Last year I participated in a local TEDX. I had hoped the video of my talk would be up by now but it isn’t and I am not sure it ever will be. So to restart my blog posts about coping with loneliness, I have decided to post the text of my speech here. Enjoy and share.


Loneliness killed my mother and it almost killed me.

But first, I probably should explain the whole Zombie reference in my title.

I watch the Walking Dead. There are just so many reasons for me not to like the Walking Dead. Like Rick, he is such a terrible leader and I am so angry that he hooked up with Michonne. She is so much cooler than him.

But I just keep watching the show. And I think I know why. In the Walking Dead, I like it how The Group’s members will put their lives on the line again and again to save people who are not their blood relatives and who they have no interest in having sex with. People are rescuing people who they are not trying to hook up with and who are not their kids.

And I like watching that because for me that’s the fantasy world I want to live in because after my mother committed suicide three years ago I was left with no family and no one who as far as I know wants to have sex with me. I was left completely alone.

And I know I am not alone in being alone, more and more people in our society have no real connection with family and are single.

I have friends but, let’s face it, friends are a strange phenomenon with no grounding in biology.  It’s hard to know if we can rely on friends the way it seems like we can rely on family and lovers because DNA and oxytocin are on our side.

After my mother’s death, I sunk into a serious depression. I have struggled with depression my whole life so that was nothing new. I also had a lot of grief and guilt because her death was so unexpected and I blamed myself for not preventing it.

But there was something else happening to me. That was unfamiliar and that at first I didn’t know how to name.

It was like this black hole opened up inside me and it was full of fear. It was like the kind of fear you would have if your house was surrounded by zombies and it was only a matter of time before they got in to eat you. And like, who really wants to be torn apart by zombies? Like it’s fun to watch on TV or in a movie, like I will admit that’s a personal highlight of mine because there is a lot of talent that goes into making a good zombie dismemberment, a lot of artistry because it’s not real it’s just awesome make up and prosthetics.  But it would be pretty scary to have to face death by zombies in real life and I found myself feeling as scared as if my death was imminent.

Then I realized it was because I was alone and I thought that I could choke on some shawarma in my house and there would be no one to do the Heimlich maneuver or call 911 and no one would notice I was dead because most of my close friends live in Toronto, most of my Ottawa friends are just pretty busy so I don’t see them that often and I mostly work from home so….no one would notice if I was gone.

My mother was the only person who ever would have noticed if I wasn’t there.

I soon realized that what I was feeling was Loneliness.

Because what is loneliness? It is that feeling of pain we experience because of social isolation or social rejection.

And it makes sense biologically. Neuroscientist Dr. John Cacioppo believes that because humans are social animals and we are so dependent on one another for our survival we have developed the feeling of loneliness to be a signal so we form attachments and stay connected. If you think about human life before Starbucks or roads, it was a lot like life after a Zombie Apocalypse, you can’t last long without other people.

And what Cacioppo’s research has also shown is that long-term  loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking and three times more dangerous than obesity. Because think about it. It would be super scary be alone in the jungle by yourself thousands and thousands of years ago. Just like you wouldn’t want to be by yourself in a city overrun with zombies because sooner or later something is going to try to eat you and there is no one around to have your back.

So his research has shown that when were are experiencing chronic loneliness it is like we are alone in a zombie apocalypse, our cortisol levels go up so we can be ready to fight off attacks or run, we sleep less deeply because you have to listen out for walkers trying to come up and eat you. And if you experience this for a long time, it compromises your immune system, your cardiovascular system, it often leads to clinical depression, it makes your more likely to develop dementia. It prematurely ages you. It shortens your life. It can kill you.

Cacioppo argues that we need to take loneliness seriously and consider it a public health issue the way we see smoking as a public health issue.

But how do you cure loneliness?

Let’s put that on hold for a second and I want to get back to social rejection.

