self-harm. Proximity to a therapist was an easy way to work through what led to self-harm and how to avoid it, but upon moving to the Netherlands for a few months, I needed to find an alternative way of coping. After a few disastrous near-brushes with self-harm and anxiety attacks, I tried to look at ways I could “weaponize” my bullet journal against my mental health issues. Understanding the enemy is part of the fight, so I Googled ways that people used their bullet journal to track mental illnesses.

This was a huge preamble, I know, but I wanted to make a convincing argument! Here are the strategies I use to aid my mental health (also this guide assumes you know the basics of bullet journaling):

  • Mood tracking: Granted, I’m not great at this and I often fall asleep without filling in my mood tracker – but for the two months that I did religiously, it was really interesting to see my mood throughout a given month at a glance. With my monthly calendar filled in, and by referencing the daily tasks associated with any day I was curious about, I began to make associations e.g., dealing with finances was an immediate downgrade to my mood, as a general rule of thumb I was a distinctly happy person but days that started off as being coded “mixed” would often be coded “anxiety” during the latter part of the day – and days that started anxious ended up turning into angry days. The codes I used were: anxious, happy, sad, hyped, angry, mixed, and meh. You can use whatever codes you’d like. I fully intend to get back to mood tracking starting November and I’m considering switching to mood tracking as part of checking off my tasks at the end of the day instead of flipping back through to the mood tracking page.
  • Master-list of symptoms and manifestations of anxiety: Another really frustrating manifestation of my complex PTSD is a reduced capacity for memory. While this is annoying on a day-to-day level, let alone as a tie-in to dissociative amnesia, it’s really hard to learn anything about your mental illness when you can’t remember you learnt anything. This is a bit vague, so I’ll give an example: in the first few weeks of realizing what CPTSD was, I read pretty widely about it and the symptoms associated with it. In the months after, I would often forget that something I was doing persistently was a symptom of my CPTSD and would get really afraid and concerned, only to rediscover or be told by a friend that I had already identified action x as a symptom of CPTSD. Cue feeling really stupid and being upset that my memory had gotten so bad – which, incidentally, has triggered self-harm before. You see the utility of this. So in order to alleviate this feeling, I’ve identified all the symptoms of CPTSD that I’ve experienced before in order to have a single point of reference (eg., emotional flashbacks, hypervigilance, concentration issues, trouble breathing). Everything is a bit more palatable, once written down.
  • Master-list of tried and true self-care or preventative strategies: This is pretty self-explanatory. I tend to forget everything in my rush of panic, including what strategies calm me down. Listed self-care techniques include: watching make-up tutorials, taking a shower, drawing something beautiful and then destroying it (very therapeutic), working out (nothing like burpees to distract you!), grounding strategies including meditation, deep breathing, being mindful of my body, counting off sensory triggers, etc. Preventative strategies include: covering my arms and legs as soon as possible, getting fresh air, drinking or feeling something cold, turning off my phone, calling someone.
  • Self-harm tracking: This is a two-part tracker. The first part of the tracker is tracking days without any self-harm. For every two weeks I go without self-harming, I make a conscious effort to treat myself – whether to a smoothie or something decadent I wouldn’t normally let myself get, or a new piece of make up, whatever you want. It’s something to look back at and be proud of accomplishing. I’m a bit prideful, so seeing the tally end suddenly because I’ve self-harmed bruises my ego. This works in my favor; often, right at the cusp of self-harming, I’ll think to myself but you were doing so well! You had just a few days to go before the next two-week bench mark! and it honest to god works (for me). I’ve also written right at the top of my tracker “no shame, just move on” for if I do self-harm. You can adjust this for panic attacks or whatever you want, and have the benchmark be as long or short of a timespan as you’d like. The second part to this is logging instances of self-harm. I took this template from Lindsay Braman and if I do self-harm, I list events that transpired before the breakdown and identified symptoms/emotions leading up to it as well. Hopefully you won’t have to fill this out, but if you do, it’s a good way to foster awareness of yourself. Eventually, I would like to create a similar log for emotional flashbacks. I will say, I don’t create a monthly log for self-harm tracking, mostly because I (on average) self-harm once a month so I don’t personally find utility in that.

