Category Archives: mental health

How to be a real, not fake ally

Assalam alaikum!

Something I wrote on Twitter on Friday gained much more attention that I expected.

Here’s what I said:

  • I am considering quiting the film industry. I am tired. Racists have gotten me down. I was offered my first TV writing job earlier this year. Only to find out the show was built on the backs of Muslim women. (thread. Unfortunately).
  • I went to a support group for emerging female directors. Only to be interrupted by the white women in the group. I’ve had meetings with people in power. Who only have apologies and promises for the future. The future is now. The future is me.
  • I look at my projects and I feel optimistic. They’re beautiful. They deserve better.
  • I look at myself and see a tired woman with a broken heart. I look at the industry and see far too few allies and far too little chance for me to break through. No more of this. I’m done here.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of “Don’t quit!” “Try harder!” And a lot of “The world would be poorer without your voice.”

The world is poorer because it doesn’t give a crap about my voice. Not just mine, but a whole load of people, from what I can see.

I wrote a Twitter thread in response. But it didn’t thread up. What’s up with that, Twitter?

Anyway, as I expected, that thread got much less response than the first ‘woe is me’ thread. People love to see a Muslim woman cry but won’t do the work to make sure she doesn’t cry again.

So here’s my thread. Telling myself before anyone else what it means to be a true ally.

  1. The most wondrous thing people with privilege do is throw their hands and say ‘What can I do?’ I’ve heard that at least three times from people in power in the last few months. It literally makes me see stars.
  2. We should all check our privilege. I’ve got mine – I’m hetero, able-bodied, married, living in a Western country. I have almost no accent in English. I have a college education. None of these things have ANYTHING to do with my ability to do my job. But somehow people more readily believe I’m competent because of them. Still I am where I am today.  I’d have probably given up much sooner without these privileges.
  3. I’ve been creating for years. The moment I share my trauma, everyone loves it. Don’t just elevate our trauma; elevate our joy too. 
  4. Patterns are hard to break. If our brains are neuroplastic, surely our industries can change too. It’s a man-made system and made for men too; it’s up to you to unmake it. 
  5. Racism is a white person’s mess. Not my job to clean it up. But because my brother charged me to leave the world better than I found it, here I am.
  6. Give people credits. No credits = this never happened. Credits = a resume. Credits +money = a professional career. Aim to give us professional careers.
  7. Upskill. Creativity is a toolbox. Share your tools. You’ll likely find underrepresented people have been doing unofficial and unaccredited learning from books, YouTube videos and seminars for years. This doesn’t mean that learning isn’t valuable.
  8. Look at your life and your career. Find the gaps. Find the spaces.
  9. Listen to us. We’re angry and we’re sad. Don’t be defensive. There is no longer any defense or any excuse. All of this information is on the Internet for free. All it takes is a Google, but here I am, like a helpful Sri Lankan housekeeper, cleaning up your mess. Again.
  12. Work ‘with’ us. Not ‘over’ us.
  13. Your Mileage May Vary. 
  14. Please donate to this family. We all need each other in this brutal world:!/  
  15. Please watch my film. If it gets to a 1000 views, I might be able to get an associate membership from the Australian Director’s Guild! 

Anyway I’m taking an extended break and trying different things. And trying not to cry too much.

But I know nothing is forever and things change.

To all my fellow post-partum sufferers: I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. 

Trigger warning – birth trauma, post-partum depression, breastfeeding failure. But I promise this has a happy ending.

Here’s my story. You’re not alone.

I wrote this to Suzanne Barston over at Fearless Formula Feedera little while after my son was born. In ‘celebration’ of Just Food releasing, I thought I’d share my full labour and delivery and breastfeeding story.

I’ve edited it to protect the guilty. Because nothing can protect them from God’s wrath.

I’ve also added a few things in my usual parentheticals.

So here goes:

“I’ve been trying to come to terms with my traumatic labor and breastfeeding journey and how it’s changed me. I hope telling my story will do that.

I would like to tell you I glowed and felt wonderful during pregnancy. I did not. Copious amounts of vomit aside, it seemed like the whole world was out to tell me that I would miscarry or harm my child. From random women I was sitting next to at Eid prayer (“I lost my baby at six months. Don’t do anything stupid. You’re not normal. You’re pregnant. Just because you feel you can do it, doesn’t mean you can.”) to my very own father (“You’ll lose the baby”).

I never felt adequate. I never felt up to the task of growing a baby inside me. Leave alone taking care of one.

And almost as a giant middle finger to my naysayers, I had my heart set on a natural childbirth. I wanted to give birth to my child, feeling every contraction like a wave of pain. And get through it. For once, I wanted to feel like a warrior. I wanted to feel strong.

I did Hypnobabies in preparation for this. Because I needed to calm the heck down. I’ve tried this ‘woo woo’ stuff before. It’s never worked. I don’t know why I thought it would work now. But I was still hoping against hope that it would still work for me.