So as a kid I watched everything, like I think I watched Night of the Living Dead, the original and still the best zombie movie every when I was 5. My mother and I were best friends, we were each other’s only friends, it was just me and her against the world.  So I would watch whatever she watched. Although I had a childhood that on paper seemed pretty messed up as there was poverty and sexual violence and my family ended in the news because it was so dysfunctional and messed and trying to hire hitmen to kill each other which kind of explains why I don’t talk to them anymore, I have to say when I look back it is full of great memories of watching movies with my mother. And she would also give me the history of the month, and tell me about the director and the actors and different challenges they had on set.  So time with my mother was great.

It was time with other people that was scary whether it be my family or people at school. I didn’t fit in at school mainly because I was just really weird kid, I mean I just said that I watched Night of the Living Dead when I was five that’s weird. And I just couldn’t relate to anyone because their life didn’t seem like life and I had nothing really to talk to them about because you know they weren’t really interested about how Night of the Living Dead was really about racism in America. Which of course my mom taught me.

So I had a lonely childhood outside of my house, but inside I was safe and I loved and I was wanted. We belonged to each other.

So our experiences of social rejection, particularly if they last for a long time like they did for me, effect how we look at the world. I learned to see people as threats, not as people who can help you or people who can make things easier. It was best to avoid other people.

So that makes sense given how I grew up.

But what neuroscientists are also finding is that if you experience chronic loneliness, even if you didn’t have a childhood like mine, your brain will also start looking at other people as threats. So at a time when you really need to be reaching out to people, you can find yourself withdrawing. But again it makes sense from a survival perspective. As we see in a lot of Zombie Apocalypse scenarios you need your group because other groups could want to steal your stuff and maybe even eat your for protein…because let’s face it all the canned tuna is going to run out.

So, over the years, I did develop friends and I became very outgoing and sociable. Which left my mother alone at home most of the time.  So as my world grew, hers go smaller and as she also coped with serious mental illness, it all eventually took its toll.

But after my mother died, I found myself, going back to how I was as a child. People scared me. Phone calls scared me and I sometimes wouldn’t answer them even if they were from friends who I desperately wanted to talk to.

Of course I didn’t know about any of this research at the time so I just thought I was totally losing it.

But what was also confusing what that, I would feel scared about going a friend’s birthday party but I could very easily stand in front of a 100 people and deliver a speech. That was fine. Which made no sense.

I forced myself to go to my friend’s birthday party and I hid behind my laptop the entire time, I only spoke when I was spoken to.  I felt so scared. I felt that like, if the zombie apocalypse happened right then, all of these people around me, even my friend, would conspire to feed me to the zombies.  I would become zombie bait!

But the same week I facilitated a workshop for a bunch of strangers on a really challenging topic and no problem, I was talking, I was joking, I was doing my thang.

What’s the difference?

The problem is we often think lonely people lack social skills or are all introverts. That’s a myth actually. Research has shown that ya, if you put people who identify as chronically lonely in a group where they are just left to sit around and spark random conversation, it is hard for them to do. But if you us a role and a task, we are awesome, we sometimes actually show better social skills than the unlonely people.

Because what some people who study loneliness now believe is that lonely people may actually be more attuned to people around them, we read people more. Because we want to connect with them or because we because we are kind of wary of them and want to protect ourselves. For whatever reason, it is not that we don’t have social skills.

I am a great listener which is why people tell me too much information all the time. I am good at facilitating or tutoring. I can connect very easily to people and groups if that’s my job.

But I can’t do birthday parties or weddings or parties or hanging out with more than just one person in a coffee shop.

So again, how do you cure loneliness?

Well, what is the opposite of loneliness?

It’s feeling connected, feeling like you belong, feeling like you fit.

And that is a feeling it is easy to lose. You can lose that feeling in your family, in your marriage, at work. If you immigrate to a new country.  There are so many ways we can become disconnected. You don’t have to be like me and have no family. You can have a huge family but if you don’t feel they accept you, if you don’t feel you are understood or that you belong, you can feel very lonely, even surrounded by people.