I hope all of that makes sense and that you can see some value in tracking your mental health. Some other points to note – please make time TO update your bullet journal! Whether it’s five minutes a night or in one big chunk at the end of the week, you get out of your bullet journal what you put into it. You don’t have to make it look excessively creative or pretty. The aesthetics of my bullet journal have deteriorated significantly since I started it (I’m on my second bullet journal now) but I absolutely love it still, and I’m not lying when I say it helps keep me sane. Also, your bullet journal doesn’t just have to be geared towards mental health! I use it as a commonplace notebook for literally everything, including books I want to read, research interests, goals for the year, plans for the future (grad school, etc), assignments for the semester my measurements/sizes because I always forget – whatever you want! The most important thing is to not make your bullet journal a burden on yourself. Don’t overtax your bullet journal, and don’t overtax yourself. Good luck!

“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?

Silk threads

It was your last smoke. You watched the cigarette smoke dissipate into – where? You always wondered that, a toddler on your grandfather’s bed, as you tried to catch the silk of it in your hands. Rafiki-deft, you would swing between the vines of your imagined mental jungle and craft paints and cackle gleefully as you prophesized the return of your king. You must have watched Lion King not long before.

You asked him if clouds were made of cigarette smoke. He laughed, and you asked if Allah was made of clouds too. He said Allah was made of light. You wondered why the two couldn’t be reconciled.

You still thought Allah had a bit of cloud to Him.

Nicotine-lunged, you exhaled. Your grandfather had passed, breathing God with every light. The silk poured forth from your lips like a wayward libation, a thread between today and yesterday.

It was your last smoke. You watched the thread break on its way heavenward and smiled a secret smile. The clouds shifted to show a glimmer of sun, and you heard your grandfather tip his head, and Gold Leaf, toward you.

Short Note: Isolation Abroad

This tree is a metaphor or something, I don't know.

I have always been hyper-aware of my ambition, to the point that I am constantly appraising myself vis a vis others’ accomplishments. I wish I could say with confidence that it is benign appreciation, and a desire to better myself. I’ve recently started accepting it for what COULD be: envy, a truly exhausting emotion to boot. What worries me now is not knowing whether my ambition comes from a place of sincerity or whether it is spurred purely by envy, a desire to be better-than-x. I am perfectly willing to admit that this could be me jumping to conclusions and selling myself short, but trying to be mindful of how I react to others’ success is a good practice regardless.

That is just the backdrop for what I really want to talk about: isolation. My ambition, whatever it may stem from, has led me to try to pursue original research during my intern ship in the Netherlands. I knew going in that I was overextending myself, but I was ready and willing to put in the work. But putting in the work requires sacrifice, and it’s one thing to overextend yourself in a familiar setting, with familiar comforts, but in a new country? I feel like I’m coming undone. I’ve been here almost two months – wild! – and I’m worried that I’m losing the nascent relationships I had established with people I have met thus far. I have to apologize for my absence at social events. I have to renege on promises I’ve made because a deadline is coming up and there is more work to be done than I expected. I can’t make plans even weeks in advance because – given the nature of my research – I don’t even know if I’ll be in the country then. I don’t fault the people around me for making plans without me. I totally get it. But the feeling of isolation it spurs has me asking whether my plans and ambitions are worth it.

That might be an overreaction; of course it’s worth it, conducting original research is a personal goal I’ve wanted to accomplish since I started college, and my research is on a topic I think is immensely important, that I care about deeply. I have somehow acquired funding for it, so it’s not even a question of if anymore. I literally have to see it through. But the prospect of staring down three more months like this, filled with half-commitments and apologies, is daunting nonetheless. I hope I can strike a balance between abating this isolation and still getting my work done. If not, I hope I have the emotional fortitude to be able to weather it.

