Life Happens to Us: A True Story by Ashta-Deb

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We could not face each other, could not help each other, and could not love each other. The fog of grief and hurt was too thick to see through. It was every man for himself from this moment.

I have read many memoirs that leave me aching for the author, Debbie’s story left a lump in my throat. The death of her beloved older sister Neelam buried on October 9, 1972 at the tender age of 13 was just the beginning of the PTSD that made cause so much emotional destruction throughout her entire life. This is a journey that takes Debbie full circle, putting her sister at rest, and maybe freeing her own soul. It’s the in-between and the before that is so heart-breaking.

With parents that wanted to make more of themselves by being the first in their family to leave Guyana for Canada, Debbie and her sister Neelam and Priya learned quickly how different they were from their light-skinned Canadian peers.  Dreams of starting school as she is a curious child and making many friends dies when Debbie hears the ugly taunts hurled at her sisters and then herself, the racism of the 60’s openly hostile toward anyone foreign. While her mother and father enjoyed the envy and pride that greeted them when the family vacationed in Guyana, the reality of their ‘worldly life’ was a far cry from the wealth and privilege their relatives believed they were leading. Her parents marriage is crumbling, her mother is more attuned to the many male admirers that she seems to leave in her wake than in being a loving, nurturing mother to her attention starved daughters. Cruelties slip easily from her mouth, when she isn’t emasculating her husband she is pointing out her three girls many flaws, like their skin color, or their weight. Never wanting to be called Mom, as she is far too beautiful and young in appearance to be one, she tends to demand Debbie lie and pretend she isn’t her child, better to manipulate whichever man is her current lover.  Family members that come to stay aren’t much help with their own jealousies and deceit. Her father grows enraged with his wife’s philandering and takes his fury out on his daughters, one who can’t survive life under his rule. Debbie is conflicted, far too young to be accountable for witnessing her two sisters beatings, for being daddy’s helper, it takes a toll on her self-esteem. It will take a lifetime to come to terms with the things that she lived through.

Being shuffled between loyalties, homes, family,  and countries until she is completely homeless and at the mercy of strangers, Debbie longs to be nothing like her mother and father when she has her own children.Sadly, we tend to choose what’s familiar, and the bitter toxins of our abuse are patterns we repeat. Debbie finds herself failing as a mother, being too hard on her own children, easily pushed over the edge when she isn’t trying to be the perfect mother and wife. Carrying spouses who once seemed like the perfect love for her, she struggles with her own fidelity issues, stomachs abusive partners mirroring the chaos of her own parent’s disastrous marriage. Her mother and father continue to be unstable forces in her life, going from absentee, to volatile or insulting. Her father isn’t innocent either, degrading and shaming his girls by accusing them of being ‘whores’ like their mother, starting over with a new family, even possibly committing a crime in Canada that forced him to disappear one night. Debbie’s mother doesn’t have a nurturing bone in her body, always siding against her daughter, even when Debbie works hard to be the provider for her family and support her husbands and their dreams.

Debbie sinks into a dark depression, and it is through her spiritual journey that she learns what it means that ‘life happens to us’. We tend to think we are all steering this life we come into, but the reality is there are more things out of our control than under it. For Debbie, it isn’t just the tragic suicide of her sister Neelam, but the loss of Priya too whom, though alive, is unable to be close to her remaining little sister. It is also that she has parents whose own lives have spun so far out of control that all they know how to do is lash out and destroy others, and each other. They are never a family again, not really. She had a few loving family members, like her grandfather whom she shares a sort of  psychic gift with, known as he is to be a sort of magic man. But in her youth, this untapped gift isn’t of much use, where the hope for each day is simply survival and maybe some food for her belly. Debbie will never find what she needs outside of herself, and certainly not through the adults nor any man she may love along the way. Love is transitory in her life, just like her living arrangements seem to be. It is through Western medicine and Eastern Wisdom that she has a chance to heal the wounds in her mind and her soul.

She isn’t always likable, becoming more like her own cold mother at times, and that is how the sad cycle continues. It’s easy to gain spirituality for a day, be it through a retreat, a new love, or mantras, it’s keeping that spirituality intact when life comes at you full force that is the real journey. One thing is true, she has to confront the past in order to be able to shed the pain and rage that lurks within her own being. She has to treat her PTSD and allow herself the grieving that was denied her.

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