That’s also why, according to neuroscientist John Cacioppo, you can’t cure loneliness just by being kind to people. We can be in a hospital and the nurses are kind to us and we are fed and all of needs are met, but we still feel lonely. Because we are not giving back.

The relationships we need to not feel lonely have to give us a sense of “mutually aided protection”. The relationships are reciprocal, you depend on people and they depend on you. You give and you take.  We need to feel both needed and wanted and we need to feel the same about the people who feel that way about us.

Again according to the work of neuroscientist John Cacioppo, you don’t need to have many people in your life that you feel that way about, it can be just a few people.

When I realized that what I was feeling was loneliness I googled loneliness and discovered Cacioppo’s work and that of other academics on the subject of loneliness. Realizing that what I was experiencing was a serious brain state and not just as character flaw really helped me to feel not so powerless in the face of loneliness.

So again, how do you cure loneliness?

The answer is I don’t know. But I am learning how to manage it.

Cacioppo recommends a system called EASE and I have been trying to follow that.

The E in EASE stands for Extend Yourself-That means answering phone calls, accepting invitations to parties and get-togethers. Basically, I have to stop withdrawing.

The A in EASE stands for Action Plan: So you take control. I mapped out my social connections and during the week I try to connect with a least two of my friends in person, one on one or by phone

The S in EASE stands for Selection: To overcome loneliness it is about quality not quantity. It is also about making sure you feel safe and comfortable and connected with people who you can really build some sort of relationship with because you have things in common.

The E in EASE stands for Expect the Best: This means expect the best from people. This is really difficult for me because I have had a lot of negative experiences with people so trusting people is hard and being vulnerable around people is hard.

Taking the step to take action on dealing with my loneliness meant letting people know I was lonely, letting people know that I really need their time and company and love. And that was very hard.

It is easier for me to ask people for money-I grew up on welfare so I am pretty desensitized to the humiliation that comes with being financially dependent on others-but asking for people’s time, calling up a friend late at night because I felt like my loneliness was literally crushing…that has been incredibly hard.

But I started to do it and yes some people rejected me or made fun of me or gossiped behind my back so those people aren’t in my life any more and good riddance.

But most other people took the time when they had it, they made space for me in their lives. And they did it in a way that I didn’t feel like they were doing me a favour, they made me feel that I was someone they wanted around. That I was part of The Group. And that is the key to easing the feeling of loneliness.

Right now my battle is with loneliness. And if I survive it, I probably will be strong enough to take on some zombies.




Christina Bendevis and Michele Penney with me at the City for All Women (CAWI) The Indigenous Truth Action Forum.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in the City for All Women Initiative (CAWI)‘s The Indigenous Truth: Our History, Our Stories, Our Lives Action Forum. Living in Ottawa, we are blessed to have a lot of opportunities to learn from and engage with indigenous community members at events like this.

And we need to take as many opportunities as come our way because, as Claudette Commanda, a legal scholar and the grand-daughter of the late Algonquin Elder William Commanda, stated at the beginning of the session “How do you go over 500 years of colonialism in 15 minutes?” Well, you can’t which is why we have to each commit to on-going learning.

As part of the event, we were gifted an image of a feather with the name of a missing or murdered indigenous woman. I was given a feather with the name Angela Holm. When I got home I googled the name Angela to see what I could learn about her story. Angela Holm was murdered at the age of 16. She struggled throughout childhood with the rare immune deficiency hypogammaglobulinemia. She was murdered by her step cousin who was suffering from untreated schizophrenia.

For people who were unable to attend, I am including bios and links so you can learn about the speakers at the session.

Claudette Commanda was born and raised on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Algonquin First Nation community located in one of the ancestral territories of the Algonquin people, the province of Quebec. Claudette is an alumni of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and Faculty of Arts. In 2009, she was inducted into the Common Law Honour Society for her work in promoting First Nations education, language and culture. She lives and practices her Anishinabe traditional beliefs and upholds the sacred teachings with utmost respect and responsibility. She is the proud mother of four children in addition to raising a foster daughter; and has nine grandchildren.