Short note: Eid blues and how to fix them

I was not excited for this Eid. For all that I was grateful to have relatives nearby in the Netherlands, I really felt the absence of all that was familiar to me. My first Eid in Boston had its bitterness undercut with new friends, an Islamic community to go to the Masjid with, and options of Eid-specific Shalwar Kameez I’d hauled across multiple seas with me. That evening, I dragged some friends to my soon-to-be-minted favorite Pakistani restaurant, and felt the emergence of a new tradition. I didn’t have the time to be homesick, because I had found another home. And that restaurant had found a new loyal patron, not that it stopped Uncle-jii from giving me crap for making him drive all the way from Brighton to Mission Hill on a delivery run…

This year, I felt my mood sour as Eid drew closer and closer. Weight restrictions necessitated leaving my heavy Pakistani clothes at home; not even my favorite kurta could make the cut. And as shallow as it sounds, Eid without clothes rings hollow when you’re already facing Eid without family, friends, food, familiarity.

This morning, after half-heartedly putting on some makeup (yes – half-heartedly putting on make up, me, half-hearted, makeup! Me! Makeup!) and getting on the train to go to work, I resolved to get some treats for my office. Without a lamb (RIP) at hand, I had to figure out some gesture of generosity…so, chocolate and buttery biscuits it was. I said Eid Mubarak to the hijabi cashier and then uncomfortably realized there was nothing in my attire to suggest that saying it back to me was warranted. I trudged off, feeling the Eid spirit slip off me like the dupatta I didn’t have.

Woof.

At work, I announced that there were chocolates and biscuits to avail. Letting the swarm descend in my wake, I went to my desk and drank my requisite two-shots-of-espresso-black-as-my-sins coffee. The perk was needed. I suddenly recoiled with disgust at my behavior.  Sick of feeling sorry for myself, I drew up a list of reasons to be grateful, viz.:

1. You worked your butt off and persisted through a quagmire of bullshit to get to where you are. Yes, you’re away from your family/friends but it’s for a very good reason.

2) On your 3rd try, also after working your butt off, you got an impossible research grant. So now you have to do your over-ambitious original research. Scary? Yep. But that’s huge and you should be proud of yourself.

3) Albeit with some pitfalls, you’re dealing with your anxiety really well. You’re learning how to care for yourself without a therapist. Good job!

4) [redacted; you didn’t think I would share all of my reasons for gratitude, did you?]

5) *points to parents* You’re going to feel guilty about this for the rest of your life but look how MUCH they love you that you are here.

6) *POINTS AGGRESSIVELY TO THE PEACE PALACE* YOU COULD GO THERE EVERY DAY IF YOU WANTED TO AND EAT ITALIAN ICE CREAM.

7) You actually have family nearby. You could have been so much more lonely. Count your blessings.

8) The McElroys exist and so does Carly Rae Jepsen.

9) [also redacted]

10) Pakistani/new clothes aren’t the be all, end all of Eid. Steel yourself: you can always celebrate another way.

11) [which I added later] You can do proper push-ups now. Upper-body strength is just around the corner!

Point number 10 gave me pause. I could always celebrate another way. If clothes were a staple of Eid in the past, what else was? Even in Dubai, cut away from the majority of our family, we found a way to celebrate; how did we do it?

It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the common denominator throughout my life had been music. Surely it couldn’t be as easy as all that. But it was: whether it was the infamous Lasharie family concerts that every evening would give way to, or music in the background while we waited for guests to arrive (even if the artist in question was Sting, the Patron Saint of my father), or me carefully singing around my eyeliner or over whatever food I was making for my friends that day, music was the ultimate staple of Eid. It couldn’t be that easy…

…but it was. I found a random playlist on Patari and I felt my heart immediately swell. And look, I know nostalgia for the past is usually extremely contrived and only serves to create a false impression of something that only barely was, but music is practically a family heirloom. Even my non-virtuoso self has been known to hold a tune. I could extol the virtues of Pakistani music ad infinitum, but it was what I needed, and that’s that. For all that I’ve been binge-listening to Carly Rae Jepsen lately, I needed the familiarity of a musical tradition I grew up on, that comforts me when I’m miserable, that reminds me of family in a way that not even food can.