I had a 38-hour labor. My body didn’t know what to do to get my son out. Also every time I stood up, my son’s heart-rate would go down. So I was confined to the bed. Not part of the plan. After about 24 hours, the contractions came hard and fast but my cervix was not dilating. I gave up and got an epidural so I could get some sleep.

During all of this time, the nastiest person in Colorado was my L&D nurse. The woman taunted and demoralized me every chance she got. “Are you okay?” “Do you want to talk about pain now?” “This is going to be the hardest push of your life.” No sh**, lady. She didn’t help me experiment with positions. She didn’t help me get comfortable. She even wanted to stop me going to the bathroom, going so far as to suggest a bed-pan. All as if to say, “you’re on my turf and you’re my b**** now.”

I don’t curse this much usually, but I’ve never felt more trapped and powerless.

Finally by some miracle, my child came out of me. By the grace of God, a vaginal delivery. I think my nurse and my doctor decided that they were going to ‘let’ me have a vaginal delivery. out of the goodness of their hearts. Perhaps because my doctor didn’t want her rate of C-sections to go up. Perhaps because the hospital didn’t want the rate of C-sections to go up.

Regardless, my son was born and he was stunning. He still is.

Oh, but it was about to get worse. So so so much worse.

The first few days, he latched and nursed like a champ. Trouble was, he was never satisfied. The nurse kept telling me that his stomach was only the size of a grape and he didn’t need much. Well, he had some grape in there. He screamed every time he stopped nursing. My nipples became cracked and sore.

One day, I broke the latch and put him down. I couldn’t take the pain anymore.

A few days after we took him home, he refused to nurse. He lay on my nursing pillow as I tried to put my nipple in his mouth, kicking and screaming and crying. His big beautiful eyes looking up at me in fury and hunger as if to ask me, “Why are you doing this to me?”

And you know what the worst thing about this whole time is? My son looks like me. And it killed me. I would look in the mirror and see his face, not mine. I wanted him to look and be like his father. I wanted his ‘screw-up’ mama to be a footnote in his genetic make-up.

Too many times in my life have I been bullied. Too many times have I looked into people’s faces and asked, “Why are you doing this to me?” I never wanted that for my son. I never wanted to become the bully.

He didn’t latch again for two weeks.

In this time, I went to see a lactation consultant. She was more concerned with talking to my mother-in-law about whether she nursed or not and what they do in Sri Lanka (where I’m from) rather than helping me. She treated me very much like a ‘magical person of color’ – as if us ‘Eastern’ cultures have this breastfeeding thing down pat.

Not true.

Her comments to the Caucasian ladies who also attended the session were more comforting and more accepting of their feelings.

So I was paying 15 dollars a session to this woman for nothing new.

(What I described as nothing new was actually some top-shelf shaming.)

One day though, he miraculously latched – with a nipple shield. He nursed for a week or two with a nipple shield.

The nursing, though, made me feel better, much better.

One night, he and I were up for two hours trying to get him satisfied. I refused to give him formula, thinking to myself, “No! This is going to be a breastfed baby!” Finally, just as I had made up a 4-ounce bottle out of frustration, he tired himself out and fell asleep.

Did I just starve my son to make him breastfeed?

The ladies at the La Leche League Facebook group, of course, had plenty of advice. “Maybe he’s just one of those babies who wants to feed 24/7.” “You should wear your baby.”

All of their suggestions seemed undo-able to me and sent me spiraling even deeper into depression.

 But then of course he stopped nursing and started screaming again. Right after that, about 5 weeks postpartum, I got my period. My milk vanished.

I went to another lactation session. The consultant looked at me wearily and said, “What are we going to do with you?” The other ladies laughed. I felt like a kid who’d failed an exam.

Am I a sack of sh** like everyone says I am? I know I’m not. After spending a day Googling suicide, I decided to see a therapist and take medication.

I hope my son turns out okay. I hope I turn out okay.

I’m sort of glad that breastfeeding didn’t happen. It’s like I needed a knock upside the head to figure things out, to finally turn off all those mean voices in my head. For my son’s sake, if not my own. Though really, we need each other. I’m also glad he refused to nurse and demanded the bottle. Who knows what might have happened to him if he was as dogged to breastfeed as I was?

And according to the research, my little boy will be fatter, sicker, poorer and less popular…because of formula???

I’m not sorry I gave up breastfeeding and pumping.

My son learned to turn over recently. I can’t remember being so excited about anything in my entire life. And one day, when he and I were doing laundry , I found him studying the cabinet with great interest. I decided to lie down beside him and figure out what in the heck was so amazing. From his perspective, it was like a cross between the Empire State Building (which I’ve never seen) and the TARDIS (which I’ve also never seen).

It was truly amazing.

If I was still struggling to breastfeed, I might never have had the joy, the love, the perspective to see things from where my son lies.

This must be what poverty feels like. Not knowing where your child’s next meal is coming from. Weeping because you can’t feed them. Counting pennies as you do. Why are we impoverishing each other? Why are we creating artificial forms of privilege? Don’t we human beings have enough weapons to hurt each other with?