Also check out Claudette Commanda’s speech available online “Justice or Just-us” where she reflects on the struggle for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women

Elder Thomas Louttit was born on September 4, 1948 in Coral Rapids, Ontario where his father was stationed with Ontario Northland Railroad. He is second oldest of nine children. Thomas spent his early years being cared for in Moose Factory by his parents and his maternal grandfather. At five years old he was sent to Fort Albany Indian Residential School in Ontario and at nine to Fort George, Quebec. In the 1965 Thomas was placed in the care of Children’s Aid Society. For next three years he lived in many different foster homes throughout southern and northern Ontario. Thomas moved to Toronto where he became a Flat Roofer, a career that would last 32 years. In the early 1980s he began to construct a life free of alcohol, abuse and other destructive patterns that he addressed through traditional ceremonies. He has spent many years pursuing his own healing from physical and sexual abuse. In 1994 he graduated from the three-year Ontario Native Education Program.

Thomas describes himself as an Oskabay-wis, “a helper to the people“. He spent thousands of hours assisting Elder Jim Dumont, Elder Roger Jones, and Hectory Copegog; Enaathig Healing; and Onkwatenro`shon:` a Health Planners Lodge (Dr. Ed Connors); and various others as a traditional fire keeper for Sacred Sweat Lodge and most recently conducting Sweat Lodge. For the past twenty years he has been facilitating Traditional Healing Circles, mostly for men’s groups. Thomas is highly sought after by schools and community groups to speak on the Indian Residential School experience and to share his personal healing journey. Presently, Thomas provides elders services for the Assembly of First Nations, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and the Government of Canada, to name a few. His volunteer work includes being a founding member of the Barrie Native Friendship Centre.

Elder Louttit tells us a story about the night sky (Audio)

Neal Shannacappo is a Saulteaux (Nakawe) artist, graphic novelist, filmmaker, writer, poet and Social Service Worker graduate from Algonquin College April 2013. His people come from the Rolling River First Nations in Manitoba. Neal’s clan is the Wolf, his spirit name is Oshkabay’wis. Neal was adopted when he was 5 years old, and has lived largely in colonial society since then. He follows a traditional/urban lifestyle, smudging, attending ceremony and carrying tobacco for offerings when he can.

Neal has been drawing comic books since he was 12 years old, at which time he began to take the craft seriously, currently he’s completed Navriss, roughly five versions of the Krillian Key graphic novel and countless side story lines which have helped him shape his novels. Mashkiikii Miikana – Medicine Road marks the first collaboration with another artist.

In this video Neal’s discusses his experience as an indigenous adoptee

Maria Jacko is Algonquin from the Kitigan Zibi community, which is just about hour outside of Ottawa. She is the aunt of Maisy Odjick, who, along with her friend Shannon Alexander, are among Canada’s missing indigenous women. In 2008, Maisy, 16, and Shannon 17, disappeared from Kitigan Zibi.

Maria discusses the struggle to find Maisy and Shannon

Michele Penney worked as the Aboriginal Court Support Program worker with the Odawa Native Friendship Centre for many years. She shared her experience as a survivor of The Sixties Scoop, which saw many indigenous children taken from their families and communities and put into foster care and/or adopted into White families. The Sixties Scoop followed the Residential Schools as a form of assimilation of indigenous communities and many would say this process continues today as can be seen in the dramatic overrepresentation of indigenous children in Canada’s child welfare system.

Further Reading:

5 Things to Know about Ottawa’s Aboriginal Community (CBC Ottawa)

City for All Women Initiative (CAWI) Indigenous/Aboriginal Snapshot Resource

The City of Ottawa’s Aboriginal Working Committee

lonely and meThis is the first in a series of personal blog posts about living with chronic (trait) loneliness and state loneliness (I will explain the difference later in this blog post) aimed at helping me map out my own journey with this condition and at getting others to better understand loneliness as a serious public health issue.