Tomorrow, I’ll get to spend the day with my uncle and aunt in Utrecht. I’ll have little cousins to talk to and play with and whom I will promise that one day maybe they’ll get Eid money out of me. They’ll probably be in traditional clothes. I’ll probably be in jeans. But at least my makeup won’t be as half-hearted; I still have to catch up on this season of Coke Studio Pakistan, after all.

Somewhere between Pakistan and America, you’ll find my discomfit heart

A short note spurred by some mixed emotions over the 70th year of my country’s independence and the tumult in Charlottesville this past weekend, as well as the rather political music of The Cranberries.

I’ve often struggled with my not-quite diasporic identity and have written about it ad nauseum in the past 7 years of this blog’s existence. As a non-resident Pakistani, I find myself often at a loss for whether or not I have the right to certain opinions and feelings; and yet, as an aspiring political scientist and maybe-one-day arbitrator, the foundation of my education and career has been holding those opinions. I didn’t realize just how long I had lived away from Pakistan until I went back last year for my brother’s nikkah. The Pakistan I had missed desperately was different – and I realized, no one has a claim on a place. The places you love do not stagnate in your absence. You can exist disparately from what you love. And I have grown away from Pakistan; Pakistan has grown away from me. It wasn’t a sad realization, but it was an important one. I’ll always be Pakistani, but that doesn’t mean Pakistan will remain mine. That’s okay. If I do decide to come back, there will always be a place for me, should I choose to reckon with those changes.

But this isn’t about Pakistan, not exactly. This is about my adopted country. I love America so very much, and will always consider Boston home, but I could not even pretend to call it mine. America is never truly yours until you have that hallowed blue passport and even then, the caveats are immense and dangerous. Just look at Charlottesville this past weekend; that’s just the latest iteration of the United (with caveats) States of America and its tradition of picking and choosing what Americanism is. The fine-print has never been set in stone, and certainly, my non-resident alien behind does not beget many rights. Yet I miss America whenever I’m away from it, and I truly feel more myself there than I do anywhere else in the world…but I am reminded in ways – sometimes small, sometimes larger – that I don’t fully belong. Whether in the exorbitant tuition I pay, whether through the loopholes I need to jump when it comes to dealing with any bureaucracy, in the white nationalist movements that have become normalized, in the way that my friends talk about foreign policy that makes my stomach churn, in the way I feel myself rapidly reformulating my opinions in sudden paranoia, in the way that a certain elected official I met once joking asked me to tell him Pakistan’s nuclear secrets (even if I did know any, hell no, people like you, Mr. Senator, bring out the angry realist in me), in the way I don’t know whether I’ll be able to qualify for an H1B visa to stay after I graduate…

And despite this seemingly endless list, I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else for a prolonged period of time. Under the dense, black boot of an ugly, resurgent past, I thrive despite myself, and my anger and hurt only serves to reinforce my desire to live in the United States.

Maybe that’s what it is; my contrary heart, this Pakistaniat that has chiseled my stubborn nose and my set jaw, has primed me so fully to embrace that American boot and not let go. Either you crush me good, or the boot comes off – and under the mother’s foot lies paradise, so one way or another, it’s on my own terms. My upbringing and nationality under igneous conditions have made me a match for America, and so it has any victim of oppression; your caveats pile up but there is brilliance and resilience unlike any other to be found in volcanic conditions. Pakistanis, we’re a self-destructive lot, but we carve beauty out of destruction like any old Sylvia Plath poem. And I suppose that is true for any people that survive doomsday over and over and over again; the next boot is always around the corner, and despite our discomfit hearts, we’re ready to climb through the fine-print and into the world proper.