There’s always going to be something. Women are always going to be trained to look askance at each other. ‘Oh you’re not skinny/married/single/straight/lesbian/dating/studying/pregnant/breastfeeding/whatever enough'”

(I don’t know if I’m going to have any more kids or how I’m going to feed them. Whatever happens, I hope they always believe that they are loved and that they are enough.)<

(oh yeah and that happy ending? I’m still here. And I made a film Alhamdulillah!)

And if you’d like a postpartum double bill, this is my friend Shoshana Rosenbaum’s horror thriller on early motherhood:

What I wish I could have said to my parents about filmmaking

Assalam alaikum dear parents,

I know you were terrified.
If it makes you feel any better, I was too. I had the nervous runs every day.
I mean, there I was, the daughter of Sri Lankans. From Sri Lanka! A tear-drop in the Indian Ocean! Most people don’t even know where the heck we are!
And here I was, telling you I want to make movies for the rest of my life.
Why shouldn’t you be scared? And angry at me for making such mad decisions?
You’d leave home at 7 am and get home past 11 pm every night. Just to send me to uni. And I was going into an industry where living wages aren’t guaranteed, even for mid-career professionals.
You’d raised me to walk with my head held high. And I was going into an industry known for its abuse of women.
Worse still – I wear a hijab. I may as well have been wearing a target.
I’ve been writing screenplays now for about 9 years. I’ve been a filmmaker for two. I’d like to tell you something – you were right. You were right about every. Single. Thing.<
You were right to be mad at me.
You were right to be scared.
All of your reasons weren’t judgments; they are facts. This industry doesn’t pay. And well, the #metoo and #timesup movement are testament to its treatment of women.
But please hear me when I say: If there was anything else I could have done, I would have done it. My other jobs gave me severe anxiety disorder.
I went to work every day with dread like a suffocating blanket. Every Sunday night, the chest pains would be so bad I couldn’t do much more than cower under my blanket.
Apart from the physical pain – those grandchildren you want? They weren’t going to happen. Not with my body like that.
But crap, who the hell do I think I am?
You ran from cages I cannot imagine so I didn’t have to live my life in them. I’m safe. I’m fed. I’m clothed. I’m sheltered. And now I want to make films.
Who does that? People who are free.
Safe minds dream. From those dreams spring art.
Why do you think there are so many white people in the creative industries?
Doesn’t that make you mad? It makes me furious.
But I want you to know how blessed my life is now. I still have anxiety but it’s much reduced. My chest feels expansive, not contracted. Yes, my work is hard. It’s thankless. It doesn’t pay very well. Or at all. There are times where I have felt such deep shame at my perceived inadequacies that I haven’t known what to do with myself.
But I know deep down that this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what God put me on Earth to do. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have given me joy. He wouldn’t have given me freedom. He wouldn’t have given me a head bursting with stories and ideas.
I love you. I always have. And I always will.

3 tools for the socially anxious filmmaker

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Have you ever been on a really terrifying roller-coaster? You know the kind that made you really regret letting your husband talk you into this? The kind that has you screaming and praying even before it started?

BUT… when it ended, you were actually sad to get off?

That’s what making my second film was like.

But leading up to it was a fantastic work-out of the ole emotional management system. Particularly of my anxiety disorder.

One never knows what’s going to happen on a film set. That’s why we’re always encouraged to back everything up and have back-ups of your back-ups. So my personal Balrog just luuuurrrvvved that.

Here’s a couple of things that worked for me this time around.

I avoided my tripwires, not my triggers.

My triggers are basically decisions, screens and other people. And I’m a filmmaker!

Can’t avoid those. And don’t want to avoid those.

What I looked for instead were my tripwires. How did I know I needed a break?

Usually if I found myself glued to my screen. Making excuses to not get up and get lunch or get some exercise.

If I found myself snapping at my husband and my son, that was a major trip-wire.

But the biggest one, I think, was starting to lose sleep. I knew I needed a day off when that happened. It was hard but it was necessary.

This process has actually really helped. I know that I can work hard when I need to. And I know that I can stop myself from going overboard.

I also tried to space out my triggers. 

My son’s schedule helped me stay away from screens a lot of the time – one of the many times that #momlife has been a blessing. I would try not to schedule too many meetings or decisions in the same day. No one is dying so usually nothing was that urgent.

And last but definitely not least, I tried to up self-care, not reduce it. (Spoiler alert: I failed) 

I’ll be the first to admit I’m the worst exerciser and still am. My meals got weird very quickly very soon too in the thick of pre-production. I’m talking doughnuts and camomile tea weird. But it didn’t help. So I’m telling you – it’s not going to help. It made me a whiny baby by evening. And I already have one of those.

Hope this helps. There’s more coming, once I wrap my head around life and film and post-production.

Being a filmmaker is a lot like being pregnant.

Take care of yourself, beautiful people.