Blogger’s Note: Before deciding to message or text me offering your friendship or to go for chai lattes read this post and learn because this isn’t a request for company-I’m good in that department-it is a call for better understanding of a situation many of us don’t even know how to name.

State Loneliness or I Could Die and No One Would Notice

After the suicide of my mother, I found myself in a downward spiral of a major depressive episode compounded by my grief and guilt over her loss. But something else was also happening to me, another feeling was taking over and leaving me feeling absolutely terrified. I was overcome with loneliness as I for the first time in my life was living alone-I hadn’t even been alone when I was homeless-and had no one in my life who could claim to be responsible for me.

I found myself breaking down in tears when asked for my emergency contact and realizing that I had none. I found myself panicking at home realizing that if something happened to me there would be no one to even notice as I mostly work from home with a flexible schedule so no one I work with sees me for days, even weeks on end.

I worried about ending up like Joyce Vincent, who died in her UK apartment and wasn’t found until three years later! A docudrama, Dreams of a Life, has been made about Joyce.

Aspects of her life parallel mine in that Joyce was liked by many people but no one was close enough to notice she had went missing so her body was only found when her apartment got repossessed for rent arrears. An ad had to be put in the paper to find anyone who knew her. In the end, a lot of people knew her, but not anyone who would make it their business to find out how she was doing beyond phone calls and emails.

But Joyce’s reality is the reality of many of us, particularly those of us who have no family or are not close to family.

My mother’s death left me dealing with “state loneliness” where your loneliness is caused by a particular situation. But this situation ended up being compounded by the resurgance of my “trait” loneliness.

Trait Loneliness or How I Teleported Back to Junior High

Yes, we can create our own families but they can often prove to be as unreliable as the families we were born into. After losing my mother, a relationship with someone I had considered a close friend fell apart for a number of reasons which triggered a lot of anxiety about whether I was “too messed up” for people to want to be around and too much of “burden”.

On top of that, I had a number of verbally abusive encounters with people who I knew which revealed that some people in my social circle were being nice to my face but publicly attacking me behind my back. I had not had to deal with such behaviour since Grade 6!

I had worked for years on my trait loneliness-a condition which research has shown has genetic factors -learning to trust people and not be so afraid that everyone was out to get me or was just about to reject me. But my depression compounded by these situations just blew all of that work out of the water and I was just a scared kid again….but this time, there was no mom who loved me to run home to.

So it all made me very socially wary at a time when I really needed to be getting out more. So, I withdrew from getting support from other friends in my life because I wasn’t sure who I could really trust or rely on anymore.

I would post about feeling lonely on Facebook but I worried about reaching out to friends because I was afraid I would lose them too. Posting to random strangers seemed safer as it offered some minor relief-likes and comments help to make you feel less invisible-but it wasn’t the real connection I needed.

I Discover That I Am Not Alone In Being Alone

One day, I decided to Google “Loneliness” and I discovered the memoir of “Lonely” by Emily White. I am so grateful for this woman’s work. This Toronto-based former lawyer wrote this memoir which weaves together her own personal journey with loneliness along with findings from the last 50 years of academic research into loneliness. It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the subject but also it was a life-saver for me as it helped me to better understand what I was going through. Being able to name my condition was the first important step in working out how to manage it.

I Discover That My Loneliness Is Slowly Killing Me and A Whole Bunch of Other People Globally

Through reading White’s memoir I discovered the work of neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who, in his TED Talk, The Lethality of Loneliness, lays out all of ways in which loneliness has a drastic impact on people’s physical health and why it needs to be seen as a serious public health issue. Loneliness changes us physiologically affecting everything from our sleep to our immune system.

