The refusal to acknowledge as one’s own, renunciation, repudiation, rejecting, or disclaiming as invalid
Disownment. Not a word I use lightly. In fact, before this week I don’t think I used it at all. At one point all I knew about disownment was what I’d read in the press or seen on tv. It seemed a cruel, reactionary behaviour and I felt sad for those affected. But as a naïve, self-absorbed teenager, they were the ‘other’ – people you pity before getting on with your life. And then, in the summer of 2000, I was disowned.
During my teenage years my parents converted to a strict form of Islam and within months my life changed beyond recognition. When the shutters first came down I tried to kick and plead my way out. It did nothing. So after a while I stopped resisting, because it’s soul-destroying to beg for help and be met with silence. I was quiet, obedient, I knew I had to bide my time, and that university would be my escape. And it was. In my first term I met my now husband and I was issued a predictable ultimatum – leave my non-Muslim boyfriend, or leave my family. The thought of walking away from my mother who’d been my best friend, and my 5 younger siblings was heartbreaking, but I knew I’d have to leave sooner or later. The day after the ultimatum I kissed my youngest siblings goodbye and walked away from everything I knew and into a world I was frighteningly unprepared for.
The subsequent emotional fallout taught me a lot about my coping mechanisms. After the disownment I switched to self-preservation mode, my mind sifted and sorted through the emotional debris. It was a quiet process, quite detached from my consciousness. While I focused on living, surviving, my subconscious had a de-brief (I’m imagining tea and biscuits and quizzical scratching of heads within heads) and identified what I was capable of dealing with. For a long time I wasn’t strong enough to acknowledge that I’d been disowned. So that little corner of my identity was folded over and left for years. Out of sight, out of mind.
Fast forward 15 years and life is good. I’m married, with my own family and a career. I’ve worked hard, too hard (to the point where my self-esteem and self-worth took a regular battering) to reestablish contact and relationships and to redefine myself. Not everyone in my family is back in my life but the current situation is of my choosing, rather than a cruel punishment. And now my disownment is an odd memory from a life that doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. If it weren’t for the scars that flare up every so often I would struggle to believe that chapter was anything but an odd nightmare. But it’s not been easy. I got here through trial and error; a method I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Re-establishing my identity has been a messy, drawn out process. I count my blessings that I had friends and a boyfriend who led me through that time, picking me up and setting me straight when the feelings of worthlessness pushed me towards self-sabotage. I’ve screwed up, broken down, dusted myself off and started again. Over and over. It’s been repetitive and exhausting. And lonely. The only person who knows about my lowest points is my husband. But despite the turmoil of the last 15 years it’s only recently that I’ve made the so-obvious-it’s-painful connection between being abandoned and my emotional trauma.
It’s difficult to deal with something for which you’ve no precedent. To move beyond abandonment you need support and guidance, but historically disownment on religious grounds has been tiptoed around by those with a voice. It’s ignored because of a skewed sense of political correctness and the disempowering, dangerous approach of cultural relativitists. The result is that there is little awareness of the issue and a dearth of resources to support those abandoned by their families.
Reclaiming my voice
I’ve been writing about my experience for the past year now, but only tentatively. Back when it happened, I didn’t think to blog or reach out for support because I felt responsible and terribly ashamed; ashamed that I’d left the faith (although I never actually joined), ashamed that I’d ever been part of such a controlling culture, ashamed that I was different from everyone else with their comparatively ‘normal’ lives, ashamed that I’d been abandoned. And there are other reasons I’ve been apprehensive about sharing my story. I know some feel I should let go and move on, rather than dredging up the past and pouring salt into old wounds. At one point I would have conceded that communicating such painful, private moments in public was unnecessary and narcissistic. But that was back when I thought I was alone, back when the shame and humiliation of being abandoned was so intense that discussing it seemed an irrelevant and unnecessary burden for everyone.
But the truth is there are other people facing rejection for not conforming to cultural or religious expectations. And the thought that they might feel as alone as I did is unacceptable. Living in fear of abandonment is oppressive and inhumane. A support network and honest communication is essential if we are to help. To remain silent about this issue through a misplaced sense of responsibility to religious or cultural communities or parents and families, is to reinforce the message that some people are more worthy of freedom and opportunity than others.
This is what I know:
After being disowned you will often feel alone. You might be in a roomful of smiling people, but you will feel alone. No matter how hard or unsustainable the dynamic and relationships were within your family, their rejection will shake you to your core. You will question your worth, every second of every waking minute of every day. You won’t believe that people like you, you will try to sabotage relationships with people who say they love you. And you will do this because you have been made to feel worthless.
Here’s something else I’ve learnt:
All it takes is one person to change your situation. Their words will chip away at the shell of hurt and shame that is isolating you, making you so fragile and setting you apart from the rest of the world. Tiny chinks of light appear and you will notice everyone else and how they’re not so different from you. It becomes possible to see a future, to make plans and to regain the self-esteem that’s eroded by the cruellest rejection. And that’s why I’m writing this – because for me it’s not just about catharsis anymore, this is far bigger than my story, it’s about reaching out.
About a week ago I stumbled across Maha’s blogs (here and here) which are full of invaluable advice for those coping with disownment. They floored me. I was disowned 14 years ago, I’ve since built a new life and I’m in a good place. But I read her piece and I crumbled. Every word resonated. All I could think about was how naïve and vulnerable I’d been, how it could have ended so badly and how I wish I could have read her words when I needed them, years ago. What a difference it would have made. So much heartbreak could have been avoided. The guilt and loneliness would have dissipated far quicker if only I’d known there were others like me.
I can’t change my past. I’ve walked my path and while I wouldn’t choose to do it again, I’m stronger for it. My hope is that something positive can come from my story. You should know it’s only right to reclaim what was always yours – your voice, your body, your future. Choice, freedom and autonomy are human rights, not privileges for those lucky enough to be born into accommodating cultures, religions, or families. We mustn’t live our lives in fear, contorting our aspirations, and identities to conform to the expectations of those who desire only to control. We must be free.
If you have any practical or emotional advice about coping with disownment please get in touch. Maha has offered suggestions about where to go for help in the US, and she is now trying to create a resource guide for places like the UK and Canada. If you’d like to contribute with resources you think might be helpful (shelters, counselors, job boards, etc), please contact her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/Mookers.