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“I was filthy, subjected to constant emotional abuse, and had reached my wits’ end. I remember taking the home-phone when my father wasn’t looking. I ran outside and called the police…

Three hours later, the officer merely told me that I needed to call child services instead and carried about his business.

My father had failed me, the system had failed me, and I felt utterly, unreservedly alone…”


 

No excuses.

That was what I always told myself after every roadblock, every hurdle, every trial and tribulation. I didn’t have the time to wallow in self-pity, and yet somehow, I needed to find a way to be okay. In fact, not just okay – but to thrive.
            I may not have been able to articulate it then, but life had forced upon me a very important lesson: our individuality is both our most prized possession and our greatest pitfall.
            It is precisely because we are individuals that we may construct our own realities, focus on improving ourselves and learn from the mistakes we see being made around us. However, that very same individuality can invite us to feel ostracised, seemingly lost in the problems that stare us down, and unable to find peace in the platitudinous musings of those around us who assure us that: “Everything will work itself out”.

My father was a violent, emotionally abusive man. He cared only to forward his own goals and twisted the truth – both to others and to himself – in order to justify his actions.
            However, convincing others to trust in someone who has acted demonstrably untrustworthy is no easy feat, and to that end, my father was brilliant. An engineer by trade, he would ultimately go on to teach himself to be both a trader and a lawyer – the latter of which was weaponized on multiple occasions against myself and my mother.

My parents divorced when I was very young.
            The presence of an infant did not deter my father from acting reprehensibly. A discussion with my mother about the prospect of separation could never be civil. Instead, it was a divorce by action. My mother came home one day to find the locks changed, all of her worldly belongings gone, and an infant child to care for.
            This is my earliest memory. My mother, crying outside of the door that I had previously only associated as a shield of safety. I was no older than three, and of course did not understand what was going on.

We moved countless times. We mostly stayed with friends while my mother was trying to get back on her feet. However, my father incessantly took her to court for anything and everything one could think of. This formed a vicious cycle. As soon as my mother tried to get back on her feet, another motion would be issued requiring her to exhaust what little savings we had on a lawyer. This carried on until I was 13 years old.

Visitation was mandated on weekends and alternate holidays. As a young child, I was simply happy to see my Dad. Little did I know, our time together was used by him as an opportunity to indoctrinate me – feed me lies about how my mother hates me, amongst other things. I was simply a young child who listened to his father, and I grew very resentful of my mother. It was only when I was roughly 10 years old that I started to recognise the emotionally manipulative character of my father, and I started to fight back.

The judge – whomever was handling the case in question – began requesting that I speak to him/her from around the time I reached 10. Apparently, I was mature enough to handle doing so. This is not meant to be boastful, in fact it is quite the opposite. While my friends were being children – carefree as children should be – I was in court, facing off against my father. I felt torn, pitted between parents, resentful of both for different reasons, and desperately looked for a way to convince the Judge to allow me to stop visiting my father.

The situation only got worse from ages 10-13. Visitation with my father was a whirlwind of shouting, crying and physical confrontation.
            I vividly remember one holiday when I was 12. My father was living in a home – if one could even call it that – that was legally derelict, cockroach infested and without running water for 20 hours a day. Some days it would not run at all.
            The home belonged to a 90-year-old man who was blind and disabled that my father had somehow befriended. They had come to an agreement that my father could move in, in exchange for repairing the place. Of course, my father never did anything of the sort, and the man was too frail to ever force him to leave.

I remember the Easter holidays in 2011. I had not been able to shower for the previous week. I was filthy, subjected to constant emotional abuse, and had reached my wits’ end. I remember taking the home-phone when my father wasn’t looking. I ran outside and called the police. I paced outside for hours waiting for the officer, fearful of what my punishment would be if I stepped back inside the house.
            Three hours later, the officer merely told me that I needed to call child services instead and carried about his business. My father had failed me, the system had failed me, and I felt utterly, unreservedly alone.

My salvation came one year later. For the sake of brevity, it suffices to say that the Judge finally removed parental visitation rights from my father in September of 2011. I remember leaving that courthouse with my mother in tears. For the first time in a very long time, my tears were no longer borne out of sadness. This time, they were pure elation.

For the next 9 months, life was as close to perfect as it had ever been. Writing this now, I find it humorous that I could even use the word ‘perfect’ when foreclosure letters were still peppering our mailbox and our financial situation was still deeply uncertain.
            However, life is a relative experience. We may not be able to compare our struggles to others, but we can certainly contextualise both our responses and emotions based on our past experiences. To me, not having the stress of my father was a huge improvement in my life. I found happiness not by focusing on what was still causing me hardship in life, but instead by focusing on the new opportunities to simply be a normal child.