Needless to say that discovering all this just added to my anxiety about ending up dead at home with no one to find me, but it also helped me better understand some of the health problems I seemed to be developing inexplicably at the time.

Managing My Loneliness

Cacioppo’s research has also come up with some treatments for chronically lonely people, which includes cognitive behavioural therapy as well as the E.A.S.E. system.

I started implementing E.A.S.E. into my own life.

E is for Extend Yourself

According to Cacioppo, “The withdrawal and passivity associated with loneliness are motivated by the perception of being threatened. To be able to test other ways of behaving without that feeling of danger, you need a safe place to experiment, and you need to start small.”

As my depression became more manageable after getting some great help from the Ottawa Hospital’s Mobile Crisis Unit, the Civic’s Day Hospital, and regular visits to a psychiatrist, I felt up to starting to reconnect and recommit socially.

This began by committing to tutor my friend and her children weekly. This commitment has proven to be key in my recovery both from depression and around alleviating what was at the time an overwhelming sense of loneliness. For one thing, I had to leave the house at least once a week. Secondly, my help was really needed. Thirdly, I got to socialize with a friend in a family environment. All of this proved incredibly healing.

A is for Action Plan

Recognizing that I had to manage my loneliness, and identifying it as a goal necessary for my overall health has actually been pretty empowering and I have slowly pieced together different activities to ensure that I am socializing regularly with a few people who I feel safe around and can trust.

On top of tutoring weekly, I committed myself to walking with a friend who lived close to me whenever she asked, usually weekly, even when I felt like just staying in my room because of pain, anxiety, or depression. This also helped to get me out of the house. I also found that getting people to expect to connect with me at certain times during the week really helped to address my fear about dying alone in my house unfound for years-a fear I am sure some see as irrational but others will completely understand and relate to.

S is for Selection

According to Cacioppo, “The solution to loneliness is not quantity but quality of relationships. Human connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for each of the people involved, and not according to some external measure. Moreover, relationships are necessarily mutual and require fairly similar levels of intimacy and intensity on both sides.”

It is very important for those of us who are coping with loneliness to socialize with people who we feel safe around and can trust.

Despite losing one friend, as I recovered from my depression, I realized that I had many other friends who had weathered rough times with me and who had, in a variety of ways, made sure to stay in touch with me, even after I withdrew.

These people found ways to make me feel valuable and wanted in their lives. They didn’t make me feel “messed up” or like a “problem that needed to be solved”. They offered me support but also looked to me for support. This is actually an important aspect of the type of relationships that can help to alleviate feelings of loneliness-they require reciprocity.

Cacioppo explains that “one of the things that we have learned is that avoiding loneliness is not about “getting”, not about being a recipient…..We need mutual aided protection. If you are only receiving aid and protection from others, that doesn’t satisfy this deeper sense of belonging. Being just a client of a psychotherapist fulfils some needs, but it doesn’t fulfil that real need to have a rich reciprocal bond…..getting out of loneliness takes reciprocal connections not one-directional ones. If it were just about support, people would not feel lonely in hospital because they are surrounded by it. But we know that people in hospital often feel very lonely.”

I didn’t need people to be nice, kind or charitable to me to help with my loneliness-I needed to feel that I had something to offer.

E is for Expect the Best

According to Cacioppo, “The need for patience does not end once we begin to find greater happiness in our relationships. Even if any of us were perfect, inevitably the other people we come to know will have different perspectives. The prototypical wedding vows, “for better or for worse, in good times and in bad,” are a public proclamation of the ever-present likelihood of interpersonal friction. Even the best friends and the partners in the best marriages will disagree and hurt each other from time to time. Success in the face of this reality is served by not magnifying the moments of friction by over-interpreting them.”

