“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Who are you and where are you from?
…questions that make the stomach of any expat or outsider flip, no matter how many times you’ve rehearsed the answers. In the simplest terms I’m Aisha Ashraf, currently in Canada with my husband and three children having crossed geographical and cultural borders in a life that reads like an Amazon bestseller. Seeing as you’re here the chances are you’ve crossed a few too – or you’re thinking about it.
The perennial misfit
I first emigrated aged eight cementing my sense of ‘outside observer’ in a foreign environment. We moved house continually until I was ejected at seventeen, freed from years of parental abuse but left alone with the terrifying mood swings that arrived arm-in-arm with adolescence. Bright and well-educated, I strove to follow the bourgeois blueprint of college → university → professional career. We think we have it all planned out, don’t we?
Lost years, and being found
I call them call my ‘lost years’ – those dark times steeped in humiliation when I failed to earn a degree or hold down a job. I vacillated between disastrous extremes of mood and reason that saw me attempting to join the Royal Air Force one minute and losing my civil service job the next – signed off indefinitely by a doctor. My peers scaled the career ladder while I plumbed the featureless depths of chronic depression. Somewhere around my mid-twenties, amongst the eating disorders and self-harm, I found the bottom.
What better time to meet one’s future husband?
Incredibly, he saw beyond the mental illness and differences of race and culture. With his support I found effective professional help. I began treatment following a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), slowly regaining a sense of purpose and direction. I found work, married, learned to drive, rejoined the human race. My marriage into Punjabi culture gave me a taste of the richness of other traditions and an insight into the complexities of Islam, but would leave a bitter tang when my new family ultimately couldn’t see past my skin-colour.
A ‘taint of blood’
I unravelled again while juggling the logistics of emigrating a family, delivering my third child, and parrying the hostility of my in-laws who took full advantage of my husband’s absence when he left ahead of me to begin his new post in North America. I no longer met the criteria for BPD, so why I was still struggling?
Re-rooted in Canada, the diagnosis of my youngest with Aspergers led to my being re-diagnosed with Aspergers and Bipolar II and things finally came into focus, especially when viewed through the lens of hereditary illness: both my father and sister are bipolar (though in vastly different ways). It was the first step towards learning to accept and manage my ‘differentness’ instead of resenting my inability to blend in.
Putting it into words
Writing about my experiences is my attempt to make sense of them and it’s been cathartic and rewarding. My series “Breaking the Code of Silence”, about stigma and mental illness, led me to participate in a research study for CAMH (Canada’s leading mental health research facility and one of the world’s largest) documenting the use of mindfulness in depression relapse prevention. I’ve also written for Mind and Black Dog Tribe, two prominent UK mental health organisations. My ‘outsider’ perspective helps me share aspects of expat life overlooked by others and since coming to Canada I’ve penned articles for newspapers, magazines and various travel & expat websites, as well as writing a monthly column for Expat Focus, an established online expat resource. You can find more details on my LinkedIn profile or follow me on Twitter and Google+
Don’t be a stranger.