However, 9 months was all I would get.
            My mother was notoriously bad at picking up her phone. On many occasions, a sadly ironic scene would play out where I, a 13-year-old boy, would yell at my mother for not answering her phone! April 10th, 2012 was simply another one of those days. I was frustrated that my mother was not answering her phone, yet unsurprised. However, when the clock struck 3AM, I knew something was wrong.
            Shortly thereafter a police officer arrived at my home, informing me that my mother had collapsed and fallen into a coma. In the immediate aftermath, one of my close friends took me in for 2 months so that I could finish the 8th grade. I am eternally grateful for his family’s selflessness – it is something that I will never forget. Following that, I moved to the UK with my uncle – my mother would pass away 4 months later.

Once again, life was turned upside down. In a new country, surrounded by new people. Strangely enough, the hardest part of moving was actually losing my closest friends. This is something that I will return to towards the end of this piece, but I must say I am so incredibly lucky to have 7 friends who I have known for the entirety of my life: 6 of them were quite literally at my baby shower before I was born (our parents were friends), and one I met when I was 6 years old. They have been my lifeline throughout my entire life, whether they know it or not, and not having them nearby, when I moved to the UK, was perhaps the hardest thing I have ever had to overcome.

Looking back on it, moving to London was perhaps a blessing in disguise. I thrived in a stable home. Although my single-parent uncle is not exactly the paternal type, I will be forever grateful for his kindness in taking me in.
            Although the next 7 years were filled with their own myriad of challenges, it would perhaps be better to ignore those for the sake of making my point…

So, fast forward 7 years…
            I have graduated from the University of Cambridge with a First Class degree in Law. I’ll soon be starting a training contract with a Magic Circle Law firm. It sometimes feels surreal, thinking back on my past. It feels as though I am two different people. It still hasn’t really set in that I managed not only to claw myself out of my own personal hell, but have evened the playing field between myself and those who have had the privilege of great schooling, strong mentors, and bountiful connections.

Once again, this is not an attempt to be self-righteous. Rather, it aims to highlight that there are things in our lives that have the capacity to provide a deep sense of comfort. For me, that something was my closest friends. It took me moving to London for that to truly dawn on me. My friends brought and continue to bring me endless happiness – it was their presence that enabled me to overcome the obstacles that I encountered.

Each of us have things in our lives that we care about deeply; perhaps it is family, friendship, religion, or an obscure hobby. It is what makes us human. My greatest takeaway from my experiences is that our saving grace might be something we already do or have.
            I always find it enlightening when someone speaks to me about my metaphoric ‘strength’. They describe ‘strength’ as an ethereal mental fortitude that builds up after repeated trauma, in the same way that calluses form on your hands as you lift heavier weights. However, though that may be an element of it, I believe that true strength is something that is admittedly extremely difficult, but something we are all capable of doing. That thing is realigning our focus. It is easy to focus on what is bad in life and to feel sorry for yourself; it is difficult to appreciate what is good in your life despite those bad things.

Meditative practices emphasise a similar idea. We slow our breathing and empty our mind to relax from the pressures of the outside world. But mediation is far more than closing your eyes and breathing slowly – for many, doing the thing they love is meditative.
            In my case, for example, this would be playing basketball. When we engage in such practices, we are not emptying our mind of sadness – we are filling it with happiness from something we enjoy. This concept, in my humble opinion, is the essence of overcoming adversity.
            As humans, we are creatures of desire. We want to be better, richer, faster, smarter, happier. These are worthwhile pursuits. However, I believe it is important to make a habit of taking stock of one’s life – in particular of things that already bring them joy. The true essence of this joy, if truly tapped in to, is stronger than any fear or anxiety that could befall us.

Retelling this story publicly is something that I feel somewhat hesitant about – not because I am fearful of judgement or anything of the sort; instead, it is because I have learned that those who find themselves in a dark place seldom find it inspiring to engage in the act of comparing struggles.
            This is not intended to be a story to evoke pity, or to stir feelings of discouragement within anyone who may still not have found a way to confront their demons. This is merely a humble recount of my personal journey, and the lessons that I have learned so far along the way. I simply hope that at least one person finds even the slightest bit of comfort in these words. If that turns out to be the case, then I can find happiness in the knowledge that I have made a difference – however slight – and that’s all I can ever really ask for.

 

Saif Jalali, aged 21, lives as an American expat in London and is a trainee solicitor at a Magic Circle law firm.

He hopes to share his story via youth engagement initiatives, and ultimately, he hopes to go into politics in the USA.

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