The people I have felt comfortable reconnecting with as I have moved forward with my recovery have mainly been friends I have had since my late teens and early twenties. I realize that the reason why I feel more trusting of them is because they have stayed in my life for so long, despite moving from Ottawa, getting married, and having children, and have seen me at my worst on more than one occasion. They are also all people who I have had some kind of conflict with or have disappointed at some point in our friendship. But the friendship survived not because they wanted to be nice to me but because they genuinely wanted me in their lives and I wanted them in my life too. Taking comfort in the survival of these relationships, whether or not I see these people once a week or once a year, has been incredibly important as I have moved forward with managing my loneliness.

At this point in my loneliness management plan, I am not up to engaging with any new people although I have become open to building deeper connections with people who I have already known for years and who I feel won’t jeopardize my emotional safety. People I don’t feel safe around socially I just avoid.

My future posts will delve deeper into this subject. I hope this post whet people’s appetite to learn more about loneliness.

Feel free to comment and share.

Thanks for reading.

chelby photo

On Being My Mother’s Daughter

My mother fought to keep me.

Her parents didn’t want her to. My father wasn’t a citizen and was barely scrapping together a living for them. She had always had trouble keeping a job due to her social anxiety and the fact that often her mother would get her fired so that she would have to return back home to live with her. I also was going to be born Black at a time when that wasn’t entirely acceptable in this city. Abortion or Adoption were the options her mother had given her.

A young family doctor promised her that she would do whatever she could to help her keep me. Years later, after my mother’s overdose, my family doctor would tell me this story, a story my mother had told me often herself when I was a child, but which I hadn’t heard for over two decades. My doctor was giving me the story so that I would hold on to this life, after I had once again come close to suicide in the wake of losing my mother.

Holding on to life has always been a struggle for me, just as it was a struggle for my mother. When the court cases started and my grandfather was finally brought to justice, she began to deteriorate, physically and mentally. A lot of this was precipitated by the escalation of psychological abuse from my grandmother, who would eventually also end up arrested for hiring a hit man to kill my aunt.

My mother began to threaten to commit suicide and I found myself doing everything I could just to stay at home and be with her. My own mental health issues were identified early on, I remember having to see a social worker at school who told me that I needed to make sure I didn’t repeat the cycle in my family between mother’s and daughter’s. She said I had to make sure I became my own person. I thought I understood what she meant then. I already thought I was my own person and that I was the sanest person in my family. It was only when my mother passed I realized that I really hadn’t become my own person.

My mother raised me to be her champion, her confidante, her protector. These were roles I can remember being tasked with around the age of 4 or 5. It meant that as we grew up, both of us never really became adults. My mother was always in some ways my child and I was always in some ways never independent enough from her to be really considered an adult. So when she died I felt both the anger of a child being abandoned and the guilt of a parent who felt responsible for not being able to prevent her child from hurting herself. And the whole purpose of my life was erased. I had failed to protect her from herself.

On Being My Father’s Daughter

My father fought to keep me.

He withdrew from studying languages at Carleton University and went to work after he found out my mother was pregnant. She was afraid of raising me in poverty and her parents were pushing her to abort or put me up for adoption. My father’s withdrawal from studies meant that there was no longer a valid reason for him to stay in the country. My mother’s application for social assistance in order to more securely support us meant that she couldn’t sponsor my father to stay in the country. He was deported back to Nigeria about a year after I was born. He stayed in touch by writing for about five years until my parents were officially divorced and my name was changed.

My mother raised me thinking that my father didn’t want me. This was partly out of her own need to isolate me, her own insecurities around being abandoned, needing me to be all hers. It is not a coincidence that she died less than a year after I went to visit my father. When I eventually found my father in my twenties, my mother admitted that she had lied to me all those years.

My father was the hope for his family, as star student, he was sent out into the Western World, he returned with nothing to show for it, nothing but me. The weight of this failure only really hit me when I went to Nigeria to meet him in my thirties, and one of my cousins shared, in a gathering of up to about 100 of my relations, that no one really believed I existed until they discovered my blog. They thought he had just made me up to say he had accomplished something while he was in Canada. My father has lived something of a desperate life as his deportation from Canada broke him. He never remarried or had any other children. Despite his education and mastery of several languages, he works in a position often held by Nigerians who don’t speak English. But he still manages to keep up his curiosity to learn, to explore, to collect knowledge wherever he can find it.

A Life So Far

Both my parents never lived up to their potential and that continues to be an anxiety of mine, particularly now that I have reached this age and don’t have much tangible accomplishments to show having spent so much time on earth.

Both my parents were very intelligent and curious people. It is the inheritance of their curiosity that I value over their intelligence. It made them both open to the world in many ways, explorers. My father was limited by having the wrong citizenship. My mother was limited by her family and her fear. If they had not been so limited, I wonder what they could have achieved?

There are many good reasons why I have not achieved what many others have by my age: a career, marriage, children. I still don’t even know how to drive. But, I need to not confuse reasons with excuses. I need to focus on what I can achieve and not accept a life without accomplishments.  I won’t be able to live up to the standards of my peers because I’m not working with the same assets. Like my parents, I am limited. But to live without some ambition is to just sleepwalk through life, which is what I feel I have been doing for a good decade or so.

They say it takes a village to raise a child but that’s not true, it takes a village to raise a couple, to raise a parent, to raise a family. We leave people alone too much in these small units, thinking that it is enough. But it’s not. We each need more people to keep us going than just the ones closest to us.

That’s the biggest lesson I have learned so far. Great love can fail just for the lack of one good mentor, one good advisor, one good confidante.

I wasn’t enough to keep my mother going and that wasn’t my fault. I know this and I will probably struggle for the rest of my life trying to believe it.

Even though I struggle with mental health issues that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for other people. But it does mean that I have to be careful to find meaning in other things than being a “helper” particularly as the “helping” role is not the healthiest pattern for me given my upbringing. I also need to learn how to let myself be helped. The relationships I look to build from now on I hope to make more reciprocal, being both helped and helping the people in my life, being depended on by others as well as depending on others.

My parents fought to keep me and I must commit the rest of my life to fight to keep myself. I have managed to commit to life for another year, and for now that is my greatest accomplishment.

Photo Credit: Mohamed Shaheen

Discrimination experienced by Muslims in Ontario by Dr. Uzma Jamil, Ontario Human Rights Commission

Canadians hold negative view of Muslims (, March 26, 2015)

Muslim Link Ottawa’s Muslim Community Website

National Council of Canadian Muslims Website


Books on Islamophobia

The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims by Nathan Lean

The Myth of the Muslim Tide by Doug Saunders


Other Islamophobia Resources

The Islamophobia Website by the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Resources on Muslim Women in Canada

Canadian Council of Muslim Women

Canadian Association of Muslim Women in the Law

What Are Other Unions Doing?

PSAC’s Racism, Islamophobia and Bill C-51 Event on March 21, 2015


YouTuber Chesca Leigh created this fun YouTube Video which offers some great tips on how to be an ally.

During City for All Women (CAWI)’s workshop with Somerset-West Community Health Centre, we explored How To Be An Ally.

Here are some more great online resources to help you learn more about How to Be An Ally:

Mount Sinai Hospital’s ‘Are You An Ally?’ eLearning Module takes you step by step on how to become an ally and to launch an Ally campaign in your workplace

How To Be An Ally (Pride At Work Canada)

Becoming An Ally (Excerpt) by Anne Bishop (Alliance For Blind Canadians)

Getting Called Out: How to Apologize by Chesca Leigh. One of the important qualities of being an ally is recognizing when you have made a mistake, Chesca Leigh offers another fun video on how to apologize when you have said or done something oppressive.

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know by Jamie Utt (EverydayFeminism, 2013)

After #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: So You Want To Be An Ally, Now What? by Mikki Kendall (xojane, 2013)

I Can MANifest Change Campaign challenges men and boys to become allies in the fight against gender based violence (OCTEVAW)